The Four Stages of Cruelty. Keith Hollihan; $29.99 cloth 978-0-312-59247-9, 394 pp., Thomas Dunne Books.
Sometimes the experience of reading one book informs the experience of reading another. Books do not exist in a vacuum, and each successive work has a place on an evolving continuum of literature against which it will be judged and, in some cases, found wanting.
I came to Keith Hollihan’s debut novel, The Four Stages of Cruelty, immediately after finishing Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling. Although not precisely a prison novel, Carpenter’s book does feature a section set in a reform school and another in San Quentin. The Four Stages of Cruelty, by contrast, is very definitely a prison novel: it tells the story of Kali Williams, a corrections officer at Ditmarsh Penitentiary, and her relationship with Joshua Riff, a teenaged inmate incarcerated for murder. Kali is charged with escorting Josh to his father’s funeral; while the two are on the road, she breaks her own rule about maintaining an emotional distance between herself and the prison inmates, and falls into a conversation with the young man. Josh tries to give Kali a comic book he has drawn about life inside Ditmarsh, and although she refuses to accept it, she quickly finds herself getting sucked into the internecine world of corruption and deceit the book portrays.
Hollihan wants to depict the shifting morality and questionable ethics that operate within an enclosed environment where it is frequently difficult to discern the good guys from the bad. As “one of only 26 women on a corrections staff of 312,” Kali has developed a heightened cynicism as a coping mechanism; this is juxtaposed with Josh’s almost blithe naïveté. (The narrative alternates between Kali’s first-person sections, and Josh’s, which are told in the third person.) “I can think of no gentle way to begin,” says Kali at the outset, and indeed the book is replete with violence and acts of degradation. But Kali is interested in exploring “the mystery of compassion” that can assert itself in even such a seemingly inimical environment as Ditmarsh, which adds a philosophical note to the story.
Unfortunately, all of this is presented in a manner that is too schematic to be entirely satisfying. Kali learns that Josh was a member of an art therapy group run by Brother Mike, a civilian, or “weak sister” in prison parlance. Brother Mike does pottery: “It’s comforting to me,” he tells Kali, “that beauty can come from violence, if only in metaphor.” The heaviness of this is typical of Brother Mike’s function in the book, which is more or less to act as a mouthpiece for Hollihan’s thematic concerns. Not that such vocalization is necessary. Hollihan peppers his narrative with pithy epigrammatic reminders that the story is attempting to deal with weighty themes: “Hope was like an adrenaline shot,” we are told. “It gave you a jolt of heart-thumping life and left you beat to shit afterward.”
But these themes are ineffectively grafted onto a pulp storyline involving a former inmate, known as the Beggar, who secreted a cache of money within the prison walls. Even this lowbrow plot is ineffectively handled: the novel’s climax involves a prison riot that does not build the necessary tension, and there is a beheading that recalls the Daniel Pearl incident in a way that verges on exploitation.
The novel’s various parts never coalesce, and the high-minded philosophical musings seem like an afterthought meant to lend a pulp story a veneer of mock grandeur. This is in stark contrast to the very real philosophical heft of Hard Rain Falling, a novel that seamlessly integrates its existential elements into its story. Here, for example, is a passage from the reform school section of Carpenter’s novel:
There were six punishment cells, and communication of a sort could be made by yelling, but most of the time it required too much effort, or Jack’s senses were gone and he could not hear. But sometimes he did. He could hear other boys being brought in, yelling, cursing, some of them crying, and he himself suppressed all feelings of pity for the others; they did not pity him. They probably thought he was some kind of hero. Well, fuck them, too. Maybe in the cells they would learn the truth as he had, and know that nothing existed but a single spark of energy, and that spark could die for no reason, and existed for no reason. Then they would understand that it does no good to cry out, because a spark of energy has no ears; the ears are a lie, a joke, a dream, to keep the spark going, and there is no reason to keep the spark going. Any more than there is a reason for letting it go out.
By contrast, here is Brother Mike in conversation with Josh in The Four Stages of Cruelty:
“Since the early days of this country, there have been men with good intentions who thought the secret to reform was changing a man’s behavior. If you can’t change character, they felt, then why not change how a felon acts in the world? I don’t think that’s the answer. It’s a kind of programming for reducing incidents of violence, with dubious results. The soul needs more attention than that. You might as well wait until a man is old and toothless if you want to solve the problem of violence. Let nature run its course, and a man gets too weary to take such instant and disproportionate offense at all the perceived slights of the world. But that doesn’t mean he’s a better man.”
“But what if he’s a better man before his time is up – isn’t it unjust to forget about him for a couple of decades or so?” Josh was roused to his own defense. He knew it was a trick. You weren’t supposed to question the calculus of justice.
There is a kind of facile obviousness to the Hollihan passage that is completely absent from Carpenter’s writing. Some would suggest that such comparisons are unfair; I prefer to align myself with James Joyce, who felt that every time he wrote he was in competition with Shakespeare and Dante. Would I have liked The Four Stages of Cruelty more had I not just come off reading Hard Rain Falling? It’s impossible to say. Knowing that Carpenter’s novel is so strong, does Hollihan’s appear pale by comparison? Without a doubt.
The poet Sina Queyras is conducting an ongoing series of interviews about the practice of reviewing and criticism for her website, Lemon Hound. The people she’s interviewed so far – including Michael Turner, Elizabeth Bachinsky, Christian Bök, Michael Bryson, and Marjorie Perloff – come from a variety of backgrounds and approaches, and the diverse opinions about critical practices that they espouse make for fascinating reading.
Yr. humble correspondent is currently featured on the site. The process of answering Queyras’s questions has provided an opportunity for me to clarify certain ideas and theories of criticism in my own mind, and to actively engage with aspects of the current reviewing climate.
From the interview:
LH: Critical work is increasingly unpaid work; will you continue to do this work despite the trend? Do you see this trend reversing, or changing course?
SB: The very fact that I blog about books – without remuneration and on my own time – should answer this question. Having said that, the fact that professional reviewers are not paid even close to what they are worth is a situation that needs to be redressed. It’s all well and good for enthusiasts who want to share their love of a particular book to fire up the Internet and bang out fifty words, but this is not remotely connected to the practice of criticism. Much of the discourse around books that we see online is the digital equivalent of a coffee klatch; it has as much to do with professional criticism as a game of pick-up basketball has to do with the NBA. There is some very good, thoughtful, careful writing to be found online. There is also a glut of careless, ill-considered, illogical, and badly written book chat that passes itself off as legitimate criticism. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that experienced critics – those connoisseurs who have devoted a lifetime to the reading and study of literature – are not able to make a living wage off of their writing. This simultaneously devalues their output and injures the literary culture at large, since a vibrant literary culture requires a vibrant critical culture in order to thrive. In the absence of incisive criticism – criticism, not cheerleading – a culture will become complacent, will stagnate, and eventually shrivel.
I was mucking around on the Wayback Machine and came across an old review I wrote of a book called Faint Praise, about the practice of book reviewing (one of the posts that got lost when I inadvertently napalmed TSR earlier this year.) Given the recent controversy on this site (and elsewhere) as to what constitutes proper reviewing practice, I thought I’d repost the review here, since it makes a number of points that I still consider to be valid for critics – and others – to bear in mind when writing (or reading) book reviews.
I may spend some time over the holiday trying to retrieve a few of the more substantial pieces that got lost in the great TSR debacle of 2009; in the meantime, I offer this one as a stopgap, with apologies to those of you who’ve already read it.
Hindering Horses and Shooting the Wounded (first published July 23, 2007)
Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America. Gail Pool; University of Missouri Press, $21.62 paper, 174 pp., 978-0-8262-1728-8.
Pity the lowly book reviewer. Poorly paid, located at the bottom of the journalistic pecking order, where they toil in what Guy Davenport referred to as “the slum of American letters,” and routinely reviled by readers and writers alike, those who review books professionally (I hesitate to say “for a living,” since only a scant few can earn a living off of it, and they are mostly salaried employees of a newspaper or periodical) often feel that their efforts are both arduous and thankless in roughly equal measure.
“Book reviews first appeared in America at the end of the eighteenth century,” writes Gail Pool in the Introduction to her new book, and “[t]hey have been frustrating people ever since.” Chekhov called book critics “horse-flies which hinder the horses in their ploughing of the soil,” and Murray Kempton opined, “A critic is someone who enters the battlefield after the war is over and shoots the wounded.” Coleridge said that book reviewers “are usually people who would have been poets, historians, biographers, etc., if they could: they have tried their talents at one or at the other, and have failed.”
These disparaging remarks, coming as they do from working writers, all of whom can be assumed at one time or another to have been on the receiving end of a reviewer’s censure, are understandable, but they don’t serve as much balm to a reviewer’s fragile ego, and in any case they miss the point. In particular, the charge that book reviewers are themselves failed writers has always struck me as odd, since book reviewers use precisely the same tools as novelists and poets to achieve their effects. They are only “failed” writers if their reviews lack coherence, or persuasion, or logic; otherwise reviewers have as much claim to being writers, sans l’adjectif, as does anyone else whose primary occupation involves the manipulation of language for the purposes of edification or entertainment.
The common perception of book reviewers as the bottom feeders of the literary world is largely predicated upon a misapprehension as to what exactly this amorphous group of people does. Many observers begin with the notion espoused by Amanda Craig that to review fiction “[a]ll you have to do is read a couple of hundred pages of someone wanking their imagination, and write five hundred moderately clever words about it.” This is dismissive to the point of being insulting, but Craig makes a mistake when she implies that “reading a couple of hundred pages of someone wanking their imagination” – if we might, for a moment, accept this description as an accurate summation of what a fiction reviewer does – then writing five hundred words about it, “moderately clever” or otherwise, is easy work.
Close reading of the kind a solid book review requires is itself not a task undertaken lightly; it is important for a proficient book reviewer to possess the ability to discern how a work achieves its effects and to judge whether the constituent parts of a book add up to a coherent whole. This requires a certain breadth of knowledge, a refined taste, and a sensitivity to nuances of language, none of which can be developed overnight.
Moreover, it is fallacious to suggest that a reviewer who is assigned a 200-page novel will stop at reading those 200 pages. As Pool rightly points out, “if a review is to be accurate, more is generally required than simply reading the book.” If the novel is the third book in a trilogy, for instance, it will be necessary for the reviewer to go back and read (or reread) the first two volumes in order to form any kind of valid perspective on the book in question. Further, if the reviewer is assigned, say, a biography of Richard Nixon, unless that reviewer happens to be a Nixon scholar, it will be necessary to do some background reading and research in order to provide a context within which the book under consideration can be fairly judged. In Pool’s words, “A reviewer can’t become an instant expert, but he can bring an intelligent, informed perspective to a book if he has read, say, all the author’s previous work, several other biographies of the figure whose latest biography he’s reviewing, various travel accounts of whatever country is the subject of his review.”
In his essay, “Confessions of a Book Columnist,” collected in Ripostes: Reflections on Canadian Literature, Philip Marchand sets out two prerequisites for a good book reviewer: (s)he must be well read, and (s)he must be, in the words of T.S. Eliot, “very intelligent.” If this seems somewhat vague, Pool goes further:
Ideally, reviewers should be well educated, widely read, culturally aware, endowed with good memory and, needless to say, good taste. They must be able to read critically, think lucidly, and argue logically. They must write clearly enough to be accessible, sharply enough to be entertaining, and tightly enough to turn seven hundred words into an article. They need sufficient independence of mind to form their own opinions, sufficient confidence to stand by them, and sufficient courage to see them in print.
I have argued repeatedly on this site that book reviewing is not a dilettante’s game; Pool here explains why. The qualifications that she lists as appearing on the “ideal” reviewer’s résumé I would argue are essential for anyone who wishes to practise the trade.
One reason why many book reviews – even (perhaps especially) those that are published in our major news organs – are so lacking in quality, Pool argues, is that editors too often assign books to the wrong people, and the reviews suffer accordingly. A name-brand novelist may bring a publication cachet if assigned to review a major new work of fiction, but that novelist may be utterly incapable of the kind of critical thinking necessary to do justice to a review. Nor, Pool suggests, do academics or specialists in a given field “necessarily make good reviewers”:
It’s one thing to find a William Dean Howells, who was a writer, critic, and editor. Nowadays, most of the people who are ideally qualified in terms of subject expertise and breadth of reading, in fiction as well as nonfiction, are likely to be academics, accustomed to academic writing and discourse – and as someone who has edited such writers, I know well the problems they present. In their own spheres they’ll have no need to make their points accessible to a general audience and will have had little practice in translating what they have to say into readable, let alone lively, prose.
At the other end of the spectrum are the enthusiastic amateurs who proliferate online, where the democracy of the Internet allows everyone a voice, but removes the editorial filter and does not demand that commentators attain a basic level of competence before they begin reviewing. Pool finds legitimate fault with a medium that asserts that all voices are equal and all opinions should carry equal weight, a medium that assigns equal value to the thoughtful, knowledgeable criticism of Sven Birkerts on the one hand, and the semiliterate ramblings of Harriet Klausner, Amazon.com’s top reviewer, with 6,500 reviews and counting to her credit, on the other.
The background for Pool’s analysis is a culture that actively discourages critical thinking, one that would rather have enthusiastic cheerleaders (like Oprah) than incisive critics. Although one of the persistent complaints about book critics is that they are too nasty, Pool finds that the opposite is in fact true: often, critics aren’t nasty enough. It is interesting that both Pool and Marchand make the same comment: both stand by every negative word they ever wrote, but both confess to some retrospective reservations about reviews in which they feel they treated their subjects too kindly. Pool attributes this to “weakness,” and points out that “it takes courage and confidence for a reviewer to go his own way and tell readers that the latest ‘masterpiece’ isn’t very good. Amid the waves of praise, he risks not only what all critics risk, being wrong, but being wrong alone.”
In today’s anticritical culture, it is a rare thing indeed to find a reviewer with the courage to stand out from the crowd and declare that the latest “instant classic” is actually a dud, that the emperor has no clothes. Pool’s book is a clarion call for a return to a vigorous kind of criticism, based on sound, logical thinking and the precise use of language. Her prescriptions for an ailing trade are based upon underlying premises that appear obvious, but that bear repeating:
That not only is reviewing important, but reviewers and editors need to take its importance more seriously than they do, steeling themselves against public opinion, literary snobbery, and their own self-doubt and remembering that cultural attitudes are subject to change. … That not only can reviewing, however insufficient its resources, require standards, competence, and accountability, but by demanding them – and only by demanding them – actually acquire them.
Two adversarial pieces about the nature of criticism caught my eye over the past few days. In the first corner, arguing in favour of critical relativism, is Chris Banks:
Most poetic forms are arbitrary and anyone who attacks or trivializes another poet’s work for not working within the same set of poetic conventions or formal restraints as themselves is either a propagandist or a pretender. Such talk simply propagates the pointless form versus content argument. Reviewers should be asking of every poetry collection they read what is the intent of the poet? How well have they used image, language, metaphor, thought, musicality, emotional sensation to embody one’s consciousness within a poem, or to unfold one’s human experience, or to manifest a desire to transcend one’s circumstances, or to break down the barriers that exist between one’s private life and the world at large?
In the other corner, arguing in favour of aesthetic standards, is Brian Palmu:
Reviewing is highly subjective. It is not a soft procedure in order to find, at whatever compromising stretch, a go-between for author and reader. Such a “sensitive” approach is patronizing to both. The author can detail the most lovely sentiments, the most highly evolved spiritual truths, the most progressive social solutions, yet if those aren’t set down in compelling image, metaphor, voice, syntax, narrative, sound, organic structure, passion, mood, rhythm, tone (you know, those outdated poetic “vice”-devices, according to the “revolutionaries”), the words may better be employed in a prose essay, religious tract, political speech.
The differences between these two approaches are worth noting. The former suffers from what Wimsatt and Beardsley referred to as “the intentional fallacy.” In Wimsatt and Beardsley’s conception, the notion that a critic can ever have access to an author’s intentions when writing is wrong, because these intentions are always inaccessible to the reader of a text (and often, to the author of that text once the process of writing is complete):
One must ask how a critic expects to get an answer to the question about intention. How is he to find out what the poet tried to do? If the poet succeeded in doing it, then the poem itself shows what he was trying to do. And if the poet did not succeed, then the poem is not adequate evidence, and the critic must go outside the poem – for evidence of an intention that did not become effective in the poem.
So, when Banks asserts, “Reviewers should be asking of every poetry collection they read what is the intent of the poet,” he is essentially suggesting that critics must become diviners or psychics, transporting themselves into the mind of the poet at the moment of composition in order to tease out the nuances of intention. In his book Literary Theory: An Introduction, Terry Eagleton castigates I.A. Richards for suggesting much the same thing: “Richards had naively assumed that the poem was no more than a transparent medium through which we could observe the poet’s psychological processes: reading was just a matter of recreating in our own mind the mental condition of the author.” Eagleton expands on this a few pages later:
Even if critics could obtain access to an author’s intention, would this securely ground the text in a determinate meaning? What if we asked for an account of the meaning of an author’s intentions, and then for an account of that, and so on? Security is possible here only if authorial meanings are … pure, solid, “self-identical” facts which can be unimpeachably used to anchor the work. But this is a highly dubious way of seeing any kind of meaning at all.
Authorial intentions are a problematic place for a critic to locate meaning or worth in a poem, because they are unavailable to him, and the work itself is not sufficient to testify to what an author was trying to do in its composition (which is, of course, distinct from whether the author was successful in whatever it was (s)he ended up producing).
What the critic is able to access are the words on the page, which are open to judgment on the level of euphony, metaphor, originality, and any number of other standards that are distinct from a kind of fuzzy supposition about authorial intentions. The fact that a critic relies on this kind of objective standard in assessing a work does not deny the essential subjectivity of all criticism, which is something that Palmu accedes to in his comment. But whereas Banks argues that the poetic devices of “image, language, metaphor, thought, musicality, emotional sensation” should be used by the critic to determine the extent to which a poet has managed “to embody one’s consciousness within a poem, or to unfold one’s human experience, or to manifest a desire to transcend one’s circumstances, or to break down the barriers that exist between one’s private life and the world at large,” Palmu rightly separates the devices a poet employs from “the most lovely sentiments, the most highly evolved spiritual truths, the most progressive social solutions” that the poet might wish to espouse.
No doubt there is a subjective element to any act of criticism, but there is also such a thing as a bad sentence. Experience has shown that there are innumerable ways to construct a bad sentence, and sloppy writers with the best intentions will nevertheless be guilty of employing them. In any critical discourse, a retreat into vagaries such as unfolding one’s human experience or transcending one’s circumstances is never an acceptable substitute for a careful analysis of a work on a line-by-line basis. Instead of asking whether the poem’s devices “break down the barriers that exist between one’s private life and the world at large,” the critic should ask whether the poem is clichéd, whether it employs appropriate images or metaphors, whether its argument is valid, etc. Although in the abstract it sounds very noble to suggest that critics should subordinate their analytical rigour to a heightened sensitivity about what an author was trying to do, in practice this approach results in an abdication of critical responsibility.
Thank God for the Huffington Post (or HuffPo, for those overly enamoured of insufferable abbreviations). Just when I thought there was nothing capable of elevating me out of my Giller-induced lethargy, along comes James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times with a profile of Amy Hertz, editor of the Huffington Post’s new books section. Hertz is an Internet evangelist, a “fairly typical book geek,” and editor-at-large for Dutton Books, a division of Penguin Group.
If this were a movie, the soothing music playing in the background would now get abruptly cut off by the grating sound of a record needle skipping over vinyl.
Let me repeat that: the new editor of the Huffington Post’s books section is also an editor-at-large with a major international publisher. In terms of conflict of interest, that’s somewhat akin to Stephen Harper appointing Rob Nicholson to the Supreme Court of Canada. And what’s most interesting about Hertz’s new position is how little difference anyone (Hertz included) seems to think it makes. Rainey writes:
This sort of two-timing (and the potential for conflicts of interest) might have been big news once in the media world. But the shock waves wrought by technological change now wash over us so quickly and continuously, we scarcely stop to note them.
Indeed, Rainey claims that when he broached the subject of conflict, Hertz appeared surprised that it would even come up. “‘Am I going to be spending all of my time on Penguin Books? The answer is no,’ she said.” Oh well, then, nothing at all to worry about. I’m sure we can also assume that Penguin books won’t get treated with kid gloves by Huffington Post reviewers and critics.
Well, actually, we can assume that, because Hertz doesn’t really like reviewers, or reviews. In a post dated October 12, Hertz wrote:
This is NOT a book review section. Let me say that again, because I know about 72,000 publicists just plotzed because they have no idea what to do other than ask for a review. Huffington Post Books is not a review – there’s a reason those sections in newspapers are dropping like flies. Book reviews tend to be conversation enders, and when you’re living in the age of engagement, a time when people are looking for conversation starters, that stance gets you nowhere.
She also told the LA Times‘s Rainey that she dislikes “arcane and ponderous” essays, a strange admission from the new books editor of a website that has just made a deal to partner with the New York Review of Books.
Nor does she see a problem with asking writers to donate their content to the Huffington Post for free. She refused to engage Rainey on the issue, saying, “I’m not going to answer that question one way or another. I just don’t think it’s a useful question to ask at this point. It’s a new world.” (A colleague of mine pointed out that any time someone replies that a question is not useful to ask, its usefulness is practically guaranteed.)
So, to recap: the new books editor at the Huffington Post disdains reviews and essays about books, has a breathtaking conflict of interest in executing her duties, and sees no problem in fleecing writers for content. It’s a new world, indeed.
When I sit at my desk in the Quill & Quire offices, I am surrounded by books. Dozens upon dozens of books. All of them have been sent to me by publishers for review consideration. When I sit at the desk in my home office, I am also surrounded by books. Dozens, even hundreds, of books. Many of these I have purchased with my own cash money, which I earn at my day job. Some, however, have been sent to me (either at my request or on spec by a publisher’s representative or directly from an author) in the hope that I will mention them on my blog. Sometimes I do. Many times I don’t. But in practice I have never disclosed a book’s provenance if I decide to review it or to profile the author in this forum.
I mention all of this because new guidelines from the American Federal Trade Commission, which go into effect on December 1, 2009, will require all (U.S.) bloggers to disclose whether they received compensation – either monetary or “in-kind” – to review a product or service. From the FTC press release:
The revised Guides also add new examples to illustrate the long standing principle that “material connections” (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers – connections that consumers would not expect – must be disclosed. These examples address what constitutes an endorsement when the message is conveyed by bloggers or other “word-of-mouth” marketers. The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.
In other words, if yr. humble correspondent receives a book from a publisher (or directly from an author) that I then review (positively) on my blog (and assuming for the moment my hypothetical U.S. citizenship), the FTC regulations would require me to tell my readers that I received the book for free. If I failed to do so, I could be liable for fines of up to $11,000 (U.S.).
This seems absurd on its face. First off, the conflation of bloggers and “‘word-of-mouth’ marketers” is at the very minimum suspect when it comes to book reviewing. Believe it or not, when I review a book on this site (or anywhere else for that matter), I’m not acting on behalf of a publisher’s marketing department. I’m performing the job of a critic. Although review attention does provide the kind of exposure that publishers are constantly hankering after, reviewers are not in the business of promoting books or authors, and most media organs have explicit conflict-of-interest guidelines to prevent reviewers who may have a hidden agenda or lack objectivity from reviewing books that they are too closely connected to. Notwithstanding the FTC’s overly simplistic wording, book reviews are not “endorsements,” but rather critical assessments.
Book reviewers have always received free copies of the books they review. A review editor (me, for example) contacts a freelancer and asks if that person would review the new Margaret Atwood novel. The reviewer agrees, and the editor sends a copy of the book (or an advance reading copy), which has been supplied (free of charge) by the publisher, to the reviewer, who retains the product after writing the review. This has always been considered acceptable practice, and the transaction is generally understood by readers of book reviews. However, under the new FTC guidelines, if a book blogger behaves in a similar fashion, that blogger must disclose the provenance of the book under review.
What’s the difference between a newspaper or magazine reviewer and a book blogger? According to Richard Cleland of the U.S. Bureau of Consumer Protection, who spoke with book blogger Ed Champion, the difference is that in the case of a newspaper reviewer, the book remains the property of the newspaper, and the reviewer returns it upon completing the review:
“We are distinguishing between who receives the compensation and who does the review,” said Cleland. “In the case where the newspaper receives the book and it allows the reviewer to review it, it’s still the property of the newspaper. Most of the newspapers have very strict rules about that and on what happens to those products.”
This is, in a word, horseshit. When a freelancer reviews a book for any newspaper or magazine of which I’m aware, the reviewer retains the book. When Champion asked how a book blogger might avoid the appearance of conflict, Cleland responded that the blogger could return the book after writing the review:
“The primary situation is where there’s a link to the sponsoring seller and the blogger,” said Cleland. And if a blogger repeatedly reviewed similar products (say, books or smartphones), then the FTC would raise an eyebrow if the blogger either held onto the product or there was any link to an advertisement.
What was the best way to dispense with products (including books)?
“You can return it,” said Cleland. “You review it and return it. I’m not sure that type of situation would be compensation.”
Cleland also told Champion that when a publisher sends out a free copy of a book for review, it is in the expectation of a positive notice. This, too, is utter horseshit. Publishers send out review copies in the hope of gaining any kind of attention at all: I have never encountered a situation where a publisher insists on positive reviews of books they provide (and, indeed, would immediately sever ties with any publisher who made such a bizarre stipulation). “If there’s an expectation that you’re going to write a positive review,” said Cleland, “then there should be a disclosure.” I couldn’t agree more. The only problem being that there is no such expectation.
In the last few years, publishers have been shifting their focus away from traditional media outlets (newspapers and magazines), which are routinely curtailing their book coverage (if not eliminating it altogether), and targeting the people who are still paying attention to books: bloggers and other online writers. From a publishing perspective this only makes sense: faced with limited resources for promotion, you send your books where they have the best chance of getting coverage. Does this mean that publishers and bloggers are somehow in collusion with one another? Absolutely not.
I have given both positive and negative reviews to books I’ve purchased myself, and I’ve done the same with books I’ve been sent by publishers. My opinion has never been, is not now, and never will be for sale. If the new FTC regulations gain traction, however, and similar Canadian legislation is contemplated, let’s assume for the purposes of this blog that I get all my books for free. That’s my blanket declaration. You are welcome to take everything I write in these pages with as much or as little salt as you see fit. It just seems simpler that way.
The opening paragraph from Sam Anderson’s New York magazine review of William T. Vollmann’s latest tome, Imperial:
I was sitting on the train one day chipping away at William T. Vollmann’s latest slab of obsessional nonfiction when my friend Tsia, who incidentally is not an underage Thai street whore, offered to save me time with a blurby one-sentence review based entirely on the book’s cover and my synopsis of its first 50 pages. “Just write that it’s like Robert Caro’s The Power Broker,” she said, “but with the attitude of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz.” This struck me as good advice, and I was all set to take it, but as I worked my way through the book’s final 1,250 pages, I found I had to modify it, slightly, to read as follows: Imperial is like Robert Caro’s The Power Broker with the attitude of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, if Robert Caro had been raised in an abandoned grain silo by a band of feral raccoons, and if Mike Davis were the communications director of a heavily armed libertarian survivalist cult, and if the two of them had somehow managed to stitch John McPhee’s cortex onto the brain of a Gila monster, which they then sent to the Mexican border to conduct ten years of immersive research, and also if they wrote the entire manuscript on dried banana leaves with a toucan beak dipped in hobo blood, and then the book was line-edited during a 36-hour peyote séance by the ghosts of John Steinbeck, Jack London, and Sinclair Lewis, with 200 pages of endnotes faxed over by Henry David Thoreau’s great-great-great-great grandson from a concrete bunker under a toxic pond behind a maquiladora, and if at the last minute Herman Melville threw up all over the manuscript, rendering it illegible, so it had to be re-created from memory by a community-theater actor doing his best impression of Jack Kerouac. With photographs by Dorothea Lange. (Viking has my full blessing to use that as a blurb.)
You know what? They probably will.
(Thanks to Sean Cranbury for pointing this one out.)
As long as there have been books, the saying goes, there have been book critics. And as long as there have been book critics, there have been pissed-off authors. If you’re an aggrieved author, not of a murderous disposition (see post below), and happen to live in Russia, it now appears you can successfully sue the author of a negative review.
On April 23, 2009, a federal district court in the southern Russian province of Dagestan issued an unprecedented ruling, ordering a journalist of a local newspaper to pay compensation in an amount equal to US$1,000 to a writer who did not like a review of his book published in the newspaper.
The author of the book in question claimed that the negative review led to severe mental anguish for him and his family, and that his reputation was adversely affected.
The problems with this ruling are clear. If reviewers can be held financially liable for subjective opinions about imaginative works, legitimate criticism is not possible. Writers will (for obvious reasons) be unwilling to dispraise anything, for any reason, and readers will be unable to trust the praise that is dispensed, suspecting that it is merely a cover for the reviewer’s fear of retaliatory litigation.
The irony of the Russian court’s ruling is that it satisfied neither the defendent nor the plaintiff, who had originally asked for compensation in the amount of U.S. $150,000. According to the Law Library of Congress, both parties in the suit intend to appeal. With luck, this asinine ruling will be overturned in short order.
Who’d want to kill a book critic? I mean, really.
This is actually kind of a nifty idea. The first post is up at Revenge Lit, and it’s a bit of a giggle:
Simon Lacerous’ column “The Last Word” routinely excoriated literary works: if realistic, they lacked imagination; if fantastic, they lacked veracity; if existential, they lacked moral compass; if moralistic, they were fascist.
And, what’s wrong with that, precisely?
I just hope that if anyone kills me off in print, someone will ensure that I’m properly avenged.