Tuesday, May 28, 2013

False positive

The Los Angeles Review of Books has a policy, which the editor Evan Kindley divulged in a Twitter back-and-forth on Friday, of reviewing first books positively or not reviewing them at all. The rationale behind the policy, Kindley explained, is “That most authors’ careers fade away on their own, and that it’s easy and not that interesting to eviscerate first-timers.” He allowed that the LARB “might make exceptions for insanely hyped debuts” like Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, and would “certainly run a constructive critique of a first book.” But it’s only fair—“ethical” was his word—“to give writers a grace period.”

Of course, the LARB policy is little more than the advice Nick Carraway’s father gave to him, albeit in clumsier words: “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one . . . just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had all the advantage that you’ve had.” Or as my father taught me—a lesson that clearly did not take hold—“If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.” It represents the Elwood P. Dowd School of Life: “For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”

As career counseling, or advice for the lovelorn, this is good stuff. As a literary ethic, it might be called the law of youth soccer—there are no losers, only winners. Trophies for everyone! I was surprised, though, at how much support Kindley received for his position on Twitter—and at how many misconceptions about reviewing abound.

The mystery novelist Daniel Friedman, for example, conceives the reviewer’s role as telling book-buyers what to pick up and what to leave unopened (see here and here). The reviewer, in other words, is a literary Fodor’s, instructing the literary traveler where to spend the night and where to linger over dinner. His guidance is practical and timely and quickly outdated. (No one keeps a three-year-old Fodor’s lying around.) There is no intrinsic interest in what he says. His opinions are consumed—patronized, depleted—in the book-buyers’ following of them. At best the reviewer is a well-informed assistant to an adventure that less timid and uncertain readers might prefer to discover for themselves.

I don’t imagine that I speak for myself alone in saying that I have no desire whatever to fill any such role. Not that I think so highly of myself. If I am to be an assistant, however, I will be an assistant not to book-buyers, but to literature. I have always admired philosophers—have always preferred their passion for their subject to that of writers and critics, whose lukewarmness is legion—because philosophers are the sworn enemies of vagueness and confusion. Error is never afforded a grace period. It is corrected without regard to personal circumstances, which are too many in any case (marital status, health, age, psychological condition) to factor in with any degree of certainty. Philosophy is what philosophers protect, not the tender green shoots of younger philosophers’ careers.

The LARB’s very sensitivity to first-time writers’ careers gives weight to what I have been saying for some time—namely, literature (or, rather, creative writing) has become a bureaucracy, which shields its employees from markets and thus tends over time to put its own interests above the public’s. Why should I care whether a young writer settles comfortably into a literary career?—especially a writer whose mediocrity eats at the public reputation of literature. (Just look what the bureaucratic careerists have done to what is now called literary fiction so that readers know to avoid it.)

More troubling is the fundamental dishonesty involved. What, really, is the good being promoted? The book under review or the reviewing assignment completed and published? (Kindley was dismissive of the reviewer’s practical concerns, but it is no simple matter to place a review elsewhere when it was originally written for another publication. The critic is not quite so blithe to dismiss his investment of time and energy.) If the only values assigned to first books are going to be positive values, they will quickly become debased. Orwell understood the danger clearly:

For if one says—and nearly every reviewer says this kind of thing at least once a week—that King Lear is a good play and The Four Just Men is a good thriller, what meaning is there in the word “good”?If all first books are good in some fashion or other, what is the point of calling any of them good? No discrimination is involved, only a priori institutional policy. To lay down special rules for first books may seem to relieve the anxiety of criticism, but the problem of individual judgment is not solved; it is merely eliminated from critical practice. The consequences are not pretty. Arnold Isenberg wrote in 1949:A good starting point is a theory of criticism . . . which divides the critical process into three parts. There is the value judgment or verdict (V): “This picture or poem is good—.” There is a particular statement or reason (R): “—because it has such-and-such a quality—.” And there is a general statement or norm (N): “—and any work which has that quality is pro tanto good.”[1]If the critic’s verdict cannot be trusted then every element in his critical system is called into question. This seems a terrible tax to pay on the fragile ambitions of first-time authors.

Many thanks to Steve Abernathy for suggesting my title.

[1] Arnold Isenberg, “Critical Communication,” Philosophical Review 58 (July 1949): 330–44.


Sam Cohen said...

Not sure how not publishing negative reviews of first novels = all first novels are good.

D. G. Myers said...

Because the only ones taken notice of are “good,” and thus “bad” is removed from the critical vocabulary.

thisIsStephenBetts said...

Disclosure - I am a friend of Evan.

Firstly, for better or worse, people do read reviews to get an idea of whether to read something or not. Some reviews will aim to provide that service (although perhaps not as their primary aim).

Reviewing something for the benefit of literature is laudable (and not necessarily at odds with providing people some guidance on what they might like to read), but if a first book isn't good then - I interprete LARB's position to be - it won't form part of the literary corpus, or only a very minor part. The benefit to literature may not be worth their real estate.

Regarding the reviewers' problems, presumably someone who wants to review for LARB will acquaint themselves with LARB's guidelines, and so will at least check whether a negative review of a first book is worth writing for LARB.

On the user of the word "good" - this seems like a strawman argument, unless you're asserting that LARB's reviews come down to "X is good".

Sam Cohen said...

Yeah, I still don't see it. While I am wary of the twitterverse's logrollingorrhea, and see the value of critical reviews to literary culture, to me it still doesn't follow to say that a choice to not publish bad reviews of first novels is the same as saying that there are no bad first books in existence. It's just saying you'd rather talk about the good ones and save the Pecking and fickle Kakutani-ing (or even measured reputation-adjusting) for established writers, who can take it, mostly. But I like that we're talking about it.

Tom Lutz said...

I think there are two problems here, one Twitter-based (140 characters at a shot is no way to have an intelligent conversation about a complex topic) and the other that both you and Evan engaged in some hyperbolic nonsense.

Hyperbole is fun, of course, and negative hyperbole even more so. If I wanted to jack our numbers up, we would make blood sport of a bad book every day. Each time we engage in evisceration we get oodles of new readers - no surprise, of course, since snark and the attendant schadenfreude have from the beginning been one of the web’s most durable forms of entertainment. You call LARB an indiscriminate soccer mom, Elwood P. Dowd, Dear Abby and a 3-year-old Fodor’s guide, while casting yourself as a humble (“Not that I think so highly of myself.” Ahem …) servant of Literature, and that’s all a bunch of good fun, I suppose.

But once we get past your self-aggrandizing posturing (I just want you to see that we can go negative) and your name-calling (you quickly add fundamental dishonesty, careerism, petty anxiety, and literature-murder to our crimes), what is the content of this little essay? You trot out two bland quotes, one by Orwell saying there is no point saying something is good, and then one by Isenberg saying that the starting point of criticism is to say something is good and give a reason. That these two bits don’t sit very well with each other doesn’t seem to bother you – and by saying that I am making a descriptive, argumentative, and evaluative point.

All we have left, then, is the standard, centuries-old idea that evaluation is an important part of the critical act.

Granted. I’ve written a book to that effect, by the way.

Evan misspoke (or, as I say, greatly exaggerated) in saying our policy is not to attack a book. We do attack books and ideas and parts of books and all sorts of things. What Evan was pointing to was our practice, which is to not waste our scant time and resources killing a book that is in the process of dying a natural death. I receive a hundred books at my door every day, and another couple hundred pitches. What percentage could receive very fun, scathing negative reviews I’ll leave to your imagination. Would literature be served if we attacked any of them? No. Is literature served if we do the kind of work we do? Obviously we think so, or we wouldn’t be doing any of this.

I know that you have a bug up your ass about creative writing programs – the argument about creative writing and regionalism you link to here, is a bit incoherent (I‘ve written at length about both) – and that you’d like to see LARB as part of the same general conspiracy to hasten the decline of civilization.

But what an odd target! A bunch of people ban together, volunteer tens of thousands of hours to discuss books with intelligence and conviction and with the help of intensive editing, and present it to people for free, and you want to cast us as the bad guys in the cultural conversation? Odd, to say the least.

We have killed three of the 1300 pieces we have worked on with authors, and one of those was, in fact, a viciously negative review of a first novel. We did not kill it because it was a negative review. We killed it because it was poorly written, poorly argued, and poorly conceived as an essay, and had nothing to say about writing, or the novel as a genre at the present time, or anything else. The other two were just badly done.

That first kill came fairly early in LARB’s life, and in discussing it with our editors I did say, as I still believe, that there are hundreds of great novels published every year, and our job is to find them and see that they are not lost to literary history. This is our service to literary culture. And to dissent when we feel books are overpraised. And to discuss the state of the literary world (and the program era) with rigor and passion. To take cheap potshots at easy targets – we’ll leave that to you if you find it so important a service to perform, and godspeed – there’s enough to keep you busy.

Tom Lutz, Los Angeles Review of (good and bad) Books

D. G. Myers said...

Tom Lutz:

There is hyperbole, and there is plain bad reading. Despite the renaming of my little essay at RealClearBooks, nowhere in it do I set up the Los Angeles Review of Books versus literature. I do attack the policy of reviewing first books positively or not at all—not the enterprise that is the LARB, mind you, but only one of its policies. (It is policy you neither deny nor defend, by the way, in all 700 words of your comment.) Nor do I characterize you as “the bad guys in a cultural conversation.” I cast you as representative of a literary position, which is increasingly (and with increasing vehemence) held. The larger tendency is larger than you; I have commented at length upon it elsewhere; it is the tendency to tut-tut “mean reviews” of any variety.

In this essay I grab only a hem of that larger tendency—the tendency to go easy on first-time authors. And your own quickness to take offense, your unwillingness to do more than sling arguments ad hominem, suggest exactly what is at stake in this whole dispute. For I selected the LARB as a representative of this go-easy attitude precisely because I admire it—because it is not a straw man of any kind but is instead a distinguished practitioner of a wrongheaded policy. Negative criticism is an implicit form of praise (another reason for negative reviews of first books). And I’m sorry that you couldn’t get to the praise for your fury to get at me.

For what it’s worth, describing the subject of my own book—The Elephants Teach, the definitive history of creative writing—as “having a bug up the ass” is an odd way for a literary man to describe another writer’s area of expertise. You could as easily say that Leon Edel had a bug up his ass about Henry James. You are right that it is a subject that I return to again and again. Um, maybe because I know something about it?

And if you can’t see how Orwell’s “bland” warning about the indiscriminate use of the terms of “positive reviewing” works together with Isenberg’s theory that evaluation is a close-fitting system, which collapses when the critic’s verdict becomes indiscriminate (that is, disconnected from his reasons and his norms), well, it’s clear that I wasn’t sufficiently clear on my first try and must write a sequel.

Thanks for the provocation to rethink my conclusions. But I guess this means I won’t be writing for the LARB any time soon, huh?

—David Myers

Daniel Friedman said...

I didn't mean to be reductive about the purpose or utility of criticism. Good critics teach us how to be good readers.

However, I think the critic's role in influencing the behavior of the subset of readers who pay attention to critics is extremely important. In the year since my debut novel launched, I have not seen publishing as a bureaucracy dedicated to the nurture and protection of young authors. Instead, publishing is a harshly Darwinian landscape.

Any given imprint is likely to be putting out between 50 and 100 books per year, and there are a lot of imprints. Books are pushed into the marketplace with little marketing support, and succeed or fail mostly on the basis of critical response. In this environment, silence isn't a kindness; if the publisher doesn't back a book with a large marketing push, and the press ignores it, the book will likely sell no more than a few thousand copies, and will quickly go out of print.

No publication can review all of the books released in any given week or month, so at some point, editors have to make decisions about which books to cover and which books to ignore. I don't understand how critics serve the interests of their readers or of literature or anything else when they ignore good books in order to review bad ones, especially if the books they're reviewing negatively are obscure.

The reviews that are precluded by the LARB's policy are answers to questions nobody is asking; refutations of arguments that nobody's making. When a book that has a print run of 10,000 copies isn't very good, the correct course of action is to ignore it and dedicate those extremely scarce column inches to something more deserving.

It's incredibly difficult to write enduring criticism of disposable literature. A glowing review of something obscure might induce me to read it, but a negative review of an out-of-print book is only marginally more relevant than a review of a restaurant that has closed.

Rohan Maitzen said...

"when they ignore good books in order to review bad ones, especially if the books they're reviewing negatively are obscure"

Isn't there a logistical problem here, though? Who decides whether a book is good or bad before it has been reviewed? There's some kind of preemptive decision made? Based on what? And answerable to ... ? Perhaps you mean this in terms of "real estate" -- that is, if they run reviews of bad books instead of reviews of good books. But if a book was considered worth reviewing in the first place, and then the review turns out to be negative (assuming, as we hashed out on Twitter yesterday, that we aren't talking about reviews that are simply irresponsible) -- then it seems like a good thing that the reviewer's reasoned evaluation (however emphatically negative) is out there, part of the critical conversation. Who knows: someone else might mount a spirited defense! (And I think David has a fair point that the investment of writing the review should not be casually dismissed.)

Who decides which books are worth reviewing in the first place and how -- well, that's a complicated question, and in some ways it's an editorial one, not a critical one. Who does triage on those hundreds of books that arrive every day? Nobody, presumably, reads them all before deciding which ones get reviewed (I'd actually be quite interested to know the sorting mechanism!). That a book is "obscure" seems kind of circular as grounds for deciding not to review it, though, as being reviewed (favorably or not) is one of the few defenses against obscurity. Tom refers to books that are "dying a natural death" but if the last 100 years of literary criticism and theory have taught us anything, it's that we can't be too sure what literary deaths are "natural", right?

Anyway, the more books reviewed the better overall, surely, because then the more various the voices -- of both authors and critics. This is one reason to celebrate book bloggers, who have unlimited real estate and often idiosyncratic taste for "obscure" titles.

Since full disclosure seems to be in order, I'll add that I'm working on my 3rd LARB piece -- not one has been a review, though, either good or bad. I admire greatly what the folks there have built, which I wholeheartedly agree "serves literature," even if I still find this particular policy a mite puzzling.

Tom Lutz said...

Ah, David, I think you have gotten yourself in deeper. You say I neither deny nor defend the policy of not running negative reviews of first books, while, in fact, I both deny it (in two ways: I say it is not a policy, in that we never assign a reviewer to a first novel and then kill the review if it is negative; and I describe the actual state of our editorial discussion of the matter that was hyperbolicized into policy in your Twitter exchange with Evan), and I defend the upshot of it, I defend our disinclination to run negative reviews of first novels because, as Dan says here so eloquently, it has the utility of reviewing a restaurant that has already disappeared.

You claim you do not set up your argument as one of Los Angeles Review of Books vs Literature, but (a) the RealClearBooks people thought you had, and (b) your own denial here (I didn't say you were the bad guys, I said you represented the tendencies of the bad guys) is a distinction without a difference that I can see, and thus more of a reinforcement of this 'bad reading' by me and RCB than a refutation.

"Negative criticism is an implicit form of praise . . .. And I’m sorry that you couldn’t get to the praise for your fury to get at me."

This is that self-canceling logic I noted with your quotes by Orwell and Isenberg at work again. (Besides: I feel no fury! It is just a negative review of your essay! Take it as praise!)

I do want to say I regret the 'bug up your ass' comment -- I started to get carried away with the very pleasures of negativity I was describing -- and I wasn't aware that you had made a historical study of creative writing; I didn't know the book; I was just going on the couple of blog posts of your own that you linked to, and because I think that to talk about creative writing as a machine to create creative writing programs is a bit ridiculous -- like saying English departments are machines for creating English departments, which of course they are, but -- I'm sorry what is the point? It seemed like an animus with no argument, and the idea that CW programs suck the regionalist essence out of the literary act seems equally unfounded to me; as a result of all that you seemed to me (and as I say, I regret saying it) to be spouting angry speciousness. As you know there is a widespread tea-partyish backlash against arts education at every level in this country, and I perhaps jumped to a bad conclusion from an inadequate sample of your writing on the subject, and from not knowing that it was your subject.

I have combed through my last note looking for an ad hominem argument and couldn't find one.

As to writing for LARB, we are interested in running well written, well argued pieces from as many perspectives as can fit that bill. So try me any time.

D. G. Myers said...


Couldn’t find an ad hominem argument? Saying that I’d “like to see LARB as part of the same general conspiracy to hasten the decline of civilization” is a refutation of an argument I’ve made somewhere, I suppose, if I could only find where. No damage to my professional reputation in hanging such a charge around my neck.

You might acknowledge that you are quick to personalize arguments. If I say that I find your policies bad, it doesn’t follow that I think you are “bad guys” (your phrase). Tom, Tom: that very much is distinction with a big, big difference.

But you’re right. I do take your criticism of my essay as praise—a double scoop of praise, in fact. I’m so delighted that I shall let you have the last word. As long as you acknowledge this. In my reply to you, my praise of LARB is not implicit but exposed for all to see. I may agree with what you publish—and especially with its high quality—but I will defend to the death the wrongheadedness of some of your editorial policies!

Thanks for fighting.


Tom Lutz said...


I think your pieces for us are perfect examples of our basic sorting mechanism -- you bring us things you want to write about. Why do you want to write about them? Well, that's your business. We don't assign very much -- that old idea, of the editor as independent arbiter randomly sending out books to impartial judges, never was the actual practice -- editors knew who would probably like or hate Philip Roth's next book and assigned accordingly -- and that's not what we want to do anyway, pretend there is some Archimedean desk from which to hand down the objective evaluation.

What's a natural death? Yes, Moby Dick, etc, suggest a trove of missed masterpieces; but I will tell you what a natural death is -- take the self-published, unedited novel I just read the first five pages of: it is going to be read by friends and family and die. As will 1,000,000 books like it this year. Is there a Moby Dick in there? Maybe. The idea that it might somehow accidentally be picked out for a negative review, then causing someone to leap to its defense.... I don't see that happening. Besides, Moby Dick was his 6th novel .... Your question has legs because one can imagine a scenario -- enough critical monkeys, enough typewriters -- where it might happen.

And we love idiosyncratic.


I was using 'bad guys' metaphorically, not personally; hence my sense that the distinction wasn't material --

But always glad to tussle in the service of what we both agree is worth fighting for --

B. Glen Rotchin said...

The LARB's policy makes sense to me. A book must be worthy of attention. In this day and age of overpublication the LARB is doing the job that editors used to do during the heyday of the major literary publishing houses. They are vetting the worthy books (and authors) from the dross that probably vener deserved to see the light of day in the first place. The real question is not about the LARB policy but about the state of literary publishing.