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Books
Critic blasts 'snarky' reviewers

Sunday, April 06, 2003

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

The products of Dave Eggers' McSweeney's Publishing are attracting new talent and readers. His output includes McSweeney's, a journal of new fiction, the independent publication of his first novel, "You Shall Know Our Velocity," and the new "McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales," new pulp-fiction stories edited by Michael Chabon, who also contributed.

Add to those efforts Eggers' work with young writers in the San Francisco Bay area, and you have the makings of a literary powerhouse.

Now comes Believer, a new opinion magazine that started showing up in independent bookstores late last month. It sells for $8.

While there's no official mention of Eggers in the first edition, its publisher, Barb Bersche, and San Francisco address are the same as McSweeney's.

Novelist Heidi Julavits, one of the editors, called it a "literary cultural review" in an interview with The Los Angeles Times.

The inaugural edition contains pieces from Salman Rushdie, who interviews Terry Gilliam, Jonathan Lethem, Anne Carson and Julavits.

I was drawn immediately to her contribution, "Rejoice! Believe! Be Strong and Read Hard!" (the title reminds me of a certain Asian restaurant in Oakland), because it delved into the world of book reviewing.

Based largely on the writing of such standbys as Orwell, Trilling (Lionel, not Calvin), Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy (the Bickersons of literary criticism), The Partisan Review, Podhoretz -- the so-called New York Intellectuals school -- Julavits' essay pauses wistfully on that "golden age," when the novel was a cultural force.

These guys knew "what they were talking about," says Julavits, even though they were often hard, if not snootily dismissive of writers. (Wilson found Archibald MacLeish to be an "idiot.")

Today, a lot of reviewers are just dismissive -- "snarky," Julavits calls them -- using a review as a vehicle to "appear funny and smart and a little bit bitchy without attempting to espouse any higher ideals. ...This is wit for wit's sake or hostility for hostility's sake."

She accuses "many publications" of engaging in "snarky" behavior, but singles out two New York weeklies, the Observer and the Press, as prime culprits.

Recently, the Press called Jonathan Franzen "the leader of a self-congratulatory public campaign to bring back 'serious' writing, which apparently means 576 pages of namedropping, contrived situations and agonizingly overwrought metaphors" and Rick Moody was called "grotesquely pretentious."

Julavits' other sources, no surprise here, are The New York Times Sunday Book Review, the London Review of Books and the Village Voice.

The source of most book criticism is America's far-flung daily newspapers, but this source seems to lack the heft and intelligence of her choices.

Julavits says that newspapers, this one included presumably, publish book reviews that are "of varying meatiness, certainly, and often composed of rearranged copy cribbed from a press release." Her overall conclusion:

"Maybe it's simply that book reviews have devolved to a point where they function as little more than advertising posing as criticism; the only books likely to be ratified by critical coverage are the books that promise to be ratified by the marketplace."

I'm content to let Julavits bloviate about the state of book reviewing at the rarefied level of the London Review of Books because I have my own battles to fight in the sweatier arena of the heartland where some readers buy their books at Sam's Club.

The newspaper book editors I know, me included, have never written or run a review of "rearranged copy cribbed from a press release" or looked at the best-seller list as a source of recommendations, those titles "ratified by the marketplace."

As proof, according to publisherslunch.com, the novel drawing the most reviews in the past week was Don DeLillo's "Cosmopolis," hardly a threat to "The Lovely Bones."

Given the state of my budget (hint: it's not as large as the Times' Sunday Book Review) and the size of the book section (unlike most major dailies, the Post-Gazette has increased its space devoted to books), it might be tempting to fall to the craven level where Julavits has consigned me.

But books are too important and matter too much to take the easy way out. That's why newspapers still maintain book sections, reduced as they are.

When The San Francisco Chronicle tried to shrink its Sunday book coverage last year, outcries from readers convinced it to reverse itself.

With more than 50,000 new titles published every year, the rising flood of graduates from creative writing programs hunting publishers, the emergence of Internet print-on-demand books that create hundreds of new authors every week, the pressure on newspapers to hold to the philosophy that books matter grows every day.

Writing in the placid 1940s for magazines, Edmund Wilson could contemplate and ruminate at his ease, then write with the complexity that all that time allowed.

We modern-day Wilsons don't have that luxury, but our standards are the same.


Bob Hoover can be reached at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.

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