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The hunting of the snarky book critic

Sunday, September 28, 2003

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

Clive James is one of those celebrity intellectuals favored by the British but without a cultural counterpart in America.

In Britain, he regularly appears on TV; here, he's confined to the opinion pages of the New York Times, where he considered the subject of book reviewing in a column this month.

James, who lives in a land where nasty, personal reviews are a stock in trade, is concerned that this approach is spreading to the States. He takes up novelist Heidi Julavits' label of "snark" to describe a critic's "desire to do someone down or indeed in.

"A snark blatantly attacks the author -- not simply to retard his career, but to advance the reviewer's, either by proving how clever he is or simply by injuring a competitor."

The snarky trend has yet to take hold on these shores, I think, despite the worries of James and Julavits. The most respected review publications in the trade, including The New York Times Sunday Book Review, take great pains to avoid negativity, often to the point of simply not mentioning a bad book.

It's that old American tradition of "If you can't say anything good about anybody, don't say anything at all."

There are exceptions, of course. Brendan Gill's withering dismissal of John O'Hara's 1948 novel "A Rage to Live" in The New Yorker was such a shocker that Geoffrey Wolff, in his new O'Hara biography "The Art of Burning Bridges" devotes nearly eight pages to it.

Gill not only ridiculed O'Hara for his embarrassing sex scenes, a kind of macho put-down, but also did it in the same magazine that regularly published O'Hara's short stories.

It was an act of betrayal unforgivable to a man of O'Hara's traditional rules of gentlemanly conduct.

"It is hard to imagine how one of our great writers could have written this book and it is because of O'Hara's distinction that his failure here seems in the same nature as a catastrophe," Gill wrote.

This assessment was particularly brutal because "A Rage to Live" was O'Hara's first novel in 11 years after "Butterfield 8."

When the two bumped into each other later at the New York nightclub, "21," Gill offered to buy his victim a drink and was rebuffed by O'Hara with "You son-of-a-bitch, I wouldn't go to a dogfight with you," claims Wolff.

That feud is as bad as it gets in American criticism, although John Simon's dismissal in The Times of Norman Mailer's 1991 "Harlot's Ghost" came close.

Confronted with that 1,300-page "widow-maker," Simon summed up Mailer as "a punch-drunk writer trying to outbox all competition, real or imaginary."

Mailer howled so loudly that in an unprecedented move, The Times printed his 2,100 word rebuttal, which personally insulted both Simon and the then-review editor, Rebecca Sinkler.

But, compare those extreme examples of American "snark" with this comment about Martin Amis' new novel, "Yellow Dog:"

It was so embarrassingly bad that reading it was like "finding your favorite uncle being caught in the school playground masturbating," wrote British critic Tibor Fischer.

Now why didn't I think of that?

Because it's just not in the American tradition of fair play. Plus, the editor would cut it out for being in bad taste.

Instead, as a reviewer, I subscribe to the James' philosophy that "at their best, [adverse book reviews] are written in defense of a value. ... All they attack, or seem to attack, is the book."

I do not accept his extension of the argument that:

"When you say a man writes badly, you are trying to hurt him. When you say it in words better than his, you have succeeded. It would be better to admit this fact, and admit that all adverse reviews are snarks to some degree, than to indulge the sentimental wish that malice might be debarred from the literary world."

My negative reviews -- and there have been a lot lately -- are not written to cause pain but to tell the readers what I think. In the course of a dozen or more years of doing this, I have upset several writers, several of whom will no longer consent to interviews with me.

They took it personally; I did not.

My reviews, I hope, are written, as James says, in "defense of a value." Now we are getting somewhere.

When the National Book Foundation announced that Stephen King would be honored for his "distinguished contributions" to American letters, the occasional debate about our literary values was reopened.

In denouncing King's award, Harold Bloom, a leading literary thinker, drew heavily on what is called the "Western canon" of literature -- and title of one of his books. King doesn't even come close, he insists.

However, most of Bloom's canonical examples are dead, their books in a literary deep-freeze, while King's overstuffed thrillers sell in the millions.

How can we, as critics, overlook that fact and with our smug superiority, sentence King to bad-book hell? He touches something in the reader that goes beyond his ability to make their palms sweat, and that's a literary value whether Bloom likes it or not.

Bob Hoover can be reached at or 412-263-1634.

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