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Books
Bad reviews equal bad reviewers is a double negative

Sunday, October 12, 2003

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

The reviewing of books continues to draw entirely too much attention.

The problem started in the spring, when novelist Heidi Julavits complained about reviewers who were writing nasty reviews just 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."

These author assassins could be found at New York publications, said Julavits, but she also singled out the daily newspaper reviewers as dull hacks who wrote advertising copy, not criticism.

These drudges, however, didn't hold any interest for her. She was targeting the effete snobs of Manhattan, whom she branded "snarks."

These writers used clever, gratuitous put-downs of authors instead of reasoned criticism because they were anti-intellectuals or just too lazy to learn more about their subject.

The newspaper drudges were equally clueless, but since their reviews were merely rewrites of publicity hype from publishers, the writing was just fluffy praise.

(This has been known to happen. I heard of a since-deceased travel writer who, after enjoying an all-expense paid junket to Asia without his notebook, then demanded press releases about the trip from the tour company so he could write his story. The practice died out about 30 years ago, though.)

Was this a pre-emptive attack by Julavits, who had a new novel coming out this year? Apparently it worked. "The Effect of Living Backwards" appeared to glowing notices.

Actually, it was quite good, according to the Post-Gazette's Sept. 7 review.

Her "snark" label was picked up by several other writers, who, while condemning the practice, thought it provided lots of fun for readers.

In the meantime, what ever happened to tough criticism based on high standards of writing and reasoning without stooping to personal assaults? There's no shame in calling a spade a spade, but there seems to be no interest in writing about it.

Today, it seems, a negative review is a negative review, and that's a bad thing.

Just be nice.

And, what do you do with a bad thing? You kill it, which is what Detroit Free Press executive editor Carole Leigh Hutton did last month to a review of "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" by Mitch Albom, he of "Tuesdays With Morrie" fame.

He's also the Free Press' celebrity sports columnist and has a radio talk show and a regular gig on a cable TV sports program.

With more than 5 million copies of "Tuesdays" sold, as well as a stage and TV adaptation, it's news when Albom writes a new book, a novel this time.

"Let's have a review of Mitch's book," someone said at the Free Press, and so his employer commissioned a review from Carlo Wolff, a freelancer of long standing with no connection to the paper, a judicious choice that solved the conflict-of-interest problem.

But there was this other problem: Wolff disliked the book.

"How many ways can you define 'superficial?' " he asked in launching his piece.

"Where some attempt to write the Great American Novel, Albom seems content to write the Great American Postcard," Wolff concluded.

Cue the laugh track.

Well, Hutton was not amused. In newspaper jargon, she "spiked" the offensive piece but paid Wolff $200 -- further proof, as if I need it, that there's no money in book criticism.

World got out of the "censorship," leading other papers to print the Wolff review and forcing Hutton to defend herself in a column Oct. 5.

Citing an "unwritten" Free Press rule that she says bars criticism in its pages of an employee's work, she wanted to avoid "letting one individual condemn an employee in the newspaper when the employee had done nothing wrong."

But Hutton is wrong. Wolff not was condemning Albom; he was expressing his opinion about Albom's book. There is a big difference. Plus, Mitch did not do this writing for the newspaper, but for a $5 million advance from Hyperion.

If anyone should be upset, it should be the publisher.

Unless the Free Press owns Hyperion (Disney does, by the way), it has no interest in Albom's outside work. Yet, the paper allows Albom to plug his books and public appearances in his columns while it writes stories heralding its star's triumphs.

"Somehow using him to sell newspapers one day and publishing something hurtful about him the next felt dishonest and hypocritical," Hutton explained.

Oh, really? If you commission a review from a reputable critic and it's a pan, then it's dishonest to run it, but it's honest to kill it because it is a pan?

The solution, to carry Hutton's reasoning to the end point, would be to drop all criticism from the newspaper and stick to journalism.

That would make everybody happy, wouldn't it?


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

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