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First, piss off your allies

When looking for something to blog about, the simplest way to get inspiration is to read something really annoying, and then blog about how annoyed you are. No, I didn’t pick David Ignatious’’ss mind-bogglingly stupid op-ed that my local paper reprinted under the heading Taking Bipartisan Path Out Of Iraq (suggested headline: Columnist in Fantasy World, Still Published). No, that sort of thing leads me to smack my head against the wall, not to write. I wanted something mild and ultimately meaningless, something like Richard Schickel’s mind-bogglingly stupid op-ed that the Los Angeles Times printed under the head Not Everybody’s a Critic.

Why do I call the piece mind-bogglingly stupid? Well, remember two weeks ago and change Your Humble Blogger wrote that the NBCC had managed to antagonize, rather than recruit, their natural allies. As a rhetorical strategy I found that ... interesting. Mind-bogglingly interesting. But here a book reviewer has taken the added step of antagonizing not just litbloggers but everybody who writes an Amazon review. Also any middle manager, anybody who found Philip K. Dick anything other than an “easy read”, anyone unfamiliar with Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, and mostly, anybody who does not finish the piece “grateful for their encounter with a serious and, indeed, superior, mind.” Oh, Mr. Schickel doesn’t say that his mind is superior, just that, you know, critics’ minds in general, cough cough, hmmm hmmm hmmm, oh me? Well, you know I do write a little criticism, but ...

Of course, Mr. Schickel admits that “Most reviewing, whether written for print or the blogosphere, is hack work”, but that we shouldn’t look at the work that is actually being written and published in actual newspapers being printed here and now, but at stuff that was printed in newspapers in France a hundred and fifty years ago. This makes perfect sense. After all, since we, the readers of the Los Angeles Times, have never read any of this stuff, we can only feel grateful for this encounter with a superior mind, and adjust our opinions according to this wisdom received. Of course, we should clearly stop reading the hack work published in the newspapers, because that’s all crap. Like blogs.

Look, again—anybody reading Mr. Schickel at all is four-fifths of the way to supporting book reviews. That’s a person that (a) reads, (2) reads about books, and (iii) reads about newspapers. It’s hard to imagine anybody starting to read his column that does not accept prima facie that book reviews in newspapers are a Good Thing, and that it would be a shame if they turned out to be an unaffordable Good Thing. I could very easily imagine such a person getting to the end of the column and saying that it wouldn’t be so bad if Mr. Schickel were thrown out of work, and really, can’t we live without book reviews, if that’s the kind of person who will get hired to write them?

I came across an interesting note about hostage rescue in the world of marketing by Grant McCracken over at This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics. I take much of Mr. McCracken’s “marketing guru” work with a grain of salt, but there was something worth taking away from his description of the Prius dynamic. Prius owners, he argues, come off as driving the Prius in an act of defiance. That is, the Prius symbolizes a rejection of the non-Prius-owner’s cultural values. In this way, the more successful the Prius becomes among people viewed as outside the non-Prius-owner’s cultural norms, the more resistant the non-Prius-owner becomes—not to buying a Prius, but to becoming a Prius-owner. Of course, Toyota doesn’t care whether people become Prius-owners, it cares whether they buy Prius. es. But the Prius has become, in Mr. McCracken’s words, hostage to Prius owners. And then he describes ways to rescue them, but the point to my mind is that Prius-owning is not a rejection of car-owning. Prius owning is car-owning. A Prius is a car. And, in fact, lots of people who seem to genuinely like cars have expressed interest in our Prius as a car, and do not seem unalterably opposed to the idea of owning one. Most of them, of course, don’t actually buy one, some for good reasons and some for bad, but coloring those reasons is, I think, this sense that they are not the type of person who owns a Prius.

The reason this comes to mind is that book reviews are in danger of holding themselves hostage, in Mr. McCracken’s terms. Who, now, is the type of person who reads (and supports) book reviews in the newspapers? Intellectually curious people, people who like to read, people who are looking to be exposed to things outside their immediate ken. In fact, newspaper readers. But also, blog readers. If, however, Mr. Schickel manages to convince people that book reviewers are pinched, superior, anti-democratic elitists, then they will convince them that there is a difference between the kind of person who enjoys the, er, “mere yammering”, “idle opinion-mongering” “hasty, instinctive” blogs, and the person who enjoys ill-conceived crap like this, from a critic who can’t even articulate what his critic-heroes did well, much less name any critics who are currently writing and are worth reading. And if they are two kinds of people, then Your Humble Blogger is getting in the long line, the one with the bloggers and their readers.

Fortunately, the types are not distinct, any more than there is a real difference between Prius-owners and non-Prius car-owners. I can read the Carnival of Children’s Literature over at Chicken Spaghetti, and read the newspaper’s book reviews, too. If people like Richard Schickel haven’t killed them.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


But a purely "democratic literary landscape" is truly a wasteland, without standards, without maps, without oases of intelligence or delight.

oh, ho ho ho. the original quote was:

a new, more democratic literary landscape

see that "more"? see how contrasts with schickel's choice to replace it, "purely"? not being a professional critic person i can't tell you what it means, but i can tell you it's a lie.

i was going to say that he went about 1000 words without giving people useful advice for writing better book reviews (as a service to people, sharing quality information being one of the best things about the free expression of ideas), but he does cite a few writers that can be chased down.

The advice boils down to this: either (a) write in French in the 1850's and suck up to the Emperor, (2) marry a great critic and novelist, fuck around on her, and write for the New Yorker in its prime, or (iii) write ... well, I would like to slag George Orwell because I can't stand his criticism (have you read him on Charles Dickens or William Shakespeare?) but I can't think of a snarky way to advise people to write criticism like his. And he's the one of the three that I actually dislike. But the point is that other than their vast knowledge base, he doesn't tell you what he likes about their criticism.

Oh, and just to get even further up my nose, he ignores the obvious fact that none of the three could possibly be published in a daily newspaper in the US at the present time. There are magazines that still publish that sort of thing, but really, if you want to write criticism like George Orwell's (and I won't stop you), the only place to do it and have anyone read it is on a blog.


this would be the likely result of a sidetrip into litcrit.

Now I just feel like watching "Metropolitan" again.

"Oh, I don't read the actual books. I prefer good literary criticism."

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