Where Has the Venom Gone? Pls RT.

August 4, 2012 | 1 book mentioned 9

Jacob Silverman tackles the niceness epidemic besieging literary criticism at the moment. Where have the hatchet jobs gone? Is social media’s “communalism” robbing critics of their fangs? Each time a publication refuses to print a negative review, the act amounts to “a victory for a publicist, but not for readers,” he writes. (Just a few notes: Silverman’s piece is based on a blog post he wrote recently; Emma Straub has responded on her own blog; and, for what it’s worth, our own Michael Bourne’s recent review of Richard Ford’s Canada was pretty toothy.)

works on special projects for The Millions. He lives in Baltimore and he frequents dive bars. His interests can be followed on his Tumblr, Nick Recommends and Twitter, @nemoran3.


  1. I once knew a writer whose book was sold at auction. Some sections of the narrative were in the first person, others in third person. The editor insisted that the whole book be in first person; X obliged. Further extensive revisions were required. The contract offered no protection. X couldn’t take any more, withdrew the book, repaid the advance, sold the book to a different editor. This editor thought the whole book should be in the third person. X obliged. Another couple of years were spent on revisions. Some five years that X might have spent on new work were swallowed up in this manner.

    Well, it’s a long, long way for to tote the weary load. Suppose a book is published, and I am sent it to review, and I know nothing of its history.

    Suppose I think the book is brilliant; I praise book and author to the skies. For all I know, half the things I loved about the book may be there only because the editor held a gun to its author’s head and ostentatiously released the safety catch. There is an unsung hero, the gunslinging editor. (“Half” is not loose talk – maybe 50% of what I loved was the 50% an editor walloped out of the third person into the first, or vice versa.) Well, OK. Readers get a good tip. The editor gets none of the credit for this stellar review. The author may be in anguish – the things I praised may be the very things he loathed, who knows. But an editor gets a buzz out of a rave review; an editor gets kudos among peers if a book gets a slew of brilliant reviews. The author is in a stronger position next time: s/he can get jobs, residencies, grants, offers from editors at the Victor Gollancz end of the spectrum. The good seems to outweigh the bad.

    But suppose I think a book is terrible. I write my review, I slash and burn. For all I know, I may be VINDICATING the author. The things I hate are things the author was forced to agree to with a feeble contract, faineantist agent, galloping credit card debt and student loans. The reader is spared a book s/he will put aside after 5 pages. Will the editor revert to the author’s version when the paperback is released? Nope. Will editor and agent apologize and try to make amends? Nope. Will it do the author any good to say to editor and agent, or to other editors and agents, that s/he was right all along? Is this a serious question? No, in order to spare readers the loss of 20 bucks and 10 minutes, I am sabotaging the prospects of a writer who may well have genuine talent. I would feel good about this why, exactly?

    It’s common for a publishing contract to have a clause requiring the author to revise the book to the editor’s satisfaction. If you’re new to the game, you think only reasonable requests will be made – that is, requests that involve only minor adjustments to the existing text. Otherwise, you assume, no agent would let you sign the contract – or, at the very least, the agent would WARN you before you signed.

    Not to be too much the tired cynic, bait and switch is not uncommon among editors. An editor may actually SAY s/he has only subtle, minor suggestions which will be sent in a few days – and then, upon signature of a contract with the type of clause mentioned above, moot the possibility that the text needs radical structural changes. Or needs to be cut by 50%. Many agents don’t see this as something that needs to be thrashed out when a deal is negotiated. Baby: Wha-?

    The eldest Oyster looked at him,
    But never a word he said:
    The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
    And shook his heavy head —
    Meaning to say he did not choose
    To leave the oyster-bed.

    But four young Oysters hurried up,
    All eager for the treat:
    Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
    Their shoes were clean and neat —
    And this was odd, because, you know,
    They hadn’t any feet.

    Four other Oysters followed them,
    And yet another four;
    And thick and fast they came at last,
    And more, and more, and more —
    All hopping through the frothy waves,
    And scrambling to the shore.

    If the author knew this was coming, the author might well not have signed the contract in the first place. If the author was an Eldest Oyster, agent or no agent, the author might have unilaterally proposed an alteration to the standard clause. But there are many, many, many, many young Oysters. There are many Walruses. There are many Carpenters. There are a fair number of reviewers, and I am one of this qualm-ridden club, who do not like to tear a book apart when there is a very good chance that its author was merely a young Oyster who fell in with a Walrus and a Carpenter.

  2. My head is spinning. But I think it would be fair to slam editors in bad reviews. And still give bad reviews for bad “projects.” Don’t we have to react to end results and assess them? Isn’t that better than silence? Don’t we have to discuss art? How awful to write a book and have no one say anything at all, which I think is what you are saying should be done, if you don’t have a positive response… Couldn’t you write a review saying, however did this editor let this happen? I sure would have loved to have been in on the discussions? Of course, you also know that there isn’t that much editing going on anymore. I have a friend whose nonfiction book just got a full-page review in the NYT. I happen to know that his wife did all the edits, gratis. The house, a major house, changed a few commas, and that was it.

  3. I don’t think any of that should be of concern to the reviewer. Only what is on the published page is of consequence to the reviewer or to the poor schmuck who might plop down $26.95 for it. The rest is just gossip. If a reviewer tries to spare the writer’s feelings — or attempts to guess at what might have gone wrong and pull punches — the reviewer does no one any favors, neither the author nor the reader.

  4. When I was an undergraduate a brilliant young philosopher, Gareth Evans, died of lung cancer. Faced with the diagnosis, Evans worked feverishly to complete his book, The Varieties of Reference; it was still unfinished at his death, and the existing manuscript had been worked on by a man who was desperately ill. The book was prepared for publication, using the manuscript, Evans’ notes, and the substance of many conversations, by Evans’ friend and philosophical collaborator, John McDowell. My recollection is that many reviews, including that by the extremely distinguished Michael Woods, thought this information relevant for readers seeking an assessment of the book.

    McDowell’s competence for the task was recognized both by Evans (who had made him his literary executor) and by the philosophical community. The same cannot be said of an editor whose interventions in a text are forced on an author under contractual and/or financial duress. Reviews are normally read as an assessment of the author as well as of the text; reviewers who care about justice don’t like to name and shame if they may be shaming the wrong name. (Does “the author of Waverley” actually pick out the author of Waverley? &c.)

    Now, there is definitely a place for naysayers. My mother, for instance, has always loathed my most recent book. First reading: “Lightning Rods! I HATE THAT BOOK!!!!” Second attempt (as publication approached): “Well, I started it again and I read 50 pages and was enjoying it. Then I got to the phrase ‘tight wet twat’ and COULD NOT GO ON!” (This is surely more helpful than the typical review. I urged my publishers to use it on the cover, but they tamely declined.) But…

    The thing is, we do not live in a world where hordes of innocent readers rush into bookstores, snatch up some book they have never heard of, plonk down their hard-earned $26.95, take the trophy home and burst into tears. We live in a world where a book with dozens of brilliant reviews is lucky to sell a few thousand copies. The point at which the hapless Mr Schmuck earns our pity is not when he rashly parts with his $26.95; it is when he gambles his hard-earned $4.95 on the London Review of Books.

    People who lament the demise of the hatchet job are not really worried that readers are being conned into buying bad books. They feel that reviews are less entertaining than they used to be. Time was you could buy a review paper knowing at least one author, probably more, would be ripped to shreds. In our degenerate age only Private Eye can be bought with any degree of confidence. The typical review makes a Teletubby look like a sabre-toothed tiger. You can economize by reading online rather than squandering $4.95, yes, but all you get is people pusillanimously Favoriting and Liking and Friending. Why is there no Hate button? Why?

    If a review is to earn its keep by entertaining, though, we don’t want less of what Bat of Moon dismisses as gossip – we want MORE. Writers normally share priceless comments from editors and agents only with their friends. (Two nights ago: I have drinks with Daniel Medin, Andrea Scrima, Rainer Hanshe, Marton Dornbach. Daniel: Tell them about [priceless comment redacted]!!!! Howls of laughter.) Reviewers don’t have access to this kind of thing. Similarly, we can’t quote daft clauses from the author’s contract and remark that only a child of two would have signed it – if the book is a load of bollocks, the author has only himself to blame. We can’t share dirty secrets about Andrew Wylie, agent to the stars, or the incomparable Jennifer Rudolph Walsh. It’s irrelevant to whether the reader should buy the book, sure, but readers rarely buy books – and meanwhile the reader is landed with a sunk cost, the time and money invested in a review stripped of so many sources of innocent amusement. Jesus wept.

    [Millions: OK, OK, I’ll stop now.]

  5. Emma Straub legitimately seems like a nice person who uses social media in nice ways. Helen DeWitt has clear and passionate beliefs regarding multiple authorship that complicate her relationship with hatchet jobs.

    Both of these positions are fine. They seem to be authentic representations of those people, which is all we want from authors on social media. They’re also a little beside the point of the Silverman article, which made me think of Gore Vidal, not Emma Straub.

    The interesting question to my mind is whether or not the current, social-media-heavy publishing scene could handle someone as knotty, argumentative, and critical as Gore Vidal, should such a writer emerge in the near future. We’re all familiar with the intricacies of back-patting as a strategy for the sculpting of a robust online persona, and we’re all told–wrongly, I believe–that making friends and gaining followers will lead to book sales.

    But if a different kind of writer emerged, a writer with the teeth and claws that we, as readers, seem to enjoy (so long as they’re in the past and in the distance), would they find a place in this up-close, interconnected world, or would they merely be treated like a troll with a publishing contract?

  6. I bought Helen DeWitt’s book in hardcover at full price because I read reviews online. I liked it and have told friends and coworkers about it. Honestly,most of them will never buy it because they don’t buy books….but if it ever gets made into a movie…they’ll wait to see it on dvd.
    To me, a person who is not involved in book publishing, but is only interested in finding out whether a book is worth reading, I want to be told the truth if a book stinks. There is very little I can do about the reasons why a book stinks. If it isn’t the author’s fault because someone made them change it, I’m not gonna feel sorry for them and buy the stinky book out of pity.
    If a person truly is a good writer they will eventually be recognized. If they end up having to live like the rest of us smucks and work for a living it might not hurt them. Learning to be humble might just help them grow as arists instead of being so snobby.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.