Last week at TNB, Joel Fishman called out the New York Times Book Review.Its methodology of selecting which books to bless (or damn) with a review, he suggested, has become whimsical to the point of irrelevance.
Fishman’s piece, “TNB 112, NYT 27,” went viral.It was direct-linked all over the place.In terms of page hits, it is the most popular post in the annals of The Nervous Breakdown.(Riding the wave of wider interest, Joel cannily posted the latest installment of his serialized novel, Cadaver Blues, a day or two later).
I wanted to comment on the piece as soon as I read it.First, because I like to comment on pieces that I read—it’s the culture here at the Breakdown—and second, because it’s the sort of dispatch that invites rigorous debate.I could feel Becky licking her chops all the way in Minnesota.
I would have written something like this:
The Los Angeles Times covers the lit world better.The New Yorker does a better job at recognizing emerging writers (as our own Ben Loory can attest).But the former doesn’t have the cachet, and the latter doesn’t have the reach, of the Times.
“My view is very much Eastern, very much Old School, where a book review from the Times was the only sure sign that an author had arrived,” Fishman says.“But maybe it’s time to rethink that, and this rethinking has been long overdue.”
The Times may be a hoary king, hidebound and dotardly, but it’s still the king.If anything, the tumult in the wider industry—papers failing, magazines shutting down, investigative journalism atrophying, book reviews going extinct—has only consolidated its power as a tastemaker.For better or worse, the Times Square throne will not be vacated any time soon.
But I didn’t leave that comment.The über-secretive Scorpio in me advised against it.You don’t want your name there, my inner Dick Cheney advised.You don’t want to arouse the anger of the Gray Lady.
There was no reason for the cloak and dagger stuff.The NYT did not review my novel.My greatest hope for making the pages of that august newspaper, probably, is to get a movie deal, and have A.O. Scott write a sentence or two about Totally Killer in the review of the film (“Based on the smart, gripping thriller by Greg Olear…”).
However the editors there go about deciding which books to review—taste, whim, payola, dart toss—three innocuous paragraphs I write on a comment board, one would imagine, wield little influence.Do Michiko Kakutani and Motoko Rich troll the Internet for trash talk?
And yet I chose not to leave Joel a comment.I didn’t want to get involved.For purely political reasons, I didn’t want to show my true colors—even though, in this case, those colors run the gamut from beige to ecru.Elena Kagan’s got nothing on me.
You never know who will wind up reading what you write.
To wit: some time ago, a certain writer on this site referenced, in a comment thread, a certain former Playboy centerfold.The writer called her a sociopathic slut, or words to that effect.The next day, said former Playboy centerfold, who obviously knows her way around Google Alert, sent this writer a belligerent e-mail demanding an apology, which the writer hastily and sheepishly provided.And that was on a comment board!
I am careful about whom I disparage in my posts.Seldom is heard a disparaging word.And when I do talk smack, my opinions are not to be confused with courageous.
In my piece about Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins, for example, I take the extremely controversial position that Dan Brown is a lousy novelist(Way to make a stand, Greg!). In another post, I advance the notion that Roland Emmerich’s films suck (Balls of steel, Greg!).And in “Soldier On,” my essay about two Holocaust-related books—a piece that, for reasons beyond my understanding, was not as widely read as the one about how Angelina Jolie should hang out with my wife, or the one in which I summarize the various personalities at TNB—I politely disagree with both Kakutani of the Times and Richard Cohen of the Washington Post, but not before bending over backwards extolling their virtues.
Heck, I don’t even make fun of the Kardashians anymore, for fear of pissing off Phat B.(Although I did take Heidi Pratt to task for the F-cups—and if Us Weekly is to be believed, Spencer’s scruffy ass will be on my porch before Simon and Zara get here.We’ll see how much juice TNB has, or how obsessively Speidi Googles.That’s right, Spencer Pratt, I’m talking to you: free heidi!And when you’re done with that, call your sister; she misses you.Oh, and: shave!).
Most of the time, I take to heart the old saw: If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.
Not that I adopt this motherly advice because I am, or even wish to be, nice all the time.
Writing something negative about someone is like challenging him or her to a duel.And I just don’t have the stomach for pistols at dawn.
Most of us at the Breakdown are like that.We’re cordial.We’re supportive.We pat each other on the back (Tarantino might phrase this a bit more colorfully, using a different body part in his metaphor).We gush—sometimes to a fault.
Here are some snippets from the last few comments on the board:
You’ve got a fantastic way with words.
This was great.
I think both of your titles are perfect!
The nature of the TNBeast is good.Part of the charm.
You don’t ever hear This piece is a bit sloppy, or You really need to brush up on your grammar, or For the love of God, Greg, stop writing about lesser celebrities.
And our good nature is sturdy, as it turns out.We don’t take kindly to strangers throwing our contributors under the bus—as Steve Almond found out a few weeks ago, if he bothered to read his comments (and wow did he miscalculate his audience!).
After all, it’s easy to knock someone down.It requires no special talent to be mean.Howard Stern and his bullying ilk—a group that in my view also contains the odious Michael Moore, who I’m convinced is a Republican double agent—have no truck with me.
Why not gush?Why go negative reflexively?
Snark and a surfeit of cleverness are the calling cards of too many web addresses as it is.
Although this “perfunctory kindness and soft praise,” as our resident curmudgeon Justin Benton put it, can be excessive at times, I like it.And as the Almond/Daly dust-up showed, that is the general consensus.It was refreshing, wasn’t it, to see Slade Ham and Matt Baldwin and Nathaniel Missildine and Sean Beaudoin and Zara and the others ride to Gentleman Joe Daly’s defense.
If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.
Words to live by.
Unless you’re talking about Spencer Pratt, that Svengali motherfucker.