We were going to do a little thoughtful post about reviewing -- which, the god of coincidence being a faithful reader of this stream of fluff, is made easier by a hook: Clive James' op ed in the Sunday NYT.
"Over the course of literary history some legitimately destructive reviews have been altogether too enjoyable for both writer and reader. Attacking bad books, these reviews were useful acts in defense of civilization. They also left the authors of the books in the position of prisoners buried to the neck in a Roman arena as the champion charioteer, with swords mounted on his hubcaps, demonstrated his mastery of the giant slalom. How civilized is it to tee off on the exposed ineptitude of the helpless?
"Back in the early 19th century, the dim but industrious poet Robert Montgomery had grown dangerously used to extravagant praise, until a new book of his poems was given to the great historian and mighty reviewer Lord Macaulay. The results set all England laughing and Montgomery on the road to oblivion, where he still is, his fate at Macaulay's hands being his only remaining claim to fame. Montgomery's high style was asking to be brought low and Macaulay no doubt told himself that he was only doing his duty by putting in the boot. Montgomery had a line about a river meandering level with its fount. Macaulay pointed out that a river level with its fount wouldn't even flow, let alone meander. Macaulay made it funny; he had exposed Montgomery as a writer who couldn't see what was in front of him."
Clive James' piece is occasioned by the now distant racket that was made in May, on the appearane of Heidi Julavits' piece, in the Believer, entitled "The Snarky, Dumbed-Down World of Book Reviewing." Since we have made almost all our money in the past year book reviewing, you would think we'd have commented in a more timely fashion about what couldn't have been more relevant to us. However, at the time we were in a constant state of sweat over Iraq, and theories of bookreviewing just didn't urge our commentating instincts. However, James' piece did send us back to Julavits. Not to her essay, so much, but to the interview in the NYObs, which was, to the detriment of the moral betterment of book reviewers everywhere, so much more fun to read.
During the course of the interview, Ms. Julavits (to use Observerspeak) morphed into a rather bizarre semblence of Jerry Lundegaard, the car salesman character in Fargo. Or at least linguistically. For instance: in her article, Ms. Julavits apparently attacked one Sam Sifton, whose review of some novel in the New York Times attracted her attention on account of its untoward snarkiness.Now this Sifton, according to the Observer, is not entirely unknown to Ms. Julavits. In fact, he was the best man at her inauspicious wedding to her first husband, who has, in another magazine, recollected in detail the vices that drove his bride from the house and from the marriage. Here is the interviewer presses Ms. Julavits on this unhappy topic:
At the mention of her personal connection to Mr. Sifton, Ms. Julavits darkened. "Unfortunately, Sam is someone whom I really, really, really like," she said, sitting up in her chair. "So if it�s not dispassionate, I guess it�s that I read that review, and I was just so upset the whole time I was reading it�and then when I saw who wrote it, it was devastating, because I respect him immensely."Ms. Julavits didn�t see her attack on Mr. Sifton as personal, but she admitted that the connections were a bit odd. "It�s definitely bizarre," she said, "but Dave Eggers is friends with Sam and whatever, so it�s all�everybody knows everybody in one way or another."
It is hard to read this without thinking of William Macy's worried face -- Macy is the guy who played Lundegaard -- and thinking of what he'd do with these lines. They are golden, these lines. Especially "Sam is someone whom I really really really like..." Ms. Julavits' way of speaking -- the Midwestern nice that wraps around a rubber dagger, or at least a bad review of a bad review -- has that Lundegaard twitchiness, that discontent. The interview includes a citation of Ms. Julavits really pouring on the harshness, taking on the negative reception accorded to Rick Moody's The Black Veil. The "cautionary underlying message" she found in Mr. Moody�s bad press�most famously, a blistering attack by Dale Peck in The New Republic�was this: "If you try to be overly ambitious and fail, you will get the heck spanked out of you. You will be mocked."
Jaa, gettin' the heck spanked out of you. It happened two years ago, over to Lake Crane I think it was, you remember Marge, when the danged dog ate the snowplow tires...
Well, our own thoughts about reviewing have not been crystalized by Julavits. Rather, we've been thinking of the malign influence of Pauline Kael. We've been thinking of resentment. We've been thinking of how the site where literature is processed -- chosen, read, discussed -- has changed over the last century from the library to the classroom. We've been thinking of crowds. Our next post will take some of this up. Or it won't