The Duty to Be Honest

Recently, Nick Hornby revealed his agreement with The Believer (as quoted in a review of his new book, The Polyphonic Spree): “that if it looks like I might not enjoy a book, I will abandon it immediately, and not mention it by name.” (For reference purposes, the original Julavits anti-snark manifesto can be found here.)

A few months ago, the incomprable Emma Garman posted a column at Maud’s in which she defended snark, simultnaeously focusing in on her dismay with James Wood’s notion of “hysterical realism” while expressing her belief that “the boldly negative critique may be the only weapon available for stemming the tide of mediocre writing offered by the corrupt book publishing industry and its shadowy ally, the creative writing program.” Garman suggested that snark might be used to curb the tide of hysterical realists and that there was nothing shocking about the “savage” results seen through Dale Peck, et al.

More recently, Randa Jarrar quibbled with Neal Pollack, suggesting that politics is an inseperable aspect of fiction. Maud too weighed in quite notably in on Pollack’s hypocrisies. The anti-snark position was, in some sense, transposed to novels.

All of these concerns about the limits of fiction and fiction reviewing, whether self-imposed or natural, trouble me. Particularly in an age when environmental factors in such areas as politics and television exist to hinder freedom of expression. It seems to me that regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Dale Peck, Michiko Kauktani, or Caryn James, the idea that a negative review should be excluded, let alone discouraged, is anathema to what I’ve always considered to be a duty of good, honest journalism: take no prisoners when you’ve got compelling evidence backed up by multiple sources.

Granted, when it comes to book reviews and literary criticism, we’re dealing with a format that is more subjective than other formats. And that’s fine. Because the more subjective you get, the greater the latitude you have in expressing an informed opinion. Or so the theory goes. Inevitably, there are some reviewers (and novelists) who take the reading duties personally — sometimes, too personally. But, to use Julavits’ Wood-Smith example, having Wood apply his sensibilities to a novel outside his usual canon is instructive to both critic and novelist alike. Wood can better understand why he dislikes Zadie Smith’s style, Smith (if she has the fortitude) can pay attention or disregard, and the prospective buyer/reader of the Smith book can have a different take from the others. Everybody wins. The issue here is whether honesty should be compromised because it’s perceived by a set of people as “mean-spirited” or “self-serving.”

I’m singling the Hornby-Julavits-Pollack mentality out (and not necessarily their output as authors) because I firmly believe that we’re starting to see a troubling shift in the way that writers pen, review and appreciate fiction. There is a new political correctness at work in the literary world which stems from this McSweeney’s feel-good schtick, which is not unlike Tom Hanks in its insufferable cheeeriness. A mandate being bandied about that fiction (and fiction reviewing) should stick to the safe n’ sane route, that everyone is a winner, and that the more unpleasant realities of bad novels, heavy-hitters striking out and publishing in general are best left unmentioned.

Which is a bit like denying that the homeless exist or not saying “Aw shit!” when you stub your toe.

More importantly, it’s the kind of attitude that fails to take in the big picture. The attitude that a book can be nothing but the bee’s knees fails to acknowledge problem solving basics: first identifying its problems and then coming up with a few possible solutions for future authors to use or discard as they see fit. Is it not positive to identify a work of fiction that is “bad” and, from this “negative” standing, reinforce what is good and remain supportive and passionate in the process? Is it not good to point out certain things that a book critic may have a problem with so that the critic in turn develops a greater understanding of her own sensibilities and an active reader mining the reviews gets a few ideas? The answer, I would suggest, lies in being constructive, rather than turning pure white or jet black, even when the critic is faced with a style or novel type she faces.

Conversely, is it not self-serving for a reviewer such as Hornby to ignore the “uglier” side of the equation because he doesn’t want to piss anybody off? The interesting thing is that review etiquette always seems to come from novelists, rather than readers, MFAs or critics. For my money, if the publishing markets can afford to be ruthlessly competitive, if they can afford to be curt so they can get through their slush piles (or in the case of McSweeney’s, not even have the courtesy to respond at all), then a nasty book review is a walk in the park by comparison.

[RELATED: Can someone please stop J-Franz from talking?]

[ALSO RELATED: For this overview, I had also intended to reference YPTR’s comments on the Hornby book, which responds to the Salon article at length, but I completely blew it on this point. Hopefully, the Rake will forgive me.]


  1. Amen. I think a large part of this sweetness and light mentality grows out of how moribund the Big 6 publishing industry is (much like the music industry–a glut of product, flat-to-declining demand and participants with their heads up their asses). The vehement reaction to the NBA finalists was mainly about the nominees “tragic” repercussions for the industry: “Look, if you’re not going to nominate Roth, then what hope do we have of him earning out his advance?” I’m not saying that this was in Julavits’s mind, but I think the impulse comes from the same place, i.e., protecting one’s own turf: if Martin Amis can’t sell ice in the desert, how is a small-time Brooklyn-based novelist supposed to support her lifestyle, make her co-op payments and still assuage her guilt by teaching for free at 826 Valencia? Clearly, saying mean things about other novelists and perhaps provoking them to say mean things about my novel is not a winning formula. Ergo, better to Just Love Everybody. Hey, if I had any turf to protect, I might feel the same way.

  2. Sheesh,

    I don’t know if I agree with Jimmy Beck or even understand what he was saying, but I loved the paragraph above.

    The how you web log peoples say it? — thread at Cousin Rake’s was mostly righteous sneering and snarling at bobbing head Charles Taylor.

    I am still trying to reconcile the contradiction or dilemna, if you will, of enjoying a well written screed and feeling that negative reviews are a waste of time (Gertrude Stein had it right, I think, “Artists shouldn’t be criticized”). Part of this is a matter of practicality and numbers —why publish negative reviews when so many good books go unnoticed?

  3. I dunno, but I think the title “The Duty to Be Honest” sums it up for me. If you want to cast it in terms of turf, I guess I see this namby-pamby Believer stuff as increasingly ranging out of the initially (relatively) modest sphere of their charming mag and into my backyard, where I now see the small, yawning mouths of a buncha gopher holes. Therefore, I have every right to turn the garden hose on them.

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