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No one wants nothing written about what they’ve written.
July 23, 2014 9:49 AM   Subscribe

Look: it’s not that I’m a dick when it comes to this stuff. It’s that I like to think that I have standards based on exposure to the interdependent duo of lit and life. But if I decide not to wuss out and instead uphold my particular notion of standards, I’m a dick, and being a dick could lead to dickish reviews of my own stuff from Shane Jones, his friends, and friends of the publisher. George Saunders told us all to “err in the direction of kindness.” But is this essay/review I’m writing unkind? Is it selfish? Is it generous? Is a kindness policy maybe too simple?
Lee Klein worries about small-press book reviewing in an ambivalent, lukewarm take on Shane Jones's new novel Crystal Eaters (excerpt) that others have, all the same, called cowardly and dickish.
posted by RogerB (38 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
when it comes to friends and acquaintances who take their Art seriously, my all encompassing and completely honest (sort of) negative review is, "I guess I'm not your target market."

If they push me further, I go for option two, which is completely accurate (sort of). "Don't sweat what your friends think. They can be honest but never accurate as they will inevitably bring baggage, good or bad, to the review process. Strangers on the other hand know what they like and don't love (or hate) you enough to censor (or unleash) themselves."
posted by philip-random at 10:04 AM on July 23 [1 favorite]


This essay is so meandering and inflated, it makes me grind my teeth. Is there a thesis buried somewhere in between the Proust references and babbling personal background stories?
posted by scose at 10:12 AM on July 23 [6 favorites]


scose, it's probably better to stop while you still have your teeth.
posted by RogerB at 10:23 AM on July 23 [3 favorites]


By the time I got to Jones's quoted tweets I felt myself wanting to become proudly illiterate and sell my book collection to buy a bigger TV, so yeah I'm not sure what was accomplished here
posted by prize bull octorok at 10:28 AM on July 23 [2 favorites]


Since there is such an overabundance of literature being produced, the worst fate for a new book is to be ignored.

I've long contented that if every MFA graduate was required to purchase a subscription (sliding scale) to each literary journal they send work to, and a book from each publishing house they send a manuscript to, the lit world would be back on its feet in no time.
posted by gwint at 10:35 AM on July 23 [17 favorites]


I read the second essay (on edrants) first, and based on the vitriol there I expected much, much worse out of Klein. Yeah, his essay is meandering and rude but I don't know if it deserves the response. Klein is pointing out a very real problem in current goodreads culture; he just does it in a 'dickish' way. Champion doesn't do much to prove that Klein is wrong and that the literary scene isn't filled with unearned positive reviews.
posted by tofu_crouton at 10:35 AM on July 23 [3 favorites]


Honestly, Klein's essay doesn't even strike me as that rude. It seems like he is honestly trying to express one of the difficulties of reviewing a not-that-great book (I believe that it's not that great) by an earnest-enough, decent-enough person, in a log-rolling culture. The essay itself could stand some editing, and I think it would also be improved by more actual reviewing of the book in question (so we can better see what it is he's on about and why there might be an issue with this particular book), but getting bent out of shape about it to the extent that the edrants essay does seems like a confirmation of Klein's (submerged) point.
posted by kenko at 10:38 AM on July 23 [8 favorites]


I find the opening of the second essay bizarrely hypocritical in its insistence that not naming names is "pusillanimous," while not, in fact, naming names:
While the most preposterous essay about books of this year (published less than a month before) went to the trouble of naming names, thereby allowing all who took offense at it to align themselves into factions and swiftly attack the author, the second most preposterous essay about books of this year attacked Roxane Gay and Justin Taylor in the most pusillanimous manner possible — quoting them without naming them.
So, uh, dude, about this "most preposterous" essay you mention...
posted by dersins at 10:43 AM on July 23 [1 favorite]


Oh for crying out loud. He goes on about the terrible consequences of publishing a negative or even lukewarm review, but it sounds like Shane Jones respected him and wanted a review from him precisely because he'd reviewed Jones' previous book coolly and Jones thought of him as "honest and real." That doesn't sound like punishment to me. But when you write a lukewarm review of a book, the author flips you off, and your reaction is to go back and make your review more positive, your problem is your own thin skin. You're not even a pushover -- you're just falling down before anybody bothers to push you.

(Also, if you're apparently terrified of the consequences of writing a negative review, but for some reason you've made a personal commitment to review every single book you read on Goodreads, and you choose to resolve this dilemma by reading only the works of dead white men, you may not be as good a literary citizen as you think you are.)

(Also, leading off a review of someone's book by saying "Shane Jones seems like a nice guy. He has a kid" is one hell of a lot more dickish than just saying you didn't like the damn book.)
posted by ostro at 10:50 AM on July 23 [3 favorites]


I agree with those above who didn't find klein's essay particularly objectionable. There was even a kind of truth in it - when you are are an artist competing with giants, of course you will compare badly. The comments Klein makes about the crystal eaters strike me as a good kind of criticism - recognize what the author is trying to do, recognize what is good and interesting about it, give specific criticisms of the writing itself, and offer clearly labeled subjective opinion about your interaction with the work. That Klein didn't like the book doesn't come of as the most important point in his review - I still got a clear sense of where the book is coming from, and whether I might be interested in exploring it further.

There was also a link in the second article by Champion that I found useful - The Eight Questions Writers Should Ask Themselves - which I think is in accord with gwint's point above - if every artist supported their community in a real way, the communities would be a lot healthier. As a counterpoint, though, maybe the reason artists don't support their community is just that it is really hard to balance focusing on making good work, earning a living, and maintaining a healthy mental state - sometimes finding energy to contribute generously to the community is very hard.
posted by ianhattwick at 10:54 AM on July 23 [2 favorites]


It's also hilariously typical of Vice that their review's writer managed to believe the main character was a young boy when she's referred to as "her" twice in the sentence that introduces her.
posted by ostro at 10:54 AM on July 23 [3 favorites]


From that cowardly and dickish link, Edward Champion says:
It is not very good, not because I disagree with Klein’s essay or because of any allegiance I may have for Roxane Gay or Justin Taylor, but because it fails to live up to my extremely high literary standards.
I feel like either I'm missing a joke here, or Champion is one. Though it meanders a bit Klein's not-really-a-review is interesting for a couple of reasons; Champion's riposte, however, is not.
posted by mhoye at 10:57 AM on July 23 [3 favorites]


Islamic fundamentalists proclaim that God is great. Literary fundamentalists proclaim that great is God.

And sometimes, we just get high as fuck and watch old Jesse Jackson speeches on YouTube.

The real problem is that we expect everything to be great, when most stuff isn't even good, so "great" becomes hollow like a bell and more easily carried about and enthusiastically clanged over middling crap.

Plus there's only, like, 18 people on the planet who honestly believe despite all available evidence that "literary fiction" is anything more than a vestigial organ in the lumbering body of Kultur, and all 18 of those people probably know each other from their summer homes on Martha's Vineyard, so whatever. IDGAF.

Fretting about what people will think of your honest opinion is a great way to discover you have no honest opinions.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:02 AM on July 23 [11 favorites]


I can kind of see where he's coming from. I do some reviews of small press stuff, and if I had a nickel for every book I get that has a blurb proclaiming it as the most important text of this type of our generation well, then I'd probably have enough to bail out the small press that printed it. Yeah, blurbs are different than reviews, but it's all part of the culture.
posted by Think_Long at 11:09 AM on July 23 [3 favorites]


Writers wasting words
Critical Ouroboros
& smelling of farts
posted by chainlinkspiral at 11:12 AM on July 23 [4 favorites]


recognize what the author is trying to do, recognize what is good and interesting about it, give specific criticisms of the writing itself, and offer clearly labeled subjective opinion about your interaction with the work.

this is pretty much verbatim what I've picked up over the years from Writers Workshops, and within the confines of a small group all stuck in a room together, I think it's a very good way to go. But eventually, we've got to get outside of that room. Even in the Workshops, we'd go for drinks afterward ... at which point things would get less sober (obviously) which isn't to suggest less meaningful. Because I wanted a more gut response from people. I wanted them to tell me that, "No offense but your stuff just isn't what I'm into," if such was the case. Because seriously, how useful is a positive review of my YA (or whatever) fiction from someone who doesn't much care for YA period?
posted by philip-random at 11:22 AM on July 23 [2 favorites]


"Hemingway said writers must have a failsafe bullshit detector."
The quote is "The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector," which I bother to correct only because it sounds so much better in the original. I cannot say fie upon it since I have never fied on anything yet. Shuck it off, Jack. Don't fie on it.
posted by octobersurprise at 11:38 AM on July 23 [1 favorite]


So, uh, dude, about this "most preposterous" essay you mention...
posted by dersins at 6:43 PM on July 23 [+] [!]


I assumed he was talking about his own essay from last month (Emily Gould, Literary Narcissism, and the Middling Millennials), which certainly had its attackers. I was kind of surprised it didn't get its own post on Metafilter tbh.
posted by rollick at 11:53 AM on July 23 [2 favorites]


I gutted through this essay (not an easy read, not well-written) because it strikes close to a home issue. I play music in a small community — an island, actually — of musicians, most of whom are competent and a few good and probably none great (if great is defined as on par with any of the best music you've ever heard). Songwriting is very hard to master, being compelling musically is rare, and there it should rest.

But there is a great pleasure in hearing good music from people you know, and with whom you play music. It's such a similar pleasure to the one you get from the very best musicians, but it's not exactly the same. Is it important to preserve the distinction?

I do preserve that distinction. When my friends say that our friend X is a great songwriter, I keep a voice, at least in my head, that notes that, no, Leonard Cohen is a great songwriter, and X is doing her best and is a friend.

Why is it important? Because I feel like there's an extended music community, meaning to be friendly and collegial, that raises so many false flags I can't trust it any more. Music blogs and indie reviewers and fanzines go crazy over music; I fall for it again; the music is mediocre; and, instead of heartened that people are rooting for little bands, I feel betrayed. Eventually I give up (already happened).

I think it should be fine to say: We need amateurs, hooray for them. And we can cheer on local bands for what they are. But let's put the truly great stuff in its own place and be honest about it.
posted by argybarg at 12:30 PM on July 23 [6 favorites]


Hell, just be grateful you're getting reviewed at all, FFS! That's always the hardest nut to crack, whether your racket's music, film, literature, or whatever else...
posted by saulgoodman at 12:30 PM on July 23


Man, these are some flabby essays. It's like watching two blimps try to ram each other, except that would be fun.
posted by idlewords at 12:33 PM on July 23 [22 favorites]


I think it should be fine to say: We need amateurs, hooray for them. And we can cheer on local bands for what they are. But let's put the truly great stuff in its own place and be honest about it.

This totally risks a derail, so I don't want to feed it too much, but artist development/A&R used to be a very important thing the record industry did to help those local gifted folks from some small musician community island develop into the full-fledged forces of nature you see at the national level. None of those artists just hopped off the turnip truck with some magic, difference-making level of extra polish--none of them. Not even Cohen (whose output is amazing and incomparable at its best, but can be pretty weak when he's feeling in a silly mood, as most fans I think would admit). And even the mobs that thronged The Beatles earliest appearances in the US were originally bought and paid for as PR to get the engine running.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:37 PM on July 23 [1 favorite]


Yes, it used to be like that. Then the industry figured out how to paralyze aspiring artists with ironclad shit contracts, then suck profits out of them. Now there's no useful pathway from growing out of amateur status, at least not that I know of.
posted by argybarg at 12:43 PM on July 23 [1 favorite]


I would rather eat Tao Lin's entire Amazon backstock, each page wrapped around a TGIF's mozzarella stick, than read another word of that hateful Emily Gould/Millenial essay. Christ, what an asshole.
posted by book 'em dano at 12:43 PM on July 23 [3 favorites]


I think it should be fine to say: We need amateurs, hooray for them. And we can cheer on local bands for what they are. But let's put the truly great stuff in its own place and be honest about it.

There is also a certain level at which it's pretty random between thousands of people thinking something is great or no one pays attention to it. I'd wager lots and lots that some of the best artists, musicians, writers, etc hardly see the light of day whereas there certainly are plenty of well known and even respected artists etc who any given one of us would lambast unto the end of time as being talentless hacks.
I don't have the cite handy, but awhile back I was listening to some program or another that talked about testing that was done that showed once something clears a certain not terribly high hurdle of quality then it's all pretty much random chance. We are not very selective as-a-whole as to what is good and what is mediocre
posted by edgeways at 1:27 PM on July 23 [2 favorites]


Emily Gould/Millenial essay. Christ, what an asshole.

Sweet sufferin' jesus. are there no editors anymore? Eleven Thousand Words of all that, are you fuckin' kidding me? Yes, I read them. Yes, I am sorry I did so. I am convinced- Emily Gould is the World's Most Boring Genocidal Monster. And Ed, well,I don't know him but now I hate him for having written that, much as he must hate himself for living in the shadow of the WMBGM.

It did serve one purpose, though- I am also now convinced that whatever the literary scene is, that causes this sort of incestuous, tedious, bilge to exist, someone should invite all 11 of the members of it to some amazingly hip party, at an abandoned Shell station in North Jersey, and while they're all in there, sipping cocktails and assassinating each other on twitter, we should bury the whole thing under a Chernobyl-style containment dome, made of tens of millions of tons of concrete leavened with remaindered piles of their insufferable fucking Novels, to make sure that this Problem doesn't spread any further.
posted by hap_hazard at 2:46 PM on July 23 [2 favorites]


Ed Champion, writer of an 11,000 word hit piece on Emily Gould who then threatened suicide when he got heat for it, is the last person in the literary stratosphere to be calling other people cowardly, dickish, or cowardly and dickish.
posted by liketitanic at 3:55 PM on July 23 [1 favorite]


I only got as far into the Gould essay as the sentence that begins "They have been harming the literary clime with their relentless pablum for at least a good year" when I realized that there could be no profit in reading further.

"Literary clime"? "a good year"?
posted by kenko at 4:11 PM on July 23


I'm pretty sure Edward Champion used to hang around here, and I got into a couple of pretty heated arguments with him in the blue pastures way back in the day. That was on my mind as this essay circulated through Twitter, causing dismay.
posted by COBRA! at 4:38 PM on July 23


Edgeways: sure, there lots of terrible but popular music. There's probably a lot of wonderful largely-unheard music -- how could it be otherwise? In my experience there's a lot less of the latter than one might believe. Your standard music festival of local acts performing their own songs is very unlikely to feature even one really great song. I believe great songwriters (and great novelists) are quite rare. Unless the confirmation bias you describe is real … and there I'm skeptical. But you never know.
posted by argybarg at 4:46 PM on July 23


I'm pretty sure Edward Champion used to hang around here

MeFi's Own ed, I believe. Had I realized this thread would head in, or anywhere near, this direction I would've put that in the post.
posted by RogerB at 4:49 PM on July 23


Will this review/essay harm or hurt sales of Crystal Eaters?
posted by bq at 9:17 PM on July 23


Ed Champion, writer of an 11,000 word hit piece on Emily Gould who then threatened suicide when he got heat for it, is the last person in the literary stratosphere to be calling other people cowardly, dickish, or cowardly and dickish.

I wish I could find a Storify of it, but speaking of that heat, Twitter user Degenerate Gandhi tore that hit piece apart, sparing not even the slightest verbal infelicity. It was hilarious to watch, even if Champion's subsequent breakdown necessarily ended the fun at his writing's expense.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 11:05 PM on July 23


non, je ne regrette rien!
posted by hap_hazard at 1:01 AM on July 24


Now I want to change my MeFi username to Omphaloskeptic, which refers to a person who can only gaze their own navel self-critically.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 1:30 AM on July 24


I believe great songwriters (and great novelists) are quite rare. Unless the confirmation bias you describe is real … and there I'm skeptical. But you never know.

You're absolutely right. They are rare. But what's even rarer are great songwriters and writers who manage to achieve long-term success because that doesn't just require being a good songwriter or writer. It entails all kinds of luck, business savvy, and other personal skills that don't have much of anything to do with creative talent, technique or other merits. I've personally met and known musicians who at different points in their careers were either nationally recognized talents or just hanging out in obscurity. It's just not as simple as the "just world" view of success makes it seem.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:44 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


I believe great songwriters (and great novelists) are quite rare. Unless the confirmation bias you describe is real … and there I'm skeptical. But you never know.

I don't think we disagree all that much, the only problems I have are really, the subjectiveness of 'great' which can be a rather fickle thing. I think Lou Reed was great but there are lines and lines of people who would disagree with me, I also think George Saunders is merely a bit above average in some ways, again, there are legions who would disagree.

But, also, just setting that aside, and actually agreeing with you about rarity of greatness, I'd argue it's quite probable that the occurrences of greatness is pretty evenly salted amongst all layers of fame.
(IMO, I think festivals can be pretty crappy places to be exposed to, and judge new music for a lot of reasons. I'd never recommend going to hear someone new with the intention of enjoying the music at such venues. they are, above all, just big social events with the veneer of 'HEY - MUSIC!' attached to them. Which is fun and fine, just not great for musicness-in-general)
posted by edgeways at 7:48 AM on July 24


I assumed he was talking about his own essay from last month (Emily Gould, Literary Narcissism, and the Middling Millennials), which certainly had its attackers. I was kind of surprised it didn't get its own post on Metafilter tbh.

Well, I read it all. And what surprised me is the appearance, 8/9ths of the way through his viciously enumerated vendetta (not entirely undeserved by Gould), of a few paragraphs that actually make the exact point that Klein does, in the exact same if not a much nastier way. So what really is the point of his counter-essay? I came away from it with nothing.

The part that they're both oblivious to is that all this namedrop backstab squabbling in their weightily self-important essays is actually coined in the same mint as the syndrome they despise, the other side of the log-rolling (thank you kenko!) glad-handing crowd. Literary culture as online clique, popularity and grudge and personality, only in the form of egotistic negativity rather than extruded positivity.

The thought of having to deal with all that makes me never want to touch pen to paper. It makes me never want to listen to the Bat Segundo Show again, which I used to quite like, or read 3AM, which can sometimes be marvellous. So much baggage, so many expectations and demands.
posted by forgetful snow at 10:00 AM on July 24


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