THE OTHER SLANT: Novelist John Reed Paves the Way for Repentant Book Critics
Last month, the novelist John Reed hosted “Revise & Recant,” a National Book Critics Circle event, where guilt-laden book reviewers took center stage to retract unfair or unnecessarily harsh critiques they’d written in the past. One by one, the repentant pundits carved out a space for themselves within that quintessentially American tradition of public atonement, ushering in a new genre of sorts–the literary apology. (Surprisingly, no major media outlets covered the gathering, except for The Wall Street Journal in an aptly titled story, “Regrets, Even Critics Have a Few.”)
Reed, the 43-year-old son of renowned New York City artists David Reed and Judy Rifka, grew up among tall ceilings and long windows in the spacious lofts of 1970s TriBeCa, then a shabby bohemia burning with creativity. Those early years informed the liberalism and inventiveness in his four novels (A Still Small Voice, Snowball’s Chance, The Whole, All the World’s A Grave) and short story collection (Tales of Woe)–as well as his expert rabble-rousing.
On September 25th, the provocateur invited The Slant to one of his old haunts in TriBeCa, Nha Trang, a Vietnamese eatery. Over oysters, he hammered home the First Commandment of literary criticism: Thou shall not review work thou hast not read. He also shared what inspired “Revise & Recant,” who showed up to confess cruel critiques and how criticism often misses the mark:
In 2002, when my book, Snowball’s Chance [a parody of George Orwell’s Animal Farm that takes aim at capitalism and politics in a post-911 world] came out, the far right was trying to resurrect a Cold War mentality and direct it at terrorism. You had guys like Christopher Hitchens talking about Orwell and Animal Farm. His book, Why Orwell Matters, came out around the same time that my novel did.
As the right was trying to create a new Cold War, parody was under attack because copyrights had been extended indefinitely for big corporation in the United States. For a moment, it looked like parody was going to become illegal. In the U.K., parody is not protected. So when the book came out, the U.K. people were very hostile to it.
Hitchens had made this sharp turn to the right in supporting the Iraq war and was critical of the book. I debated him on the BBC and a few other places. But he hadn’t read the book. He was always very straight about that, though. I wasn’t as creeped out about him as by Kathy Young, a journalist who wrote a review of the book in The Boston Globe that was reprinted in Reason Magazine, that weirdo right wing publication. Young hadn’t even read the book.
Did Hitchens also write a review of Snowball’s Chance?
No, we just talked on the BBC a few times. To talk about something you haven’t read is a little bit different than writing about something you haven’t read. It’s a little less sleezy, I think.
Was Young’s review harsh?
She said Snowball’s Chance was blaming the victims of terrorism and I could see her mounting that argument, even if she had read the book. But I don’t think it’s a cool argument to mount if you haven’t read the text. I mean, where’s the art of critique? You read the book and you say nice things about it, then you lay into it, and say, “but he’s really wrong about so-and-so.”
If you’re going to write about a book, you have to have read it. Step One. First she lays into it and then she says she’s not going to read it because it’s too disgusting. Not only do I blame her, I have to say that I blame the editors at The Boston Globe and Reason Magazine for printing it because that’s the kind of thing, as an editor, you should not run. It does say in the review she hadn’t read it. But still, if you’re going to belittle a book, you have to have read it.
Did you call her on it? Did she apologize?
Yeah, I contacted her and told her that I thought she was a jerk and she said she would read it and correct it. But she was full of shit. She wasn’t going to read it. But Hitchens apologized. He was talking about the book at an event at Cooper Union, which was a block from my house at the time. I was sitting in the audience when he started bad-mouthing me and my book. He said that I was named for John Reed the communist and that we were related.
So when the Q&A part of the event was going on, I talked to him a little bit from the stands. It was a thrilling moment. There was a reporter there, Rachel Donadio, who’s now at The New York Times. She was trying to foment an argument between me and Hitchens, but Hitchens was not going to do it. He was immediately apologetic: He said he shouldn’t have talked about a book he hadn’t read—and that he owed me a steak dinner and a bottle of scotch.
You had steak and scotch with Hitchens?
No, I didn’t get either. I think he did mean to give it to me. He was that kind of man, you know, very nice to you in person. But when you’re on the radio with him, your mic is going off.
In an article written by Susan Shapiro for The Wall Street Journal, “Regrets, Even Critics Have a Few,” you mentioned that you were critical of artist Gideon Bok’s work and that you regretted it. But Bok told the WSJ that he actually benefited from your criticism, that it made him think about his color palette. Have you ever read a critical review of your work that helped you?
By the time the book comes out, as an author, you’ve already heard all that criticism. I haven’t experienced a scathing review that I felt was just about the book. With Snowball’s Chance, it was really political. People who liked the book were radical in some way, and people who didn’t like it were right wing. Anyone trying to maintain the status quo didn’t like the book. As an editor, your job is to find a balance: If someone is being overly critical, you try and bring it back to the middle; if someone is being overly gushing, you have to question it. I think I was right about Gideon’s work, but I over-emphasized the point. I said it in a kind of snide, sarcastic way. I think I said he uses “a country-mouse color palette.”
And now you’re Facebook friends!
Yeah, we’re palsy. We’ve never been quite so palsy after that though I have to say. I mean we act like we’re still friends, but I’m not so sure.
So were you the one who spearheaded this event?
Yeah, with The National Book Critics Circle. I ended up doing events for them when I got elected for the board. I wanted to do punkier, more entertaining events. I thought it would be interesting to have critics recant because they all have something to apologize for; and furthermore, criticism at its very best is the conversation cocktail party. It’s not meant to be the final word on anything. It’s meant to be this kind of cocktail party banter: You have your drink, you start talking to somebody about something and it engages others ideally. I was pursuing that idea.
We didn’t see any coverage of the event and yet you had big name publications participating: The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Out. How’d it go?
There was one story that was very touching. Alan Jalon confessed to having blasted a young poet 30 years ago. He still felt bad about it, so he decided that he was going to try to correct the review. When he tracked her down, she didn’t want to hear from him. She said, “Why would you revisit the most horrifying experience of my life? I don’t want you to republish this.”
Wow, that’s intense. Any other standouts? Did you recant anything?
For Art Forum, I reviewed an art show exhibiting painter Michel Majerus’s work. I was grumpy about a few of his paintings. They weren’t so hot, but it was a huge show, and I could have easily not mentioned them. But I did. I layed into him for those. He was in a plane crash right after I published that nasty review. I feel like I’ve killed a few people.
Sam Sacks of The Wall Street Journal confessed to having read a very long, boring book where nothing was happening. It was about a woman’s journey home. He skimmed the last two hundred pages because he was so bored. After he published the review, he received a letter from the wife of the author, who informed him that his review overlooked the fact that the protagonist had died two hundred pages previously. If he had read the book more closely, he would have known that.
Embarrassing! Did a lot of people show up to this event?
Yeah, it’s Lit Crawl [a non-profit that fosters interest in literature, novelists and readers alike by hosting big literary events.]
What are some publications that reach the standard of reviewing that you admire?
Well, there are different standards for different venues. Right now, I kind of lean toward the online standard, which is slightly more honest. It can be more forthright because it’s not trying to hide things. In print, you have a lot of competing interests.
For example, a reviewer might be publishing a book with the same publisher as the book he’s reviewing. Very, very common. Or you have a clearly competitive title. That’s one way an editor will try to manipulate a review. He’ll say, ‘I know Melinda has got a book coming out that’s going to compete with this title, so I’ll have her review it. She’ll blast it!’ Or, alternatively, ‘I know Melinda has a book coming out by the same press, she’s not going to blast it.’ There are some obvious conflicts of interests that happen that nobody talks about. It wouldn’t take very much digging for anyone to connect the dots. But nobody calls them on it. Everyone’s afraid. On the internet, I think people are a little bit more clear about things. I prefer full disclosure.
Are their any high-proifile literary critics you take particular issue with?
Are there any drawbacks to the internet as far as criticism goes?
The audience the internet brings is not always a particularly informed audience. An uninformed opinion can be very popular with an uninformed audience. But that’s also one of the good things about the internet. It’s kind of this stabilizing, equalizing medium. Also, writers can work with a better word count. On the Rumpus, you can write a 3000 word review. You’re just not going to get that in print.
Is there anything you hope Revise & Recant will engender?
I’d like to see a column on the most unfair review of the week. It would be fun. If you did it weekly, it would be a little bit of a joke like, ‘Who got called out this week?’ Also, taglines are my big complaint now. Who writes them? I’ve seen several pieces ruined by taglines, which often get the pieces exactly wrong.
Tell us the places you go to read reviews that you find that are pretty solid?
If you’re going to look at the normative places—The Washington Post, The New York Times—I think that’s one option, but I would also look at some of the stronger internet sites. I like checking out all the normal places, but I also like the Rumpus and Guernica. The Brooklyn Rail which is my paper, does pretty well at times.
So…is there a review of one of your books that stands out as being particularly good?
I liked Craig Epplin’s review of Snowball’s Chance in Guernica. It’s about the tenth anniversary of the new edition. I’m very grateful to him for putting all that thinking into it.
There was one critical review of Snowball’s Chance that was spot on. Arthur Salm who wrote for the San Diego Union-Tribune, which is a very conservative paper, wrote a typical criticism of the book, but he read, measured and weighed it. If he’s going to go to all the trouble of doing that then he deserves his opinion. He had a line that read: John Reed Good, Orwell, better. You know, chanting like the sheep. But I felt he’d earned his review.
What do you think of the trend of book critics drawing on personal anecdotes and narratives in their reviews?
I’m all for it. I think it’s very humanizing. Ruth Franklin does it quite nicely. There are a lot of reviewers who do that. It’s a good critical structure. The New York Review of Books is a good example of a place that reviews very well, but they can be a little bit fuddy duddy.
For example, they are inclined toward noir books and they publish a lot of them. It feels a little antiquated. People don’t talk about this, but in terms of the quality of the prose and material that’s being published now, it is infinitely better than it was 20, 40, or 150 years ago. There are just so many writers. You can do the numbers. How many people were living in London in Shakespeare’s time? About 250,000. Now we’re looking at a population of 6 million writers (I hear). It’s just a very different equation, even if you’re looking at the 1870s in Russia. You’re talking about a population of a few thousand writers. If you delve into the Strand bookstore and look at all the review copies that come out every year you will see extraordinary books you had no idea existed.
I’m not sure that Dostoyevsky would even get published today. If Crime and Punishment were to come out now, where would it come out? Europa Editions? Even for Europa Editions, it’s kind of shifty. Honestly, I don’t know who would publish it. And, I suggest you go burn your classics.
For the most part, classics are there because they’ve already gone through the filter of economic and atavistic cultural values. So they are usually there because in some way they extol the virtues of “the way it is.” If you’re looking at contemporary books, you’re much more likely to find something that speaks to you in the present and has a more original point of view.
Who are some of your favorite contemporary writers?
I think more in presses. I like it when a press has a personality. In terms of the big presses, Farrar Straus & Giroux still has a really defined personality. Riverhead Books (an imprint of Penguin) does as well. Big presses have their benefits.
As far as smaller presses, Europa Editions and Boa have strong lists. Unbridled has a good list as well if your looking for thrillers, as does SoHo Press and Melville House. Melville House has some good literary titles too. If you’re looking for slightly squishier titles, Algonquin Books (an imprint of Workman Publishing) has some. I identify more with presses and I love the idea of people following presses again.
Are you still the literary editor at The Brooklyn Rail?
Yes, I’ve been there 10 years. I’m the books editor. I got sucked into it after Snowball’s Chance. They stuck up for me. The New York papers stuck up for me when the British papers went after me: The New York Press, The Brooklyn Rail, The New York Times all came to my defense so that’s how I got involved with The Brooklyn Rail.
I love New York and I hope we never have to join the United States.