Gotham Diary:
Mr Congeniality
16 December 2013

Goodness, the time. I thought that I should write today about Maureen Dowd’s column in yesterday’s Times, but it turned out that I hadn’t really given the matter enough thought. Nor had I read the piece by Tom Scocca, appearing at Gawker, to which Dowd principally referred. In “Do Snark,” Scocca finds that the evils of snark are vastly outweighed by the dangers of smarm. I’m not sure that I want to write about snark or smarm. I suspect that I’m too old ever to understand either term properly. I was drawn to Dowd’s column by her vote for negative commentary. Where politics is concerned, I couldn’t agree more. But I think that critics, especially of politics, ought to take pains to clear their work of any charge of snark. No winking jokes addressed to the gallery. No sloppy sarcasm. And no focus on what’s wrong. The point of criticism is to point out that something is not right, and in order to do this it is necessary to fly a clear banner of what’s right. Always focus on what’s right.

At one point, Scocca writes, “It is also no accident that [Dave] Eggers is full of shit.” I like Tom Scocca. I enjoyed reading his book about working in China. His tough-guy tone is not my cup of tea, but he manages to make it attractive, most of the time. Not so, however, here. This is pointless rudeness.

Back to Maureen Dowd. Dowd quotes The New Republic‘s Leon Wieseltier, who in turn quotes Rebecca West, a writer of vexed temper.

“In the very first issue of my magazine, almost 100 years ago,” he told me, “Rebecca West established what she called ‘the duty of harsh criticism,’ and she was right. An intellectual has a solemn obligation to speak out negatively against ideas or books that he or she believes will have a pernicious or misleading effect upon people’s understanding of important things. To do otherwise would be cowardly and irresponsible.”

Looking around, I am trying to think of a book currently on the landscape that I fear will have a pernicious or misleading effect on anyone. I fail, doubtless because the dangers once posed by books have changed venue, and are now at work on television. For reasons outlined long ago by Neil Postman, I regard all telejournalism as insidious and misleading at best. I don’t even approve of listening to audiotapes of books that you’ve never read! We are born with five senses but are educated to command a sixth: literacy. Literacy is a complex but not incoherent bundle of skills involving memory at its most objective and judgment at its most dispassionate. Reading cannot be replaced by listening or (worse) watching, neither of which is sufficiently critical of inputs. Having said this, I have said all that I have to say about the dangers of pernicious or misleading effects, and I hope that I’ve done so as matter-of-factly, and as free from harshness, as possible.

Wieseltier often makes me wonder if I have any moral fibre at all, because, if I do, it doesn’t look like his. I am wary of solemn obligations; they seem to burden, disproportionately, self-important people.”The duty of harsh criticism” is a bleak concept, one to which I should never consider myself fit to respond — not with regard to books or ideas, anyway. Dowd writes,

Not to review books negatively is in essence to subsume book reviewing into advertising, public relations and promotion. Succumbing to uplift, edification and happy talk is basically saying that there’s something more important than telling the truth: not making enemies, not hurting people’s feelings.

I don’t agree at all. Because I should never write insincerely, I should never treat favorably a book that I didn’t care for. The alternative to favorable response is sometimes silence, but brief mention is perhaps more effective. It narrows the range of explanations for the fact that X doesn’t have much to say about Y, and it leaves the reader with the impression that part of the explanation must be that X fails to find Y congenial. There’s my moral fibre, you see. Congeniality is of the essence. It leaves me with little energy for detecting and denouncing plausible dangers. I’m too busy maintaining the good health of my appetite for the congenial.

And I frankly avow that the whole point of a favorable review is to induce sales. Frankly, I say! If I think that a book is worth reading, I want to persuade other people to give it a try. I won’t say that I’m absolute proof against the book that is written to express no higher passion than the desire to make money, but I don’t think it can be said that I’m a shill for commercial interests. If I like a book, I want the author to be rewarded for his work: buy the book! That’s how it’s done, and there’s nothing wrong with it.