Saturday, February 12, 2005

A.J. Jacobs vs. Joe Queenan

A.J. Jacobs, author of the humorous memoir The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, has a piece in tomorrow's New York Times rebutting the review he received from Joe Queenan in the same pages a few weeks back.

Jacobs takes exception to Queenan's venomous pseudo-critique, which seemed to either miss the tongue-in-cheek point of the book entirely, or else have been motivated by something approaching sociopathic loathing.

Queenan described Jacobs as "criminally stupid," "a poor man's Dave Barry; no, a bag person's Dave Barry" who has written a book that is "misguided...mesmerizing uninformative...idiotic." Ultimately, he dismisses Jacbos as a "pedigreed simpleton."

Jacobs responds that he was shocked that Queenan "seemed genuinely angry with me, as if I had transported his niece across state lines...He referred to me as a 'jackass.' A jackass. In the New York Times Book Review. I flipped around to the other reviews. Did they call Philip Roth a doofus? Did they call Gish Jen a nitwit? No, just me. A jackass."

Eventually, Jacobs goes on to take a rather philosophical approach to the whole matter. After finally putting his anger behind him, he accepts that "as a writer, I have to accept the lack of control. Publishing a book is like having a child. You can do everything right -- feed him, clothe him, show him Baby Kierkegaard videos -- but a bully at kindergarten can still make him eat clumps of dirt. You have to come to terms with that."

Jacobs’ attitude is a healthy one, and probably the only one to take if you want to maintain your sanity.

This episode is emblematic, though, of something that is very wrong with the state of reviewing today. The problem with too many reviewers, especially those writing in publications like the New York Times, is that they have ulterior motives which prevent them from doing a conscientious job.

In this case, for example, it seems clear that Queenan either was on a bizarre, manic tirade for some unknown (and irrelevant) reason or else he was trying to be funny and thus promote himself. In either case, he seemed to have little interest in actually reviewing the book. What's the use of that? (Especially considering that the piece was nasty, but not particularly humorous.)

A bitchy review can be funny and even insightful (think of Chris Buckley a few years back, touching off a shitstorm by describing Tom Clancy as "the James Fenimore Cooper of his day, which is to say the most successful bad writer of his generation."). The piece, though, still has to offer some truth and reasoned analysis, along with the humor. Otherwise, it’s not a book review.

All too many critics see their allotted review space as their chance to demonstrate their wittiness, put forth their opinions, promote their own work, or otherwise fill the page with nothing having to do with the book supposedly under review.

Writing a conscientious and useful review takes thought and skill and care, and that, unfortunately, is more than many critics are willing to do.

There are some good reviewers out there. But it takes time to find them and follow their writing to see what they're up to. That is more effort than most readers are willing to put out, though, so instead this is what we end up with.