Building Up to Tear Down

I like browsing the literary magazines in the local public library but can’t subscribe to any of them, because they inevitably irritate me. Reading them in the library helps me stop myself from throwing them across the room.

The intellectualism (faux and otherwise) I can usually handle. The vanity, in small doses., Comprehensiveness and authority, I like. The upholding of books as the prime medium for in-depth debate on history and politics, charming.

What I can’t stand are the critical cliches and the familiar, abhorrent review structure. Here’s the standard model:

  • The writer of the review asserts that the subject of the book s/he’s reviewing is considered forgotten, outdated or irrelevant.
  • The writer then automatically asserts that this should not be the case.
  • The writer then synopsizes and paraphrases the book for as long as his/her editor will allow.
  • At that point, some sort of acknowledgement of the book’s author is made, usually something along the lines of “done a good job.”

What bothers me most is that first bit. I’m attracted to reviews of things I’m already interested in. I expect that many casual readers of magazines and journals are. I don’t mind having someone’s life and work highlighted, but I wish that the typical manner in which it’s done wasn’t so negative.

The gambit is transparent—enlarge the egos of both the critic and the reader by establishing that they are more conversant in the career of the historical figure (or novelist of whomever) than, gosh, most anybody else.

I find such airs of superiority ridiculous, seeing that the critic is holding a whole book (or several, as with those “Books Mentioned in This Review” essays) about the purportedly unknown or underappreciated subject.

Last month, I didn’t appreciate Eric Banks asking Book Forum “Has there ever been a figure whose name so signals in equal parts cottage industry and relative neglect, at least in the English speaking world, as Bertolt Brecht?” Neither did I like Frank Rich in the New York Review of Books saying “When Bob Hope died in 2003 at the age of 100, attention was not widely paid,” since I can remember all the special magazine editions printed in his honor, and the endless memorials and impromptu film festivals on late night TV.

Was Hope bypassed and devalued by a later, hipper generation (or three) of comics? That’s easy to argue. But still well-known and respected at the age of 100? Yes. The fact that Rich’s review (of Richard Zoglin’s Hope: Entertainer of the Century is illustrated with a 1995 Annie Liebovitz photo of Hope in his joke vault would seem proof enough that he was still of interest in his declining years, despite his physical inability to maintain his old pace of USO tours, radio shows and vaudeville.