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Friday, April 04, 2003
How to be Elastic-Brow
a wee little guide by me to you

In the lead essay in the new McSweeney's offshoot The Believer--a very, very important essay, by the by--Heidi Julavits writes in the concluding section of what she believes about book reviews:

As Orwell says, "and that means, probably, neither highbrows now lowbrows, but elastic-brows." I also believe (perhaps naively) that there is a way to insist on rigorous standards from reviewer-writers without those reviewer-writers fearing they'll never get a Guggenheim, or an NEA, or a fellowship at the MacDowell Colony, or another decent blurb for the rest of their lives. They will not "have it coming." If a book is treated respectfully, if thoroughly, it should not follow that there should be implicit shame or punishment for the reviewer; and perhaps, in the service of our 'profession,' we all need to grow up a bit, writers and reviewers alike.

Thus, I would like to present how I believe this could work, and I'll call it "A Guide to being Elastic-brow." It's kind of an extension of what I was trying to tell that Pitchfork reviewer below, I think.

First off, you have to ask yourself two questions.

- The first is, "Am I powerless?" This can be more specifically stated as, "Am I powerless in the face of 'the hype machine'?" (Ignoring for the moment, of course, that the reviewer is inextricably part of 'the hype machine.')

If the answer is no, then you can, of course, place yourself on a holy quest to root out and destroy those books that are bad and might otherwise be hyped into widespread acceptance and degrade the standards of art, etc. However, you also have to realize that you may, in fact, be wrong in your judgment and that if you change your mind later, after you've effectively killed a book, you can't take it back. You have to be a lot more responsible in your judgments. So it may be useful to be more judicious in your opinion and, as Julavits suggests (elsewhere in the essay), at the very least recognize what the book was trying to do and work that in a positive way, to try to make literature better by suggesting progressions rather than simply stop it from being bad by complaining about what is negative.

If the answer is yes, then you are therefore free to not care too much about what you say. You can make stupid little jokes and quips and snark at will. On the other hand, it seems kind of silly in this case to write any of the holy-war screeds, because what good are they going to do? It'll just make you seem petulant and grumpy, and will probably not help the "had it coming" phenomenon Julavits chronicles. Maybe it would be better if you simply ignored the hype machine and raging against it and concentrated on finding those books that are good but overlooked, and which those readers who are less susceptible to hype might respond to, and then praise them in terms that doesn't place the book in opposition to "all those other crappy books written by X" but just encourages people to read it based on its own merits.

- The second question is: "Do books have any power?" This power can either be over "literature" or the world at large.

If the answer is yes, then you can try the holy war technique again, and root out all those books that could possibly have a "bad" influence. On the other hand, as any reviewer well knows, there are scores of books whose brilliance was not recognized in its own time, and it might be worth thinking on how the course of literature might have been effected if these books had been critically lauded, to say nothing of the course of the authors' lives. Also remember that many of the books that have had an influence on the world at large (and I'm thinking of Nietzsche here, although I'm sure you can add your own examples) were influential because they were willfully misinterpreted, and it might be more useful as a critic to counteract those misinterpretations, while simultaneously being cautious in your own interpretations so that they do not cause harm, whether to literature or to people.

If the answer is no, then you're freed to do a lot of things, and instead of simply using that freedom to give people a laugh (a noble impulse that I respect, but bear with me here), it might be worth it to explore that freedom and try and open up new avenues and ways of responding to books. Just a thought.

You also need to keep two things in mind while reviewing:

One is that no matter what the book is, no matter how dumb or bad or painful or unreadable it may seem to you, there is going to be someone out there who will like it and get pleasure from it, and you need to respect that. Too many reviews act as if a particular book (which book will sometimes go on to sell several thousand copies) could not possibly give anyone pleasure and is totally worthless. But, like people, we like books for weird reasons that other people might not see. Just as we're not going to critique our best friend's significant other as ugly simply because she doesn't look like what we want in a lover, so should we respect the effort that went into a book and the commensurate pleasure that can give people. You should also realize that people don't really like books to be trendy or pretentious, since it's hard to fit into social norms while lying alone in our bedroom, reading a book.

The other is that there is no such thing as morality in literature, and it's OK for someone to like a book. I can count the number of books that set out to produce an evil effect on my fingers, and the number of people that are evil for reading a book on my thumb. Books are important, but they're not so important that we have to treat a preference as a sin or an emotional reaction as a betrayal.

Above all, realize that if you really care about literature, if you really love literature, then you might help it more by encouraging it than by beating it down.

That's what I believe, anyway.