Post #48: Review Static

Book Reviews, Things You Should Be Reading

The question up for debate today is:

Can you read or hear strong opinions (positive or negative) about a piece of art without your own judgments and ideas being warped and affected?  A corollary question is: does the volume and passion of said opinions have a relationship to said (potential) affect?  A corollary to that one is, are we more prone to react to criticism or praise?  But you can ignore that last one because it pretty much answers itself.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.  It started with Billy Joel.   It started with Ron Rosenbaum’s Slate article in which he essentially takes a massive dump all over Billy Joel’s music and employs some serious intellectual bullying to convince his readers he’s correct.  Read the article and come back, but if you don’t have time, simply imagine any criticism that could ever be levied against Billy Joel (overrated, lite rock schlock, insubstantial fluff), then turn it up to 11.  Rosenbaum was so adamant that I, a life long Billy Joel fan, began to wonder whether I’d been wrong about the Piano Man my whole life.  It shouldn’t matter what Rosenbaum thinks, of course.  He’s just one opinion.  Why should he even enter in to the conversation against decades of liking?  But he sounds smart enough, and he writes for Slate, and he writes with the kind of spite that you can’t help but sit up and listen to, even though you kind of know he’s an idiot.  His intention is clear: to convince you Billy Joel sucks.  For those who already hate Billy Joel (he refers to him simply in the sexually overt moniker “BJ” as if everyone calls him that) he wants to affirm and explain to you your hatred so that you can clarify exactly what you mean when talking to your friends at the next Radiohead concert.  If you like Joel, he wants you to doubt your own allegiance, to shout you into submission so that you’ll eventually say, “Okay, okay, you’re right, he sucks, I’m sorry!”

It shouldn’t matter.

The problem, of course, is that it does matter.  Someone shouts in our ear and, if we’re thoughtful and impressionable (as most of us are), it affects us.  I did feel just a little bit of doubt about Billy Joel after reading.  I wondered: does he actually suck?  I always thought he was a pretty good singer and a hell of a songwriter.  And I’ve spent more than a few hours in the man’s musical company, much of it singing along in a very loud and horrible way.  In the end, this doubt derived from Rosembaum didn’t go anywhere.  It died on the vine.  That night I cued up “Easy Money” and white-man-overbit my way back to the mid-level allegiance I’ve always felt for Billy Joel.

This brings me to Chard Harbach’s blockbuster debut literary novel The Art of Fielding.  Without a doubt, Fielding has been the IT literary novel of the year.  Darling of critics and readers and book groups and the subject of a very very long Vanity Fair piece that detailed its slow ten year grind from MFA project to $650,000 bidding war and author advance.  Like with any piece of art that becomes really really popular, a critic was there to tell these many readers they were wrong.  In this case, it was B.R. Myers’s article in The Atlantic a couple of months ago entitled “A Swing and a Miss” that heatedly and expansively debunks the literary merits of Harbach’s debut and reveals it to be a soft and unimpressive book and the beneficiary of the cultural boon that accompanies the IT literary novel of the year.

I hadn’t read Fielding when I read Myers’s article, though I had been very aware of it, seeing its cover on the book store shelf many a time and hearing strong praise about it from a friend whose opinion I greatly respect and who has similar reading tastes to my own.  After reading Myers’s article, I couldn’t deny I had a similar kind of knee-jerk reaction (by the way, I may be deluded, but I’m telling myself over here that I’m admitting to a kind of reaction that many of us feel but may elect not to express) to Rosenbaum’s piece.  Granted, I’d been a lifelong Joel fan and not read a word of Fielding, but still, I wanted to read the book and now wondered whether I could go into it without judging it as overrated.  You could argue that I’d been swayed similarly by my friend’s positive approbation (see question 3 above, the one that answered itself), but I felt a stronger reaction to Myers than to my friend (and this is nothing against my friend, who was convincing).  For me, it became: How can I read Myers and the like and not let them hinder my individual experience with the piece of art being discussed?  Can I? Should I?  Do I read these things just for intellectual fodder or do I read to be informed and/or convinced?  Don’t I secretly want their opinion so I can later pawn it off as my own?  But who wants to read a book just so that they can hate it and then be like, yeah, I knew that was going to suck, Myers was so right!

The conundrum for me is that I enjoy reading.  Everything.  I read a lot of reviews (my friend, interestingly, does not because he doesn’t want them tainting his experience).  I can’t help it.  I’m just into knowing what people think and many times I’ve thought of buying a book or album and hustled over to Amazon to read reviews to see whether it’s any good or not.  And yeah, this practice has burned me more than a few times (if you didn’t know, people are much more likely to write positive reviews than negative).

By the way, I finally read The Art of Fielding a couple weeks ago and became so engrossed in it that I literarily felt physical pain at having to put the book down.    That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not.  I got a headache because I couldn’t read it.  It completely owned me for three days.  It had been a long time since I’d felt that way.  So, I was able to ignore Myers for the duration of my joyful reading, and yet, upon finishing, there that fucker was, whispering in my ear: “it wasn’t as good as you thought it was, really, think about it, you idiot.  Just listen.  I’ll tell you.  I know.  I’m smart.  My opinion is more important than yours.  I’m in The Atlantic.”

And I’m thinking: SHUT UP!

And I’m thinking: TELL ME MORE!

I’m going to cue up “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” while I ponder this some more.

Post #22: So Much Gray

Shaking My Head

There’s been some interesting debate in the wake of’s strange decision to urge its customers to scan items in brick and mortar stores and then receive a discount from Amazon if they buy said item through the website, rather than in the store, whether it be a Best Buy or an independent music store.  Essentially, perhaps fearful that their murder of all things local was going more slowly than originally planned, they were paying customers not to shop locally and to mock the local stores in the process by pretending they were going to.  Richard Russo wrote an impassioned critique of Amazon’s decision.  One can read it here.

I’m a writer and believe strongly in a local arts community and believe that a local bookseller is part of the central nervous system of that community, so I wasn’t surprised to feel as if Russo had read my mail before putting finger to keypad.  I thumped fist to chest and said, “right the fuck on.”

And then came this odd rebuttal on  Read it below, then come back.

Okay, so I’m not certain they make scales big enough to measure the extent to which this guy is  jackass.  Am I right?  Of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, he writes, “you should thank him for crushing that precious indie on the corner.”  The idea that local bookstores offer nothing to a community that values the arts is asinine, shortsighted, and the kind of bitten-off-more-than-your-argument-can-support thinking that got Amazon in trouble in the first place.  I mean, Manjoo begins his article by describing what a “boneheaded thing” Amazon had just done.  Talk about short sighted.

And yet, I feel like a hypocrite for raising the battle cry against Manjoo, as I’ve been about to do.   Here’s why.  I have two children still in diapers and they go through vast quantities of them.  Each and every one gets shipped to my house care of  Why?  Because they’re so much cheaper than buying them local it’s not even funny.  The math is pretty simple.  Diapers are expensive.  Kids use a lot of them.  Young parents are generally strapped for cash and therefore need to save money wherever possible.  All this is true.  And yet, why do I feel less guilty for buying my diapers through Amazon than I do about buying my books through Amazon?  And I don’t mind admitting guilt about the latter isn’t very strong.

The easy answer is because I value books more than diapers.  Not on a surface level, of course (you ever tried letting an infant go diaper-less for any length of time?) but metaphysically, I mean.  At this point someone might argue that buying diapers locally is potentially less substantial to community than buying local books or music.  And they’d be right.  But not majorly right.  Only kind of right.  My local K-Mart sells diapers and though I won’t feel that bad if my local K-Mart closes, they need my business to stay afloat too.

It seems to me that in criticizing Majoo, there’s the danger of using convenient logic to do so.  The likes of which might have a person railing against child labor whilst wearing a pair of Nikes and a Gap t-shirt.  The likes of which might have a person railing against Wall Street whilst banking with a major bank whose mortgages are owned by large corporations who make up Wall Street.  Nothing is ever all one thing.  We pounce when we see black and white moments, but the harder we beat them, the more gray they tend to become.

My soul knows what it prefers and so finds this still a very one sided argument and landslide victory in Russo’s favor.  I just hope that in criticizing the opposition, I’m able to keep my emotions in check long enough to let my brain do a little work.

I leave you with this anecdote.

The great jazz musician Thelonious Monk was good at looking at things in new ways, kind of like how fish are good at swimming.  Legend has it that he nailed a clock to his apartment wall, though tilted it sideways before doing so, to remind himself and his family to look at it differently.  And not only because they should.  Because they had to.  Sage advice.