Sometimes, it just doesn’t pay to take a stroll on the Internet.

I was minding my own business, trying to stay abreast of late-breaking developments in the Kristen Steward/Robert Pattison cheating scandal, when I came across this post on Scott Esposito’s normally-excellent Conversational Reading blog and immediately wished I were back in the thickets of Hollywood narcissism. Esposito is cheering some negative review he found of Chad Harbach’s novel The Art of Fielding. The negative review characterizes the book as glorified teen fiction, a judgement so self-evidently preposterous (why not characterize the book as a collection of Mediterranean-style pasta recipes? Or a navigational chart to mid-Atlantic coastal byways? Geez) I stopped reading as soon as I hit it. But that easy dismissal doesn’t work so well with Esposito – a first-rate critic and all-around smart young man – or his comments on the subject, which are as braying as they are insulting.

Painful to re-type, too, but necessary to get this little burr out from under my saddle-blanket. Esposito writes:

the book basically got A+ coverage because Little, Brown sunk $500,000 in the advance and sure as hell was going to recoup its investment. Not saying that if the book was truly atrocious it couldn’t have derailed the PR machine, but obviously this is a case of a publisher realizing it could buy a book that was decently enough written to appeal to a broad segment of those who still read books in this country, and then basically flogging it to death and providing the financial incentives necessary to get it great placement at the nation’s leading bookstores and in the leading periodicals. The only question to my mind is if the Michikos of the world really think that all this PR muscle and packaging doesn’t influence them.

As the easily-exasperated Cyril Connolly was prone to say, Where to start? The ‘nation’s leading bookstores’ will certainly take financial incentives in exchange for displaying a book front and center in their stories, the capitalist pigs, and such placement might give rise to a certain notoriety that prompts book-editors to commission reviews of the thing. But that’s a far cry from the naked quid-pro-quo Esposito is invoking here, and he damn well knows it, since he himself is a mighty fine book-editor. He knows exactly how he’d react if a book’s publisher demanded coverage in exchange for a burlap bag stuffed with unsequenced bills. He’d react with angry disgust to such an overture, but here he is indicting the book-editors of the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Publisher‘s Weekly, Harper’s, Vanity Fair, Kirkus and a dozen others (presumably excluding the Atlantic, which ran a classic B.R. Myers take-down instead of praise) for being made of weaker stuff.

No, books get reviews in those organs in part because the books are news, and it’s part of a book-editor’s job to try to make sure his journal has a voice in every current conversation. The real irritation in that quoted passage – the real insult of it – comes after the commission. It’s that tout court slam of all the reviewers of The Art of Fielding, many of whom Esposito has dealt with professionally and some of whom he knows – and all of whom are here offhandedly slandered as mere dupes of some publisher’s PR campaign. Because Esposito is angered by that $500,000 PR budget, suddenly every single one of those reviewers is an inept (or worse, duplicitous) flunky with no ability to assess the merits of a work beyond the length of its book-trailer. I honestly don’t know which is more bewildering: the tactlessness of yelling “You’re all a bunch of frauds!” in the middle of what amounts to the Rose Reading Room, or the egotism of his implied lonely integrity.

Scott Esposito would never in a million years write praise of a book he considered only average, and he couldn’t for an instant be hoodwinked by a publicity campaign, no matter how elaborate. It would be amazingly discouraging to think he doesn’t extend the same credit to any other professional book-critics.

In any case, this particular ‘Michiko’ began his praise of The Art of Fielding long before any PR machine cranked into gear – and he stands by every word of it.


  • Sam

    That Brian Platzer Salon piece is pernicious. He gives a student a novel–the student reads it and loves it. He loves it despite knowing nothing about it, despite having no particular frame of reference for it, despite being unaware of its popularity or lack thereof, despite the fact that the book is not a movie. That is, he loves it on its own merits.

    Instead, the teacher reads the book and concludes that it HAS no merits except as frothy teen entertainment. Not once does he entertainment the possibility that his definition of ‘literature’ might need re-evaluating if he can’t see what’s good and valuable about the novel. Not once does consider the chance that his student may have seen something that he missed–that is, that his student isn’t an idiot.

    It’s depressing, because he’s going to rear a generation of kids to look on reading with fear and distrust, as an activity that they are not supposed to actually enjoy.

  • Steve Donoghue

    I agree, the teacher sounds like no prize – the weird reverse logic he uses … if the kid liked it, it MUST be bad … is pretty embarrassing. I probably should have concentrated on that, but yeesh – I read the book and liked it, you read the book and liked it, half a dozen other working, paid book-critics read the book and liked it, and to have all of those people just flat-out called not only wrong but COMPLICIT in their wrongness … well, it understandably side-tracked me!

© 2007-2018, Steve Donoghue