Earlier this year, when Buzzfeed announced they were killing scathing book reviews in an effort to create LOL nirvana, literary types watched the funeral, aghast.
Why would you dispose with one of the most fun and underrated weapons left to a writer, they asked? In truth, many feared that the American critic had already been whittling away at his/her ability to eviscerate for years. A year before Buzzfeed decided to do away with takedowns for good, an op-ed appeared in the New York Times titled, "Whither the Hatchet Job?" In it, the writer noted: "America does polite literary criticism well enough. And how: there is a new Lionel Trilling on every campus. But America can’t do the bitchery of British book reviewing and literary commentary."
The last respite who those who like a little nastiness mixed with their nice? The political book review.
Witness the case of Jo Becker. Becker, an investigative journalist at the New York Times (and formerly of WaPo), is publishing a book about the Proposition 8 case that went to the Supreme Court, and ended the ban against same-sex marriage in California. She had unlimited access to the main actors in the case -- the odd couple legal team, Theodore B. Olson and David Boies, Vice President Joe Biden and other lesser known activists who are given much prominence in Becker's book. Because of her access to these people, the book provides a vibrant and detailed view of a small slice of the gay rights movement. Because the book concentrated on this one case, it omitted the many moments in the movement that made it possible for this case to happen. People who had been watching -- or participating in -- those many moments were not pleased by the omissions. Cue the hatchet jobs!
The most negative reaction to the book came from Andrew Sullivan, a writer who has been chronicling the gay rights movement for decades. He said the omission of himself and other crucial members of the LGBT rights community, like Evan Wolfson, Jon Rauch, Bruce Bawer and John Corvinoso was "wrong and so contemptuous of the people who really did do that work I am at a loss for words." He calls another assertion Becker makes about a little-known activist related to the Proposition 8 case -- she alludes to him as the Rosa Parks of this movement -- "so wrong, so myopic and so ignorant it beggars belief that a respectable journalist could actually put it in print."
Sullivan wasn't done. He wrote another post continuing his argument against Becker's book. As Buzzfeed reporter Chris Geidner noted in another post about the Proposition 8 case from this week, the release of the book fits into the publicity spree that the organization and actors involved with the Proposition 8 case have been on lately. This second Sullivan post is aimed more at the people talking to the reporter than the reporter herself, although he leaves plenty of acid for Becker too.
To have made so much progress with so little acrimony only to have such unity side-swiped by such an egregious, ugly and unprecedented attempt to claim total credit is terribly demoralizing. We owe Olson and Boies and Griffin gratitude for continuing the fight. If only they would at some point return the compliment – instead of using a credulous, ignorant reporter to describe this movement as theirs and theirs alone.
Many people agreed and added to Sullivan's hacking away of the book. And most of these people had either been involved in LGBT advocacy, or had written about the movement before.
Dan Savage, a well-known LGBT writer who started the "It Gets Better" project voiced agreement with Sullivan.
You can't write Evan Wolfson, Andrew Sullivan & Mary Bonauto out of the marriage equality mvmnt—but Jo Becker tried: http://t.co/x5p8SH1m1o— Dan Savage (@fakedansavage) April 16, 2014
Frank Rich, who has penned many columns and stories about LGBT activism -- and has also written a hatchet job or two himself -- also agreed.
I often disagree with Andrew Sullivan, but he is 100% right about this travesty of gay history. Read him: http://t.co/KxUyoA9cX9— Frank Rich (@frankrichny) April 16, 2014
Issac Chotiner faulted the book for giving too much credit to the biggest actors on stage -- in this case President Obama and Biden. Richard Socarides, a gay-rights advocate who wrote about Becker's book on the New Yorker website, said many favorable things about the reporting, but conceded that "The narrative here thus reflects the experiences of the key participants in the Prop. 8 lawsuit, at times perhaps disproportionately more so than the work of all the other important players."
Even those close to people portrayed favorably in Becker's book had little positive to say.
Soon commentators were commenting on the hatchet-ness of the hatched job.
I’ve seen some take downs, but this @sullydish post was brutal. Jo Becker must be scared to open email or look at social media. ETHERED.— rolandsmartin (@rolandsmartin) April 17, 2014
A media story was written about the backlash to the book, in which Becker responded that her book was "not meant to be a beginning-to-end-history of the movement," which is true of most political books -- and also the reason that people will always find fault with them.
That's right, not only are negative reviews for political books not dead, they're nearly inevitable. In fiction, reviewers can find fault in the world conjured by the the writer, or they can deem the cadences or the beauty of the prose lacking. There are limited options for lambasting the omission of characters or details of the story. If they weren't plucked from the imagination of the author and set to paper, complaining about their nonexistence veers off into dangerous philosophical territory. No such limitations exist for reviews of political books, where the universe of a topic is always larger than can be covered in a book, and there are always emotionally invested actors or observers at the ready to criticize what a book leaves out. Not only that, but these emotionally invested actors and observers likely have their own theories and opinions of the events described in the latest political book. If a writer doesn't adhere to their worldview, or their challenge to accepted norms isn't convincing, there's another avenue for complaint.
There is also no rule that says those who pen political book reviews may only find fault with the politics of a book. Plenty of critical reviewers have skewered a book's prose as well. Michael Kinsley wrote of Double Down:
O.K., but how about “acuminate”? Or “appetent”? Or “pyretic”? Or “hoggery” and “noisomeness,” or “coriaceous” or “vomitous” or “freneticism”? Make sure to have a Scrabble dictionary nearby when you read “Double Down,” Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s hot new book on the 2012 presidential election. There’s nothing wrong with fancy words if they help to refine your meaning. In the hands of Halperin and Heilemann, though, they have the opposite effect. Being frenetic is a form of behavior; “freneticism” sounds like a philosophy of life or type of yoga.
There is actually no vomit in the scene the authors describe as “vomitous.” It’s just their way of writing vividly. They’re not snobs. They actually have a weakness for colorful vernacular, with a special fondness for a particular bodily function. And it’s not the usual one. The many references to excrement — people serving it to one another on a bun, people burying one another in it and so on — are . . . are . . . help me, I need a word here. Well, they’re vomitous. This may be the first political book ever with more excrement than sex.
Dwight Garner writes of "The Frackers," a book about, you guessed it, fracking:
If you care at all about the considered use of the English language, you will probably wish to remain at least 10 paces from this book. Its sentences arrive as if prefrozen at a warehouse, and picked up by the author after they’ve fallen from the back of a Sysco truck.
Executives here are “honchos” or “bigwigs.” Wealthy people are “moneybags.” Restaurants are “eateries.” Interiors are “swanky.” A death is a “passing.” The author, a journalistic Will Rogers, has never met a cliché he did not like.
Maureen Dowd wrote of "What it Takes" by Richard Ben Cramer:
With a prose style more irritating than entertaining, the author takes Wolfe’s faded New Journalism technique and sends it into fifth Gear—VRO-0-0-OM! VRO-0-0-OM!— dousing each page with italics, ellipses, exclamation points, sound effects, dashes, hyphens, capital letters, and cute spellings. It’s never “character cops” when it can be “Karacter Kops.” Bob Dole rarely starts a sentence without an “Aghh” or “Gggaahh.” He even hums with a lot of consonants: “Hnnghhhh gnngh hnnnnnnnggh. Dut dug duunnnnnnghh dghndughnnnnnnn! Yut dut dut dunggghhhh. . . .” He never smells victory when he can smell “VICTORYYYY !”
After the election, Dukakis looks not just tired, but “weary, punch-rumpled, hard-cheese-beat- up.” After Gephardt places third in Michigan, his press conference is portrayed as a cacophony of the heartless hyenas of the press: “Areyagonnaquit? WHYD’YATHINKYOULOST? . . . Wouldn’alossbe CONGRESSMAN! Wouldn’t you say a loss in Michi-DICK!WHY’DYATHINK YA LOST?” And here is the press as Gary Hart gets back in the race : “GARYGARYLEEwhaddyMRS.HART! thinkaDONNARIy’gonna WIN think ya WINPOSTgonna print a LEE storygotta RICE Gary MONEYLEEEEHEYY!”
It almost feels as though reviewers relish these moments when they can rip away at a book's more superficial flaws, since delving into political slights and errors proves so emotionally taxing.
Another popular flavor of political hatchet job is criticism from people who are displeased at how they are characterized in a book, instead of being left out entirely. A recent example of this was a pre-review of Mark Leibovich's book, "This Town," which chronicles the incestuous nature of Washington, D.C.. This pre-review was published in Politico, which was featured prominently in the book as a prefix for many a conversation of "This Town." In it, Leibovich is called a "a supremely confident and strangely self-conscious writer." The writers also note that Politico, like many of the other people portrayed in the book, "won’t love the book, either."
The column ends with doubts that the book will sell well. It's not exactly a hatchet job, but it shares the same discontent and familiarity with a book's contents that the backlash to Becker's book does. This case is also special in that hatchet jobs appeared criticizing the aspiring hatchet job. Jim Newell wrote in the New Republic that "the column is an early and ham-fisted attempt to preemptively smear an upcoming book from well-regarded New York Times Magazine features writer Mark Leibovich" and "Politico's catastrophic preview is itself proof that this town deserves what This Town promises to be."
Books written by presidential candidates have their own special subset of hatchet jobs. It's not the author's fault -- the genre itself is so unbearable that politicians have no choice but to disappoint.
David Bernstein explains partly why in his review of Tim Pawlenty's "Courage to Stand":
How closely this character resembles the real Pawlenty is largely moot; campaign-launch memoirs of this type are always best taken as works of fiction -- part of the marketing process of creating a national candidate.
Casey N. Cep adds more on this point in a piece she wrote last week in Politico Magazine titled, "Why are Politicians' Books So Terrible?":
The move to literally control the narrative points to the reason these campaign books make for such lousy reading: Any politician who is popular enough to attract a publisher’s attention already has too much to jeopardize with personal candor or political complexity. Mostly, these books provide the candidates the chance to say nothing at all for pages and pages and pages. ...
It may be that in life the less you say the better off you are, but the logic of the campaign memoir is that the more smarm you can smear across the page, the better protected you are against any future criticism. You can even get away with dodging questions by saying you addressed that at great length in your book, which hardly anyone will bother reading.
Hence the neverending number of negative reviews of campaign books. Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic wrote of Pawlenty's book, "Rather than 'Courage to Stand," it should be called "Well Adjusted Man From Loving Family Is Hardworking, Unlikely To Do Anything Terribly Objectionable.'" Gail Collins writes of New Gingrich's book, "To Save America," "Gingrich is a full-blown hysteric. This is an interesting choice on his part, since the history of modern American politics has conclusively demonstrated that American voters do not like a screamer." A former aide to John McCain wrote of former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's book, "Going Rogue," "Sarah Palin reminds me of Jimmy Stewart in the movie Harvey, complete with imaginary conversations. All books like these are revisionist and self-serving by definition. But the score-settling by someone who wants to be considered a serious national player is petty and pathetic." Michiko Kakutani, while mostly praising Barack Obama's campaign book "The Audacity of Hope," concedes that it "occasionally slips into the flabby platitudes favored by politicians." Theses books were not made for praising.
Who knows what hatchet jobs might await when Hillary Clinton's new memoir is published in a few months. The only thing that's certain is that there will be a few ... dozen.