Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Art and Obligations of Criticism

Some book reviews are so harsh, so thoroughly biting and dripping with such disdain, you figure either the reviewer has peeled away all of a book's pretense and exposed the fraudulent core to sunlight, or else it's personalmaybe the author stole money from the reviewer at some point in the past, or treated his sister poorly. I'm not sure which is the case with Stephen Metcalf's scathing assault on Thirteen Moons, the new novel by Charles Frazier. He takes Frazier to task for "bad faith" with the reader, a damning indictment, indeed.

Reviewing fiction is a tricky thing, subjective by definitionsubject to wildly varying tastes and points of reference. We all have favorite novels that have been both praised and panned. Because of the marketing machine behind Frazier's new release, we can already find an assortment of reviews from major outlets. I read three in the first week, including a so-so critique at, and a generally positive endorsement in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Reviewing non-fiction is another matter. The work is still subject to the reviewer's personal perspective, but things like accuracy and organization weigh heavily in the analysis. Some reviewers have vendettas, apparently, but generally speaking, a good reviewer who skewers a work of non-fiction does so with the spirit of a faithful guard dog, whose loud growls tip off the reader that his time and money are best spent elsewhere. Fangs are also bared to serve notice that a particular work does not deserve to share shelf space with worthwhile Civil War books. Sometimes the skewering is simply the natural response to being insulted as a reader, and consumer.

The expanding Civil War market of the 80s and 90s (now rapidly fading), and the advent of myriad self-publishing options and vanity presses, has kept the guard dogs busy. I should have mentioned at top that critiquing a book is a solemn endeavor, and just as surely as there are poor authors, there are poor reviewers, ill-equipped for the task, who do the reader and the author a disservice.

That said, few things are as satisfying to read or write as the authoratative annihilation of a piece of crap passing itself off as a work of serious scholarship. I wish I could find an old clipping I had from The Civil War News, many years ago, of a Richard McMurry review of The South Was Right, by Kennedy & Kennedy. It was deliciously dismissive of one of the worst books ever written on the subject, with all of the sarcasm and wit that has garnered McMurry fans and detractors for decades.

When I started this blog entry, I intended to spend some time musing about the responsibility (obligations) of the book reviewer, and where the best (Civil War) reviews might be foundthings I've spent some time thinking about as a former book review editor, and occasional reviewer myself. I have long loved the book review sections of newspapers, magazines, newsletters, and such. The right reviewer for the right book makes for a great essay, smart and informative. Everything I know about some subjects, I read in the Sunday book review section.

But I've rambled enough for tonight, and will weigh in on the subject in a more focused way later, if I can think of a way to do it without sounding like a pompous ass. This entry made mention of skillful skewerings of a work of fiction that might not have deserved it, and a work of non-fiction that fairly begged for the coup de grace. But there's more to the art of critiquing Civil War studies than shish kebab. Sometimes just an honest overview, with commentary on the bibliograpy, suffices.

Photo: Washington, D.C. In the library at the United Nations service center. Boys are urged to take books back to camp with them. Bubley, Esther, photographer. 1943 Dec.


Sean Dail said...

I have McMurry's review somewhere, David. I'll see if I can find it. I remembering laughing out loud it was so good.

DW@CWBA said...

The local library system here has only a small collection of CW related books yet shamefully two copies of that piece of junk. I still see new copies in the local B&N and Borders as well. ...thinking of all the great books that could be in its place....

dw said...


That would be great. I was thinking of doing an entire blog entry on the book, just for fun, but I'm reluctant to draw any more attention to it.

Pelican Publishing should be embarrassed to have that book and a few others among their offerings.


dw said...


I'm amazed at how well that book has been distributed. And what would possess a library acqusitions person to select that title over 100s of classic, indispensable works on the subject?

For one thing, it doesn't belong in a history section along with Civil War titles. It is a political tract, and should be shelved wherever they keep Ann Coulter's crap.


Anonymous said...

If no one has supplied McMurry's delighful slam of the Brothers Kennedy, I scanned it some time ago and would be glad to send it to you.

I enjoy the pained letters from neo-confederates which always appear a issue or so after a McMurry book review!

dw said...


If you don't mind emailing the McMurry review, I'd appreciate it.

Neo-Confederate outrage, and the outrage it provokes, is a time-honored mainstay of "The Civil War News" letters section. You can pick up an issue from 10 years ago and find the same arguments ("black Confederates," "slavery") that appeared in the most recent issues.