Pollack and Eggers — and candid criticism, a retread

In a New York Times Book Review item, Neal Pollack renounces the persona that simultaneously launched his career and emboldened him to mouth off about the war and everything else while telling the rest of the world to shut the fuck up. Among other things, Pollack recalls his split from McSweeney’s:

Only the next morning, while I doubled over in an airport bathroom, did I understand. Dave [Eggers] had broken up with me!

Dave Eggers responds at McSweeney’s, arguing that, contrary to Pollack’s assertions, he didn’t say, “We’re about to enter a new age of literary celebrity.” Eggers says he and Pollack agreed that “whatever came next in the literary world” should be “different, mellower, less tense, less rivalrous, and thus altogether better.” And he implies that McSweeney’s connection with Pollack detracted from, rather than contributing to, that goal.

The Believer‘s review policy appears to represent the pinnacle of Eggers’ dream: in his regular “stuff I’ve been reading” column for the publication, Nick Hornby “has more or less been instructed to avoid negative reviews.”

Isn’t this really just Pollack’s “shut up” rule in a different, more bourgeois guise? That old “if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all” saw?

In case you missed it last fall, here’s Chris Lehmann persuasively advocating honest, lively criticism that doesn’t shrink from engaging with the defects of a literary work:

The first virtue I’d say such criticism affords is to insist that there’s something important at stake in literary work, so that even bad works can permit us entry into discussions of how we think about reading, writing and other literary matters. As both a reviewer and editor I’ve always been impatient with the common complaint that thusandsuch a book isn’t worth reviewing because it’s too slight or else too meretricious or lame to expose to the common reader. I think there’s a seldom-examined condescension in such a position: Who are we too assume that readers will somehow be distressed, or feel their own time is wasted, by reading evaluations of works that are incredibly influential and also incredibly flawed? I always assume it’s the job of critics to extend the range of critical debate, not to shield readers of criticism (let alone the writers who are its subjects) from the harsher forms of literary judgment. I think of ardent readers as open-minded, skeptical, curious and disposed to argument, not as people who are easily upset or somehow existentially dismayed by encounters with lesser work.


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