WHAT IS A HIT PIECE?
Against recommendation mentality
I am sitting in a courtroom in Washington D.C., watching a government lawyer question an economics professor testifying on behalf of Penguin Random House about book sales and author advances, what’s going up and what’s going down, and the effect a merger of PRH and Simon & Schuster might have on advances paid to authors. One of the bizarre aspects of the trial, which is set to end tomorrow, is that many books have been discussed without reference to their titles or authors, for reasons of business confidentiality. Only the judge, the lawyers, and the witnesses know which specific books and writers they’re talking about. But sometimes they will make it clear that the book is a cookbook, or a celebrity memoir, or one of those unreadable tomes a political figure hires somebody to write to cash in on their notoriety and temporary proximity to power.
Yesterday in the New York Times, Dwight Garner reviewed Breaking History by Jared Kushner. It’s a blistering and funny review, harsh and convincing, and no doubt the author deserves it. (One quibble: Garner writes that Kushner “bought and ruined a great newspaper (The New York Observer) by dumbing it down and feting his friends in its pages”; for years the struggle at the Observer was to prevent Jared from dumbing it down and feting his friends (I worked there for a year from 2010-2011), and the staff did a valiant job in holding the line, but the trouble was he was gutting it all along, causing staffers to quit on a weekly basis, and finally abandoning it as an online-only husk.) Garner’s review is an effective and satisfying hit piece.
Meanwhile, on Twitter, there was carping that the Times had reviewed the book at all. These did not appear in my feed. I mostly saw people complaining that people were complaining. Then I was apprised that the grievances were that attention paid to the book might result in sales at all (rather than killing any curiosity stirred by, say, advertising), that the space allotted to Kushner might be better devoted to some wonderful debut author, and so on.
These views seem to me a misunderstanding of the purpose of book reviews (something I have written on at length elsewhere). Of course there is no single purpose of a book review. (A couple of weeks ago I was having dinner with old friends and one of them asked what the central question a book reviewer asks. I replied that “there are all kinds of ways to skin a cat.” My friends’ ten-year-old daughter was aghast at the expression and at the very idea that anyone would ever skin a cat, especially her own beloved cat, whose name I don’t recall. Her mother explained that it was an old expression and perhaps a bad one, and shouldn’t be taken literally. Her father quipped that besides there’s only one right way to skin a cat. The next day I looked up the origins of the expression and found that it appeared as “there are more ways than one to skin a cat” in a story called “The Money Diggers” by the American writer Seba Smith in 1840. In the 1830s you might hear that “there are more ways to kill a cat than choking it with cream,” and further back there is a 17th century proverb that holds there are more ways to kill a dog than hanging. No one is going to skin my friend’s daughter’s cat. Animals should be treated humanely.) One basic purpose is appraisal. Another is reporting on what news a book might bring to the world. In this case, we learn that a book ghostwritten on behalf of a former government official and son-in-law of a president is a lousy book.
No surprises there. It would have been astonishing at this date if Jared (we used to be on a first name basis when he signed my paychecks) wrote a book that was any good at all, ghostwriter or not. Certainly an amusing novel could be written about him and his wife, though their dreadful personalities and outer-space-esque vacuity present genuine challenges to any literary endeavor. This is a problem for Trump Lit generally, and as far as I know only Mark Doten in Trump Sky Alpha has come close to a solution: surrealist absurdity. I digress.
The notion is becoming pervasive that the purpose of anything written about books should be recommendation. It is as if everyone out there (so called “readers”) are bereft of any idea what they should read next. Who will tell me what to read? I feel so helpless! Maybe I should look on TikTok? Or just watch television! It is also as if the sole purpose of book reviewers is to serve the literary community by highlighting worthy writing that is heretofore obscure. The problem with that sentence is the word “sole,” and anyway that is the role of publicists. The job of the book reviewer is scrutiny. We do not work for authors.