February 14, 2005

Would it have killed him to name one of those "several blogs"?

The small subset of people who read this site regularly but who do not suffer from long-term memory loss will recall that back in October I defended writer A.J. Jacobs when his book The Know-It-All was savaged in The New York Times Book Review.

Shortly after that, A.J. called to ask me for some advice. Various editors, circling a literary feud like sharks who feed on literary feuds rather than other fish or people, were asking him if he'd like to write a response to the nasty review. I warned him against it. I said that even if he managed to be funny about it, taking the high road would reflect better on him. I also admitted that, if I were in his shoes, I'd never be able to take my own advice.

Apparently, A.J. wasn't either. Yesterday he struck back in, nicely enough, The New York Times Book Review, with an essay titled, I Am Not a Jackass.

The writer -- a humorist named Joe Queenan -- seemed genuinely angry with me, as if I had transported his niece across state lines. He called me a simpleton. He said I was so dumb, I wasn't even ''the smartest person at Entertainment Weekly'' (the magazine where I used to work). He referred to me as a ''jackass.'' A jackass. In The New York Times Book Review. I flipped around to the other reviews. Did they call Philip Roth a doofus? Did they call Gish Jen a nitwit? No, just me. A jackass. The review was so vicious it was written up in The Village Voice, on several blogs and, oddly enough, in Women's Wear Daily. Yes, when your book review is mentioned next to articles about taffeta, you know it's bad... Why did it have to be reviewed by Joe Queenan? Couldn't they have picked someone nicer? Like Dale Peck? Or Moktada al-Sadr?

Posted by Daniel Radosh


I agree that he should've kept quiet.

I enjoyed reading Queenan's review, just because it's always fun to read reviews trashing things, but I didn't put much stock in it, as I know Queenan's style of cherry-picking and over-generalizing for comic effect. The biggest putative knocks were quotes of stuff Jacobs "revealed" to readers as having learned from reading Britannica - stuff that made you say, "he didn't know that???" But at the same time, given that the book must be chock-ful of those items, grabbing two or three of them to make him look silly wouldn't be hard, or representative.

Yet Jacobs chooses to continue with this shtick in his rebuttal, with two more gems "learned." While the reference to Robert-Francois Damiens was new to me, the concept that Jacobs - an editor at a top national magazine that's no stranger to controversy - first learned about James McNeill Whistler's infamous suit against Ruskin from the Britannica brought back that same reaction: "Jesus, he didn't know about that???" What the hell did this guy know before he started reading the freakin' encyclopedia?

Probably not the effect he was going for. "Tis better to remain silent, and be thought a fool..."

Vance, you seem to be suffering from the same delusion that Queenan suffers from: I know X, so anyone unfamiliar with X must be a benighted moron.

Herein, X is "cases in the history of slander law and its relation to the arts." Somehow X = "Earth not flat".

I never said he was benighted.

I'm with Vance--but not for his reasons. Is it just me or is The Book Review getting more insidery and self-worshipful than ever? Do I really care about some nasty review of a book enough to read a predictably self-effacingly arrogant defense? That one page could have been dedicated to the review of a new writer's book...anything...other....than a writer writing in the Times about his Times review. Made Jacobs seem as lame as Queenan.

The NYT gave Jacobs a full page to rebut their review. It is the closest the NYT will ever come to apologizing for the Queenan review - which was silly, brutish and childlike. The editor's note tries to pass the whole thing off as if they encourage healthy discourse from opposing view points etc. Which they do as readily as the catholic church.

1) You were right about Queenan's review.
2) Queenan is right however, that Jacobs' isn't very funny. (In the book, and his essay.)
3) You were right again that Jacobs should have let it go. And doesn't the response lose a little bit of punch when it appears 4 months later?
4) Ugarte is right that people like Queenan and Vance who presume certain knowledge belongs to everyone, don't know much about the world. Do you really think an obscure libel suit involving two E-list historical figures from the 1800s should be common knowledge in 2005? Honestly?
5) Jacobs is right that Queenan was a hack when he wrote for TV Guide. What's he doing in the NYTROB anyway?
6) I read about half of "The Know It All" before I lost interest, but in that time I found at least six pretty obvious typos including the misspelling of a rather famous name. His publisher needs better copyeditors.

I actually thought the Jacobs piece had just the right tone. An aggrieved Washington Post writer--I forget his name, but it's the former White House correspondent everybody loves--tried the same thing after Garry Wills called his account of the 2000 presidential race worthless, in the Post book section. The reporter's piece, which appeared in the Post's Outlook section, was truly lame and self-serving (supposedly self-effacing, but with the real goal of suggesting that Wills was an egghead, so who cares what he thinks?). Jacobs nailed it, though.

I don't wanna get all up in anybody's grill like last time I broached this subject. But I will suggest that one piece that may be productively applied to this discussion is the Paul Fussell essay "A Power of Facing Unpleasant Facts," in which he argues that an author should NEVER answer a reviewer. I'm just throwing it out there if anyone wants to check it out.

There's some sloppy logic at work in attributing to me the notion that if I (and Queenan) know something, everyone must, or should, know it. That's not what I said or implied.

My point was that Jacobs made the regrettable decision to fight Queenan with the very tool he was ridiculed for, the "look what I just learned" shtick. Obviously for any given fact there will be some people who already know it and some who don't. That's why I said that I took Queenan's parading of these with a grain of salt. But Jacobs drags the device back in, and presents not inaccurate bible stories or stuff like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson dying on the same day, but something that's actually germane to his identity as a journalist - something that's been called (yes, just a Web site, but I've seen this elsewhere) "the most famous lawsuit in the art world."

Now, the issue here is not whether Whistler - creator of one of the most instantly identifiable paintings of all time - was an "E-list historical figure;" nor is my or your having heard of the lawsuit indicative of everybody, or even a great many people in general, knowing about it. What it does indicate, though, is that some people know it, with regular NYT Book Review readers, I'm willing to assert, over-represented in that category. And given that I, for one, am not the editor of a top national magazine renowned for its envelope-pushing ridicule of public figures, one might expect that a man who is in such a position would be as likely as me to have heard about it, if not many times more likely.

But Jacobs hadn't. Now, does this indicate that he's stupid, as ugarte claims I've said? Does it mean he shouldn't have written the book? Does it mean Queenan was right all along? None of the above. What it means is that for many of the people he's trying to convince, Jacobs' decision to parade this incongruous knowledge gap will resonate with all the hyperbole Queenan threw at him, which makes it unwise of him to employ this shtick in his rebuttal. That's my point, always was, always will be. Thank you, and good night.

This seems like a good time to quote my first post on this subject: "But Jacobs' ignorance isn't a flaw of the book, it's the premise. He states explicitly and from the outset that despite his educational pedigrees, he never learned or has forgotten almost everything that smart people are supposed to know. He's not trying to dazzle us with facts as if nobody knows them (though I can promise you that not even Queenan knew most of the facts that are in this book), he's explaining how it feels for him to learn them for the first time. The bulk of Queenan's review is given to chastizing Jacobs for not knowing certain things. This is a little like condemning Angela's Ashes because Frank McCourt is too poor."

cthomas - The writer you're thinking of is an old friend of mine, Dana Milbank. His book was "Smashmouth," an account of the 2000 Prexy campaign, which he covered, and he would be delighted that there are people out there who still remember his snappy retort to his reviewers, although his essay in fact focused primarily on a bizarrely scalding review by Michiko Kakutani. I believe Ms. Kakutani wrote that review in a funk one morning after Mirror told her that Snow White was, in actuality, the fairest in the land . . .

Dunno if you're responding directly to me, Daniel, but one more time: What I'm saying has nothing to do with Jacobs' book and everything to do with his response to Queenan's review. Again I'll go out on a limb and conjecture that just like me, most NYTBR readers will encounter only these two pieces, and not the book. No matter how stellar the book is or what aims Jacobs explains within it, the crux here is that Queenan framed the issue one way, and Jacobs seems unable to avoid playing to that same framing in his rebuttal, and thus should have kept quiet and let one of those 'several blogs' do the talking for him.

Gotcha Vance. I was prompted to post that by your comment, but it wasn't meant as a challenge to you. I was merely picking up on the fact that, as you say, Queenan has framed the issue here, and pointing out that he has done so unfairly.

Sorry Vance, Jacobs wins the round.

Daniel, you're usually so astute that you're missing a point that maybe Vance isn't clear on: whether or not the premise of the book is Jacobs' ignorance, that doesn't mean the Reader doesn't have the right to be shocked by how little he knows. And just because Jacobs is "aware" that he knows nothing doesn't excuse the fact: I applaud him for his honesty, but that honesty doesn't have the right for me to be surprised by his ignorance...

"Tis better to remain silent, and be thought a fool..."

I don't know where I would have gotten the impression that you were calling Jacobs stupid.

Anyway, I don't see why the fact that Jacobs stuck to his stylistic guns means that he is ceding any ground in the debate to Queenan. As Daniel points out, Queenan missed the point of the book and its central joke. I don't see why Jacobs should abandon it in his reply. Maybe Queenan understood it the second time.

I think Queenan's review, while containing some valid criticism, a) totally missed the irony/point of Jacobs' book, b), was unnecessarily cruel and obnoxious. It's bad enough to call someone a "jackass" (manners, anyone?), but in a public forum such as the NYT Book Review? That's pretty bad. Also, Queenan mocks Jacobs' showing-off of his knowledge, but in the end, he does the exact same thing, only without Jacobs' winning vulnerability. He shows off his knowledge, too. It's like he's getting competitive with Jacobs over something Jacobs only meant as a joke. " No, I'M the smartest man in the world!"
As for Jacobs' rebuttal, I loved it. I particularly liked the parts where he pokes fun of himself, such as the quote, "..Well, that's probably too much. Queenan's family can keep their names." The only part of Jacobs' rebuttal I didn't like was the ending. First of all, Amazon rankings/popular opinion are by no means an accurate measure of a book's merit. Just because millions of people love "Pretty Woman" does not make it a good movie--only a commercially appealing movie. Second of all, it was very mean and immature. " Nah nah nah nah nah nah, my book is better than yours!" Up until then, I loved it.
So that's my two cents.
Have a nice day everyone.

When I said "it" in "it was very mean and immature" I was referring to Jacobs' Amazon-ranking dig at the end of his essay.
Oh, and Queenan said in response to Jacobs' rebuttal, " It's like he [Jacobs] doesn't know there's ever been a nasty review before." But that's ireelevant. The key word here is NASTY. Nastyness is generally considered to be a bad thing. I would have thought this obvious.
It's ok to be surprised by Jacobs' ignorance, but not to judge him as stupid. Everyone has gaps in their knowledge; who among us is brave enough to expose them by writing a book about it? What is common knowledge to one person is trivia to another. There are just so many facts out there, so many "well known" facts are actually not well known at all. There were instances in the book where I was like, " He didn't know that?!" But there were also instances of the opposite. Besides, amount of facts known is not an accurate measure of intelligence.

Why should an author never respond to a reviewer? That is ridiculous. First of all, response to reviewers encourages healthy discourse, debate, and a chance for (if the reviewer/author are respectful and openminded) learning from each other. Second of all, if a reviewer is abusive, as was Queenan, the author should always be permitted to reply. How would you like it if someone called you a "jackass" and then wouldn't let you reply?
I disagree Know It All wasn't very funny. Sure, the majority of jokes didn't make me laugh. But have you ever watched a sitcom? It's very rare for even the best sitcoms such as "Friends" to make you laugh more than two to three times per episode. And this is out of, like, God knows how many jokes per episode. The KNow It All, for me anyway, had some wonderful gems of jokes.
I agree with Queenan it was corny and a bit over the top. I don't think anyone is going to debate that. But two things saved it from being simply a corny, silly book. A), genuine dedication to his mission of reading and accessible-izing the EB. A real wonder, even reverence for learning--even when that reverence seems absurd. B), the ability to poke fun at himself; vulnerability. These two things made Know It All a good book.

Excellent post, radosh. It sums up all I was trying to say in three long posts w/ one short posts. Thanks!

My point was that Jacobs made the regrettable decision to fight Queenan with the very tool he was ridiculed for, the "look what I just learned" shtick. Obviously for any given fact there will be some people who already know it and some who don't. That's why I said that I took Queenan's parading of these with a grain of salt. But Jacobs drags the device back in, and presents not inaccurate bible stories or stuff like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson dying on the same day, but something that's actually germane to his identity as a journalist - something that's been called (yes, just a Web site, but I've seen this elsewhere) "the most famous lawsuit in the art world."

First of all, I've never heard of 'the most famous lawsuit in the artworld." Neither, I can gaurantee, has 80% of my friends/family. Maybe this is common knowledge among art historians and such, but it is certainly not common knowledge among regular people.
Secondly, just because Queenan ridiculed the way Jacobs showed off his EB-earned knowledge doesn't mean he shouldn't do it. In fact, he should do it just because Queenan ridiculed it, as if to say: F.U.
Jacobs' encyclo example was not at all applicable to the situation. It wasn't useful at all. Even Jacobs acknowledges that: "...Well, that's probably too much.." It was almost like he was admitting that he doesn't put much stock in the encyclo, either, and that he was just joking when he showed off his knowledge, not trying to make hismelf look smart.
Oh, and by the way: Yes, I do have a life. I'm sick and am stuck at home doing nothing. That's the only reason I've been posting here so much. I usually don't spend time like this at the computer. Just in case you were getting freaked out by all my posts.

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