Let's Get Critical?
Recently our beloved editor, Lauren Roberts, commented via a round of e-mails that it was okay for BiblioBuffet contributors to write negative reviews. It was wonderful to hear that because there’s nothing quite so cathartic as writing a review full of vitriol, something that gets agents nervous and fans riled up. It’s like working over a punching bag for two hours. Plus, those reviews are easy to write, rage being an easily identifiable, uncomplicated emotion.
Lauren’s e-mail did make me wonder: Why wasn’t I more vicious with the titles I reviewed? Was I becoming soft in my advancing age? Part of the answer lies in my good fortune. Over the last eight months, just by keeping my eyes open and scrolling the occasional website, I’ve selected and then read some wonderful books. Another perk is having the freedom to review whatever I want, which makes this column the closest thing to a playground that a writer can have. I’m not going to torture myself if I don’t have to. That’s what a real job is for.
I think the biggest reason why my reviews lean toward the complimentary side is the nature of this column: to convince people to view sports books as enriching and adventurous and compelling as any other work of nonfiction. That purpose gets severely diminished if every other week I’m pissing and moaning about some poor author’s misguided effort. How does that build interest among people who think sports books are nothing more than inspiration-laced game summaries, regardless of who the author is? A full-fledged commitment to bitterness could significantly affect my status as a pseudo-pretend ambassador of sports literature, and I can’t have that. My resume is thin enough as it is.
Curiosity can be harmful. I do encounter books that aren’t to my liking. My initial excitement for Vincent M. Mallozzi's biography of Julius Erving, one of the most influential basketball players of all-time, got doused in a hurry, as it became apparent that the book had the depth and reportage of a very long press release. Taking on The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., Robert Coover’s acclaimed novel about a fantasy baseball league, seemed like a good idea until its reality-bending plotline obliterated my interest. I prefer more straight-ahead fiction. Usually if a book isn’t doing it for me, I’m able to change my mind. Since starting the column, I can think of at least four books that were discarded because they were too boring to maintain my interest. The test to determine banishment is an easy one: Most of my reading is done in bed. If I postpone sleep in favor of finishing a chapter, I can usually recommend that book with no hesitation. If the book has the sleep-inducing strength of two Tylenol PMs and a blow to the head, it’ll be hard for me to maintain my enthusiasm.
When that boredom morphs into something more insightful or vivid, I’ll write about it. In the meantime, don’t expect a preponderance of sonnets or hate-filled rants, but a long, hard look at a world of writing that has been woefully overlooked and perennially misclassified. After all, I am an athletic supporter.
Books mentioned in this column:
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and FilmCritic.com, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in central New Jersey with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.