Freelance journalist Steve Freiss saw Friday’s item, where I took him to task for writing about Christina Binkley‘s Winner Take All for two different publications, recommending it to one audience and dissing it to another, and wanted to tell his side of the story. “I don’t think there’s anything contradictory at all about approaching something like coverage of a book in two different contexts,” he emailed:
“That is, I got about 500 words in USA Today to handle an overall impression of the book that gave me a chance to both focus on parts I liked and parts I didn’t. That’s one context, one set of limits. As a columnist with more space and a different responsibility, I am able to focus differently on specific issues in the book that are of greater interest to a local Vegas audience than a national one. The national audience needs to know that this is an entertaining and well-written book that has both some excellent insight and some significant factual errors, some of which I had space to enumerate. The local audience is the one that would ‘get’ how startling many of these errors are for anyone who truly ought to know our city.
“Why is it inconsistent to have a complex, contradictory reaction to a piece of work and want to explain it? Are we as reviewers required to only love or hate something and not permitted to love one part of it and hate another? This week on our podcast, my partner and I discussed the very best bit of the book, a part that actually was a part of the USAT review but got cut for space. Binkley rendered a complicated work; it deserves a complicated response. Am I as a freelancer only permitted to take an analysis from one angle? Baloney. I’m lucky to have many outlets to express my varied views of different parts of this and other matters.”
I believe there are elements of Friess’s argument that anyone can agree with in principle, such as the idea that a critic can have “a complex, contradictory reaction to a piece of work.” But, ideally, that reaction, in its myriad complexities, should have a rigorous consistency—and while our opinions of works of art may change over time, perhaps they shouldn’t veer wildly over the course of a few days.
Now, I’ll concede that it may be possible to read Friess’s two pieces on Winner Take All and argue that the positions they articulate are not terribly dissimilar, since he calls the book “entertaining” both times. In my opinion, though,when a reviewer tells one audience a book is “marred by some mistakes,” and then tells another that it’s “rife with factual mistakes” (emphasis mine, in both quotes), it reads as if that reviewer is trying to give an “overall impression” to one audience and then tell the other what he really thinks. I believe both audiences deserve the same level of candor, if for no other reason than to have sufficient resources to make an informed decision for themselves; I can see the grounds for the argument that that’s what Friess delivered, but I respectfully submit that that isn’t what comes across in the texts.
Of course, there’s the broader complaint of whether 500 words is sufficient space to elaborate a complex, even contradictory, reaction to a work of art, which I leave for those who are better versed than I in such matters to resolve.