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Pay No Attention to that Reviewer Behind the Curtain

Inspired by an aside in Terry Teachout's excellent biography, The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken, I'm currently working on an essay about Mencken.

While researching this project, I came across a longish New Yorker review from 2002 on Teachout's book, by Joan Acocella. Like everyone else, I've read (or at least started) plenty of these essays, but this might be the first one I read immediately after finishing the book. Like perhaps no one else, I was shocked at how much of the New Yorker essay simply summarizes Teachout's book. (Of course, Teachout gets his best details from Mencken's Newspaper Days, but that's a bit different.) Acocella offers maybe two paragraphs of original critique or analysis; even her Mencken quotations come straight from Teachout.

Now, you can question the ultimate purpose of something that amounts to a 3,000-word precis for an already-published book—which is what I've been doing, off and on, for the last few days—but I'll leave you with another intra-literary note. One reason Acocella's essay is so disappointing is because she's a really good and really inventive critic, as demonstrated by her Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism, an expanded version of her delightfully nasty New Yorker essay from a few years back. That book's page contains a wonderful blurb, originally published in the National Review in 2000, from none other than Terry Teachout. ("[Acocella] marches through the ranks of Cather scholars the way Sherman marched through Georgia.")

I'll hold off on any conspiracy theories, but sometimes it's nice to find a concrete reminder of the book establishment's small-world-ness. If only they used trackbacks and Technorati…


If You Seek Amy

The third track of Britney Spears' new album Circus is the linguistically cunning title "If You Seek Amy," which would be cleverer if the preceding lyrics weren't the otherwise nonsensical "All of the girls and all of the girls are begging to …" It would be even more clever had the Canadian band April Wine not released the song "If You See Kaye" in 1982 and had Aerosmith not copied that line for their song "Devil's Got a New Disguise" in 2006. Nonetheless, Spears's potty mouth has gotten her just what her P.R. team wanted: a livid reaction from the Parents Television Council that will invariably spike sales of her comeback album.


Analyzing the Romantic Comedy

As Gelf has noted, academic studies of the influence of successful Hollywood films on society at large are inherently problematic. Despite their best efforts, researchers often overplay their hands by trying to draw real cultural implications from terribly silly movies. Case in point: a recent study that finds that adolescents who expect their own relationships to resemble those of romantic comedies are "likely to be left disappointed."



As if Chinese Democracy weren't ridiculous enough already, the decades-in-the-making (we'd say "long-awaited," but we don't know of anyone who was waiting for it) Guns N' Roses album is now the subject of a lawsuit between Axl Rose's hair metal "band" and Dr. Pepper. The lawsuit—which relates to a promotion that went wrong when Dr. Pepper's website crashed—led to a CNN piece that, frankly, is worthy of its subject matter.


Axl and the Banshees

We know that many music reviewers suffer from chronic creativity-deficiency, but their reliance on some arcane cliché in describing the new Guns and Roses album is a bit much. Maybe we shouldn't judge the critics too harshly, since they rarely get 17 years and $13 million to work with. But there's one thing that keeps recurring in the assessments of Chinese Democracy—in addition to those two numbers. Someone, somewhere—probably Kurt Loder—decreed that no Guns and Roses review would be complete without a comparison of Axl's voice (or howl, or screech, or wail, or take your pick) to the cry of a banshee:


The New, Miserable Bubblegum Pop

Everyone seems to like Chris Brown. And why shouldn't they? He's easy on the eyes and smooth as hell. Just look at his music videos—the man doesn't walk in his Nike high-tops; he glides. We can't forget his delightful supporting role in 2007's urban coming-of-age story Stomp the Yard. And yet, Chris Brown is not as infallible as he appears on life-size posters across America's teenage girls' bedrooms.


Dancing Queens in the Aisles

As any regular reader of Gelf's Blurb Racket could tell you, film critics are always letting us know how we're going to physically react to movies. Stepbrothers will have you holding your sides with laughter! The Dark Knight will send chills down your spine! Journey to the Center of the Earth will have you hanging on to your seat! The Love Guru will make you violently ill! And so it should come as no surprise that Mamma Mia! will have us dancing in the aisles. But does everyone have to say it?


You've Got to Not Read This!

OK, I'll admit it. I've never read Aeschylus in the original Greek. Nor Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata. No, not even in translation, if you can believe it. And I know I should be hanged for this, but I haven't even read the complete works of Shakespeare. I just can't get through the third act of Titus Andronicus. One of the most insufferable ways that people proclaim their literary worth is by feigning embarrassment over not having read an obscure work of literature. Of course—as they'll proudly note—they've gleaned enough from conversation to hold their own at cocktail parties.


Please Stop Saying 'Mariska Hargitay'

I have no intention of seeing the critically-panned film The Love Guru, in which Mike Meyers plays Guru Pitka, an obnoxious aspiring spiritual leader who…well, I haven't seen it, so I don't know. But I do know that the movie's would-be catch phrase (used repeatedly in the film as a mystical greeting) is "Mariska Hargitay" and that several reviewers found it so painful they were forced to keep track of the number of times it was uttered. Let's count along with A.O. Scott and the rest of the gang.

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