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Flop Watch

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Dear Reader,

Fear of failure is not unusual. Indeed, many successful people openly attribute their success to fear of failure. But preoccupation with failure is a rare trait, and obsession with it rarer still.

That said, frequent Reader contributor Neil Steinberg can only be described as obsessed with failure. He's gone so far as to write an entire book on the topic (Complete and Utter Failure, in which he calls the National Spelling Bee a monument to failure because every kid but one ends up losing. Has any competition known to man ever been otherwise?). The same negative mind-set dominates his recent Reader cover story on Quaker Oats's 1994 purchase of Snapple Beverage Company ("Snappled!" May 30).

The Snapple saga was undoubtedly a colossal business fiasco, ending as it did in Quaker's absorbing a $1.4 billion loss on the deal. As Steinberg recounts, Quaker's lack of business acumen resulted in a major financial hemorrhage and the departure of several key executives.

Despite the enormity of the Snapple debacle, the story's subtitle ("A case study in cluelessness: How one deal brought Quaker Oats to its knees") manages to exaggerate its impact on Quaker. Even after the loss, Quaker remains a Fortune 500 corporation encompassing thousands of employees and several of the world's most recognizable trademarked brands, one of which is widely endorsed by Michael Jordan. Crafting a headline about a big rich company brought to its knees is eye-catching, but not accurate. Quaker Tower is still standing on Clark Street, not reduced to smoking rubble as Steinberg breathlessly implies.

Perhaps the clearest examples of Steinberg's overweening negativity are his pseudonymous Reader contributions written as "Ed Gold." His infamous Bob Watch columns skewering the hapless Bob Greene were well-written and often hilarious deconstructions of Greene's oeuvre, easy mark though Greene was. But Steinberg's attacks became so cruel and extreme that he unwittingly left his audience behind. (Memorably, his final Bob Watch was an overblown Gothic epic culminating in the revelation that Greene is the Antichrist.) A steady stream of letters to the editor begged "Gold" for mercy as even Greene-haters reluctantly spoke out in Bob's defense.

More recently, "Gold" has directed his bile at some new patsies, the authors of low-rent books on various subjects, in his True Books review columns. Failure-minded as ever, Steinberg concludes every capsule review with a "noteworthy flaw" of the book in question, apparently intended to invite the audience into sharing his feeling of empty superiority over the quacks and dullards whose works he reviews.

Steinberg is undeniably talented but problematic in that the most entertaining parts of his writing are the potshots he takes at his victims. Examples include his describing Quaker as "a Baby Huey with cash hanging out of its pockets" and his attention to Bob Greene's fixation with Baby Richard, so painstaking as to be rightly called a fixation all its own.

Why would a smart, frequently published writer be so focused on failure? Could the reason be the most obvious one? The one closest to home? Take heart, Neil, there's still time to go to med school.

Ben Bass

Chicago

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