An Open Letter to Newsweek’s Richard Smith and Jon Meacham

Posted by in russo-richard

Dear Messrs. Smith and Meacham:

It was bad enough when you obliterated nearly all of your arts editors and senior cultural critics with the March 2008 buyouts. But, even before this great purge, your magazine was notably egregious. Malcolm Jones couldn’t be bothered to perform the basic professional task of reading the entirety of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, but you ran his “review” anyway instead of canning his ass. (Interestingly, Mr. Jones’s “review” has been conveniently deleted from the Newsweek website.)

The Newsweek “article” posted today, Jennie Yabroff’s “Is Author Richard Russo A Misogynist?,” an ostensible “review” of Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic, is easily the stupidest and most gaffe-ridden article I’ve read this year. And I read a good deal of arts journalism. To call your magazine a “news outlet” would be as honorable and unpardonable as handing out AK-47s to mass-murderers. You people are amateurs on the arts front. And you have no business running such sloppy journalism.

Beginning with Yabroff’s misuse of “sprung” (instead of the grammatically correct “sprang”), your editors proceed to permit Ms. Yabroff to commit a relentless series of mistakes, all easily confirmed against the book in question. Ms. Yabroff does not seem to understand that Russo’s male characters are helpless without the women who surround them. But because Russo often writes in a comic tone, Ms. Yabroff overlooks the “roughness” within Russo that she praises in several elder literary statesmen. “Humankind” is one word, not two. Kent Haruf a “homey” writer? Uh, no. Haruf’s novel Plainsong deals with brothers who leave their ranch to go to college. (So, for that matter, does Wally Lamb in part with college.) Homey is “home” or “comfortable,” not small town. And I think it’s safe to say that Lamb’s Couldn’t Keep It To Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters puts to rest Ms. Yabroff’s false conclusion. (And if interviewing women prisoners doesn’t “extend to readers who carry Y chromosomes,” I don’t know what does.)

And that’s just the first paragraph. Where the hell were your copy editors? Or your editors? Did they even read the piece?

Ms. Yabroff writes, “Shrew or saint, they are single-minded and laser-focused on their goals, which are either to aid (the angels) or thwart (the bitches) the protagonist in his pursuit of happiness.” Um, no. It is actually Joy (Griffin’s wife) who is rather certain with her goals, while it is Griffin who cannot decide whether he wants to be a professor or a screenwriter (or even a fiction writer). You see, in the book, which it appears that Ms. Yabroff skimmed instead of reading, the couple settled on The Great Truro Accord, in which Joy and Griffin agreed to get their act together by a certain time. It is she who demands that Griffin take a loan from her parents and be an adult. And in the example that Ms. Yabroff uses from the story “Monhegan Light,” she fails to point out that Martin is regularly revealed to be wrong. The story’s first sentence? “Well, he’d been wrong, Martin had to admit as the Monhegan began to take shape on the horizon.” We immediately understand that the claims of wrongness come from Martin’s perspective in close third-person. His observations about Beth come from the same perspective, as does the raised eyebrow. But what Ms. Yabroff doesn’t report (and this is pivotal to the story in question) is that Martin’s wife has died and Martin hasn’t been honest with Beth. And he hasn’t been honest with himself. His grief has colored his ability to relate to all people. This is clearly not Martin’s pursuit of happiness. Later in the story, Russo writes: “What folly, Martin couldn’t help concluding, bitterly, as he contemplated the lovely young woman sleeping at his side; it was his destiny, no doubt, to sell her short as well.”

Russo’s women “aren’t afforded the luxury of conflict or shortcomings?” Where do we begin to refute this false generalization? Empire Falls‘s Janine — the ex-wife of Miles? Or Tick, the angry daughter disapproving of Janine’s marriage to the Silver Fox? Bridge of Sighs‘s Sarah Berg, who must choose between two high-school classmates while knowing that she is the one who keeps them together? (Her choice, incidentally, forces her to confront significant artistic shortcomings.) Or how about Nobody’s Fool‘s Beryl? The octogenarian landlady who knows more about life than anybody in the novel? It appears that Ms. Yabroff has possibly confused Russo’s deceptively simple prose for the insipid sitcoms she appears to be quite fond of. Understanding Russo involves enjoying the subtextual behavioral mannerisms and the quiet little lines that reveal wisdom. What does Griffin’s mother say to her son in That Old Cape Magic? “Wait till you’re my age and memory is all you have.” One sees with this simple line the perceptive failings that transcend both age and gender. This is a long way away from trashy television.

And, no, Joy doesn’t “condescendingly” inform Griffin of the line. The specific phrasing from the book: “as if she would’ve liked to ask where in the world he’d done his graduate work.” The meaning here is clear. Here is a professor so supposedly smart, but unable to see what’s before him. That’s not condescending. It’s the “Geez, you dolt. It’s all right in front of you” reaction that people are prone to adopt. I don’t know how young Ms. Yabroff is, but I suspect that she is quite possibly not possessed of the pivotal life experience required to understand such distinctions. Either way, such a clear misreading of Russo indicates that she was obviously not cut out for the job.

I believe I’ve already sufficiently responded to Ms. Yabroff’s outright irresponsible claim that “Russo’s books simmer with hostility toward women in general.” And if Ms. Yabroff is such a sheltered and terrified individual (certainly, your magazine must be if it cannot find the courage to print the commonplace word “pussy”) as to not understand the everyday conversational exaggeration that occurs when men get together (an opening scene in Empire Falls cited, rather ridiculously, as “resentment”), then she cannot be helped in comprehending the fantastic spectrum of humanity.

No, Ms. Yabroff is such an incompetent reader that she finds one passage “troubling because it’s impossible to tell who’s speaking.” As I have already elucidated in the paragraph about “Monhegan Light,” Russo commonly employs a close third-person narrative device. If Ms. Yabroff is incapable of comprehending the difference between first-person and third-person — a rudimentary aspect of reading comprehension that is taught in most elementary schools — then your contributor clearly lacks the brains, the interpretive exigencies, and the perceptive acumen to review books for a national magazine. I do not know how such a boneheaded and incompetent reviewer could have possibly been selected for your pages — particularly when Newsweek has the pick of the litter what with many freelance journalists looking for work and a rising unemployment rate.

The only logical conclusion is that Newsweek isn’t a serious magazine and isn’t interested in employing serious writers or editors. It is far more concerned in proving its irrelevancy with such astonishingly amateurish pieces. And you will die a very hard death if you keep this up. The people aren’t nearly as stupid as you think they are.

I demand an explanation for how you could allow so many mistakes and so many curdish and tone-deaf observations to pass through your ratty cheesecloth.


Edward Champion

[UPDATE: Bethanne Patrick also offers a lengthy post refuting Yabroff's claims.]

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