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

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.

Sincerely,

Edward Champion

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

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13 Comments

  1. When writers & editors like this assume readers are as dumb as they are, we all lose. I’m sure russo is thrilled his intricate character-building gets reduced like this in a national magazine.
    Is this just an open letter here? Because i think they’d benefit from having it sent directly as well.

  2. There once was an author named Rich,
    Who just had no love for a bitch.
    Though his prose was first-rate,
    His misogynist’s hate
    Drove Yabroff straight into the ditch.

  3. That one clocked at 95 mph. Ice that arm, Slugger.

  4. Spc: It was emailed to them as well.

  5. While I haven’t read Mr. Russo’s new book,I had read a couple of his works(plus,was fortunate enough to meet him during a event for his short story collection which I was one of the booksellers on hand)and he’s never stuck me as a member of the He Man Women Hater’s club.

    I need to read this crazy review first,but something tells me that the main reason Yabroff may think that Russo is not female friendly is because most of his protagonists are male. Granted,I could be wrong about that for two reasons-a)He may have had a leading lady in his cannon that I don’t know of,having not read all of his cannon and b)she may have another axe to grind.

    Either way,it would be nice if someone could just review a work of fiction without adding their own personal agendas to the mix.

  6. Oops,meant “have read” in the first sentence. Pardon my hasty grammar,please!

  7. Jacob Silverman August 6, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    I haven’t read any of Russo’s books, but the basic mistake here seems to be the attempt to impute anything about a writer from his *fiction*. Why does a review need to judge the writer and not the work?

  8. Having read all of Mr. Russo’s published books (with only the exception of this latest, I believe), I am offended on his behalf at his treatment by this reviewer.

    Perhaps his main characters are men. Perhaps his male characters are more fully examined, for the most part, than his female characters. This makes his novels and stories different from what percentage of novels and stories published by male authors? To compare him with Roth and Updike in the treatment of female characters? Get real. Either the reviewer has, at best, a superficial understanding of any of the three writers, or she has a quite dull ax to grind.

    If this is what such a reviewer would say of Richard Russo, I shudder to imagine what she’d say about Cormac McCarthy (assuming she has heard of him).

  9. […] Wallen’s snarky assault on misfits make it into this seemingly esteemed newspaper? Much as Newsweek’s Jennie Yabroff recently declared Richard Russo a “misogynist” because o…, so too does Wallen misinterpret humanity in attempting to “take down” Jennifer Weiner. […]

  10. […] call it that) in which the writer accused him of being a misogynist. I’ve read a few elegant refutations of that claim by other members of the literary community, but I wanted to hear it straight from the […]

  11. […] Discussed: [List forthcoming, but lots in the latter half of the show about the Newsweek piece and the perceptive problems with close […]

  12. […] in today’s Chicago Sun-Times. And just to be clear on this, I filed my review weeks before I offered my thoughts on the Newsweek contretemps and before my second interview with the […]

  13. Many times I wish I were a better writer or read more novels to completion. I did read Monhegan Light twice, so struck was I with its human insight concerning deluded males (a species I am a member) .
    What struck me was the story’s empathy- I found nothing hateful about it and remarkable in its ability to understand and articulate something I probably would fall short trying. Thank you for defending Mr. Russo’s story so eloquently!!!

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