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The Book Reviewer’s Downgraded Credit Rating

On August 6, 2011, The Los Angeles Review of Books‘s Tom Lutz published an essay about the future of book reviewing suggesting some evolution of “old-school commerce” through a somewhat questionable “private philanthropy.” Rightly decrying The Los Angeles Times‘s recent decision to cut its entire freelancing budget devoted to books coverage (which included Susan Salter Reynolds, ignominiously diminished from staff position to freelancer in order to save her corporate employer of twenty-three years some money), Lutz lamented “the agonizing death of print journalism” while also expressing his hope that his own outlet could “raise the money from foundations, private individuals, and advertising to reemploy at least a few of the people who have been washed out to sea by the seemingly endless waves of firing and cutbacks in the print world.”

Lutz further claimed that there was “a missing generation of journalists” — with the last “youngster” at the Times being Carolyn Kellogg in her mid-forties. What Lutz failed to observe, however, was that Kellogg was plucked from the online world. What he also did not acknowledge is that The Los Angeles Review of Books is not a print outlet, but an online one. And while the quality of Lutz’s stewardship has been commendable so far — especially his recent efforts to find new regular perches for both Reynolds and Richard Rayner (another Times freelancer let go) — he has failed to be transparent about the degree to which he is paying his contributors. He has indicated that The Los Angeles Review of Books has “raised about 10% of what we need,” but he has not offered a specific dollar amount, much less any revenue-generating plans outside of selling T-shirts and tote bags.

Financially speaking, The Los Angeles Review of Books is no different from any other group blog or online magazine. As Full Stop‘s Alex Shephard observed, the question of basic survival is crucial to all writers, regardless of where they come from. The Los Angeles Review of Books‘s present interface relies on Tumblr and, even though it has featured close to 100 posts, it is just as dependent on volunteers and donated time as any other online outlet. As such, so long as it does not pay, it assigns zero value to the labor of its contributors, which makes it not altogether different from The Huffington Post.

Lutz’s biggest oversight — a blunder likely inadvertent, but one nevertheless insulting to the many journalists currently toiling online for free — was his failure to acknowledge the countless outlets that have sprouted up in response to a diminishing book reviewing climate. Missing generation of journalists? What of The Millions, The Rumpus, Full Stop, The Quarterly Conversation, the reviews recently introduced at HTML Giant, Open Letters Monthly, the monthly reviews over at Bookslut, Words Without Borders, and other quality outlets too numerous for me to list? Reynolds, Rayner, and Sonja Bolle have certainly read a great deal. But what of the twin deaths of Ed Park’s science fiction column (Astral Weeks) and Sarah Weinman’s mystery column (Dark Passages)? Both of these serious readers disappeared only a few months before the latest assault on Times contributors. Even if Park and Weinman were discouraged from continuing their vital columns, walking away from their respective gigs because of frustration with those running the show, they were nevertheless victims of the Los Angeles Times‘s ongoing war against books coverage. Real editors would have committed themselves to keeping Park and Weinman on board. And what of Reynolds’s comment at this Publishers Weekly article?

I offered to continue writing for very little money until things got better. Also the quote about continued commitment is insulting to readers’ intelligence. When I was laid off a year and a half ago I was assured by the editor of the book section that it was purely cost cutting and there would be no more hires. Next thing I knew he had become the book critic and then they hired a full time blogger one month later. I understand these are tough times but isn’t publishing a world in which expertise has some value?

* * *

Lutz’s essay is unwilling to swallow the bitter pill: in a world of free, expertise no longer has any value. The National Books Critics Circle can hold all the panels it likes about the state of book reviewing, but this clueless organization of ostensible professionals refuses to comprehend the present journalistic environment. On the books front, there are few places left for paying journalists.

Are times now so tough that we cannot find ways to prop up our peeps? Don’t journalists or books experts deserve to be paid for their work?

The above video, featuring the angry writer Harlan Ellison, has been watched more than a half million times on YouTube. In it, Ellison rightfully points to the fact that most writers offer their services for free and that he, as a professional, has been “undercut by all the amateurs.” Ellison, much like the majority of book reviewers left coughing in the dust of recent cutbacks, faces a ramshackle system in which those who want the content are so used to getting it for free that they expect writers of all stripes to surrender their labor for nothing.

While the many book websites I have mentioned above continue to offer quality material, the writers who spend their hours carefully reading books and carefully writing essays quietly turn in their work. They cultivate relationships with editors, hoping that their endless apprenticeships will eventually lead to stratagems that cover some sliver of the rent.

Meanwhile, those at the top continue to show no interest in offering a break or two to the next generation. But they are all too happy to lead them on. Organizations such as the NBCC offer “freelancing guides” as an incentive to woo a declining membership, while hiding the fact that The Believer only pays $75 for a review (and takes as long as two years to pay some of its contributors) and that the Boston Globe pays as little as $150 for a review. The dirty little secret is that freelancers get paid hardly anything. A fortuitous freelancer can count on a sum just under $200 if a review is commissioned by the Dallas Morning News, the San Francisco Chronicle, or the Philly Inquirer. But shouldn’t one expect more from three of the top 50 United States newspapers? If we translate that $200 into labor — let’s say that it takes about fifteen hours to read a book and five hours to write the review — the freelancer basically earns around $10/hour before paying taxes. You could probably make more money working at a touchless car wash. Small wonder that so many, including yours truly, have dropped out of this dubious racket, leaving it to increasingly sour practitioners. Book reviewing has reached a point where those who are left practically have to beg editors to get into a slot. And if book reviewing has become a vocation in which veteran and novice alike must debase themselves for scraps, one must legitimately ask if there’s any real point in such an uncivilized and undercompensated trade carrying on. Perhaps, like the ending of Barry Lyndon, it comes down to this: “good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.”

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Against Essays About Reviews That Have No Corresponding Set of Virtues

When Elizabeth Hardwick wrote of the “sweet, bland commendations” that plagued the book reviewing scene in 1959, she was protesting a few anti-intellectual developments at the time: (1) the hubris of then New York Times Book Review editor Francis Brown claiming in an interview that his outlet was superior to the Times Literary Supplement simply because “[t]hey have a narrow audience and we have a narrow one” (while failing to comprehend the editorial rigor then in place at many English newspapers) and (2) the fact that 44.3% of the reviews appearing in Book Review Digest were non-committal, thus providing a laughably self-undermining idea of what the book review was (one sees such a disastrous approach in place presently with The Barnes & Noble Review, which, in deference to its corporate entity, publishes mostly raves, regularly stubs out passionate voices, and fires any freelancer who offers fair journalistic reports on the parent company in another venue). In other words, Hardwick was pointing out that book reviews were little more than publicity, with “Time readers, having learned Time‘s opinion of a book, feel[ing] that they have somehow already read the book, or if not quite that, if not read, at least taken it in, experienced it as a ‘fact of our time.'”

Hardwick was not suggesting that the book review was dead, nor did she entirely stand against critical writing. She was calling for robust standards standing independent from the sausage factory. And when one looks at a woefully deficient “outlet” like Jacket Copy — with its superficial concerns (just in the last few days) for Keanu Reeves poetry books, its interest in Slavoj Žižek only in relationship to Lady Gaga, and Stieg Larsson considered only through personal gossip — one observes very clearly how the literary journalism’s clear debasement has been dyed to the roots, with any natural voice destroyed in the noise of forcing commenters to sign on to Facebook.

Despite all this, I must stand firmly against Elizabeth Gumport’s recent suggestion that we nuke the site from orbit. Unlike the previous Elizabeth, whom Gumport quotes, this Elizabeth doesn’t stand for any corresponding set of virtues. She asks for an end to the inanity of a book review outlet being “nothing more than a list of books,” but she assumes that “[n]ot only do we not want to read about Gary Shteyngart’s latest novel, we don’t even want to know it exists.” To which this reader of Larsson, Shteyngart, Joyce, Mieville, and Go the Fuck to Sleep responds, “Speak for yourself, O Boring and Incurious One!”

In quoting Virginia Woolf’s 1939 essay, “Reviewing,” Gumport fails to understand that Woolf was condemning a scenario whereby sixty reviewers at once assured the reader that some book was a masterpiece, while pointing out that the reviewer’s position more than seventy years ago was unsatisfactory (then as it is now). Reviewers were then forced to write quick spurts in haste for scant pay. And it is this observation (rather than the asterisks) that begs the comparison to Kirkus and Publishers Weekly — outlets that have both been slashing their compensation in recent years, even charging publishers for the privilege of being reviewed. (Seven years after Woolf, George Orwell offered his memorable portrait of a book reviewer as “a man in a moth-eaten dressing gown sit[ting] at a rickety table, trying to find room for his typewriter among the piles of dusty papers that surround it.”) It does not occur to Gumport that improving the reviewer’s dim station — whether by offering her more adequate compensation or hiring one more committed to well-grounded thought and passion writing at less frequency — may actually improve the quality of reviews. Gumport also doesn’t seem to understand that Woolf was clearly having a laugh with her piece:

There remains finally the most important, but the most difficult of all these questions — what effect would the abolition of the reviewer have upon literature? Some reasons for thinking that the smashing of the shop window would make for the better health of that remote goddess have already been implied. The writer would withdraw into the darkness of the workshop; he would no longer carry on his difficult and delicate task like a trouser mender in Oxford Street, with a horde of reviewers pressing their noses to the glass and commenting to a curious crowd upon each stitch.

With Woolf’s wry context revealed, Gumport reveals herself to be an upholder of the n+1 aesthetic: humorless misreads of seminal essays sprinkled with polemical cayenne. In failing to think, Gumport is no different from her characterization of book reviews: pointless in her condemnations, snotty and recidivist in suggesting that nobody is interested in a review aside from the author (especially when so many authors wisely ignore the takedowns and the hatchet jobs of their work), and, most criminally, without so much as a positive counterpart. As my online colleague Michael Orthofer has suggested, “the whole exercise appears pointless — like a piece ‘Against Blue’ or ‘Against Soup’.” Or, for that matter, an essay called “Against Essays About Reviews That Have No Corresponding Set of Virtues.”

UPDATE: Tom Lutz has also responded at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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Superficial Reading: Cynthia Ozick and Critical Pygmies

When Zadie Smith reworked E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End* into her excellent novel, On Beauty, few reviewers expressed dismay at her creative methodology. Frank Rich, who raved about Smith’s novel in The New York Times, noted “the blunt declaration of Smith’s intention to pay homage” in Smith’s first sentence. The Washington Post‘s Michael Dirda, who was even more effusive than Rich, called Smith’s novel “subtly laced with learned allusions” — which was something of an understatement. Similarly, Jonathan Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence” was also celebrated for appropriating numerous texts — even included in the 2008 edition of The Best American Essays.

In an age where Girl Talk and Creative Commons are as mainstream as Johnny Mathis, remixing and repurposing is clearly the usual, something to be celebrated among our greatest literary practitioners. Yet it is rather extraordinary that a few reviewers — all conspicuously out-of-touch with this present temperament — have seen fit to punish an author, one who has pretty much earned the right to do anything she wants, for reworking a novel considered to be a classic. What is most interesting about these feeble hatchet men is how little they comprehend the text they wish to feed to the dogs.

Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies has been bitchslapped by The Los Angeles Times‘s David Ulin, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Mike Fischer, and The Seattle Times‘s Michael Upchurch for a novel that is, respectively, “more schematic than engaged,” “doesn’t have the texture or plumb the depths that anchor James’ metaphor-rich prose,” and “a great premise — disappointingly handled.”

Upchurch’s indolent 300 word review — indistinguishable from a cranky Goodreads capsule banged out by a drunk in a matter of minutes — can be easily dispensed with. All Upchurch manages is a chickenheaded concatenation of pusillanimous modifiers (“crude,” “thin,” “choppy,” “baffling,” and so forth) for Ozick’s latest. He guzzles down his precious column inches praising James, as if desiring some librarian to pin a gold star to his lapel for dutiful reading, and he writes that Ozick “introduces [a] bracing, brutal twist without really developing it” without bothering to explain why. (This is not dissimilar Ulin’s sloppy pronouncement that Foreign Bodies “remains curiously unsatisfying.” More on Ulin in a mite.)

When one explores the Goodreads page for Ozick’s book, one discovers that even the reviewers who didn’t care for the book have more clarity and plenitude than Upchurch:

She is really a wonderful writer with a unique presentation and style. However I did not rate this higher as I liked none of the characters, not at all or even a little bit. They all had significant flaws and I found the reading experience unpleasant as they were just all so annoying. I did not care really what happened to any of them although I was curious enough to finish the rather short book and had hopes that they would change a little or something other than what they were throughout.

That comes from a Goodreads user named Allyson. Writing in her spare time, Allyson offers a more valuable negative review than Upchurch. She articulates — in fewer words than Upchurch — that she didn’t care for any of the characters, but notes that she was attracted to the style. And she also seems genuinely taken aback — certainly more than the newspaper naysayers. By contrast, Upchurch writes, “We also get prose that too often flails hyperbolically as it paints its grotesques.” Like Allyson, Upchurch doesn’t really expand on his observation. But Allyson is not so quick to condemn. The outside observer, curious about the balance between style and characters, is more interested in Allyson’s review. Therefore, why would any news outlet pay Upchurch money when we can get the same material for free? I understand that Upchurch has had his space cut. But Upchurch, in sticking with the superficial in his review, offers us no reasonable justification for his professional existence. He is as joyful as a starving urchin in Calcutta. One desperately wishes to feed him.

Of Foreign Bodies, David Ulin claims “there are no overt references to the novel, other than a few puns and one-liners.” Yet even in Ozick’s second chapter (the first after a letter), one encounters quite a number of Jamesian references.

In The Ambassadors, James’s Paris is often quite cold. Chad’s house, formed from “the complexion of the stone, a cold fair grey, warmed and polished a little by life,” takes “all the March sun.” Strether is led into “the rather cold and blank little studio.” Madame de Vionnet leads Strether into an antechamber that’s “a little cold and slippery even in summer.” By contrast, Ozick’s postwar Paris is piping hot, the victim of “a ferocious heat wave assault[ing] Europe.” Bea walks “through the roasting miasma of late afternoon” and in search of nonexistent air-conditioners. A superficial reader may view such an inversion to be merely the “mirror image” that Ulin claims it to be. But if Foreign Bodies is simply swapping the twin taps, why then would Bea also encounter a “visionary living robot” at a department store, which also has the “familiar” consolation of “cold air?” Ozick isn’t simply reversing The Ambassadors. She’s studying how French-American cultural relationships have developed over the fifty years since The Ambassadors. Ozick’s ravaged version of postwar Paris is quite different than the cultural mecca that enticed Strether, yet she daringly suggests that the new Paris appeals to Americans who are “vigorous, ambitious, cheerful, and given to drink” — “literary tourists” who are hoping to “summon the past.” From The Ambassadors:

Nothing could have been odder than Strether’s sense of himself as at that moment launched in something of which the sense would be quite disconnected from the sense of his past and which was literally beginning there and then.

Ulin declares Ozick’s novel as merely “a counterpart” and “a mirror image, James’s story turned around.” But this lazy thesis fails to account for the Suite Eyre spa in California, featured near the end of Ozick’s novel, which serves almost as an wry answer to Thomas Mann’s European spas. Where The National Post‘s Philip Marchand rightfully observes that “not every character in Ozick’s novel is based on Henry James,” for Ulin, Foreign Bodies “seems more schematic than engaged.” By contrast, The Barnes and Noble Review‘s Tom LeClair is more daring (and interesting) in his suggestion that Ozick is responding in a way to a particularly callow interviewer who began his conversation by telling Ozick that her work was cut off from contemporary culture (and who then got his ass handed to him). Evidence for LeClair’s theory can be found within the novel, which concerns itself with sexual candor, abortion, and several other subjects that occupy our present time. But LeClair, in attempting to pursue “the physical revulsion and spleen that circulate through the novel,” offers a more curious and less turgid investigation than Ulin. Ulin’s inability to see Lili as little more than a refugee who marries Julian suggests very highly that Ulin skimmed (if that) the book’s last 100 pages, which offer quite a bit more with a figure named Kleinman.

Ulin’s miserly efforts to corral Ozick’s novel against another are matched by Mike Fischer’s impoverished interpretation. Fischer lauds one Ozick passage that “James could have written” and notes that Foreign Bodies “is filled with similarly uncanny echoes of the Master’s voice.” But he is too much of an incurious James fanboy to consider Ozick’s book on its own terms. He is blindsided by how closely Foreign Bodies aligns with The Ambassadors. And like Ulin, he too seems to have skimmed the final 100 pages. Fischer observes “the washed-out watercolors of Marvin’s two maddeningly inconsistent children,” which isn’t so much a cogent observation but an inept attempt at wit. Fischer likewise doesn’t have the acumen to consider Margaret’s vital presence as anything more than a sketch representing “narrative neglect.” (Never mind that Ozick, imbuing Margaret with a pebble in her heel, is exploring the symbolic possibilities of spousal neglect cast against an American backdrop.) Fischer makes no mention of the book’s careful concerns with the corporeal. And there’s one vital clue for Fischer’s doddering take in this “narrative neglect.” Near the end of Fischer’s review, Fischer claims that Ozick’s readers “stumble in the dark,” because “we’re not given an object lesson on the moral ambiguity that is central to understanding James.” This is no doubt a reference to James’s “The Art of Fiction,” in which the Master threw a famous fit over Walter Besant’s “conscious moral purpose.” But “conscious moral purpose” (or even James’s “air of reality”) isn’t the sole reason to read a novel. (Indeed, this is precisely what James was arguing.) Only a precocious child would ascribe such a singular criteria when assessing a book. But Fischer — “a Milwaukee lawyer and writer” and, quite possibly, a moribund Grisham aspirant — wishes to fish with a puny pole that will never hit the sediment.

It’s bad enough that Upchurch, Ulin, and Fischer’s conservative-minded deference for the original text prevents this bubble gum chewing trio from appreciating what Ozick is trying to do. Updike’s first Rule for Reviewing — “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt” — has clearly been tossed out the window. But what makes these three reviews especially troubling is the instant drift to the superficial. This is especially dishonorable with a novel embedded with all manner of treasures. Not one of these three men proved capable of observing the canny way that Ozick closes the book at the turn of the year. Not one of these three men proved capable of understanding composer Leo Coopersmith’s role in the narrative, much less paying close attention to the way Ozick describes voices and musical instruments. (An opportunity to explore what Ozick’s novel in music might have been welcomed in a newspaper. But why attempt serious criticism when you’re firing blank bons mot?)

Robert Birnbaum, writing about Ozick in The San Francisco Chronicle, is quite right in suggesting that “the enterprise of book reviewing has become degraded.” When critical pygmies wish to denigrate an author that they lack the time or the curiosity to comprehend, one wonders why such infants aren’t devoting their pens to matters more suited to their collective ken: perhaps snarky synopses of television episodes or vapid profiles of Hollywood celebrities. If these are the hollow considerations we’re getting, then the death of newspapers couldn’t arrive any faster.

* — One fun fact: Forster, rather famously, didn’t care much for Henry James. Of The Ambassadors, Forster wrote:

The James novels are a unique possession and the reader who cannot accept his premises misses some valuable and exquisite sensations. But I do not want more of his novels, especially when they are written by some one else, just as I do not want the art of Akhenathon to extend into the reign of Tutankhamen.

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Why Does Michiko Kakutani Hate Fiction So Much?

The New York Times‘s Michiko Kakutani has rightly earned the wrath of fiction authors for her scathing reviews. But until now, nobody has thought to collect some loosely quantifiable data with which to demonstrate just how much Kakutani hates fiction.

So here’s a breakdown of Kakutani’s last twenty-seven fiction reviews, written between the period of May 2009 and May 2010.

May 11, 2010: Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow called “a remarkably tedious new novel.” Verdict? HATED IT (0).

Aprl 28, 2010: “Suffice it to say that the fans of Presumed Innocent who can suspend their disbelief for the first couple of chapters of this follow-up will not be disappointed. ” She also spoils several plot twists contained within Scott Turow’s Innocent. Verdict? HATED IT (0).

April 22, 2010: Sue Miller’s The Lake Shore Limited is declared “her most nuanced and unsentimental novel to date.” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

April 13, 2010: Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil “is every bit as misconceived and offensive as his earlier book was fetching.” Verdict? HATED IT (0).

March 30, 2010: Of Solar, Kakutani declares the book “ultimately one of the immensely talented Mr. McEwan’s decidedly lesser efforts.” Verdict? HATED IT (with scant positive remarks) (0).

March 9, 2010: On Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered, Kakutani writes, “Mr. Lee writes with such intimate knowledge of his characters’ inner lives and such an understanding of the echoing fallout of war that most readers won’t pause to consider such lapses ” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

March 2, 2010: In So Much for That, Lionel Shriver “turns this schematic outline into a visceral and deeply affecting story.” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

February 12, 2010: T.C. Boyle’s Wild Child serves up “dashed-off portraits of pathetic weirdos; curiously, some of the most powerful entries in this volume also deal with frustrated, unhappy people, but people depicted with a mixture of sympathy and skepticism, emotional insight and dagger-sharp wit.” Verdict? MIXED (0.5).

February 7, 2010: Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic “is a lumpy, disappointing book.” Verdict? HATED IT (0).

February 1, 2010: Of Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, Kakutani writes “there is something suffocating and airless about this entire production.” Verdict? HATED IT (0).

January 28, 2010: Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey is “an ingeniously Borgesian novel that’s witty, playful, moving and tirelessly inventive.” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

January 26, 2010: Robert Stone’s Fun with Problems is “a grab-bag collection that’s full of Mr. Stone’s liabilities as a writer, with only a glimpse here and there of his strengths.” Verdict? HATED IT (0).

January 4, 2010: Anne Tyler’s Noah’s Compass “devolves into a predictable and highly contrived tale of one man’s late midlife crisis.” Verdict? HATED IT (0).

December 14, 2009: Norberto Fuentes’s The Autobiography of Fidel Castro is “a fascinating new novel.” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

November 29, 2009: The stories contained within Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness “are more nuanced and intriguing than such bald summaries might suggest. And yet the willful melodramatics of these tales make them far cruder than Ms. Munro’s best work.” Verdict? MIXED (0.5).

November 9, 2009: Vladmir Nabokov’s The Original of Laura “will beckon and beguile Nabokov fans” despite being a “fetal rendering of whatever it was that Nabokov held within his imagination.” Verdict? MIXED (0.5).

October 26, 2009: John Irving’s Last Night in Twisted River “evolves into a deeply felt and often moving story,” despite its flaws. Verdict? LIKED IT (but with caution) (1).

October 22, 2009: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes “read like heavy-handed O. Henry-esque exercises; they are psychologically obtuse, clumsily plotted and implausibly contrived.” Verdict? HATED IT (0).

October 12, 2009: Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City is a “tedious, overstuffed novel.” Verdict? HATED IT (0).

September 21, 2009: Audrey Niffenegger’s Symmetry is “an entertaining but not terribly resonant ghost story.” Verdict? LIKED IT (but with caution) (1).

September 14, 2009: With The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood “has succeeded in writing a gripping and visceral book that showcases the pure storytelling talents she displayed with such verve in her 2000 novel, The Blind Assassin.” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

August 31, 2009: E.L. Doctorow’s Homer & Langley “has no Poe-like moral resonance. It’s simply a depressing tale of two shut-ins who withdrew from life to preside over their own ‘kingdom of rubble.'” Verdict? HATED IT (0).

August 27, 2009: With A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore has “written her most powerful book yet.” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

August 3, 2009: Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice “feels more like a Classic Comics version of a Pynchon novel than like the thing itself.” Verdict? MIXED (0.5).

July 16, 2009: Stieg Laarson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire “boasts an intricate, puzzlelike story line that attests to Mr. Larsson’s improved plotting abilities.” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

July 2, 2009: Chimamanda Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck is an “affecting collection of stories.” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

June 29, 2009: Shahriar Mandanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story “leaves the reader with a harrowing sense of what it is like to live in Tehran under the mullahs’ rule.” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

Based on our point system, over the course of 27 reviews, Michiko Kakutani has awarded 14 positive points to fiction. And when we do the math, we see that Kakutani enjoys fiction about 51.9% of the time.

Is such a high percentage of negative reviews unreasonable? Judging by the Top Reviewers index on Publishers Marketplace, which has tracked reviewers since October 2002, it would appear so. Kakutani is more negative than what is reasonably expected from a professional critic. And if we rank all professional reviewers in order of negativity, we find only five reviewers who have a negativity percentage over 25%.

Out of 46 reviews, 48% of Edward Champion’s reviews are negative.*
Out of 63 reviews, 44% of Charles Taylor’s reviews are negative.
Out of 29 reviews, 38% of Christopher Kelly’s reviews are negative.
Out of 29 reviews, 38% of Ilan Stavans’s reviews are negative.
Out of 38 reviews, 37% of Mike Fischer’s reviews are negative.
Out of 232 reviews, 32% of Bob Hoover’s reviews are negative.
Out of 27 reviews, 30% of Robert Cremins’s reviews are negative.
Out of 28 reviews, 29% of Louisa Thomas’s reviews are negative.
Out of 31 reviews, 29% of Donna Freydkin’s reviews are negative.
Out of 48 reviews, 29% of Clay Reynolds’s reviews are negative.
Out of 26 reviews, 27% of Francine Prose’s reviews are negative.
Out of 27 reviews, 26% of Lorraine Adams’s reviews are negative.
Out of 45 reviews, 27% of Saul Austerlitz’s reviews are negative.
Out of 63 reviews, 27% of Donna Rifkind’s reviews are negative.
Out of 42 reviews, 26% of Robert Braile’s reviews are negative.
Out of 62 reviews, 26% of Kristin Latina’s reviews are negative.

So that’s sixteen reviewers (out of a total of 361) who are miserable enough to award at least a quarter of the books that they review a negative rating. In other words, a mere 4.4% of reviewers have hated more than 25% of the fiction that they write about.

And if we account solely for Kakutani’s fiction reviews in the past twelve months, Kakutani is more negative than any professional reviewer in the past eight years. Kakutani hates 48.1% of the fiction she reads. She barely edges out this odious Ed Champion fellow, who I will certainly be having a talk with later this afternoon.

Or to frame this revelation another way, in the past twelve months, the only reviewer more obnoxious than Edward Champion is Michiko Kakutani.

And when a reviewer is this negative, one must ask one a vital question. Should she continue to be paid to write reviews?

* — Nobody was more alarmed by this percentage than me. While Michael Cader is permitted his estimate, I should point out that there are numerous positive reviews I’ve written he hasn’t counted.

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Interview with Keir Graff

In the wake of Kirkus Reviews‘s folding, I asked Booklist senior editor Keir Graff a few questions on the future of book review publications. He was very gracious and offered considerable answers.

Do you foresee Kirkus‘s closing having any editorial impact on present Booklist editorial policies? Will you be expanding your reviews? Changing the tone? Attempting to fill in any gaps left by Kirkus?

keirgraffInteresting question. Ron Charles eulogized “the last reliable source of negative reviews.” And, accurately or inaccurately, there is a definite perception of Booklist reviews as being “positive.” This is because of our recommend-only policy, which, briefly, means that we only review books we can recommend. Our core audience is librarians who use our reviews to buy books. And when the policy was implemented, the thinking was that, by publishing reviews that ended with a “do not buy,” we were wasting librarians’ valuable time.

Of course, the uses of Booklist reviews have evolved, and they are now used by readers’ advisors, licensed to Amazon, etc. And, as those uses have evolved, the concept of “recommend-only” has evolved, as anyone who reads our Upfront reviews knows: there are books we recommend because there will be patron demand, but that we think are horrible, and we say that — hopefully helping larger libraries know how many copies to buy.

But the short answer is that we won’t suddenly be doing more negative reviews. Despite the economic downturn, we have been able to review more books with each passing year, in part by reviewing more of them online. And while Kirkus‘s demise certainly leaves the whole industry poorer, I imagine there may be an opportunity in trying to fill the gap for Kirkus‘s subscribers. Our format is different, but for the harried Hollywood development exec, the volume and breadth of our review coverage could help fill a void, I’m sure.

(For more on our reviewing policy, you can go here.)

What is Booklist‘s present prognosis? Do you feel the worst has come to pass? Is there a timetable in place concerning Booklist‘s commitment to the future? Do you plan to maintain the present levels of compensation to reviewers?

Our fiscal year runs September to August, and the last fiscal year was, as you might guess, pretty awful. We’re doing better this year, especially in terms of new initiatives such as e-newsletters and webinars. And by using the word “initiatives” I have just sounded I work in marketing. But, yes, the worst has come to pass — at least for the foreseeable future. There is no timetable, but as we draw up next year’s budget, we’re going to have some big-picture talks about the future. The online environment is pretty key to all of that. Our compensation to reviewers has always been very modest, almost an honorarium, but we have no plans to cut it. (And we do pay our bloggers!)

You have reached out to the online world with your blog and through Twitter. Have these had any unique effect on Booklist? Do you see Booklist stretching out more of its review coverage into online waters? Concerning the balance between news and reviews, do you feel that Booklist needs to work more on the breaking news front to attract eyeballs and readers? If so, why?

Yes, we now have five blogs and two twitter feeds. That, and the free content on Booklist Online, have both helped us reach a wider audience and helped that audience reach us. We’ve always felt that Booklist reviews, though written for working librarians, could appeal more to the general public, simply because they’re written by smart book lovers who use rich language to make their points. But because Booklist is not available on newstands, we had a hard time reaching that public during the print era. Online, there have been great opportunities to broaden our reach without commensurate cost. Perhaps ironically, though, our biggest successes haven’t had to do with social media, but have come through plain, old e-newsletters.

Earlier I said that we’re reviewing more and more books, and this has been possible through our Booklist Online Exclusive reviews. In 2006, we published 32 of them; in 2007, 185; in 2008, 669; this year, 1,205. We’re able to quickly turn around embargoed and hot-topic books but also to flesh out coverage of the kind of meat-and-potatoes titles that libraries need to know about but that we might not have room for in the print magazine (for example, a brief mention of book 7 in a long-running hardcore sf/fantasy series). (All of our web-exclusive reviews, by the way, are made available for free via our Booklist Online Exclusives newsletter.)

Covering breaking news has never been our primary mission. But, yes, once you’re online, you need to keep current, and book reviews and author interviews will only get you so far. Our bloggers do use other peoples’ reporting as a way to link to our content. For example, when awards are announced, we often publish the list with book titles linked to our reviews. But because our web presence is only one part of our publishing program, we’re not in a desperate race for eyeballs the way, say, Gawker Media is.

How important are reviews to Booklist’s long-term strategy? Have we reached a point in which prepub reviews have less of a valid position in the marketplace? Or do the present financial hits upon book-related publications have more to do with other economic developments? If so, can you identify these and explain your position.

Book reviews remain central to our long-term strategy. Given our mission, helping librarians decide which books to purchase, any radical change of direction would be like breaking a contract. Librarians need and use our reviews, as we’re reminded every time we go to a conference.

As you know, the topic of print vs. online, of The Man vs. The Bloggers, has been talked to death, often in terms as unfortunately oversimplified as those I’ve just used. And in defending the importance of what we do, I’m leery of getting drawn into that unwinnable argument. I believe that coexistence is not only desirable but essential to a healthy literary ecosystem. Publishers can get excited about the immediacy of much of the blog coverage they get: they send out books, and all of a sudden reviews start popping up. Some of them are thoughtful and well written, like yours, and some of them are excited summaries by fans. All great. We can’t compete with that because we receive them, assign them to reviewers, send them, edit them, lay them out in print, format them carefully for online, etc. — but by the time they’re published, they’ve passed through many hands and received the benefit of a great deal of collective experience and perspective. Old-school crowd-sourcing, if you will.

I think, too, that journals such as Booklist, Kirkus, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, all in some way perform the kind of function that newspapers do, or should, or used to, which is to offer readers a selection that they wouldn’t necessarily have thought of. Much is made of the web’s ability to give people exactly the experience they’re looking for, and that’s exactly why people should be wary of it. So it’s my belief that niche or specialist or genre blogs are terrific but should be balanced by some more general-interest reading, which, at least in terms of book reviews, is what we offer.

But back to your original question, which was about the marketplace: many people have questioned of late whether a New York Times review can actually sell books, and many people have said it cannot. But because prepublication reviews are written expressly for people who buy books, they do sell books. Maybe one starred Booklist review only sells a few thousand books (anecdotally, I have heard this is the case); taken altogether, that becomes a significant amount for any midlist title, while also providing the early buzz that can help a book gain momentum. But maybe the true relevance of prepublication reviews will only be known once they disappear from the landscape, and, at that point, I suspect that many publishers would be desperate to get them back. After all, they can send one book to Booklist and reach tens of thousands of readers (both via print and online). They often send books to blogs whose regular readers number in the hundreds.

I’m no financial expert, but it appears to me that Kirkus‘s immediate failure, and the troubles of any other prepub journals, can’t help but be tied to the fact that it’s a precarious climate for business in general, a precarious business climate for magazine publishing, and a precarious climate for book publishing as well. Add that to publishers’ fears of missing the boat with new technologies, new business models, etc. — even when they’re not sure where the boat is going — and it’s no wonder that advertising support for print publications has suffered. Although, as I said, this year has been better for us than last.

At Booklist, while we’re somewhat insulated from the full, Darwinian reality of corporate ownership, we do need to earn a profit to help fund the activities of the American Library Association. Like everyone, we’re working harder and have had to do more with fewer resources.

Five years from now, what will the environment of magazines and publications, mostly devoted to book reviews, look like?

Boy, do I wish I knew. It’s going to be a lot leaner, and using a lot less paper. But Booklist will still be here, reading and reviewing away.

(Our motto: “We read everything so you don’t have to.”)

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Kirkus Reviews (1933-2009)

kirkusRomenesko has published an email from Nielsen Business Media President Greg Farrar, revealing that both Kirkus Reviews and Editor & Publisher, unable to find a buyer, have folded. The move comes five years after a controversial attempt to raise revenue through the online-based Kirkus Discoveries and failed efforts to sell advertising. Kirkus never really had much of a sizable circulation, but, as Washington Post books editor Ron Charles put it shortly after the announcement, Kirkus was “the last reliable source of negative reviews.” (Interestingly, during his days at the Christian Science Monitor, Charles pondered whether authors could get an honest review under the failed Kirkus Discoveries venture.)

What will Kirkus Reviews‘s folding mean for the book industry? Kirkus Reviews was one of the four major all-purpose review publications that libraries and booksellers relied upon to anticipate future titles. The other three pubs still remain — Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal. But with Publishers Weekly recently cutting its freelance rates, firing editor Sara Nelson, and facing shaky revenue, its future remains uncertain. It may fall to Booklist and Library Journal to pick up the slack. But with Kirkus‘s opinionated style obliterated by the ongoing financial apocalypse, it’s very doubtful that will be seeing Kirkus‘s helpful and often gloves-off approach reproduced anytime soon.

This is a major hit. With newspapers scaling back their review sections, it has become even more necessary for any outlet — whether print or online — to subsist in one of the toughest business climates seen in decades.

UPDATE: Ross Rojek, editor of the Sacramento Book Review and the San Francisco Book Review writes in:

In your final paragraph, you mention that it is necessary for any book outlet to survive. Well we’ve been publishing the Sacramento Book Review since September 2008, and just started the San Francisco Book Review this last September. We review about 250 books a month between both publications and even more that end up only online. We cover about 40 categories of books, from Romance to Science & Nature; big expensive coffee table books and mass market paperbacks.

Sure we’re not Kirkus or PW, but we do reach about 40,000 active readers and buyers each month in the Sacramento and San Francisco Bay areas. And more importantly, we’re starting to license our concept in other cities. San Antonio just started up, and we have 3 more cities we’re about to announce. Each of these licensees will be developing their own local edition of the paper, covering national, regional and local authors and books and promoting local events.

Just thought you should know. We’ve found a niche for print book reviews, and it seems to work.

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Understanding the General Audience

On the morning of July 21, 2009, Washington Post books editor Ron Charles expressed some concerns about book reviewers on Twitter:

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At the risk of clearing my own throat (and with all due respect to Mr. Charles), I’m wondering if the 2008 winner of the Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing really has a handle on the type of writing that is likely to attract readers to his newspaper section.

Mr. Charles’s editorial sensibilities call for clear and direct writing. But his other entreaties are problematic. He asks that a first-person perspective or a sense of playfulness through reference — vital variables that might permit readers to get excited, interested, or enthused about a book — be omitted from the equation. Mr. Charles cannot seem to corral the idea of grabbing an audience with each graf with the possibility that readers may be interested with what a particular voice has to say (see, for example, the rise of litblogs over the past six years). Indeed, if Mr. Charles is desirous of a more objective journalistic approach, should not the ideal reviewer be someone who permits a reader to make up her own mind? Mr. Charles’s sentiments appear to reflect a newspaper culture in which personality or perspective — those indelible human traits that make us interested in people on so many levels — don’t get a hot seat at the formal table. Unless, of course, the reviewer is “truly famous,” which connotes a troubling elitism that runs counter to Mr. Charles’s seemingly egalitarian-minded agenda.

We should probably ask ourselves whether there is even a “general audience” for books. I think a case can certainly be made, provided you keep in mind that a “general audience” doesn’t just consume the type of pretentious literary fiction involving suburban asshats and cricket bats. We have seen millions of people get excited over the Harry Potter books (and their cinematic counterparts; see the box office bonanza in the past week). As I discussed with Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan in a recent podcast interview about the romance genre, over 64 million people claimed to read a romance novel in 2004. If Mr. Charles is genuinely committed to a “general audience,” surely he would open up his books section to more romance coverage. (Certainly, Mr. Charles’s coverage of Nora Roberts is a start.) And if the Washington Post is sincerely devoted to attracting a “general audience,” they may wish to do away with the annoying and obtrusive registration prompts that pester us for personal information.

But let’s examine a typical lede for a Washington Post review. Let’s take, simply at random, the first fiction review on today’s Washington Post books page: Mke Reed on Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. Here’s the lede:

As the narrator of Colum McCann’s new novel sees it, Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974 triggered a quietude generally unknown to New Yorkers.

We can do away with the superfluous opening clause. There’s no need to inform the reader that this is a review about Colum McCann’s latest book. We already know this. So this leaves us with:

Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974 triggered a quietude generally unknown to New Yorkers.

Okay, we have a few interesting concepts to play with here. There’s the exciting prospect of Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk, which is rendered remarkably cold and objective through the bland reportorial phrasing. There’s the more intriguing concept of “triggered a quietude generally unknown.” That phrasing is clumsy, hardly as “clear” and “direct” as Mr. Charles demands. (Is the “triggering” a reference to 9/11? Were New Yorkers really quietly in awe for the first time in 1974?) But there’s some poetic potential here. Perhaps if we take the metaphor and front-load it at the beginning of the sentence, we might have a more compelling lede:

His high wire walk between the twin towers triggered an explosive awe among New Yorkers.

Okay, this isn’t perfect, but it’s an improvement. If the reader is unfamiliar with Petit (or familiar with the 2008 Petit documentary Man on Wire), she’ll be compelled to move onto the next sentence. By switching “tightrope” to “high wire,” we not only provide cultural context for a reader (“Hey, isn’t that the Man on Wire documentary?”) who soaks up art more from cinema than from books, but we also neatly foreshadow the “explosive trigger” metaphor later in the sentence. (Do you cut the red wire or the green wire?) By removing the subjective “generally unknown” assumption about New Yorkers, we do away with a superfluous aside that has little to do with the paragraph’s main purpose here.

With a few modest editorial changes, not only do we have a lede that is more of interest to a general audience, but we also don’t insult the audience’s intelligence by littering their attentive bin with the detritus of clinical phrasing.

Of course, one can avoid these disastrous results by daring to write in the first-person. Ernest Hemingway once wrote an essay about writing in the first-person — which can be found in A Moveable Feast — in which he suggested, “When you first start writing stories in the first person, if the stories are made so real that people believe them, the people reading them nearly always think the stories really happened to you.” Hemingway was referring primarily to fiction, but the advice nevertheless points to one primary deficiency among the newspapers — namely, an ability to give the reader a sense that he is a colleague, not some peon to be dictated to, and that literature is something to be experienced rather than cheerlessly discussed over tea and scones.

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Alain de Botton on Responding to Critics

(This is the second of an interconnected two part response involving Alain de Botton. In addition to answering my questions, Alain de Botton was very gracious to send along this essay.)

Technology

Many people are only just waking up to how blurred web technology has made the boundaries between public and private. It used to be easy to know what a public statement was. It was one written for a newspaper or for a radio or television broadcast. But the web has made it harder to discern what is meant to be public and what private. A huge number of people now read newspapers only on the web, alongside other web windows like Facebook, Twitter and blogs. This equalises the difference between the two, it potentially places a Facebook status entry on the same level as the headline of the foreign affairs section of the New York Times. Simply on the basis of visual appearance, on your screen, there is no difference between the might and authority of a comment in the New York Times, and a note written in a blog run from the proverbial bedroom.

So it becomes hard, as a reader, to measure the degree of intent behind any statement one reads — and as a writer, it becomes hard to judge how seriously one’s words are going to be taken and how large the audience for them will be.

How to review a book

Mr. Crain reviewed my book for The New York Times on Sunday 28th June, 2009. The book was accorded a full page review, a relatively rare honour, and was the third review to run in the pecking order. In other words, this was a prestigious slot in the most prestigious paper in the largest book market on the planet. The power of the New York Times in the world of books can’t be overestimated. A review in the paper can close down a book or make its fortunes. With books pages being cut right across the world, it remains the authoritative place for information.

updikejugglingGiven this power, the onus on any reviewer is to use it wisely, a wisdom to which there is no finer guide than John Updike and his six rules of reviewing as laid out in his collection Picked Up Pieces. Updike’s concern was for fairness. This did not mean that he wanted every book to be praised. Rather, he wanted every book to be given it’s ‘fair due’. The end of a fair appraisal might mean the book was not recommended, but the author and reader could feel that the reviewer had kept his or her side of the bargain. Updike recommended that the reviewer try to understand what the author was up to, enter imaginatively into the project, and most of all avoid any kind of attack that felt ad hominem.

I have been in the writing business for 15 years and have received many bad reviews. However, when I read Crain’s review, it was apparent that it was unusually uninterested in adhering to Updike’s six golden rules of reviewing.

What can one do with a bad review?

There is no official right of reply to the judgement of reviewers. One cannot sue, complain or do anything that counts. One has two options: stoicism (batten the hatches). Or Christianity (turn the other cheek).

There is a third private option. To write to the reviewer in the hope of giving them a sense of their power and influence — and the effects to which they have used it. The hope is that by doing so, the reviewer may with time come to reflect on the matter and when they are next presented with a book, they may (and this is a very hopeful idea indeed) adhere a little more closely to Updike’s six golden rules.

I hence found my way to my reviewer’s website and there, in what I thought was a comparatively private arena, sent him a message that was deliberately hyperbolic and unstoic, the equivalent of a punch in words. The idea was to reveal honestly what effect he had on me.

The problem with overhearing people in private moments is that they don’t follow the rules of civilised society and hence offend our sense of propriety (that’s why the rules are in place). All of us, if cameras were turned on during our moments of rage, disappointment, fear and vengeance, would wince if the footage were then played back to us or – even worse – were played back to an audience of strangers. We value privacy for precisely this reason: it protects us our immaturities from wider display.

It can be appalling for all concerned if the private spills out – for example, if a guest was listening to a marital argument, both the guest and the marital couple would be appalled.

The reactions of others

My altercation with Caleb Crain has attracted a peculiar amount of interest at heart because its nature as a private communication has been misunderstood, both by me – and those looking on. It has widely been taken that I have written back to The New York Times directly to complain. Instead I wrote to Caleb Crain to speak very directly to him and not principally to the world at large. I feel very sorry that this tiff has been broadcast so widely. The embarrassment is as akin to an argument with one’s spouse being inadvertently broadcast to one’s work colleagues or a private letter appearing on a widely-read internet site.

I have been naive here. My conclusion is that one has to be extraordinarily careful about the internet. Nothing that one types here that others could potentially access should ever be phrased in ways that wouldn’t make one happy if a million other people happened to see it. There should only be measure and reason – or else it will be judged along exactly the same criteria as one would judge an op-ed piece in The New York Times.

I continue to maintain that the subjects of unfair criticism have the right to protest and perhaps in heartfelt ways too – they should simply take extreme care that absolutely no one is watching or recording them doing so.

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Alain de Botton Clarifies the Caleb Crain Response

(This is the first of an interconnected two part response involving Alain de Botton. In addition to answering my questions, Alain de Botton was very gracious to send along this essay.)

In last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Caleb Crain reviewed Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. While regular NYTBR watchers like Levi Asher welcomed the spirited dust-up, even Asher remained suspicious about Crain’s doubtful assertions and dense prose.

debotton2But on Sunday, de Botton left numerous comments at Crain’s blog, writing, “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.”

As Carolyn Kellogg would later remark, this apparent enmity didn’t match up with the sweet and patient man she had observed at an event. While de Botton hadn’t posted anybody’s phone number or email address, as Alice Hoffman had through her Twitter account, de Botton had violated an unstated rule in book reviewing: Don’t reply to your critics.

But the recent outbursts of Hoffman, de Botton, and (later in the week) Ayelet Waldman — who tweeted, “The book is a feminist polemic, you ignorant twat” (deleted but retweeted by Freda Moon) in response to Jill Lepore’s New Yorker review — have raised some significant questions about whether an author can remain entirely silent in the age of Twitter. Is Henrik Ibsen’s epistolary advice to Georg Brandes (“Look straight ahead; never reply with a word in the papers; if in your writings you become polemical, then do not direct your polemic against this or that particular attack; never show that a word of your enemies has had any effect on you; in short, appear as though you did not at all suspect that there was any opposition.”) even possible in an epoch in which nearly every author can be contacted by email, sent a direct message through Twitter, or texted by cell phone?

I contacted de Botton to find out what happened. I asked de Botton if he had indeed posted the comments on Crain’s blog. He confirmed that he had, and he felt very bad about his outburst. I put forth some questions. Not only was he extremely gracious with his answers, but he also offered a related essay. Here are his answers:

First off, did you and Caleb Crain have any personal beefs before this brouhaha went down? You indicated to me that you found your response counterproductive and daft. I’m wondering if there were mitigating factors that may have precipitated your reaction.

I have never met Mr. Crain and had no pre-existing views. The great mitigating factor is that I never believed I would have to answer for my words before a large audience. I had false believed that this was basically between him and me.

What specifically did you object to in Crain’s review? What specifically makes the review “an almost manic desire to bad-mouth and perversely depreciate anything of value?”

My goal in writing The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work was to shine a spotlight on the sheer range of activities in the working world from a feeling that we don’t recognise these well enough. And part of the reason for this lies with us writers. If a Martian came to earth today and tried to understand what humans do from just reading most literature published today, he would come away with the extraordinary impression that all people spend their time doing is falling in love, squabbling with their families — and occasionally, murdering one another. But of course, what we really do is go to work…and yet this ‘work’ is rarely represented in art. It does appear in the business pages of newspapers, but then, chiefly as an economic phenomenon, rather than as a broader ‘human’ phenomenon. So to sum up, I wanted to write a book that would open our eyes to the beauty, complexity, banality and occasional horror of the working world — and I did this by looking at 10 different industries, a deliberately eclectic range, from accountancy to engineering, from biscuit manufacture to logistics. I was inspired by the American children’s writer Richard Scarry, and his What do people do all day? I was challenged to write an adult version of Scarry’s great book.

The review of the book seemed almost willfully blind to this. It suggested that I was uninterested in the true dynamics of work, that I was interested rather in patronising and insulting people who had jobs and that I was mocking anyone who worked. There is an argument in the book that work can sometimes be demeaning and depressing — hence the title: Pleasures AND Sorrows. But the picture is meant to be balanced. On a number of occasion, I stress that a lot of your satisfaction at work is dependent on your expectations. There are broadly speaking two philosophies of work out there. The first you could call the working-class view of work, which sees the point of work as being primarily financial. You work to feed yourself and your loved ones. You don’t live for your work. You work for the sake of the weekend and spare time — and your colleagues are not your friends necessarily. The other view of work, very different, is the middle class view, which sees work as absolutely essential to a fulfilled life and lying at the heart of our self-creation and self-fulfilment. These two philosophies always co-exist but in a recession, the working class view is getting a new lease of life. More and more one hears the refrain, ‘it’s not perfect, but at least it’s a job…’ All this I tried to bring out with relative subtlety and care. As I said, Mr. Crain saw fit to describe me merely as someone who hated work and all workers.

Caleb Crain’s blog post went up on Sunday. You responded to Crain on a Monday (New York time). You are also on Twitter. When you responded, were you aware of Alice Hoffman’s Twitter meltdown (where she
posted a reviewer’s phone number and email address) and the subsequent condemnation of her actions?

I was not aware.

Under what circumstances do you believe that a writer should respond to a critic? Don’t you find that such behavior detracts from the insights contained within your books?

I think that a writer should respond to a critic within a relatively private arena. I don’t believe in writing letters to the newspaper. I do believe in writing, on occasion, to the critics directly. I used to believe that posting a message on a writer’s website counted as part of this kind of semi-private communication. I have learnt it doesn’t, it is akin to starting your own television station in terms of the numbers who might end up attending.

You suggested that Crain had killed your book in the United States with his review. Doesn’t this overstate the power of the New York Times Book Review? Aren’t you in fact giving the NYTBR an unprecedented amount of credit in a literary world in which newspaper book review sections are, in fact, declining? There’s a whole host of readers out there who don’t even look at book review sections. Surely, if your book is good, it will find an audience regardless of Crain’s review. So why give him power like that?

The idea that if a book is good, it will find an audience regardless is a peculiar one for anyone involved in the book industry. There are thousands of very good books published every year, most are forgotten immediately. The reason why the publishing industry invests heavily in PR and marketing (the dominant slice of the budget in publishing houses goes to these departments) is precisely because the idea of books ‘naturally’ finding an audience isn’t true. Books will sink without review coverage, which is why authors and publishers care so acutely about them — and why there is a quasi moral responsibility on reviewers to exercise good judgement and fairness in what they say.

The outlets that count when publishing serious books are: an appearance on NPR, a review in the New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review. There are of course some other outlets, but they pale into insignificance besides these three outlets. Of the three, the New York Times Book Review remains the most important.

Hence I don’t for a moment over-estimate the importance of Mr Crain’s review. He was holding in his hands the tools that could make or break the result of two to three years of effort. You would expect that holding this sort of responsibility would make a sensible person adhere a little more closely to Updike’s six golden rules.

In the wake of Updike’s death, partly as a tribute to him, my recommendation is that newspapers all sign up to a voluntary code for the reviewing of books. This will help authors certainty, but most importantly it will help readers to find their way more accurately towards the sort of literature they’ll really enjoy.

If you were to travel back in time on Sunday morning and you had two sentences that you could tell yourself before leaving the comment, what would those two sentences be?

Put this message in an envelope, not on the internet.

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Alice Hoffman: The Most Immature Writer of Her Generation

alicehoffmanI’ve seen wild narcissism from authors in reaction to a review, but Alice Hoffman’s recent tweeting takes the cake. The Boston Globe‘s Roberta Silman reviewed Hoffman’s latest book, The Story Sisters. Silman wrote that Hoffman’s latest novel “lacks the spark of the earlier work.” The main character is “incredibly passive and doesn’t seem to have any of the normal anxiety of a mother in a time and place where hormones are raging, drugs are rife, and dangers abound.” In fact, Silman even commends Hoffman for one section of the book “described with real skill and precision” and notes “some wonderful passages” near the close.

This review is hardly nasty or vicious at all. And Hoffman must be a truly sheltered and out-of-touch writer indeed to consider this easily ignored slap on the wrist some ineffable form of damnation. Silman’s review and Hoffman’s disproportionate reaction is the intellectual equivalent of confusing a few droplets of water hitting your skin with a torturous session of waterboarding. To call Hoffman’s reaction histrionic is an understatement.

Silman’s review is a considered piece written by someone who didn’t take to Hoffman’s latest. The kind of review that any reasonable author would walk away from and say, “Oh well. Maybe she’ll dig the next novel.” I mean, it’s not as if Silman declared Alice Hoffman “the worst writer of her generation” or anything.

But since Hoffman has publicly posted Silman’s phone number and private email address, I think it’s safe to say that Alice Hoffman is certainly the most immature writer of her generation. One expects such behavior from a whiny brat in a boarding school who didn’t get the latest iPhone, not a 57-year-old bestselling author who won’t have to beg for a writing assignment or a hot meal anytime soon.

Hoffman has gone out of her way to invade Silman’s privacy. And maybe this is a desperate form of publicity or a desperate cry for attention. But I’m with Ron Charles on this. You write a sharp, witty response instead. Or even better, you develop a modicum of humility. (That, and the ability to spell Verizon correctly.)

[UPDATE: Alice Hoffman has deleted her Twitter account and apologizes.]

Better Than a Thousand Hollow Words

Like oh my God! I would SOOOOOOOO like to meet Louisa Thomas, who like reviews, like, books for the Los Angeles Times, and who, you know, seems to like people. Reading her review, I became convinced that she was, like, the kind of BFF (!!!!) who would, like, go with me to get Häagen-Daz. And we’d like spend the whole day gagging each other with our spoons, wondering, like, why there’s those, like, two funny dots over the first A. I think we would be friends. And I also think that if I decided to, like, enlist Louisa Thomas into my more libertine activities, she’d totally participate in what Sir Richard Burton once described as the Seventh Posture.

The quality of a review doesn’t depend on the personality of the reviewer, but, for fuck’s sake, one expects some minimum of critical acumen. Some of my favorite reviews were written by people who liked to digress or get excited about a strange subject, but they never made the profound mistake of lionizing the author’s personality and losing sight of the text itself. And yet the editors at the Los Angeles Times permitted this dopey and idiotic review to appear, perhaps because they view their audiences with contempt, they believe that lowering the bar as much as possible is the way to attract readership, or Thomas is sucking somebody’s cock.

There is no way to read this review without hating it, without recoiling at how it takes four fucking paragraphs before we actually know anything about the book in question. Louisa Thomas would appear to lack intelligence, would appear to have nothing worthwhile to say about books, would appear to have taken on this assignment and put on her rosy and phony enthusiasm because she wasn’t professional enough or emotional enough to do her job and tell us WHY THE FUCK SHE LIKED THE BOOK.

Liking the author is moot. I like any number of authors, but don’t care for their work. I love any number of books, but think the authors behind them have been total asshats. (Fortunately, 95% of the authors I meet are friendly.) None of this matters in the slightest. I have praised volumes written by assholes and savaged tomes crafted by nice guys. To gush about how much you like an author is to capitulate to the poisonous celebrity culture that is presently deracinating the possibilities of independent thought. It is to accept, as Louisa Thomas clearly accepts, the coward’s knee-jerk sprint to conformist groupthink. It is to waste words, sabotage paragraphs, and to offer nothing original. It is to accept the superficial.

We’re told that Thomas is “a contributing editor for Newsweek.” Here are a few exemplars of Ms. Thomas’s analytical chops:

“A confession: I can’t wait to watch the new DVD of ‘Twilight’-a movie I’ve already seen.”

“What makes a thriller work is a million-dollar question, but why they matter is more than an economic concern.”

And when presented with the opportunity to talk with Yiyun Li, what pithy words did Thomas rustle out of her? “I’m fascinated by people I can’t understand.” Personally I’m fascinated by inept interviewers who choose this generalization, above all others, for a profile piece about a highly acclaimed novelist.

If newspapers are going to publish vapid articles written by Louisa Thomas, why indeed should they be saved? When the Los Angeles Times publishes junk like this, it makes me want to reach for my metaphorical revolver so that I can convey to a few stubborn editors just how serious the situation is. When an editor publishes an article this vacuous, he is committing an act of self-sabotage. Newspapers are not in the position right now to print homogenized junk that speaks down to the reader, nor should they be alienating high-profile ex-editors who can get people fired up and pissed off about books. Newspapers must take more than a few chances right now and demonstrate to the public why this medium is worthwhile. I’m not against having fun in a book review, but speculations on whether Joanna Smith Rakoff has had a few “nice times” in Brooklyn restaurants have no bearing whatsoever on a book’s value. It’s an insult to an audience’s intelligence, and such reviews demonstrate that a newspaper doesn’t really deserve the literary stature or the acclaim it continues to lavish upon itself.

It’s the Content, Stupid

Dick Meyer’s sad, little article about the impending death of newspapers fails to pinpoint several root causes. The end of stand-alone book review sections may strike a symbolic blow to those, like Meyer, who remain blissfully terrified of the present. But if the coverage still remains available and accessible, how then can this be a blow to literacy, wisdom, and intellectual agility? The coverage, as has been repeatedly documented, isn’t going away. It’s just going online and finding its way into other sections of the print newspaper. Meyer’s uninformed position is that, because the Washington Post books coverage is shifting from Book World to the daily section, somehow, the books coverage itself will become more primitive, less wise, and otherwise worse than it is presently.

This is a remarkable insult to the hard-working team at the Washington Post. Does Michael Dirda become a lesser critic because you read his work on a screen instead of a piece of paper? No, he doesn’t. So Meyer’s position isn’t snobbish. It’s idiotic. It doesn’t concern itself with the reviews at all, but with the medium. It’s the position of a doddering coot who isn’t “against the grain” at all, but very much for the grain. Meyer wants to keep things the way they once were without accounting for the way they are now. By Meyer’s own standards, his own article must be inferior because it is appearing on a website. By Meyer’s own standards, his status is very low indeed. Lower than Smeagol crawling through the caves in search of the ring.

Let’s examine Meyer’s paralogia here. His position is that one must protest the demise of print book sections because “what lives in books” must be preserved. This assumes that “what lives in books” cannot live online. Let’s imagine that the Internet never came into existence. Few critics saw their collected book reviews bound into books. And those who did, like the late great critic John Leonard, have seen their collections fall out of print. A daily newspaper, assuming that it was even read by a subscriber, would be replaced by another. The newspaper piece that a writer would slave over for hours would often find its way to the bottom of a birdcage.

Now if you wanted to hunt down a specific piece, you had to go to the library, roll up your sleeves, stare at a bleary strip of microfilm (assuming the specific roll was there and assuming that the people who OCRed the newspaper actually went to the trouble of scanning the text correctly and assuming that the microfilm machine’s focus wasn’t off or that the machine wasn’t otherwise malfunctioning), and hope for the best when you clinked your dimes into this appealing yet temperamental contraption. It was, as any curiosity seeker fumbling about in libraries during those days knows very well, a colossal pain in the ass.

The Internet, by contrast, permits you to find a specific piece without such technological hangups and serious investments of time. That forgotten newspaper piece? Instantly locatable, assuming that the newspaper has had the good sense to preserve an online archive. It can be sufficiently argued that the Internet can produce greater attention to a books section. Suddenly, a midsized metropolitan newspaper has a national audience greater than its analog local base. A talented writer, seemingly working in the middle of nowhere, suddenly becomes thrust into an unanticipated spotlight. The books section lives, so long as the newspaper lives. (And that is the real problem that none of the print partisans are willing to confront or concoct solutions for. Can an online-only outlet be profitable? Can book review coverage be preserved or even be augmented through online coverage?)

Given these developments, newspaper writers are possibly in a greater position to expose their readerships to “a wide variety of writers.” Except that, more often than not, newspapers are more interested in writing to a “general audience,” instead of presenting the “general audience” with “a wide variety of writers.” Small wonder then that newspapers are relying more on their brand names instead of their content, and book enthusiasts have turned to the Internet for alternative options. It is not that books are being devalued by readers. It is that audiences are being devalued by newspapers. When you view your audience as “general” and you limit your spectrum, the audience is smart enough to know better. This regrettable editorial mentality has likewise made its way towards the more “distinguished” online ventures hoping to pick up the slack. Consider the Daily Beast’s recent profile of Colson Whitehead. Here was an opportunity to interview an author shifting in a new direction, a moment to engage a talented author and get people more interested in his work with lively and thoughtful questions. But the questions, which include such dull zingers as “So how does it feel to come back to Sag Harbor now that you’re older?” and “Are you a barbecuer now, like Benji’s dad was?,” are no different from a vapid puff piece. They insult the general audience and insult the practice of journalism.

If, as Meyer suggests, “huge profiteering and wildly promiscuous marketing” is a “cruel virtue” for books, it is not far crueler to sustain an atmosphere in which a talent like Whitehead must be subjected to these meaningless questions? And if Meyer truly wishes to offer a culture in which “oddballs and dissenters” are allowed to flourish, why then is he so smitten with capitalism and celebrity?

This mad scrambling has nothing to do with the format it appears in. Antediluvian types, such as Meyer and editor Eric Chinski in this lengthy conversation, remain terrified of today’s shifting notions of cultural authority, but the underlying issues have very little to do with the outlet or the medium it appears in. It’s the content, stupid. And the sooner that we all recognize this, get past our own fears and prejudices, and create a few viable revenue models that benefit all and provide a sustainable room for the “oddballs and dissenters,” the better books coverage will be in the long run.

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The “Save Gary Coleman” Petition!

Even though I have yet to hear back from Marcus Brauchli concerning the future of the Washington Post‘s book coverage, and not a single journalist or NBCC board member has confirmed a specific decision, I believe that the time has come to blame what nobody really knows on actor Gary Coleman.

Coleman, who once ran for California governor and is therefore thoroughly qualified to know about the Washington Post‘s internal decisions, needs to be saved. The information needs to be extracted from Coleman’s seerlike skull. And the action needs to happen now. Before Friday, January 23rd. By email. Because we all know how email gets lost and caught in spam filters. But a campaign like this sure beats sitting around and speculating. One suspects that Coleman can handle the pressure. And besides, everybody needs a scapegoat. And perhaps Coleman knows something that not even Marcus Brauchli knows. Let us always consider our strangest hunches.

Here is the plea to Gary Coleman and his editors:

“As chronic speculators and worrywarts, we write to implore you to go to Washington, DC, and kick a few asses. There are bloggers writing in Terre Haute basements who actually love what they do, and they are apparently being read and hired by some newspapers. The only solution is to beat a few people around and prevent these upstart bloggers from having the same prestige and influence of newspapers. As book critics, we have earned the right to write reviews that we believe enriches culture. Yes, it may read like the equivalent of castor oil sometimes. But it is our God-given right to pollute books section with bland and humorless drivel.

“We believe that you have important information about the newspaper business contained within your head, and that you have been rather selfish about sharing your vital data with the elitist book critics. We therefore wish to save you, so that we can save ourselves. The anemic discussion of books is vital to an elitist society. ‘James Wood defected to the New Yorker! What the fuck are we going to do?’ wrote an editor of The New Republic last year. And it is safe to say that since we do not know what the fuck we are going to do, then you will likely be in a better position to do something about it. We checked in our spines with our coats at last night’s book party.

“We call on you to preserve the Washington Post‘s books coverage, and to give it all to the dullest critics now working in America. We also call on you to ensure that not a single idiosyncratic voice or blogger will ever write for its pages again.”

(Photo: Eek! Online. For more petitions of the “Eek!” variety, go here.)

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Virginia Heffernan: The Sarah Palin of Journalism

The review came over the long Thanksgiving weekend, but the 757 words that Virginia Heffernan devoted to savaging Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates on Sunday have little to do with Vowell’s book. Heffernan is the kind of reviewer that Coleridge accurately identified as failed talent. The embittered dunce who gave up her punch and passion eons ago, and who now approaches the craft of reviewing like a helper monkey trained to take a coat at a snap, only to deposit this winter wear into a pile of her own excrement. It is a predictable exercise that just about any marsupial with a cluster of barely functioning brain cells can accomplish. You could employ a human resources manger of average intelligence (and with some experience in professionally humiliating people for pedantic reasons) to write a review like this. Even Dale Peck understood this years ago when he gave up his hatchet to write unapologetically commercial fiction. But since the act requires little in the way of cognitive ability, one wonders why Heffernan isn’t employed in a position that better suits her skill set. Perhaps pumping gas in the New Jersey cold or putting together bankers boxes for minimum wage in a damp basement.

Heffernan’s review fails on just about every level. It isn’t particularly informative for a reader hoping to get a sense of who Vowell is or what this new book is about. It represents a predictable scenario in which the New York Times Book Review has opted to wear its ugly internal politics on its sleeve, with Heffernan unable to stretch past her own prejudices against the quirky and the interesting.

And isn’t it rather intriguing that one-liners and “blogger tics” serve as “weak liquors” for this digital culture columnist when Heffernan’s review (and her work as a whole) has employed the same? Is Heffernan even remotely curious about her beat? Or is she waiting for the joys to kick in upon the onset of menopause? One delves into the Heffernan oeuvre finding bitter and flavorless canapes instead of tasty tapas prepared with care and excitement. Heffernan cannot get her location details right. She is more interested in the girls who cling to Virgil Griffith’s arms than Griffith’s geeky achievements. Most egregiously, she talks down to her readers as if they are numbskulls. (“Search ‘Unforgivable’ on YouTube or go to isthatunforgivable.com. Definitely not safe for work,” reads one of her smug asides.) Here is the village idiot who, like Sarah Palin, believes herself to be an indispensable gatekeeper. She has foolishly equated the YouTube success of Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech with length and political tech savvy rather than the substance of Obama’s convictions — writing yet again with disdain against those who use the Internet. Because in the Heffernan worldview, people who use the Internet can’t possibly be interested in long-form exercises. Indeed, Heffernan is so out-of-touch that she could not even account for the rise and ubiquity of wi-fi networks in an article on cybercafes. And all of these disgracefully written and uninformed articles were written for the Times in just the past month.

Heffernan is an aging debutante who will never quite understand why others are drinking the last pre-Wet Planet cans of Jolt Cola, why geeks code or create open source software for others, or why other techheads plunder through buckets of abandoned components to build new machines. But she’ll still be insistently tapping your shoulder to ask you what HKEY_CURRENT_USER is all about, even when you’ve explained the REGEDIT niceties to her a thousand times. This is a stubborn dunderhead who cannot stick to her own hoary and boring cliques, and who does not realize just how much of a laughing stock she is in New York. She believes that the regular newspaper reader is an idiot. And anybody, like Sarah Vowell, who does get through to the public in a semi-geeky or slightly idiosyncratic way must be nuked from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure. (At least that’s the vernacular the geeks are using. But what Jim Cameron film did that come from again? Oh noes! My people skills and Google prowess aren’t quite up to snuff!)

Now Heffernan has besmirched a book review section that should matter, but that continues to remain mostly a disgrace — in large part because the editors continue to assign creative typists like Heffernan to write drivel to fill up its pages. Heffernan lacks the decency and the acumen to inform us about what the book is trying to say. Here is a reviewer who cannot be professional enough to pay attention. Heffernan fundamentally misunderstands that Vowell’s dips into the past aren’t really about “enlighten[ing] slacker Gen-Xers with a remedial history of our nation,” but about how one particular voice approaches this subject. Nobody expects to be entirely enlightened when reading Sarah Vowell. But a reader is often entertained. And is that not one of the basic functions of books? To transmit one person’s ideas to a reader.

Of course, for Heffernan, it isn’t about the book. It’s about Vowell’s vocal appearance in The Incredibles. It’s about Vowell’s work with This American Life. It’s about how other people like and enjoy Vowell, goddammit. Why don’t they like and enjoy Heffernan? It’s about prohibiting how another person’s perspective is committed to print. We can’t have references to Happy Days. We can’t have material that is written to be performed. (Never mind that, more often than not, the best prose is often that which can be spoken aloud.)

Should it really matter that Vowell is discovering John Winthrop and Roger Williams for the first time? (Or pretending to with her schtick?) Is Heffernan so sheltered a human being that she does not recognize that, because of American educational inadequacies, many people in America do not know who Winthrop and Williams are? Is she so stupid that she cannot recognize that Vowell is writing for a popular audience?

Evidently she is. If Heffernan so loathed and misunderstood Vowell, she should not have been assigned this review. The biggest clue that Heffernan, in all likelihood, lacks even the rudimentary joy to enjoy so much as a carousel or a roller coaster is this sentence: “She sounds as if she’s enjoying herself.” Well, I sure as hell hope that Vowell is enjoying herself. Or any author for that matter. Could Heffernan be seriously suggesting that a dip into history should not be enjoyable? To pillory Vowell for not being an academic is to miss the point of what Vowell and similar commentators are all about. To attack Vowell for the people she cites in the acknowledgments section rather than specific examples from the text is the act of an amateurish cunctator.

When one is dealing with an eccentric writer, even an apparent middlebrow one, it is sometimes necessary to consider the writer’s eccentricities. What we do know is this: Vowell has not contributed to the New York Times Book Review since February 2005. It remains unknown if Vowell has ever declined an assignment under the Sam Tanenhaus regime. But if she has declined, she has chosen wisely. We can indeed afford to lose this sinking ship so long as the fools who write for it continue to misunderstand the most rudimentary elements of reading and reviewing, while alienating the fun and adept people who remain quite capable.

Oscar Villalon Out at Chronicle?

This comes from Publishers Weekly‘s Rachel Deahl, whose word must be taken with a grain of salt, but she’s claiming that San Francisco Chronicle books editor Oscar Villalon has taken a buyout and will be leaving the Chron on Friday. This will leave Regan McMahon as the only full-time staffer handling books.

I have emails in to a few Chron people to determine what’s happening here and how this Villalon’s buyout will affect future books coverage at my former hometown newspaper. If I learn anything, I will report it here.

[UPDATE: I have corroborated with two sources at the Chron that Villalon’s last day will indeed be Friday. More info as I learn more.]

Responding to Freeman: August 15

John: “Does a fine job” doesn’t tell us anything about the book and says everything about your love for cliche. But your review gave me a lot of laughs, in large part because it revealed much about your woefully humorless soul. “Humor hounds” and “humor fiends?” “Convulse in respiratory spasms?” Is anybody editing you anymore? Or is this what they cobbled up from what you turned in?

The Future of Newspapers and Litblogs: A Thought Experiment

In yesterday’s Huffington Post, publicist Lissa Warren expressed her dismay in “the seemingly widely-held notion that these book sections are being adequately replaced by blogs.” She complained that blogs “don’t actually review books” (emphasis in original) and that bloggers are nothing more than helpful cherry pickers ferreting out the best content.

This, of course, is poppycock. Scott Esposito continues to turn out issues of The Quarterly Conversation and is now making efforts to pay his contributors. Aside from the almost two hundred hours of podcasts available at The Bat Segundo Show, this website has featured many lengthy roundtable discussions of books, running during the week of pub date, including T.C. Boyle’s Talk Talk, Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker, and Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke. (Powers and Baker both joined in during the final installments of their respective roundtables.) The Human Smoke discussion alone generated some 20,000 words of commentary among fifteen people, with asides on second generation Holocaust historians, World War I history, and sundry topics. This week, Talking Points Memo is featuring a lengthy discussion on Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. Meanwhile, Mark Sarvas has been allowing his readers to see what goes into the writing of a review. This summer, Colleen Mondor helped to organize the Summer Blog Blast Tour (far from the first of this type), which featured a comprehensive series of helpful discussions about contemporary YA titles that even the purportedly best book review sections have not broached because of innate genre prejudices.

Do these efforts represent a replacement for book review sections? Well, if one hopes to find a facsimile of book review sections online, probably not. But it would take an exceptionally rigid and incurious mind to settle merely on a clone. If one wishes to discover forms of literary commentary that serve the same function as a book review section, it is extremely difficult not to find online exemplars in alternative forms.

Warren’s complaints about litblogs fall into the same tired explanations that have been bandied about by the likes of Sven Birkerts, Michael Dirda, and numerous other myopists who are incapable of accepting an alternative that has been carrying on for a good five years. The objections are less about function, or even the content (conveniently, examples of the litblogs’s inadequacies are never cited by the naysayers), and more about form and especially control. Impulsive thought cannot be accepted because it remains impulsive. Never mind that many newspaper book sections, because of the deadline-oriented nature of the business, remain somewhat impulsive and often fail to include numerous examples from the text when considering a book. (Consider, for example, Charles Taylor’s review of Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them, which appeared in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. We are afforded a summary of Akpan’s offerings. But despite having 1,200 words of space, Taylor only cites a few sentences from the novella, “Luxurious Hearses.” Taylor prefers generalized speculation about the book, rather than the kind of rigorous dissections of text that one expects of a critic.)

The print boosters remain hostile to the idea that an online medium can not only modify the manner in which critics and readers approach a book, but generate innovative methods of expanding one’s relationship to a text. So litblogs are deemed inferior not necessarily because the content is inferior, but because there are doubts about the methods and manner in which litblogs transmit information.

I will agree that if one is looking for the online equivalent of the New York Times Book Review, it’s simply not going to be found on litblogs. And that is because most litblogs, on the whole, aren’t interested in perpetuating a form of literary journalism that, while often quite valuable, has grown tiresome and often predictable. And it is the unpredictablity and spontaneity of litblogs that offer both a literary renaissance and a threat to those who wish to uphold print’s humorless and oft passionless status quo.

On Monday, I posted a lengthy lexicon of very specific Yorkshire dialect terms used in Ross Raisin’s novel, God’s Own Country (known in the States as Out Backward). It was an effort not only to aid my own understanding of Raisin’s book, but also to assist other readers in negotiating the fascinating linguistic terrain of a novel that, according to a recent Google News search, has only been reviewed in one American news outlet: a 200 word “verdict” and “background” in the Library Journal. The book was a finalist for the Dylan Thomas Prize. This failure on the part of American print outlets to include Raisin’s novel in a timely manner suggests considerable print deficiencies.

The Raisin example also suggests that litblogs are not only covering books that are ignored by the seemingly impeccable vanguard, but that litblogs are presenting new forms of coverage that are inconceivable to Sam Tanenhaus and, yes, even a dutiful reformer like David Ulin. Unprohibited by length and unhindered by house style or crazy billionaires who don’t know how to run a newspaper empire, litblogs are in a position to change the journalistic terrain, possibly usurping freelance reviewers if a comparable revenue model can be established.

While I disagree with Kassia Krozser’s assertions about gender imbalance at the Los Angeles Times Book Review for reasons similar to Carolyn Kellogg’s (disclosure: I am an occasional contributor to the Los Angeles Times), Ms. Krozser is correct to point out that the hand-wringing about book review cuts has indeed represented a sense of entitlement. Not a single books editor, litblogger, or freelance reviewer is entitled to the lives they lead. At the end of the day, it’s a matter of generating content that will ensure that the writer can carry on writing. But if one operates on a smaller scale, then the financial obligation is seriously reduced (assuming that one wishes to make this sort of life one’s center) and the writer’s freedom to write in any fashion is greatly augmented.

So perhaps what we’re really seeing here is a situation in which the leading online voices will carry on doing what they are doing, with the unusual and passionate voices prohibited by the constant scrutiny of newspaper executives, precisely because the financial demands of supporting one individual are lesser than the costs and overhead of running a large newspaper or magazine. As Howard Junker observed yesterday, ad sales for the Atlantic have declined 11% in the last month. For Vanity Fair, the sales were considerably more severe, dropping a whopping 49%. With print advertising starting to dip, the onus now falls upon newspapers and magazines to either (a) increase advertising to support current operating costs or (b) reduce operating costs to bring the outlet in line with the reduced advertising. But if newspapers and print boosters will remain obdurate about these apparent online yahoos, the onus also falls upon litbloggers to find sustainable revenue models that will permit them to operate independently.

I should observe that the cost of a full-page advertisement in People Magazine is $250,000. I cannot speak for other bloggers, but it is safe to say that I could live off of this sum for a good five years and be relatively happy. I think it’s also safe to say that the money could also be allocated to other writers to turn in high quality freelance reviews for this site. Now imagine if a People advertiser wised up to this idea and decided to sponsor me (or another blogger) for five years. The People full-page advertisement fades away from public consciousness in a week, but the advertisement would run here for five years to a more limited, but very specific niche audience. Because there is only one sponsor, my editorial integrity would be fairly well preserved and I wouldn’t have to fear upsetting many sponsors who keep a big newspaper operation afloat. I would not need to always pander to a mass audience by reviewing the latest by a big name author. Small press and genre authors tossed out with the galleys deemed extraneous could be included with the same rigor that a newspaper grants the celebrated big names. Gender imbalances, whether genuine or perceived, could be greatly remedied.

If enough bloggers were to initiate an advertising scenario along these lines, it is safe to say that blogs could adequately replace newspaper book review sections, adopting both the form of the well-considered essay featured in book review sections as well as many alternative forms now practiced and conjured up by current litbloggers. I don’t know if the newspapers have discussed this possibility, and I don’t know how many litbloggers have truly considered this ambition. But the time has come to set a precedent. If this does occur — and it just might — then it may very well be the print contributors who begin coming around to the online venues. Let us not respond with the same snobbery and entitlement.

Clarification at the Los Angeles Times

David Ulin has offered some clarifications about recent changes at the Los Angeles Times. In addition to talking with the decidedly more trustworthy Sara Nelson at Publishers Weekly, he also specified the changes that are in store in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times.

[UPDATE: Ulin has appeared on KPCC. Meanwhile, the books coverage at Not the L.A. Times appears pretty dire and Kassia Krozser offers more thoughts.]

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Carole Goldberg Laid Off at the Courant

I have confirmed with Hartford Courant features editor Naedine Hazell that books editor Carole Goldberg has been laid off. Goldberg’s final day as a staffer will be on July 31st. It should be noted that the Courant never had a specific books section. The Courant maintained a books page inside the Sunday Arts section. While the Courant plans to keep the books page for now, future books coverage remains uncertain. Goldberg may be contributing in a freelancing capacity. The Courant hopes that this reorganization will shift current arts coverage to a more local emphasis.

One wonders whether this news will set a trend of other newspapers laying off their dedicated arts editors, only to rehire them as freelancers at, one presumes, a reduced rate.

Developments at the LATBR

This morning, L.A. Observed posted an open letter sent by four previous editors of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Calling the forthcoming termination of the Sunday Book Review “a historic retreat from the large ambitions which accompanied the birth of the section,” ex-editors Sonja Bolle, Digby Diehl, Jack Miles, and Steve Wasserman went on to write:

Angelenos in growing number are already choosing to cancel their subscriptions to the Sunday Times. The elimination of the Book Review, a philistine blunder that insults the cultural ambition of the city and the region, will only accelerate this process and further wound the long-term fiscal health of the newspaper.

Chicago Sun-Times Books Editor Teresa Budasi, however, isn’t buying some of this. This afternoon, on the Sun-Times Book Room blog, Budasi wrote, “Now is the time to take what you’re left with and do what you can with it. Just as the newspaper business as a whole is trying to figure out ways to reinvent itself, book review editors must do the same, whether it be by running shorter reviews, beefing up online content or what have you. Stop complaining about loss of culture and glorifying the past and move into the 21st century — where books are still plenty and people are still reading!”

Meanwhile, Rachel Deahl, the incompetent “journalist” at Publishers Weekly, is spreading rumors and misinformation, claiming that another LATBR editor besides Sara Lippincott is getting the axe. Her source, however, is not anyone currently employed by the Los Angeles Times, but Steve Wasserman. Hearsay doesn’t hold up in court and it shouldn’t hold up in reporting. And if there’s anything that I can report that comes from within the Los Angeles Times, I will report the news here. In the meantime, until there’s an actual statement from the Times, I think that one should dismiss Deahl’s third-hand information until the real news kicks in.

[RELATED: Deahl has also reported that Hartford Courant books editor Carole Goldberg has received the boot. But given Deahl’s handling of the LATBR news, I will make attempts to independently verify this information. (via Sarah)]

[UPDATE: Independent confirmation of LATBR cuts and Goldberg.]

Gossipmongering from Publishers Weekly Accepted as True Writ

This morning’s Publishers Weekly features an alarmist “report” from Rachel Deahl that is more fixated upon rumors and conjecture than actual reporting. Deahl, without citing any particular source other than an unnamed “freelance critic” and Tribune communications manager Michael Dizon, has reported that the Tribune Company is planning to slash overall page counts and that the results will go into effect sometime in September. Of course, without specific quotes from book editors, none of whom returned Deahl’s emails (hasn’t Deahl heard of the telephone?), this is about as credible as an Ain’t It Cool News half-truth about the film industry.

But don’t tell that to the National Book Critics Circle, who picked up the item this morning as if it were the gospel.

I plan to conduct some independent investigations on this in the next week. If I can determine any answers or hard information, I will report them here. I’ll leave the rumormongering to Publishers Weekly.

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Jane Smiley is Snobby Enough to Aim Low

Just so you know the heights of her hauteur, Jane Smiley’s latest review is about the snobbiest nonsense you can imagine from a book review section. The kind of afternoon balderdash “dictated but not read” by a humorless patent attorney and dutifully revered without quibble by fawning sycophants.

Unable to get her arrogant and elitist mind around the idea of a pink book, or rather what’s inside a pink book, Smiley spends four paragraphs devoting her Pulitzer Prize-winning “talents” to sentences that one would expect from a precocious tot who feels entitled to win first prize at the science fair without going to the trouble of setting up a booth. It’s the kind of Bart Simpson summary one expects from a surly shrew shirking her duties. I mean, I’m not much of a fan of the Ten Days in the Hills paperback cover of a woman in a black bikini top. It’s a gaudy orange color scheme that gave me a great desire to barf before I hurled the paperback across the room to secure my salubrity. But you won’t see me mentioning this eyesore of a cover. No. It just ain’t germane when discussing books. Particularly when Smiley’s inept “literary” style is evident from Ten Days‘s first sentence (which, believe it or not, contains the unintentionally hilarious phrase “his eyelids smooth over the orbs of his eyes,” which makes one wonder whether Smiley has confused the simple act of sleeping with opening up a Dremel contour kit).

I happen to have read Certain Girls and, while I have some problems with the book, I’m not going to pin them on genre. After all, as John Updike’s first rule of reviewing states, “try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.”

Smiley, however, lacks the perspicacity to elaborate on how precisely Weiner is “boxed in by her chosen genre,” which she does not even have the decency to name — presumably because typing in the word “chick” into her computer will cause her to faint in the politically correct California heat.

In fact, with the exception of Goodnight Nobody, Certain Girls is possibly the least “chick lit” title in Weiner’s oeuvre. This is because its two central characters are 42 and 13. Even a snob like Rachel Donadio understands that chick lit involves female characters who are in their twenties and thirties and generally involves a happy ending. But without giving anything away, something tragic happens to a major character near the end of Certain Girls. There are a surprising number of geeky asides (even a reference to Doctor Who!) that are not typically found in a typical chick lit title. Of course, Smiley assumes that because Certain Girls has a pink cover, it must, as a matter of course, be chick lit. Which is a bit assuming that because Smiley has won a Pulitzer Prize, she must therefore be a good writer.

Presumably, this inept review wasn’t edited. How else can one explain how such hackneyed turns of phrase like “laugh-out-loud wit” and “smart and edgy” made their way into the review? But, of course, the last thing you want to do is suggest to your “name” reviewer that she’s turned in turgid jerkoff material for the unadventurous.

But if Jane Smiley had asked me what I thought of this review, I would have said, “Do you really expect to collect a paycheck for this piece of shit, Jane? Why didn’t you cite a single textual example in this 900 word review? Don’t you dare write for this paper again until you can learn how to write!” That would have been the more daring and intriguing way to get Jane Smiley to actually write something that I’d be even remotely interesting in reading.

Or maybe Smiley really isn’t that great of a writer or that deep of a thinker to begin with. I mean, what can one say about a writer whose prose style is tailor-made for the New York Times Book Review? I’m thinking we’re dealing with a writer who’s about as much fun to read as a 1972 issue of a home decorating magazine.

I must confess that the continued adulation of Jane Smiley is a mystery to me. I’ve kept quiet for a long time about it. But Smiley has now crossed the line by bringing her dismissive hubris and a dullard’s reading sensibility to a newspaper book review section that once valued content before name recognition. Small wonder that newspaper book review sections are losing credibility.

[RELATED: Jennifer Weiner recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show in relation to Certain Girls.]

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David Kamp, Blog Snob

Ten years from now, we’ll all be inured to David Kamp. A whole generation will have grown up as his book, The United States of Arugula, has been long forgotten — the remaining copies pulped or perhaps used as oversized skeet shooting pellets, because they couldn’t even sell as remainders. For what imagination can one expect from a hack writer whose grand contributions to letters include The Food Snob’s Dictionary, The Film Snob’s Dictionary, The Rock Snob’s Dictionary, and The Wine Snob’s Dictionary? (One senses a trend. A writer so content to plant the word “snob” to his contributions in four different terrains, even satirically, must truly be an insufferable asshole.)

Right now, this great parvenu David Kamp has turned the prick of his pen to blogs. Using the finest epithets that 1999 had to offer, Kamp rails against the “untamed blogosphere” and the “Wild Web.” He displays his considerable ignorance in suggesting that the Smoking Gun is merely a place “best known for the documents it unearths via the Freedom of Information Act,” failing to understand that it was indeed the Smoking Gun that broke the James Frey scandal. This was the kind of lengthy investigative journalism that the New York Times once practiced, before it turned its resources to the women who New York governors were schtupping. (There’s also this neat little thing called the Internet Archive! Wow! That’s even better than the brand new 56k modem I bought last month from a guy on the street who said that it was “cutting edge.”)

He is content to cast aspersions about specific blogs based entirely on their titles (“cutesie-poo,” “mock-suave,” et al.), without bothering to cite any specific examples as to how the content lives up to these modifiers. (Look, I think the name “David Kamp” sounds like some cult member waiting for the big day when his shaky pyrotechnics knowledge will be enlisted in the jihad, or, failing that, the sad and klutzy moment when he accidentally blows off his hands and it’s all settled up as a dutiful sacrifice to The Leader. But you won’t see me belittling the man’s three syllables. Particularly when his piss-poor argument is so patently ridiculous.)

Indeed, Kamp appears so deaf to the idea of text that he compares Sarah Boxer’s post-excerpt pages to Johnny Carson. In this age of Quark and word processors, Kamp can’t seem to wrap his head around the concept of text being read on an LCD screen and later transposed to book form. It’s certainly bad enough that Kamp can’t even get his medium right. But in citing Johnny Carson, a dead talk show host who has been rotting under the earth quite well for three years and who hasn’t aired on a regular basis in sixteen years, Kamp demonstrates that he is as culturally au courant as a Deadhead who doesn’t quite understand that Jerry Garcia’s fat ass has been long chewed up by the maggots.

In Kamp’s view, a blogger cannot just have an “esoteric interest.” He feels compelled to add the word “obsessive,” as if those who compose their words for a screen are no different from Branch Davidians. He is quick to tell us that “[i]n the case of the blogger Benjamin Zimmer, a linguistic anthropologist, it’s language that turns him on.” That reminds me of the case of the quantum physicist who was turned on by quantum physics. Or David Kamp, the dumbass book critic who was turned on by dumbass observations.

Of course, reading sections of a 368 page book — composed of speedy prose, no less — was “a chore” for poor David Kamp. Kamp doesn’t report if he’s ever done a day of hard labor in his life, something like working on a farm or in a warehouse that might offer a sufficient comparative basis. (I’ll take a wild guess: no.) He doesn’t say what or why. That, of course, would involve actual thought. He merely says that what David Byrne does on his blog is a thousand times better than what Momus does on his. When Kamp resorts to ratios like this, he demonstrates that the true soporific wonkery on display here is not found within blogs, but in Kamp’s utter failure to provide any substantive analysis.

Leafing through much of David Kamp’s indolent and hastily assembled review — lightweight thought, lack of curiosity, comic misfires, recountings of personal travail (i.e., the “chore”) — I was reminded less of a book review than of a dreary speech delivered by a doddering conspiracy theorist for a Rotary International chapter. Sure, you want to encourage the man. But you would never expect his ramblings to be published in The New York Times Book Review. Not without a team of editors to rival a junta. And even then, there’s the old adage about cooks and broth.

And who is Kamp to speculate about Boxer’s vacillating motivations in writing the book? Can’t Boxer change her mind?

A thoughtful, and even critical, review of blog writing is by no means a dreadful idea for a newspaper piece. But this particular review goes well beyond a missed opportunity. If the NYTBR has any good sense, it will have a team of security guards punch David Kamp in the face if he ever tries to set up a lunch meeting with Sam Tanenhaus or Dwight Garner again.

The Irresponsible Self

“A genre is hardening. It is becoming possible to describe today’s ‘big, ambitious novel.’ Familial resemblances are asserting themselves, and a parent can be named: Dickens.” — James Wood, “Hysterical Realism.”

“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.” Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

Both of these opening sallies conjure the ominous, sharing a rhythmic persuasiveness that holds the reader’s attention hostage. Both too vibrate with the sincerity of deeply held belief. They exemplify what Northrop Frye has defined as High Style: sentences that seem to come from inside ourselves, as though the soul itself were remembering what it had been told so long ago, unmistakably heard in the voice of an individual facing a mob, or some incarnation of the mob spirit.

Both men argue against dehumanization: Marx in commerce; Wood in literature. Here again is Wood, attacking the mob; outing the enemy:

The big contemporary novel is a perpetual motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, and these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion. Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs. Such recent novels as Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, DeLillo’s Underworld, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth overlap rather as the pages of an atlas expire into each other at their edges.

The conventions of realism are not being abolished, he continues, but are exhausted and overworked. “Such diversity! So many stories! So many weird and funky characters! Bright lights are taken as evidence of habitation… props of the imagination, meaning’s toys… The existence of vitality is mistaken for the drama of vitality…Connections are merely conceptual, rather than human. It is all shiny externality, a caricature.”

So smells the skunk Wood loosens upon contemporary (and primarily American) novelists. There’s no mistaking its odor. In his essay, “Anna Karenina and Characterization,” we learn, with equal clarity, what he prefers: Tolstoy’s characters, and the comfort with which they move and live in their own skins. As with Shakespeare, “they feel real to us in part because they feel so real to themselves, take their own universes for granted.” Tolstoy starts with a description of the body which fixes a character’s essence, says Wood, essences that are referred to repeatedly in the novel. Wood uses Tolstoyean characters as yardsticks throughout the rest of his essays to repeatedly beat the Dickens out of novels that lack human detail and dynamism.

Writing about German author Wilhelm Von Polenz, Tolstoy himself suggests that the greatest novelists love their characters and add little details which force readers to pity and love them as well, notwithstanding all their coarseness and cruelty. Chekhov, whose name is also invoked throughout Wood’s oeuvre, is repeatedly praised as an exemplar of such an author, one who resists conclusion, and loves his characters from afar.

Wood tells us with precise, bold, and often unbelievably beautiful artistry exactly what is good, and how and why it’s good. Isaac Babel’s “atomic” prose is unique because of its discontinuities and exaggeration. “If his stories progress sideways, sliding from unconnected sentence to sentence, then the very sentences vault forward within themselves at the same moment.” J.M. Coetzee’s distinguished novels “feed on exclusion; they are intelligently starved. One always feels with this writer a zeal of omission.” “Bellow’s writing reaches for life, for the human gust.” “…it is Bellow’s genius to see the lobsters ‘crowded to the glass’ and their feelers bent by that glass –to see the riot of life in the dead peace of things.” Henry Green’s “fine determination not to prosecute a purpose…creates an exquisitely unpressing art, unlike any other. “

Wood’s essays typically start with pungent, seemingly incontrovertible axioms. “Fury, a novel that exhausts negative superlatives, that is likely to make even its most charitable readers furious, is a flailing apologia.” “Tom Wolfe’s novels are placards of simplicity. His characters are capable of experiencing only one feeling at a time; they are advertisements for the self: Greed! Fear! Hate! Love! Misery!”

Brief plot summaries follow, then close textual reading, reference to a startling breadth of comparable works, insight into specific titles and literature’s larger landscape, and biographical, contextual background detail. The “man” is not separated from the work. Deftly chosen illustrative quotations frequent the page inspiring the reader to run to where they came from.

But it’s not organization that makes these essays so bracing. It’s a wicked combination of unassailable style and blunt, clear judgment; bold aesthetic valuation and invitation to the unknown. Rosso Malpelo represents Giovanni Verga’s greatest tragicomic achievement. The Radetzky March is Joseph Roth’s greatest novel. Too Loud a Solitude is Bohumil Hrabal’s finest book. The best of J.F. Powers’s stories are “surely among the finest written by an American.” There is no academic conditional here, but there is the occasional whiff of pedantry. “Jonathan Franzen’s aesthetic solution to the social novel – the refuge of sentences – is, I think, the right one, or at least one of them, but his reasons for arriving at it are the wrong ones…” If I were Franzen, I wouldn’t be too happy with this treatment.

In his confidence, Wood recalls Edmund Wilson. Both tend to pontificate with an authoritative tone bordering on arrogant. Here’s the latter on G.K. Chesterton, whose writing on Dickens and elsewhere “is always melting away into that pseudo-poetic booziness which verbalizes with large conceptions and ignores the most obtrusive actualities.” In his first collection of essays, The Broken Estate, Wood points out that Thomas Pynchon’s novels have the “agitated density of a prison.” Instead of “agitated density,” Wilson uses “nervous concentration” to describe the vivid colours of Edwin Drood.

which make upon us an impression more disturbing than the dustiness, the weariness, the dreariness, which set the tone for Our Mutual Friend. In this new novel, which is to be his last, Dickens has found a new intensity. The descriptions of Cloisterham are among the best written in all his fiction: they have a nervous concentration and economy – nervous in the old fashioned sense – that produces a rather different effect from anything one remembers in the work of his previous phases.

One could say there is no middle ground with Wood. But that would be wrong. While he lionizes the best — Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and a handful of little read foreign writers — and crucifies the worst — Salman Rushdie and Tom Wolfe — he shows both sides of his hand to the rest. Bellow is his only contemporary hero. He praises and punishes Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, and J.M Coetzee, and writes endearingly about V.S. Pritchett, and Henry Green, of whom Elizabeth Bowen once said, “his novels reproduce, as few English novels do, the actual sensations of living.” Green himself, quoted in a John Updike introduction to his works, said that his intention was to use noun, verb and adjective “to create ‘life’ which does not eat, procreate or drink, but which can live in people who are alive.” Little wonder Wood is a fan.

What The Irresponsible Self gives us in essay after essay is guidance and sharp opinion. We also get — and this is what ensures that these essays will stay news — a virtually unmatched capacity to employ cage rattling, sentence-stopping metaphor, and antithesis. These dazzling juxtapositions frequently demand a pause to utter the word ‘Wow!’

“Pride, one might say, is the sin of humble people and humility is the punishment for proud people, and each reversal represents a kind of self-punishment.” “The novel [The Radetzky March]’s formal beauty flows from its dynastic current, which irrigates the very structure of the book.” “Atlanta in the 1990s is a forest of typologies, all of them swaying in Wolfe’s gale-force prose.” “The language is oddly thick fingered – from a writer capable of such delicacy – and stubs itself into the vernacular….”

Two words that Wood uses magnificently have stayed with me since reading. I doubt they’ll ever leave. Of a typical Isaac Babel paragraph, “each sentence seems to disavow its role in the ordinary convoy of meaning and narrative, and appears to want to begin the story anew. And “…Svevo essentially garaged his writing for twenty years.”

Occasionally, however, fancy phrase work trips into the too clever. “Mistress Quickly’s irrelevances, like those of her fictional heirs in Chekhov and Joyce, are sad and funny because they have the aspect of remembered detail but the status of forgotten detail.”

Overall, the quantum of considered thought and the unjargoned artistry with which it is expressed, constitute the strength of this essay collection. Its weakness, if there is one, resides in its introduction entitled “Comedy and the Irresponsible Self.” As Elizabeth Bowen once said, too many prefaces to collections make rather transparent attempts to bind. Wood’s thesis is that modern readers no longer laugh cruelly or correctively at fictional characters, but rather empathize with them ‘gloriously,’ exist with them in the same mixed dimension, share their emotions, and laugh with them through tears. Modern fiction creates uncertainty through incomplete knowledge, which prompts the reader to merge with the characters in order to find out why they do the things they do, or how to “read” certain passages.

This is not a new insight. Socrates saw the connection between tragedy and comedy, as did Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard and others. Charles Lamb in the early 19th century, saw laughter as an overflow of sympathy, an amiable feeling of identity with what is disreputably human. In the 20th century, critics have pointed to the inherent absurdity of human existence, namely the irrational, inexplicable, nonsensical , chaotic –the comic. Related to Wood’s incomplete knowledge, critic Wylie Sypher, in an essay written in the 1950s put it this way: “The deepest ‘meanings’ of art therefore arise wherever there is an interplay between patterns of surface-perception and the pressures of depth-perception. Then the stated meanings will fringe off into unstated and unstatable meanings of great power, felt dimly but compellingly. “

Although Wood rides his idea on irresponsibility into many of these essays, it comes up lame. It’s unoriginal, and too weak to bind these essays together retroactively. And if this isn’t bad enough, the examples he uses to illustrate humor just aren’t funny.

Another theme wends its way through the essays quite naturally however, the one labeled Hysterical Realism. Wood hammers the same nail through the whole book, railing against cartoonish, stereotypical characters, and the primacy of information over human emotion. This argument, while better suited to the collection, is itself an old one. E.M. Forster makes it in Aspects of the Novel, “We may hate humanity, but if it is exorcised or even purified the novel wilts, little is left but a bunch of words. And here’s Peter Ackroyd, in The Listener in 1981: “Some of the more recent American novels…seem to me to be hollow, written at a forced pace, preoccupied with literary special effects, and unable to deal with human beings in other than generalized and stereotypical terms…It is too dazzled by such things [contemporary technology] to allow much space in its language for the workings of human agency. It is a language of power, one in which reality is seen as a phenomenon which can be easily manipulated and controlled…American novelists who live within this language, and whose perceptions are determined by it, are uniquely ill-equipped to deal with human motives and responses, and as a result they are also unable to present any convincing account of their own human society.” What does seem fresher, more original, is Wood’s interest in characters who behave consistently, who remain true to themselves, who live and act according to their own rules.

If Wood’s confident tone recalls Edmund Wilson, the cadence of his prose, and to some extent its content, sounds most like Virginia Woolf. Here she is on modernism, and breaking away from the constrictions of providing plot, comedy, tragedy, love interest, an air of probability:

“Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?”

The essays in Wood’s book appeared in slightly different form in several well known literary magazines. Unfortunately, minor changes were made to his famous Hysterical Realism piece. Instead of “When [Zadie] Smith is writing well, she seems capable of a great deal,” Wood changes “a great deal” to the more sycophantic “almost anything.” The same passage illustrating “brilliant free indirect style” is quoted, but a new paragraph is added after it, starting with the phrase “That is a fabulous bit of writing…” Nothing detrimental to his argument. His direct, unfudged criticisms remain. But it’s just a little disappointing to think that adjustments may have been made for personal, rather than hermeneutic reasons.

Edmund Wilson understood why great reviewer critics are so rare: the pay is lousy, the work Sisyphean. It’s difficult to attract talent under these circumstances, which is why Wilson maintained that it might be a profitable idea for some editor to get a really able writer on literature and make it worth his while to do a weekly column. “He should not be expected to cover what is published, but to write each week of a man or a book. This would prove valuable for the magazine and for the literary world in general.” New Yorker editor David Remnick has chosen to take Wilson’s 73-year-old advice by hiring a really able writer, whose work will now be read by more than a million readers per issue. For lovers of the literary this is to be celebrated.

Wood not only writes ebullient, meticulous exegesis, he’s also an accomplished polemicist. One who has dropped a dirty great big conventional human fart atop the heads of some of America’s best loved contemporary novelists. DeLillo, Pynchon, Wolfe, Franzen, Moody, Foster Wallace — they all just sit there, refusing to accept convention, either incapable of doing anything, or too damned lazy to refute what he’s saying. To date, Wood’s criticisms have gone unanswered save for the odd reactionary calls. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone had balls and brains enough to take him on systematically or intelligently?

In The Irresponsible Self, James Wood stakes a position and argues it with serious zeal. He writes with greater humanity, passion and insight than most of the contemporary novelists he is tasked with reviewing. One can’t ask more of a critic. We’ve seen him in action, and we are humbled. His next book, How Fiction Works, will tell us how he does it.

NYTBR: Bill Keller Can Do No Wrong

Just when you think the New York Times Book Review couldn’t get any sleazier, editor Sam Tanenhaus has proven yet again that there isn’t an unctuous pool he won’t dive into. The latest disgrace is Ruth Conniff’s review of Bill Keller’s Tree Shaker. Bill Keller, of course, is the executive editor of the New York Times and Conniff’s review is perhaps the most egregious conflict of interest in the NYTBR‘s entire history. Conniff isn’t critical one whit about Tree Shaker. The review may as well have recycled the book’s press release. But Conniff (or perhaps the editors) have no problem invoking these boilerplate plaudits:

With its striking layout, bright graphics and photographs on almost every page, Keller’s biography of Mandela vibrates with the feeling of history come alive.

This book does not condescend to its young audience, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions.

We learn that Keller, despite writing a children’s book, is “more a historian here than a biographer.” (Never mind that the book is a mere 128 pages.) We learn that he wrote “a thoughtful afterword.” The only thing missing in this review is a phone number for New York Times readers to confess their conversion from Christianity to the Church of Keller.

I’m still puzzled why Conniff didn’t declare Bill Keller “the greatest writer in the history of children’s literature” or “the most profound humanitarian since Gandhi.” Why didn’t Conniff demand that all literary people supplicate before Keller’s dais, declare Lord Bill the True Leader, and be prepared to sacrifice their babies to the volcano?

Tanenhaus doesn’t stop there. In addition to featuring a ten minute podcast interview with Keller on the Times website, he also offers the first chapter.

Of course, it’s just possible that Conniff really did love the book. But when one examines the first chapter, Keller’s writing deficiencies become self-evident. Grammarians will wince at the folksy use of “gotten” and the sloppy “past half a century.” A double “was now” has managed to escape the copy editor’s eye. We learn that Ahmed Kathrada is “a thoughtful man” because he “earned multiple college degrees while in prison.” We get awkward redundancies such as “Then we rode to their old cellblock, where Mandela posed for pictures in his cell…” (In his cell? No kidding?)

Beyond these flubs, there is nothing more here than dry generalized description that could have been easily cadged from the back of a travel brochure.

That such a book would be uncritically accepted and that such a review would be published in a section that purports to be a critical beacon are salient indicators that, when it comes to dealing with top brass, Sam Tanenhaus is nothing more than a literary lapdancer.

A Tribute to Frank Wilson

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Frank Wilson will be hanging up his hat as books editor of the Philly Inquirer on Friday and I feel that the battle to save book reviewing sections has been lost. I figured that if Frank could keep his books section running, the newspaper situation would be okay. I know that there were many struggles to keep the section afloat and that Frank worked damn hard at his job, often performing double duty on other arts sections. But he won’t tell you about what he went through. Because he’s always been a class act.

He cared a good deal about arts coverage and he had many ideas on how to make a books section both lively and profitable. He was a man who fought hard to get a Steve Erickson review running off the front of the Arts & Entertainment section. But I suspect many of his innovative ideas fell on deaf ears. I don’t know if Frank will ever reveal the true sacrifice of his labors. But trust me. The man did everything he could and kept at this game far longer than any reasonable person should.

So the news depresses me. Because Philadelphia was lucky to have Frank Wilson. Hell, the whole nation was lucky to have Frank Wilson. He was possibly too smart for this business. He may have cared too much.

Frank ran reviews on all types of books from all types of writers. One turned to the Inquirer‘s books section for passionate and thoughtful books coverage, not a section composed of “names” coasting by on credentials. Unlike many other editors, he was open-minded enough to understand that the current convergence between print and online was not a development where you had to pick a side, but where you had to work both sides of the fence and bring people together. He corralled top talent in the blogosphere and forced them to up their game. He knew intuitively where cultural coverage was going and did everything he could to bridge the gap.

He was also the first newspaper editor to take a chance on me with a book reviewing assignment. And so I owe much of my current full-time freelancing career to Frank. And I will never forget him for this. I was extremely privileged and honored to write for him. And I always busted my hump to get him something extra special. He let me get away with reviews written in the first person plural and let me throw in a lot of embedded wordplay that I sneaked into my reviews to amuse the copy desk. In return, I’d try to scout out books for him that nobody else was covering.

But now that Frank’s almost gone, with his Books, Inq. blog sadly following, this is a huge loss for Philadelphia and a huge loss for newspapers. The news came hot on the heels of other losses in the Philadelphia newspaper community. So it stings that much more.

I’m not sure if this means the end of the Inquirer‘s books section. But the paper needed Frank Wilson. And I don’t think they were really aware of the talent they had.

[UPDATE: It appears that despite being devoted to “commentary on literary criticism, publishing, writing, and all things NBCC related,” the NBCC blog Critical Mass hasn’t bothered to point to developments at the Philly Inquirer. This is especially astonishing, considering that NBCC President John Freeman was a regular contributor to the Inquirer‘s pages. But I guess when you’re busy pretending that an established social networking site doesn’t exist and you’re attempting to replace it with the most predictable lists of books imaginable, I suppose that more tangible developments in the universe such as a newspaper books section that may very well be dead aren’t so important. In other news, I hear that next year’s NBCC reading campaign is “Shelfari.”]

[UPDATE 2: Hmm. Funny that. Freeman’s post at Critical Mass went up not long after the previous update.]

Dave Itzkoff: The Genre Dunce Who Won’t Stop Dancing

Dave Itzkoff has been an embarrassment to the New York Times Book Review for some time, imbuing his “Across the Universe” columns with a know-nothing hubris that one expects from an investment banker who considers himself an art expert simply because he’s had his secretary send in a tax-deductible donation to the opera. Never mind that he hasn’t once listened to Verdi. But Itzkoff’s latest piece truly demonstrates that the wretched and rackety well has no bottom limit. Reading Itzkoff is like being paired up with some otiose oaf on a field assignment who will cluelessly drill into a septic tank and spew all manner of malodorous shit without recognizing how incompetent and disgusting this is. Unlike someone like quarterback Eli Manning, Itzkoff’s instincts can’t help him win the game. Not even accidentally.

Itzkoff first tries to be cutesy with this column, comparing his subway rides to “Bruce Campbell dodging zombies,” when in fact the Evil Dead films concerned themselves with the backwoods, not an urban setting, and it was the supernatural (as opposed to zombies) that Bruce Campbell dodged in the Evil Dead films. He might have had a decent comparison on his hands had he evoked something along the lines of Lamberto Bava’s Demons. But a tired and clumsy reference to Bruce Campbell? Clearly, this was one of those “hip” comparisons that Itzkoff sneaked into his column not with the intent of relating to his audience, but to desperately pine for a geek chic he clearly does not and can never possess.

And then we have the telltale phrase of a dolt signifying everything: “I sometimes wonder how any self-respecting author of speculative fiction can find fulfillment in writing novels for young readers.” I wonder how any “critic” could write such a clueless sentence. Bad enough that Itzkoff invokes two books that have been out for many months (one more than a year) and is about as current on science fiction as a high school jock trying to crib tips from reluctant geeks who recognize a flagrant pettifogger. But this ignoramus also has the temerity to suggest that speculative fiction authors can only write speculative fiction and that there is nothing of value in YA books. Further, Itzkoff can’t seem to understand that selling millions of books may not be why an author turns to the form. As it so happens, China Miéville was once good enough to tell me that he didn’t write Un Lun Dun with money in mind. But he didn’t need to inform me about the artistic satisfaction he found in creating worlds for kids. It was, despite my quibbles with the book, nascent on the page. You’d have to be a tone-deaf dilettante out of your element not to see it.

Then there is Itzkoff’s ignorance in quoting Miéville’s previous works. He doesn’t cite the New Crobuzon books (were they just too long and too filled with big words for Itzkoff to ken?). He seems to think that a fantasy audience is more likely to know Miéville for King Rat and his short stories. When in fact, the reverse is true. And what should Miéville’s polemic on Tolkien have to do with the imaginative strengths of Un Lun Dun? Is Itzkoff taking the piss out of Miéville’s socialist views by comparing this essay to “one of the most imaginative young adult novels of the post-Potter era?” When, in fact, Miéville argued:

As socialists, we don’t judge art by the politics of its creator – Trotsky loved Celine, Marx loved Balzac, and neither author was exactly a lefty. However, when the intersection of politics and aesthetics actually stunts the art, it’s no red herring to play the politics card.

Un Lun Dun is not a case where the environmental politics stunt the art. And if this is Itzkoff’s crass attempt to be clever, to equate Miéville’s politics with his art, then why doesn’t he just fess up to what a pinko author Miéville is?

And then there is this bafflingly obvious observation:

When Miéville hangs a crucial story element on an alternate definition of the word “phlegm,” he does so not only to educate his audience about its forgotten second meaning, but also to acknowledge that kids love the word “phlegm.”

You think, Itzkoff? That’s a bit like writing, “When Miéville titled his book Un Lun Dun, he does so not only to suggest phonetic transcription, but also to acknowledge that kids love to misspell words.” It’s the kind of dull conclusion I’d expect from a burned out undergraduate taking on some hack assignment of dumbing down literature for a Cliffs Notes volume. Not something from the New York Times.

When Itzkoff brings up Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves’s InterWorld, the book is “still something of a departure,” presumably because Itzkoff remains incapable of fathoming why a fantasy author would be found in the children’s section. Bafflingly, Itzkoff writes that the book “falls into the same broad category as ‘Un Lun Dun.'” While you’re at it, Itzkoff, why don’t you tell us that the book is “published by the good people at McGraw Hill?” These are utterly useless sentences. Itzkoff can’t seem to accept a book as a book. He feels the need to pigeonhole it, even to suggest that Gaiman and Reaves had a specific type of reader in mind, when, in fact, the book’s origins have a completely different story. But Itzkoff is too lazy to conduct even the most basic of research. Again, he would rather assume and drop in a reference to Heavy Metal.

Itzkoff writes that InterWorld “isn’t sugarcoated for its readership” and describes how it “wastes no time in putting its young heroes in mortal peril.” Which leads one to wonder whether Itzkoff is even familiar with this little story called “Jack and the Beanstalk,” which featured this giant chanting for the blood of an Englishman. As nearly every bedtime reader knows, children’s stories have a long history of putting young heroes in mortal peril. See, for instance, the tales of Grimm.

Why someone like Itzkoff has remained continually employed at the NYTBR for nearly two years is no mystery. Nobody at the NYTBR gives a good goddam about science fiction, nor do they care about incisive coverage of genre books. I doubt very highly that Sam Tanenhaus or Dwight Garner have read one science fiction book in their entire NYTBR tenure. There’s certainly no evidence to suggest that either of these two have open minds on the subject. Garner once described Philip K. Dick as a “trippy science-fiction writer.” Which is a bit like calling Dylan “a trippy singer.” A New York Times search unearths not a single article by Sam Tanenhaus with the words “science fiction” in it.

So if Itzkoff, Tanenhaus, and Garner are failing on the science fiction front, why then should one give credence to them? Because Tanenhaus actually had the hubris to tell me (and a large audience) that the NYTBR is “the best book review section in the nation.” But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. To my mind, if you are an editor striving to be “the best book review section in the nation,” you should take genre as seriously as you do mainstream literature. You should not pollute your columns with clumsy cultural references that have no relation to the material.

And, above all, you should not hire a dunce like Dave Itzkoff.

[UPDATE: Andrew Wheeler writes: “Perhaps the problem is that Itzkoff has a whole page to fill, and, given that he’s only read two fairly short books in six months, he doesn’t have much actual content to fill that space with. So once again I will suggest a tightening of Itzkoff’s assigned space. One word every decade would about do it.”]

The Decline of Book Reviewing: A Case Study

It is said that the Eunectes murinus — referred to by laymen as the anaconda or the water boa — spends most of its time shooting its slimy body beneath the water, waiting for a hapless gazelle to stop and take a drink, only to grab the lithe animal with its jaws, coil its scaly muscular husk around its quivering body, squeezing and constricting until the animal is helpless (the animal is never crushed), where it then feasts upon the meat. It does this, because, while the boa does surface on land from time to time, the boa is more taken with the scummy agua. It does not know any better.

And while most mainstream newspaper book sections are devoted to thought over carnivorous instinct, there remain some critics, terrified of inhabiting any topography foreign to their hermetic environments and who remain needlessly hostile to any author crossing multiple ecosystems.

vollmann.jpgThe author in question is William T. Vollmann. And the book is Riding Toward Everywhere, a surprisingly thin volume (by Vollmann standards, at least) that concerns itself with trainhopping and vagrants. (Full disclosure: While the book isn’t Vollmann’s greatest, I did enjoy the book. And while I may be a devotee to Vollmann’s work, I have never let my admiration for the man hinder fair and critical judgment. Above all, I recognize that Vollmann, like any original and idiosyncratic author, must be read on his own terms. This would seem self-evident to even the most elementary reader, because of Vollmann’s style and his distinct subject matter. But other individuals, as I shall soon demonstrate, don’t share this commitment to due consideration.)

A number of recent reviews reveal an astonishing paucity of insight and, in some cases, remarkable deficiencies in reading comprehension. And this all has me greatly concerned about the state of contemporary criticism. While there were dismissals from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette‘s Bob Hoover and the Los Angeles Times‘s Marc Weingarten that had the good sense to avoid dwelling so heavily on Vollmann’s peccadilloes, the majority of these negative reviews not only failed to comprehend Vollmann’s book, but appeared predetermined to despise it from the onset. They wished to judge Vollmann the man instead of Vollmann the author. Which is a bit like judging Dostoevsky not on his literary genius, but on his abject personal foibles. Or dismissing Woody Allen’s great films because he married his adopted daughter. This is the stance of blackguards who peddle in gossip, not criticism.

And yet speculation into Vollmann’s character was unfurled in messy dollops under the guise of “criticism” or “book reviewing.”

From Rene Denfeld’s review in The Oregonian:

There is a saying among some bloggers: “I think I just vomited a little in my mouth.”

That’s how I felt reading “Riding Toward Everywhere.”

William T. Vollmann is a mystifyingly respected writer, a man who has made his reputation by exploiting sex workers, the poor and other helpless targets as he plumbs their depths with his supposedly insightful pen, not to mention other appendages.

Well, this blogger has never typed that hackneyed sentence, in large part because resorting to cliches are about as enticing as four hours with a dentist (or, for that matter, dwelling on an essay written by a lazy writer). But then Ms. Denfeld has no problem letting false and near libelous conjecture get in the way of understanding what’s in the text. She fails to cite any specific examples on how Vollmann has “exploited” his subjects. And she has deliberately misread Riding Toward Everywhere to suit her false and incorrigible conclusions. To be clear on this, it was not — as Ms. Denfeld suggests — Vollmann who referred to “citizens” contemptuously, but the vagrants who Vollmann interviewed. Since Ms. Denfeld doesn’t appear to know how to read and infer from a book, here is the specific manner in which Vollmann establishes a “citizen.” Vollmann starts talking to vagrants in search of the notorious gang, the Freight Train Riders of America. Early on in the book, Vollmann approaches a man with a bandana and bluntly asks him, “Are you FTRA?”

You goddamned dufus! shouted the man. That’s the stupidest fucking thing I ever heard. You wanna commit suicide or what? I’m not even FTRA and you’re already starting to piss me off. Don’t you get it? We hate you.

Why’s that?

Because you’re just a goddamned citizen.

Sorry about that, I said. (33)

Denfeld further claims that Vollmann “fancies himself the Jack Kerouac of our times,” but it’s quite evident that Vollmann, in addition to pointing out the differences between hitting the roads and riding the rails, views himself as a somewhat clumsy traveler and does not permit his literary antecedents to define him:

Neither the ecstatic openness of Kerouac’s road voyagers, nor the dogged cat-and-mouse triumphs of London’s freight-jumpers, and certainly not the canny navigations of Twain’s riverboat youth define me. I go my own bumbling way, either alone or in company, beset by lapses in my bravery, energy, and charity, knowing not precisely where to go until I am there. (73)

Denfeld also writes, “His concession to the law is to borrow friends’ cars when he picks up hookers so if he gets caught, it won’t be his license that is lost.”

Again, Denfeld deliberately twists Vollmann’s words around. Here is what Vollmann actually wrote:

My city passes an ordinance to confiscate the cars of men who pick up prostitutes. This compels me to walk….It may well be that I am a sullen and truculent citizen; possibly I should play the game a trifle. But I do, I do: When I pick up prostitutes I use somebody else’s car. (4-5)

denfeld.jpgIt is clear here that Vollmann is being as straightforward as he can about his life, trying to set down personal fallacies he may have in common with his subjects. It would be one thing if Ms. Denfeld stated the precise problems she had with the book, but she remains so fixated in her happy little universe — which involves living with her partner with three adopted children and OMG! “teaching writing in low-income schools and volunteering in adoption education and outreach”; could it be that Vollmann is not the only “rich” person who “brags” about philanthropy? — that she can’t seem to consider that other people relate to the world a bit differently. And it’s clear that she can’t be bothered to engage with the issues that the book presents. Masticating upon this book, good or bad, seems beneath Ms. Denfeld’s abilities. Beyond Ms. Denfeld’s consistent failure at basic reading comprehension, I likewise remain gobsmacked that these flagrant errors, easily confirmed by checking Ms. Denfeld’s statements against the text (which runs a svelte 186 pages), were allowed to run in a major newspaper.

Ms. Denfeld isn’t the only venerable nitwit assigned to review a book outside her ken. Here’s the opening paragraph from “respected” author Carolyn See’s takedown at the Washington Post:

William T. Vollmann is revered and venerated by a lot of men whose brains and souls I deeply respect. They love his ideas, the sheer length of his work (one book of his, “Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means,” runs over 3,000 pages); they love his freedom and eccentricities — he’s been to and written about Afghanistan, the Far East and the magnetic north pole, and has spent vast amounts of time with prostitutes while also managing to keep a wife and kid. He seems to be a man of prodigious abilities. At the same time, I can say I’ve never had a conversation with a woman about his work. He just doesn’t seem to come up on our radar. Is it that we don’t have the time to read 3,000 pages? That we don’t care as much as we should about the magnetic north pole? I don’t know.

Rather then dredge up my own empirical evidence of women I know who do read and enjoy Vollmann in response to this egregious sexism, which is particularly ignoble coming from a Ph.D., I’ll simply presume that See’s sheltered life at UCLA, much less basic library skills, precludes her from consulting such books as Linda Gregerson’s Magnetic North (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), Kathan Brown’s The North Pole (Crown, 2004), or Helen Thayer’s Polar Dream: The First Solo Expedition by a Woman and Her Dog to the Magnetic North Pole (NewSage, 2002). Further, Laura Miller’s womanhood didn’t hinder her from devoting 2,000 words to Poor People, pointing out (although critical) that Vollmann was “a writer of extraordinary talent.” Dava Sobel called him “ferociously original.” Numerous other examples can be readily unearthed in newspapers and academic journals. Vollmann is no more an author just for men than Jennifer Weiner is an author just for women. And only a fool or a John Birch Society member would declare otherwise.

See’s prefatory paragraph, of course, has nothing to do with the book in question. And if See had been a responsible reviewer, she would have recused herself from reviewing an author who “doesn’t come up on [her] radar.” An ethical and responsible reviewer knows her own intellectual or perceptive limits.

And then there is J.R. Moehringer’s offering in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review. Like Denfield, Moehringer has reading comprehension problems, although thankfully not as severe. Moehringer completely misses Vollmann’s point that Cold Mountain is, much like Shangri-La, an unobtainable destination, although he does seem to understand that it’s “a nonexistent mountain.” But for Moehringer, “the words lose all meaning.” It doesn’t occur to Moehringer that Vollmann’s repetition of “Cold Mountain” might be a way of expressing the ineffable or the unfindable. Or as Vollmann puts it:

I stood here wondering if I had reached Cold Mountain. Where is Cold Mountain, anyway? Isn’t it for the best if I can never be sure I’ve found it?

But Moehringer’s biggest sin is to ask Vollmann the hypothetical question, “Pal, what the hell’s wrong with you?” He finds Vollmann crazy for “get[ting] his kicks breaking into rail yards and hopping freight trains,” and wonders why nobody has caught him. But he fails to consider that Vollmann’s romantic description of the open air or the modest code of honor that prevents a fellow hopper from stealing another hopper’s sleeping bag might hold some appeal to a man of Vollmann’s eccentricities. Clearly, there are reasons why Vollmann hops trains. And Vollmann dutifully explains why. But since Moehringer lacks the intellectual flexibility to understand this, he breaks John Updike’s first rule of reviewing (“try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt”) at the onset.

He declares Vollmann “miserable” and “filled with irredeemable gloom about the state of the world,” wondering how anyone could feel this way more so than others, but fails to recognize that one of the major thrusts of Vollmann’s work has been to chronicle the misunderstood. Kindness and empathy, and writing about people that other novelists and journalists are all too happy to ignore, are at the core of Vollmann’s output. Further, there is more to Vollmann’s mantra than Cold Mountain. As Vollmann explains:

I am sure that the fact that my wife had expressed her wish for a divorce two days before had nothing to do with the fact that I kept saying to myself: I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve got to get out of here.

Moehringer also writes, “Early on, Vollmann mentions ‘a Cambodian whore’ he nearly married. Why? No reason.” But what Moehringer conveniently elides is how Vollmann mentions this in connection with taking a bus trip out to Oakland. When the bus stopped at Cheyenne, Vollmannn felt that he had reached “true West.” He did not get out of the bus, but he felt that “Cheyenne changed me at that moment.” And if Moehringer is so indolent a reviewer that he cannot grasp the basic concept — indeed, the specific “reason” Vollmann is bringing up this anecdote — of how one decision often changes a life at a crossroads, let us consider the specific passage:

Once upon a time I almost married a Cambodian whore, or at least I convinced myself that I was on the verge of wedding her; once I considered moving in with an Eskimo girl; in either case, I would have learned, suffered and joyed ever so intensely in ways that I will never know now. And what if I had gotten off the bus in Cheyenne in the year of my youthful hope 1981? California is only half-western, being California. Cheyenne is one hundred percent Western….And had I stepped off the bus in Cheyenne, I might have become a cowboy; I could have even been a man.

If Moehringer — a Pulitzer Prize winner, for fuck’s sake — is incapable of seeing the reason why Vollmann mentioned the incident, then I shudder to consider his dull worldview and nearly nonexistent sense of adventure. Why climb Everest? No reason. “Because it’s there.”

All three reviewers demonstrate a remarkable devotion to remaining incurious and to condemning an author personally rather than trying to consider an author’s perspective. Small wonder, given this reactionary clime, that book reviewing sections face extinction.

My Bologna Has a Second Name: It’s M-Y-E-R-S

When the last words of a litblogger’s post are “Fuck you, B.R. Myers,” and the rest of the litblogger’s argument is ignored by a bunch of trolls who scarf down critical animosity towards anything remotely divergent from hard-core literary realism with the same relish one finds in a stern Calvinist happily sitting upright in a hard cushionless pew, and the commenters fail to observe that the guy who caused all this nonsense was the same shit-stirrer who wrote a manifesto that called out Proulx, DeLillo, McCarthy, Auster, Guterson, Moody, and nearly anybody else who did anything different, I begin to smell a rat. A large, grossly sinister rodent gnawing its way upon agile minds, understandably mistaking the fierce lobes for Swiss cheese.

In such circumstances, there is only one recourse: bring out the cat.