Good Riddance to Bad Rubbish

Rachel Donadio: “James Joyce was forever hard up for cash. Too bad he never thought of touring Europe to promote Plumtree’s potted meat or lemon-scented soap, notable items in ‘Ulysses.'”

If someone kicked Rachel Donadio in the teeth just on these two sentences alone, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Thankfully, Donadio is leaving the New York Times Book Review. Hopefully, for good.

Sam Tanenhaus’s Soul-Sucking Tentacles

Litkicks: “Rachel Donadio’s articles have no point of view. I’ve read at least ten of her essays or interviews in this publication in the last two years, and I have never once felt I had the slightest indication what she thought about her subject. She is the only regular NYTBR writer who does not ever deign to share a point of view with the reader. In theory, this type of dispassion could have some value — perhaps some sort of Joan Didion-esque blank journalistic resonance — but it would have to be handled more artistically to achieve this effect. When I read an article like today’s Donadio piece on Salman Rushdie, I simply feel empty and unsatisfied. I expect a New York Times Book Review writer to communicate some type of point of view to me, or else I’m eating a bowl of flavor-free ice cream. Rachel Donadio, what do you think about Salman Rushdie?”

I agree with Levi, with one vital qualifier: Donadio’s work at the Observer did have a point of view to share with the reader. Consider this sardonic 2004 report of BookExpo:

Nearby, Jonathan Karp, the boyish and rising (if not already risen) Random House senior vice president and editor in chief, aggressively introduced passers-by to Robert Kurson, a slightly frightened-looking author whose book, Shadow Divers , is about divers who find a U-boat off the coast of New Jersey. It is expected to do well.

Or this amusing Caitlin Flanagan report:

So she doesn’t wash the sheets, but she does sew buttons. Does she like to sew buttons? “I do like to sew buttons. I think it’s very rewarding that you can take a garment that’s shabby and unwearable and in this quick way you can really transform it,” she said. “It’s an easy little gift for me to give him.” Yet this is from the same woman who in her 2003 essay on Erma Bombeck wrote that “I have been married a total of fourteen years to a total of two men, and never once have I been asked to iron a single item of either man’s clothing or to replace even one popped button, for which I suppose I have the women’s movement to thank. But I realize now, late in the game, that we’d be much better off if I had a few of those skills.”

This is the kind of skepticism and juxtaposition that one expects from a literary reporter along these lines. But this playful tone — which once made Donadio’s pieces so much fun to read — has disappeared in recent years. Did Donadio check in her sense of humor upon signing on with Tanenhaus? What caused her work to become what Levi suggests is “empty and unsatisfied?”

I don’t think it’s an accident that things shifted the minute that Donadio signed on with the NYTBR. Just look at the soulless banter in Donadio’s latest piece and compare it with the Observer work. This wholesale evisceration of this journalist’s strengths into prose that resembles a humorless hack is yet another reason why the NYTBR needs several swift kicks in the ass. Good editors recognize life and do their best to cultivate and nurture a journalist’s voice. While this thankfully seems to be the case with Liesl Schillinger, whose reviews continue to remain engaging and enthusiastic (perhaps because Schillinger keeps herself at arm’s length as a freelancer), I think something terrible may have happened to Donadio when she succumbed to the moth effect.

Rachel the Hack: Miscellany


It’s time for a new installment of Rachel the Hack, an essential guide to understanding Ms. Donadio’s warblings.

There were two items we missed last week, articles composed for the annual “Ideas” issue of the New York Times Magazine: “Straw That Saves Lives” and “Walk-In Health Care”. The question, however, is whether these are genuine ideas or adverts for specific products. Presumably, these blurbs are intended to suggest that Donadio is a socially conscious thinker. But it’s telling that these mini-articles seem less concerned with the social circumstances that frame these articles (respectively, the lack of sanitized water and uninsured medical care) and more interested in journalism-as-advertising copy.

A 10-inch plastic tube — think of it as a reverse snorkel — LifeStraw employs a system of seven filters, some using mesh, some using chemicals, some as fine as six microns (more than 10 times finer than a human hair). The straw costs $3 to make and lasts for a year, filtering two liters of water per day.

This is journalism? It sounds to me like a paragraph stolen verbatim from LifeStraw’s Christmas catalog. Why isn’t Donadio employed at an advertising agency? She’s clearly more enthused by trying to describe the dimensions and pricing of items instead of the one billion people her heart allegedly bleeds for. Alas, such humorless “writers” of this ilk often become critics.

Which brings us to the latest “article” written “By Rachel Donadio” in this week’s NYTBR: a compendium of war book titles selected by other authors. But seeing as how Donadio only “wrote” the introductory paragraph and the one-line bios, this is hardly authorship proper. Sure, Donadio (or one of her fellow editors) did the legwork, solicited the authors, and possibly over-edited their sentences so as to suffocate the life out of them. (You’re really asking me to believe that the lively Anthony Swofford contributed the lifeless sentence, “His portraits are as fresh today as when he first stepped into Vietnam as a Marine infantry officer in 1965?”) Why then the need for a personal credit? Is there some kind of end-of-the-year article quota that Donadio has to fill before her annual review? If so, we hope Donadio gets a nice bonus for dulling the NYTBR‘s great promise!

Rachel the Hack: The Closest Reader


It’s time for a new installment of Rachel the Hack, an essential guide to understanding Ms. Donadio’s warblings.

This week’s NYTBR sees Ms. Donadio writing about poetry critic Helen Vendler, a subject who might just be as humorless as Donadio. Donadio sets the article’s tone with a few clipped sentences (“Sunlight plays on ivy-covered brick,” etcetera), suggesting perhaps that this critic is as “literary” as these ragamuffins who dare to pen verse while starving in frosty garrets. Alas, Donadio is not Hemingway (and I’d hazard a guess that she ain’t exactly starving), no matter how many times she might have read The Sun Also Rises.

We learn that Vendler “has an extraordinary command of the lyric tradition.” (Does Vendler have groupies too? Who knew?) And, offering us yet another classic Donadio maneuver, Donadio glosses over what this “lyric tradition” might be in favor of Vendler’s clip-on microphone. It’s telling that Vendler’s “soft, Boston-tinged voice” is more important that what Vendler has to say. Sure, Donadio’s going to tell you the phrases Vendler cited in her lecture, but damned if the readers will actually get a sense of how Vendler processed the poetry. Which is, after all, what a critic does.

In fact, I was reading this nonsense wondering why David Orr didn’t talk with Vendler, seeing as how he disagreed with Vendler’s assessment of the Elizabeth Bishop book. Sure enough, Orr’s name is name-checked in Donadio’s article. In other words, Orr, a talented poetry critic very well-equipped to have a provocative interview about poetry with Vendler, was passed over by the likes of Rachel “Let Me Get Up to Speed at the Last Minute” Donadio. No doubt Sam “We Take No Chances” Tanenhaus signed off on this without a single provocative thought.

But no matter. The rest of Donadio’s article is thankfully composed of Vendler quotes, which makes it more readable, when Donadio isn’t trying to tell us exactly what Vendler means. But then we all know that NYTBR house style is to write to your audience as if they are idiots. We’re told that Vendler is “sitting on a chair facing the window and a life mask of Keats,” a typical profile flourish.

The rest of the article, at least, gives us the biographical basics. But then, at long last, Vendler’s connection to the NYTBR becomes apparent and we finally see that this article really isn’t about Vendler at all, but about how “important” the NYTBR is.

There’s one interesting moment where Vendler reveals that she doesn’t review poets under 50 and, instead of challenging this ageism with several questions, Donadio takes in this prejudice with all the predictable elan of an establishment writer sucking up to her establishment subject. Donadio and Donadio’s work, seamlessly intertwined.

Rachel the Hack: Post-Apartheid Fiction


It’s time for a new installment of Rachel the Hack, an essential guide to understanding Ms. Donadio’s warblings. This week, Donadio can be found in the New York Times Magazine section for a piece on post-apartheid fiction. Donadio begins by telling us that author Niq Mhlongo is “one of the most high-spirited and irreverent new voices of South Africa’s post-apartheid literary scene,” but it takes Donadio three more paragraphs to provide a paragraph that corresponds to this topic sentence. We learn that Mhlongo writes “with verve and candor about the anxieties of his demographic.” But is Mhlongo really writing for a demographic? And is “demographic” really a word one should use in relation to rugged fiction? Maybe this applies if you’re a marketing manager without a sense of compassion, but it’s certainly not a noun that applies if you truly give a damn about literature.

But let’s consider this taxonomic measure. If I were hard-pressed to cite a demographic for Donadio’s work, it would probably be marketing managers, perhaps those who cite liberalism as a CV-enhancing “interest.” If this is the case, then it’s a telling sign that Donadio focuses on Mhlongo’s BlackBerry as opposed to the animated way he answers Donadio’s questions. Or that South Africa’s tourist-friendly landmarks (bed-and-breakfasts, KFC, Johannesurg’s shopping malls, et al.) are prioritized over those cute and cuddly brown-skinned people known to pen a noble book or two in a post-apartheid environment.

To be fair, Donadio does chronicle corruption early on and does yield a few observations on post-apartheid racism and how Mhlongo’s book deals with it. But who knew that the 1996 Constitution was capable of vocal communication? (The correct verb when dealing with the printed word is “state,” not “say.” And Donadio’s the one who insists we’re sub-literary.)

Donadio also notes that, presently, few books “create a national conversation” in South Africa. But then one can argue that this is also the case here in the States. And yet this apparent “conversation” has shifted “toward the search for the great black South African novelist.” Wait a minute. I thought the conversation wasn’t really happening. So how is Donadio gauging this? Well, apparently, it’s about “the national and international spotlight.” But where is this Kleig light coming from exactly? Typical of Donadio, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any information which tracks this waning and waxing conversation. But since Donadio hasn’t even bothered to reveal how resistance to apartheid served as a literary muse through such awards as the Amstel Playwright of the Year award, which encouraged anti-apartheid playwrights through 1994, and the many poets who responded through verse, the article relies too much on general quotes that stop short of examining this fascinating issue.

At least Donadio reveals, through a citation from Shaun de Waal, that the South African literati has grown tired of hearing the question of where the black writers are. But it’s a shame that her own article strikes this same nauseous note.

Donadio also suggests that the emerging generation of South African writers are “no longer fueled by rage.” Really? An economic and racial divide replacing an apartheid one, the implied gentrification in the article’s early paragraphs, and the possible lack of national conversation (on this point, we cannot be sure), and there’s absolutely nothing to be enraged about? It’s certainly telling that this lovely little generalization comes without a single supporting quote, but it’s even more telling how this reveals Donadio’s naivete about social and political developments. Obviously Donadio hasn’t read Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull or Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness.

Donadio does score minor points for revealing Zakes Mda’s frustrations about fiction’s inability to discuss all the issues occurring in South Africa and Norman Rush’s failure to parse this in a review of Mda’s book. But she doesn’t investigate this issue any thoroughly beyond Mda’s resentment, particularly when he brings up the critical double-standard which applies to Coetzee.

Donadio’s article is a slipshod primer that misses many opportunities to investigate many angles of a fascinating topic. It is designed to be clipped to a refrigerator rather than leave you thinking.

Rachel the Hack

Long-time readers of this site know that we’ve often held Sam Tanenhaus’s feet to the fire. But with Rachel Donadio’s latest essay, it’s occurred to us that Donadio, perhaps working independently of Tanenhaus, may be one of the major problems with the NYTBR. While we applaud Dwight Garner’s “Inside the List” columns, welcome David Orr’s “On Poetry” (now regrettably behind a Gray Lady paywall), and believe Liesl Schillinger to be one of the NYTBR‘s few assets, we suspect that the NYTBR‘s very particular snobbish tone has much to do with Donadio.

Like most snobs of this ilk, Donadio is a writer who basks in reaching conclusions no more original than those of a struggling english comp student (witness this insulting review of a Berlusconi book; Berlusconi polarizes, who knew?). Donadio’s efforts to sound sophisticated frequently backfire (witness this elementary error in French; the Times, of course, “regrets the error”). And like most snobs, with Donadio, there is a needlessly triumphant sense of accomplishment in her reviews (“Time will tell whether McDonough and Braungart will make eco-skeptics eat their words.”), as if she has just won a spelling bee and is primed to wrest the prize from a PTA volunteer (or worse, the crying kid who came in second place).

So while we no longer keep up the Tanenhaus Brownie Watch, we are pleased to introduce a new series, which we hope will help everyone in understanding what makes this banal retentive writer tick.


We plan to keep an eye out for all future Rachel Donadio bylines. And unlike Ms. Donadio, we’ll offer substantive examples which demonstrate why Donadio may be the most mirthless book reviewer working in New York today.