Laura Miller’s Black Helicopters

Last Wednesday, Laura Miller offered another typically incoherent tirade, perhaps demonstrating some closet desire to become the Maureen Dowd of the literary world. Her column attempted to stir up controversy over the apparent problem that this year’s fiction finalists for the National Book Award were, with the exception of Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, composed of “low-profile and/or small press offerings.” Failing to comprehend that awards often represent opportunities for readers of all stripes to discover new titles, and lacking anything even approximating facts, Miller resorted instead to the conspiracy theories that one expects from undergraduates passing a pipe in a dorm room to stave off boredom. She put on her tin foil hat, detecting “the sense that the fiction jury is locked in a frustrating impasse with the press and the public” and not understanding that the National Book Award judges are too busy reading hundreds of books to worry about what their decisions will mean with “the press and the public.”

Miller writes that the press “expresses bafflement” when some obscure writer wins, but fails to cite any examples. Sure, there was some minor controversy one year over the five fiction finalists all being women from New York. But that was seven years ago. Last year, Jaimy Gordon certainly surprised the audience by winning the National Book Award over such literary bigwigs as Peter Carey and Nicole Krauss. But what specifically is Miller referring to? The New York Times merely reported it as “a surprise pick,” which was accurate reporting. Much as Maureen Dowd once got a ridiculous column out of some mythical meeting between two senators, Miller seems to be implying some similar clink of glasses between NBA judges and the press. But as someone who has covered the National Book Awards multiple times, and who hasn’t been able to get anything from the judges (despite a combination of charm and silly questions), I can confidently report that Miller doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

Miller’s column is little more than irresponsible speculation. It belongs in a neighborhood circular, preferably distributed by lunatics off a moving truck in the middle of nowhere, not a distinguished online magazine. Even though she’s clearly unfamiliar with “whatever policy each panel of judges embraces,” Miller’s ignorance certainly doesn’t prevent her from engaging in relentlessly uninformed speculation. Miller claims that “the impression has arisen that already-successful titles are automatically sidelined in favor of books that the judges feel deserve an extra boost of attention.” But when we refer to two recent judges who were kind enough to share their National Book Award experiences, Miller’s deranged theories don’t add up. In 2006, judge Marianne Wiggins wrote an essay for the Los Angeles Times outlining the process:

In our first conference call, we began to try to define what we were looking for. A “national” book? A work of fiction that spoke to the “American” character? Judge No. 1 wanted “readability,” and No. 5 wanted “a sense of discovery.” I just wanted writing that would set my hair on fire.

We see with Wiggins a variety of motivations. But neither “readability” nor “a sense of discovery” fits into the hypothetical sidelining of successful titles.

More recently, Victor LaValle wrote a piece for Publishers Weekly responding to Miller’s claims: “If such a thing ever happened then the NBA are really nefarious because they wiped my memory banks clean.”

If Miller had taken the time to consult Wiggins’s essay or contacted any of the judges, then she would not have written such an intellectually bankrupt column. She certainly would not have leaped to the paralogic contained in the unintentionally hilarious paragraphs that follow, whereby “the larger reading public has also proven recalcitrant” (really?) and even has the effrontery to dictate the qualities that “don’t matter much to nonprofessional readers or even put them off.”

I’d like to inform Ms. Miller that this outsider was so intrigued by Jaimy Gordon and Paul Harding’s respective award-winning books that he invited both authors to discuss their books at length on The Bat Segundo Show. (Both graciously accepted. You can listen to my conversation with Gordon or Paul Harding, if you like.) I would like to think that Ms. Gordon and Mr. Harding would have found their way onto the program eventually. But it was the awards that allowed resources, permitting these two writers to make their way to New York and talk with me. I don’t especially care how obscure or popular any writer is. And I also don’t especially care whether a book is “so obscure as to be virtually invisible.” I only care if the book is interesting. What Miller doesn’t seem to get is that if people like a book, then they are not going to stay silent about it. To the extent that awards can encourage such enthusiasm, I don’t really see what the problem is. Unless you are someone who hates books or, like Miller, you hate any independent mind or mechanism offering an alternative to your unadventurous, huckster-friendly sensibility. As Dan Green has noted, “by now it’s clear that Laura Miller has staked her claim to critical influence on a defense of ‘ordinary’ readers against fancy writers who write too much and that she’ll stick to that story, however misguided, lest her standing as a critic to be heeded is threatened.”

Dwight Macdonald: A Case Study for Great Responsibility

“Macdonald had given the hint that the clue to discovery was not in the substance of one’s idea, but in what was learned from the style of one’s attack.” – Norman Mailer, The Armies of the Night

Forty-four years ago, on a temperate October afternoon charged by a mass temper, more than 100,000 people occupied the Lincoln Memorial to protest the Vietnam War. Among them were Norman Mailer, Robert Lowell, and Dwight Macdonald. A good third of this group, led in part by the literary trio, would soon march upon the Pentagon with the intention of levitating it. Mailer would write one of his best-known volumes from these events, earning both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. But Mailer could not have done so without Macdonald, whose fiery approach had helped him “to get his guns loose.”

For the critic Macdonald, such heady protests were old hat. During World War II, he had raised hell through the antiwar Workers Party against the collective failure to condemn Soviet foreign policy. He was also involved in the March on Washington Movement, an effort to end racial discrimination in the armed forces. As the cultural critic James Wolcott has suggested, Macdonald “wrote and spoke as if fear and conformity were foreign to his nature and affronts to the spirit of liberty.” Yet he was inclusive of any emerging figure who posssessed these virtues. Of an antagonistic young man who challenged the arrogant Harvard dean McGeorge Bundy in the Atlantic‘s pages, Macdonald was to confess that he “could not help liking [William] Buckley.”

After a shaky political start as a waspy young journalist on the make, Macdonald revolted against his employer Henry Luce and began editing Partisan Review, where he raised his pugilistic fists through words. When not attacking Stalinism from the left (later in life, he would identify himself as a “conservative anarchist”) or questioning the responsibility of intellectuals, Macdonald spent time successfully persuading the likes of Edmund Wilson and George Orwell to contribute to his pages. But Macdonald’s contentious personality eventually led him to form his independent journal, Politics, which flourished from 1944 through 1949, until Macdonald’s energies and resources diminished.

Never especially good at mushrooming his ideas and views into books, Macdonald became a pen for hire, directing his attentions to perceived cultural threats: homogenization, dry academic writing, and sundry commercial forces. Many of Macdonald’s best cultural essays have been collected in a recently published volume, Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain. These pieces permit us to see the varying fluency with which Macdonald applied the political attack dog approach so valued by Mailer.

* * *

Macdonald functioned best when he had a fixed target in his crosshairs. “By Cozzens Possessed,” a career-killing takedown of the novelist James Gould Cozzens, is a merciless exercise, attacking the then revered 1957 novel, By Love Possessed, for its prose style, its use of arcane words, the feverish and often thoughtless critical acclaim, and its inaccurate portrayal of human behavior. It is so brutal and stinging an assessment that it might almost serve as a handbook for any young critic hoping to make a big splash. But Macdonald stood for a clear set of values. He wished to protest “the general lowering of standards” and “the sober, conscious plodders…whose true worth is temporarily obscured by their modish avant-garde competitors.”

Such sectarian language sounds not unlike Macdonald’s political missives from decades before. Sure enough, it was this nexus of self-deception and ascension in status which served as the common whetstone for Macdonald to sharpen his sword. Before Macdonald begins his attack, he establishes Cozzens’s financial and critical success in the first paragraph, showing that Cozzens in a position to take it. (This is very much in the tradition of American hatchet jobs. Mark Twain’s essay, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” also opens with three epigraphs attesting to the alleged worth of Cooper’s writing.)

Macdonald’s essays also inadvertently raise the question of whether a critic really deserves this much power. In his invaluable John Cheever biography, Blake Bailey made a convincing case that Macdonald’s drive-by impacted the 1958 National Book Award, pushing Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle into the winning slot. (Cheever thought highly of By Love Possessed, calling it “excellent” in his journals. Years later, after learning that Cozzens had revered his work, the guilt-ridden Cheever became so upset that he came close to sending Cozzens a family heirloom.) Did James Gould Cozzens sully culture as much as the Great Books (which Macdonald rightfully chided as “densely printed, poorly edited reading matter”) or the Revised Standard Version of the Bible (which Macdoanld rebuked for destroying the King James’s lexical zest)? Probably not, especially if one values the positive qualities of oddity.

Macdonald sent copies of his essays to his targets, thereby permitting them to respond, if so desired. Thus, in book form, Macdonald’s essays frequently contain appendices, such as George Plimpton lodging his objections and corrections at the end of Macdonald’s attack on Hemingway. Reading such annotations in the early 21st century, which closely resemble today’s blog and comment culture, one gets the uncanny sense that, were Dwight Macdonald around today, he would likely be some wild-eyed blogger operating out of a ramshackle Brooklyn apartment.

In an age when many online enthusiasts think nothing of embedding Amazon links into their blogs or sign away their Goodreads reviews without consideration of the “royalty-free, sublicensable, transferable, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive, worldwide license to use, reproduce, modify, publish, list information regarding, edit, translate, distribute, publicly perform, publicly display, and make derivative works of all such User Content and your name, voice, and/or likeness as contained in your User Content,” there are ineluctable connections between culture and commerce. And Macdonald’s lengthy essay condemning Masscult (“a parody of High Culture”) protests a cultural world in which “everything becomes a commodity, to be mined for $$$$, used for something it is not, from Davy Crockett to Picasso. Once a writer becomes a Name, that is, once he writes a book that for good or bad reasons catches on, the Masscult (or Midcult) mechanism begins to ‘build him up,’ to package him into something that can be sold in identical units in quantity. He can coast along the rest of his life on momentum; publishers will pay him big advances just to get his Name on their list; his charisma becomes such that people will pay him $250 and up to address them (really just to see him); editors will reward him handsomely for articles on subjects he knows nothing about.”

Macdonald’s argument may need to be revised to account for recent technological developments, but his general beef with cultural philistines still holds considerable water. This year, we have seen bestselling novelist Lev Grossman, whose books are now being developed into a FOX television series, write a review of George R.R. Martin’s Dance with Dragons, describing it as “the great fantasy epic of our era” without disclosing the fact that Grossman secured a glowing blurb from Martin for The Magicians. Another critic, Laura Miller, openly invites her readers to ban books: “As deplorable as real-life book banning may be, there’s some required reading that those of us at Salon would love to see retired from the nation’s syllabuses simply because we were tortured by it as kids.” Given these affronts to integrity and intellectualism, where is today’s Dwight Macdonald to contend with these two hydrophobic mutts in the woodshed?

It’s certainly easy for a myopic reader to interpret Macdonald’s essays as snark, for Macdonald had a clear enmity for rock music and television. Yet snark, as David Denby has remarked in a book on the subject, involves a contempt for absolutely everyone. While elitist in tone, Macdonald’s cultural essays also commended the proliferation of symphony orchestras and art house movie theaters. He did honor the artistically and intellectually ambitious, although often with brutal paradox. He recognizes Hemingway as a stylistic innovator, yet writes, “I don’t know which is the more surprising, after twenty years, the virtuosity of the style or its lack of emotional resonance today.”

At times, Macdonald’s cultural essays read as if they were more concerned with swimming in a stream of brimstone. His 1972 smackdown of Norman Cousins, editor of a now largely forgotten biweekly magazine, feels more desperate and superficial than Alan Grayson’s recent obliteration of PJ O’Rourke on a recent installment of Real Time with Bill Maher. When he lost his focus, it was easy for Macdonald to reveal hypocrisy. In his 1967 essay “Parajounalism,” Macdonald condemns Tom Wolfe for his cruel assaults on The New Yorker‘s Wallace Shawn, yet lacks the courage to acknowledge his own malicious barbs toward others in the past. And when Macdonald writes about Wolfe’s attack being “more in the kamikaze style – after all he was thirty-three when he wrote it while I was thirty-one when I wrote mine,” one wonders if Macdonald was jealous of Wolfe’s increased attention and his ability to get through to younger readers.

Despite his pugnacity, Macdonald could be kind. In his essay on James Agee not long after Agee’s death, Macdonald writes, “I had always thought of Agee as the most broadly gifted writer of my generation, the one who, if anyone, might someday do major work.” In January 1963, The New Yorker published Macdonald’s essay on Michael Harrington’s The Poverty of America. Macdonald put a considerable amount of work into the piece, which featured an impassioned demand to the upper and middle classes to reverse “mass poverty in a prosperous country.” Macdonald’s essay attracted great attention and helped reverse the book’s flagging sales.

Yet it’s possible that, for all of his righteous exactitude, Macdonald wasn’t kind or motivated enough. His clumsy and alcohol-fueled elitism (according to Michael Wreszin’s page-turner of a biography, A Rebel in Defense of Tradition, Macdonald needed a ration of twelve drinks a day) inspired Saul Bellow to savage him in Humboldt’s Gift. In Bellow’s novel, Macdonald appeared as the “lightweight” intellectual Orlando Higgins, where “his penis which lay before him on the water-smoothed wood, expressed all the fluctuations of his interest.”

To offer a Masscult metaphor that Macdonald would loathe: with great power comes great responsibility. If a critic’s responsibility involves standing against the contemptible forces transforming independent voices into soothing consumer-oriented bores who are no different from the hucksters who sell fabric softener, then nearly every working critic in America can learn a lesson from Macdonald. On the other hand, Macdonald’s lack of versatility demonstrates how a prominent tiger can be swiftly forgotten if he doesn’t change his stripes.

Postscript: The above essay was originally scheduled to run in a literary journal. What I did not anticipate was that much of the subtext concerning “style of one’s attack” would be misinterpreted by the estimable editor as a series of attacks. After some lively back-and-forth and many concessions on my part, I was forced to withdraw the piece on amicable terms and publish it on these pages. I still carry great respect for this literary journal and, as far as I’m concerned, the editor is still a sweetheart. But I relate this metafactual episode to demonstrate the distinct possibility that even a quasi-Macdonald approach, one also revealing a distinct arthritic quality in the lunge, may no longer be welcome nor encouraged in our present culture.

But A Full-Scale Nervous Breakdown, Complete with Men in White Suits, Would Really Make Laura Miller Do the Happy Dance!

Laura Miller: “One of the most interesting and newsworthy response I ever got was when I asked a novelist who’d just written (but not yet published) a memoir, ‘People often find that when they write about their past, the process dredges up old memories they’d entirely forgotten. Was there anything like that with this book that really surprised you?’ He told me he’d remembered being molested by one of his parents’ friends as a child!”

Laura Miller Watch

Inarguably, Laura Miller is the most ridiculous book reviewer be found in print today. More pompous than Harold Bloom, more mystifying than even Harriet Klausner, more passive-aggressive than Dale Peck, and more general than even Janet Maslin. As an ongoing service to our readers, we institute the Laura Miller Watch, in a better effort to understand how this humorless “critic” works.

SOURCE: On Beauty by Zadie Smith (Salon, October 1, 2005)

SENTENCE: “Academic cultural critics — who get a few taps on the snout in Zadie Smith’s new novel — often say that works of art can only be fully understood in their historical context.”

ANALYSIS: Besides being a criminally dull lede, this sentence points out the obvious. Besides, academic cultural critics do indeed play lacrosse and attend costume parties from time to time. The question here is whether Miller gets out much.

SENTENCE: “It’s the kind of book that reminds you of why you read novels to begin with.”

ANALYSIS: Miller can’t even be bothered with a batty metaphor, such as “It’s the kind of book that reminds you that literature does retain the power to soil one’s pants” or “It’s the kind of pleasure that will have you eschewing sex, ice cream and go-go boots until you get to the end; hence, setting a dangerous precedent in the spare time department.” Has Miller learned nothing from cinematic one-sheets?

SENTENCE: “Howard is more or less the novel’s central character, so it’s an extraordinary and significant aspect of “On Beauty” that Smith has given him ideas she doesn’t endorse.”

ANALYSIS: More or less? Some shadow of a doubt? And Miller’s strange notion that authors “rarely endorse” ideas they oppose suggests a highly literal-minded person. Sometimes, a cigar is more than a cigar.

SENTENCE: “Although this is a comic novel and, at least in part, satirical, it’s unlike any other satire I’ve read in that it’s completely free of contempt.”

ANALYSIS: John P. Marquand? Jonathan Ames? Any satirist with a Jonathan permutation for that matter?

SENTENCE: “The ideological battles between Howard and Monty (who in the course of the novel comes to work at Howard’s university) may sound, in this polemical age, like the meat of the matter, but they’re only a foil.”

ANALYSIS: These ideological battles. They’re people, yes? It’s only a foil. And if Miller wants to resort to cliches, she may as well use “heart” instead of “meat.” One of the disadvantages of being your own editor is that you’re allowed to make such jejune mistakes. (Any blogger knows this.)

SENTENCE: “All of the above are greater or lesser examples in a catalog of human folly, but none are depicted without compassion and a certain measure of delight in their vibrant particularity and underlying universality.”

ANALYSIS: Cluttered clauses. Incoherence. More nouns to keep track of than names at a cocktail party. Who’s the copy editor over there? Is there a copy editor over there?

Hiatus (Sorta)

We’ve been working our keisters off here. Two Segundo shows in the works (one we hope to get up tonight with a very special guest), with a third one on the way. So literary news and the like are going to be slow for the time being. Bear with us.

In the meantime, please enjoy:

  • Mark Sarvas talking with John Banville, Part I.
  • Bud Parr’s response to A.O. Scott’s NYT article comparing The Believer and n + 1.
  • Laura Miller’s humorless response to T.C. Boyle’s excellent new short story collection, Tooth and Claw. (Yes, Scott, I know, I told you it was “a mixed bag,” but that was on the basis of reading the first three stories, only one of which was so-so. Since then, the collection has picked up remarkably and I recommend it to all RotR readers looking to restore their faith in the short story, if not for the deliciously caustic finale of “Jubilation” and the near perfect “The Swift Passage of the Animals” alone, the latter being a witty depiction of dating loaded with nuance and quiet metaphors that are apparently quite invisible to Ms. Miller.)
  • Laila Lalami reviews Desertion in The Nation.

AM Roundup

Yesterday’s Definition of Libel is Today’s “Duel of Stories”

Laura Miller: “The ”Opening Skinner’s Box’ controversy looks like a quarrel about facts, but it’s really a duel of stories. Slater’s subjects are saying, in part, ‘How dare you presume to tell the story of us? Now we’re going to tell the story of you!”’

For more on the subject, check out Ron’s Lauren Slater archives, which include comments from Slater herself.

A Special Column by Laura Miller

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Miguel Cohen is unwell this week. He reports that he Super-Sized his McDonalds meal by mistake. He believes he’s suffering from mad cow disease. I asked Miguel what increasing the size of his fries and drink had to do with beef. He replied, “You just don’t know, man.” While the doctors investigate Miguel’s condition, Laura Miller has agreed to fill Miguel’s shoes with a special exclusive.]

Columnist’s block, like a bad heroin habit, is a subject of lackluster interest to those who are capable of filing a column that actually includes a few nifty ideas and a great annoyance to me personally. It differs somewhat from writer’s block in that the columnist is faced with the prospect of sounding important, because the columnist must keep her job, even when she really doesn’t know the audience she’s writing for. “To hell with filing the article,” once said Jayson Blair to a friend, “let’s go get sushi and not pay. I’ll make the shit up as it comes along.” Well, we all know what happened to him. At least the writer has talent, whereas the lofty book columnist is often a windbag who cannot grasp so much as a whit of the typical book enthusiast’s mind. The columnist does not understand that most people do not give a damn when she writes in a smug, highfalutin tone and that, if they do, they’re generally reading the New York Times Book Review with their pants draped around their ankles while on the john and have every intention of using the back page as a clever substitute for something I cannot mention in a family newspaper. Either that or they’re a unique form of starfucker, pining for a Salon gig, or they’re wise enough to keep their trap shut. If you complain of not being able to write a column, you might be openly mocked in the book community (though never to the columnist’s face) or even satirized on a blog.

Marilyn T. Chambers, star of Behind the Green Door, wouldn’t dare to write a book column unless she had some inkling of what she was talking about. Nevertheless, you can see how important I sound because I referenced a figure whom you may or may not have heard of. The brilliance of including Chambers in this paragraph is that I can spell out her credentials (i.e., Chambers starred in a piece of smut called Behind the Green Door, in case you didn’t catch that fact the first time) and somehow get through Chip McGrath’s filter. Chambers is intrigued by the neurological dimensions of faking orgasms in general, not because she has endured columnist’s block (although, if she were a columnist, we might say that she has) but because she has gone through episodes of something not dissimilar: she sings for her supper. We might call this avocational condition “whoring.”

Just how much whoring is too much remains a tricky question. Mata Hari, who was a sharp cookie who liked to dance, and who found herself gyrating obsessively (giving the columnist redundant clauses with which to increase word count), explains, “The dance is a poem of which every movement is a word.” Scientists studying the effects of logorrhea, which is what might happen if you were to apply a certain rectal condition to words (i.e., this column), tested for it by asking columnists for columns describing their state of health. Most responded with columns that were too long: the shortest at around 6,000 words. Some scientists resigned from the project immediately. A few collapsed, reporting that they could not read a newspaper column for several years, after being exposed to such limitless verbosity. The handful of scientists left standing asked, “What the hell does any of this have to do with Mata Hari and dancing?” In fact, an early draft of this column was so bad that the folks at the copy desk pined for another David Brooks column. If you’re a prolific popular columnist (or you think you are) like me, you can delude yourself into thinking that you’re better than those groundlings making wisecracks, or those people who have a sense of humor that you lack. Writing a worthless column is an art, albeit a low one, beyond reproach, that comes out painfully. You may not realize this, but my life is in shambles. Of course, if I admitted anything human like that, then perhaps the perceptions would shift. If I suggested in any real way that I was passionate about books, then you might love me the same way you love Michiko. But allow me this small metaphor, for I am not inured to rejection notices the way that most of you may be. I have not written a novel and I don’t have Michiko’s Pulitzer, but I am a columnist. And I have an airtight gig. I want to keep my job. You like me, right?

A little snark or playful banter is easy to mistake for something serious. I’m not quite sure where I was going with the Mata Hari reference. And I don’t know what I was thinking when I mentioned Marilyn Chambers. But perhaps I can offer a scientific hypothesis that will get us back to the main.

In 2003, many of the book blogs, reading the New York Times Book Review because they liked books and they liked Chip, noticed from time to time that one columnist was full of shit. In other words, too much of a grand gig (i.e., writing for the New York Times), as well as too little (i.e., anything written for Salon), can trigger columnist’s block, and this explains why “the bigger the lack of passion, the bigger the block.” Lewis H. Lapham writes the same damn column every Harper’s, but at least he is a harmless enough crank. Lapham may be one-note. He may have a testosterone that doesn’t quit, but he has a passion and a sense of humor. So it was something of a shock to see him writing about George Plimpton this month. Apparently, someone at Harper’s finally got around to telling him that his blustery assaults on Bush were maiming small children in Ecuador.

A friend of mine (yes, I have friends) once invented a “cure” for this condition: to counteract a series of humorless columns, create something more humorless. Think up a bland, banal subject — something like columnist’s block or covering a book that you’re inclined to hate from the first page — and expend 1,000 words on it. In your mind invest it with such life-defining importance that your entire journalistic career hinges upon this one central silly thing. You must take a topic that no reasonable person would waste a paragraph on and approach it as if it were some truly important ideal, something as important as the Federalist Papers, something as pivotal to this planet as carbon.

Blocked or not, columnists have been disappointingly unimaginative in their responses to columnist’s block. One exception is the tiny literary genre of book columns on the back page of the New York Times Book Review. No, not those cutesy cartoons. Hint hint. I know of only one worthwhile columnist who I can read even when I know she is suffering from columnist’s block. In fact, you may not know this, but I have assembled a small chapbook which features this columnist’s ouevre. It reflects, I believe, the highest pinnacle of columnist’s block. Such useless credos as “you have to live” before you write are pure poppycock, because any real columnist knows that she can bluff her way through anything. Particularly when the columnist has failed to live and cannot crack so much as a smile. Whatever tortures the reader must bear, that makes it art in my book.

Born of a Bitter Bland Seed

How This Post Originally Appeared (December 3, 2003):

So who is Laura Miller anyway?

Here’s an audio interview* of Miller extolling the wonders of the Internet back in 1999. But, beyond her nasal droll, I must warn you that, if you click on the stream, you’ll probably be frightened by Miller’s pronunciation of the word “niche” or the moment when she kvetches about carrying all those complimentary books around. A harsh life, to be sure. Despite all this, she’s still bitter.

This profile reveals that Miller was born in 1960 and, before getting into writing, started off as a publicist for a co-op that ran “a San Francisco sex toy store and mail order company.” (Apparently, it was Good Vibrations.) One of her first big breaks came with an essay called “Women and Children First”* which appeared in a collection called Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information, whereby she proffered the following Third Wave generalizations: “In the meantime, the media prefer to cast women as the victims, probably because many women actively participate in the call for greater regulation of online interactions, just as Abbie Irving urges Wade Hatton to bring the rule of law to Dodge City. These requests have a long cultural tradition, based on the idea that women, like children, constitute a peculiarly vulnerable class of people who require special protection from the elements of society men are expected to confront alone.”

Her last column for The New York Times Book Review section was more about the documentary The Weather Underground than books, but didn’t have nearly as many generalizations as previous inside back page columns. But I’m mystified. Just why is Miller still writing for the Times? And can we hope that Charles McGrath’s replacement will see the light?

To look at this from a pugilistic standpoint, if you threw Michiko Kakutani and Laura Miller into a gladiator pit, I’d favor Michiko by twelve points. At least she has a sense of humor. Plus, the Pulitzer helps.

[3/22/04 UPDATE: Months later, I’ve largely ignored Laura Miller. And looking back at this entry, I see that I’ve demonized her a bit. That isn’t really fair. I should clarify that, since I’ve already spilled my thoughts (some would say foolishly), the transformation of Laura Miller is one of the saddest things that ever happened to books coverage. But I have every hope that the Miller I read five years ago will return.]

Addendum (May 20, 2013):

* — I have made efforts to track down the 1999 Laura Miller audio interview from Platform #3 referenced in this 2003 post, but it appears to have disappeared: no doubt deleted in a frenzy of redesigns and server reorganization over the last fourteen years. But you can read this text version of the same article, which appeared on Radio Australia. Additionally, I believe my original link led to Miller’s early essay, “Women and Children First,” but I can’t find it through Web Archive. I have pointed to someone else writing about it.

It wasn’t fair of me to chastise Miller for her “nasal droll.” But in 2013, Miller suffers from the same problems. When she is edited (such as her essays in The New Yorker), she can be an astute critic. But much of her ongoing work at Salon is not edited. I’m a little embarrassed by my cocky 2004 update. I haven’t been able to ignore Miller, in large part because some people still read her criticism. But her influence has faded in recent years, replaced by the likes of Roxane Gay and Michelle Dean, who have both proven to be more astute critics. But Miller has gone out of her way to ignore me. I only met her once at the National Book Awards, where we were introduced by a well-meaning third party and she gave me the look of someone who had just her dog die in a hot car during summer.

This was the first of many posts that laid into Miller. I had this tendency in my early blogging days to seek out obscure bits of biographical data about people — often material that nobody else had found — in an attempt to try and understand them. From what I’ve learned about Miller from others since, I can see why she would hate this. I didn’t know in 2003 how touchy literary people could be. I have fixed all the non-working links.

Because the Luke Ford reprint of the Examiner article cannot be adequately verified from New York, I’ve confirmed Miller’s stint at Good Vibrations through two separate sources: a biographical note that appeared in the anthology Travelers’ Tales San Francisco: True Stories. Additionally, Sallie Tisdale’s Talk Dirty to Me reports that Miller worked at Good Vibrations, where

“she hosted video nights for women who have never seen pornography. She shows clips from some of the new, more romantic, female-produced films, and then clips from older hard-core films with more traditional themes. “The difficult part for women is that they haven’t had the opportunity to even see what’s available,” she says. The surprise is how many of the women prefer the old hard-core films. “It’s so politically incorrect. I’m glad when they’re willing to admit that it really turns them on, but they also say, ‘It really disturbs me, but this works, and the other one didn’t.'”

Now this Laura Miller sounds really cool.