nytsorry3

Casual Sexism: The Author Gender Breakdown for the New York Times Daily Book Reviewers

I was recently informed by a reader that the gender ratio numbers I posted in one of my BookExpo America reports, which I obtained from Rebecca Mead, were incorrect. In an effort to provide accurate information, I have conducted an independent audit on the three current New York Times daily book reviewers — Dwight Garner, Michiko Kakutani, and Janet Maslin — for the period between June 1, 2013 and May 30, 2014 using the Times‘s website. (It is also worth noting out that, in February 2014, Publishers Marketplace did a gender bias count for the whole of 2013. 30 of Janet Maslin’s 80 reviews, or 37.5%, were female authors. 15 of Michiko Kakutani’s 54 reviews, or 28%, were female authors.)

To get an appropriately detailed takeaway on Times gender bias, I have counted every book selected for coverage, whether a full review, a capsule, or a roundup. Please note that I have excluded obituaries, a gift guide that featured Garner’s content (and Maslin’s), as well as the three critics’ favorite books of the year — as these are not bona-fide reviews. I have provided links to all reviews, along with the author, title, and author’s gender. If a single book has multiple authors, I have used incremental values (.5 Male and .5 Female for a book co-written by a man and a woman, a full Male value for two male authors.) I have also emailed Garner and Maslin (Kakutani’s email address is unknown) to give them an opportunity to dispute the tally, which I have checked twice, and in the event that I have somehow missed any of their reviews. With translated authors, I have counted the gender of the original author. With anthologies, I have counted the gender of the editor. (I realize that this leaves out contributors. But very often, the gender bias between editor and contributors correlates. For example, in the case of MFA vs. NYC, 60% of the contributors are men.)

As can be seen below, none of the three reviewers come anywhere close to gender parity. Dwight Garner is the most women-friendly of the three reviewers, but when the percentage is a mere 34.1%, one has to wonder how a publication can operate with such a egregious gender bias in 2014. Maslin is behind Garner at 31.3%. Kakutani is the most casually sexist of the trio at 30.6%.

The below study is, to my knowledge, the most detailed effort to examine a long-standing problem at the Times, one that Garner, Kakutani, and Maslin, and their editors are all responsible for and refuse to discuss. Their choices, whether conscious or subconscious, have led a disproportionate amount of male writers to be represented in the Times‘s pages over the past year. I hope that these more accurate numbers lead to a constructive conversation on author gender bias in reviews, with efforts to rectify this imbalance. This is an important subject that public editor Margaret Sullivan has regrettably remained silent on. [UPDATE: As noted by Jennifer Weiner on Tuesday evening, Sullivan previously discussed the repeat review problem among male authors in 2013. Let us hope that she will opine on the gender bias issue that has been thoroughly documented by Rebecca Mead, Publishers Marketplace, and myself. I alerted Sullivan to this article by email and, as of Tuesday evening, have heard nothing back.]

[UPDATE: Andrew Krucoff helpfully points to a 1972 panel discussion with Nora Ephron. Ephron pointed out that 101 of 697 New York Times reviews, or 14.5%, between 1971 and 1972 were on books written by women. Compared against the 1956 Book Review, the figure was 107 of 725 reviews, or 14.5%.]

Dwight Garner

6/4/13: Tao Lin, Taipei (Male)
6/9/13: Charles Glass, The Deserters (Male)
6/13/13: Brendan I. Koerner, The Skies Belong to Us (Male)
6/18/13: Kenneth Goldsmith, Seven American Deaths and Disasters (Male)
6/25/13: Ahmir Thompson, Mo’ Meta Blues (Male)
7/3/13: Margot Mifflin, Bodies of Subversion (Female)
7/9/13: Roberto Bolaño, Unknown University (Male)
7/11/13: Double review of Terry Eagleton (2 Males)
7/16/13: Robert Kolker, Lost Girls (Male)
7/18/13: The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy (Male)
7/23/13: Lawrence Osborne, The Wet and the Dry (Male)
7/30/13: Juan Gabriel Vásquez, The Sound of Things Falling (Male)
8/1/13: Tash Aw, Five Star Billionaire (Male)
8/7/13: Robert Wilson, Matthew Brady: Portraits of a Nation (Male)
8/15/13: Sophie Fontanel, The Art of Sleeping Alone: Why One French Woman Suddenly Gave Up Sex (Female)
8/18/13: Resisting the Siren Call of the Screen: 3 books; 2 Males, 3 Females.)
8/28/13: J.M. Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus (Male)
9/9/13: Nicholson Baker, Traveling Sprinkler (Male)
9/12/13: Nate Jackson, Slow Getting Up (Male)
9/17/13: Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped (Female)
9/24/13: Allan Gurganus, Local Souls (Male)
9/26/13: Jill Lepore, Book of Ages (Female)
10/1/13: Karl Kraus, The Kraus Project (Male)
10/8/13: Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies (Female)
10/10/13: Stanley Crouch, Kansas City Lightning (Male)
10/16/13: Rose George, Ninety Percent of Everything (Female)
10/24/13: James Wolcott, Critical Mass (Male)
10/29/13: Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, The Siege (.5 Female, .5 Male)
11/5/13: Gregory Zuckerman, The Frackers (Male)
11/7/13: Dana Goodyear, Anything That Moves (Female)
11/12/13: Alexander Cockburn, A Colossal Wreck (Male)
11/19/13: Ari Shavit, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (Male)
11/21/13: Geordie Greig, Breakfast with Lucian (Male)
11/26/13: Retha Powers (editor), Bartlett’s Familiar Black Quotations (Female)
2/5/14: Joyce Carol Oates, Carthage (Female)
2/11/14: Malcolm Cowley, The Long Voyage (Male)
2/13/14: Marcel Theroux, Strange Bodies (Male)
2/20/14: Greg Kot, I’ll Take You There (Male)
2/22/14: 5 Books to Take on Your Travels (Capsule piece: 3 male, 2 female)
2/25/14: Chad Harbach (editor), MFA vs. NYC (Male)
2/27/14: Juan Pablo Villalobos, Quesadillas (Male)
3/3/14: Dan Jenkins, His Ownself: A Semi-Memoir (Male)
3/10/14: Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews (Male)
3/13/14: Jolie Kerr, My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag…and Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha (Female)
3/15/14: Molly Antopol, The UnAmericans (Female)
3/25/14: Teju Cole, Every Day is for the Thief (Male)
3/27/14: Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams (Female)
4/1/14: Lydia Davis, Can’t and Won’t (Female)
4/8/14: Adam Begley, Updike (Male)
4/15/14: Barbara Ehreinreich, Living with a Wild God (Female)
4/18/14: Theodore Rosengarten, All God’s Dangers (Male)
4/22/14: Nina Stibbe, Love, Nina (Female)
4/25/14: Nikil Saval, Cubed (Male)
4/30/14: Lisa Robinson, There Goes Gravity (Female)
5/7/14: Ruth Reichl, Delicious! (Female)
5/9/14: Colson Whitehead, The Noble Hustle (Male)
5/15/14: Kai Bird, The Good Spy (Male)
5/27/14: Tom Robbins, Tibetan Peach Pie (Male)
5/28/14: Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle (Male)
5/29/14: Patricia Lockwood, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals (Female)

FINAL GARNER STATS:
Male Writers: 45.5 writers (65.9%)
Female Writers: 23.5 writers (34.1%)
TOTAL WRITERS: 69

garner-graph

Michiko Kakutani

6/2/13: Jonathan Alter, The Center Holds (Male)
6/3/13: Anton DiSclafani, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls (Female)
6/10/13: Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukie, Big Data (Male)
6/12/13: Lea Carpenter, Eleven Days (Female)
6/16/13: Curtis Sittenfeld, Sisterland (Female)
6/24/13: Brett Martin, Difficult Men (Male)
6/27/13: Colum McCann, TransAtlantic (Male)
7/1/13: Joseph J. Ellis, Revolutionary Summer (Male)
7/8/13: Stephen Grosz, The Examined Life (Male)
7/15/13: Jenni Fagan, The Panopticon (Female)
7/17/13: J.K. Rowling, The Cuckoo’s Calling (Female)
7/28/13: David Gilbert, & Sons (Male)
8/12/13: Thurston Clarke, J.F.K.’s Last Hundred Days (Male)
8/21/13: A.A. Gill, To America with Love (Male)
8/25/13: David Shields and Shane Salerno, Salinger (Male)
9/5/13: Edwidge Danticat, Claire of the Sea Light (Female)
9/10/13: Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge (Male)
9/16/13: Norman Rush, Subtle Bodies (Male)
9/19/13: Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland (Female)
9/30/13: David Finkel, Thank You for Your Service (Male)
10/3/13: Dave Eggers, The Circle (Male)
10/7/13: Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (Female)
10/14/13: William Boyd, Solo) (Male)
10/28/13: Brad Stone, The Everything Store (Male)
11/4/13: Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, Double Down (Male)
11/11/13: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Bully Pulpit (Female)
11/18/13: Mike Tyson, The Undisputed Truth (Male)
11/25/13: Robert Stone, Death of the Black-Haired Girl (Male)
12/1/13: Robert Hilburn, Johnny Cash: The Life (Male)
12/9/13: Russell Banks, A Permanent Member of the Family (Male)
12/16/13: Bruce Wagner, The Empty Chair (Male)
1/6/14: Gary Shteyngart, Little Failure (Male)
1/8/14: Robert M. Gates, Duty (Male)
1/13/14: Chang-rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea (Male)
1/20/14: Jay Cantor, Forgiving the Angel (Male)
1/27/14: B.J. Novak, One More Thing (Male)
1/29/14: Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation (Female)
2/2/14: Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction (Female)
2/4/14: Luke Harding, The Snowden Files (Male)
2/6/14: Jonathan Allen & Amie Parnes, H R C (.5 Male, .5 Female)
2/17/14: Gregory Feifer, Russians: The People Behind the Power (Male)
2/19/14: Lorrie Moore, Bark (Female)
2/26/14: Phil Klay, Deployment (Male)
3/3/14: Dinaw Mengestu, All Our Names (Male)
3/24/14: Scott Eyman, John Wayne: The Life and Legend (Male)
3/31/14: Francesca Marciano, The Other Language (Female)
4/3/14: Karen Russell, “Sleep Donation” (Female)
4/15/14: Mona Simpson, Casebook (Female)
4/18/14: David Grimm, Citizen Canine (Male)
4/28/14: Michael Cunningham, The Snow Queen (Male)
5/6/14: Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Female)
5/12/14: Timothy F. Geithner, Stress Test (Male)
5/13/14: Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide (Male)
5/20/14: Edward St. Aubyn, Lost for Words (Male)

FINAL KAKUTANI STATS:
Male Writers: 37.5 writers (69.4%)
Female Writers: 16.5 writers (30.6%)
TOTAL WRITERS: 54

kakutani-graph

Janet Maslin

6/6/13: Summer Roundup (16 books: 13 Males, 3 Females)
6/17/13: Carl Hiaasen, Bad Monkey (Male)
6/19/13: Phillipp Meyer, The Son (Male)
6/23/13: Lionel Shriver, Big Brother (Female)
6/26/13: Rebecca Lee, Bobcat (Female)
6/30/13: Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians (Male)
7/14/13: Mark Kurlansky, Ready for a Brand New Beat (Male)
7/10/13: Gabriel Roth, The Unknowns (Male)
7/14/13: Charlie Huston, Skinner (Male)
7/22/13: Michael Paterniti, The Telling Room (Male)
7/24/13: David Rakoff, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish (Male)
8/6/13: Jeff Guinn, Manson (Male)
8/6/13: Boris Kachka, Hothouse (Male)
8/14/13: Marisha Pessl, Night Film (Female)
8/26/13: Samantha Shannon, The Bone Season (Female)
8/29/13: Lee Child, Never Go Back (Male)
9/1/13: Samantha Geimer, The Girl (Female)
9/2/13: Andrea Barrett, Archangel (Female)
9/4/13: Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr., Empty Mansions (Male)
9/8/13: Scott Anderson, Lawrence in Arabia (Male)
9/11/13: Jonathan Lethem, Dissident Gardens (Male)
9/15/13: Stephen King, Doctor Sleep (Male)
9/18/13: Richard Dawkins, An Appetite for Wonder (Male)
9/29/13: Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things (Female)
10/2/13: Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath (Male)
10/6/13: Alice McDermott, Someone (Female)
10/9/13: Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell, The Disaster Artist (Male)
10/13/13: Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy (Female)
10/15/13: Henry Bushkin, Johnny Carson (Male)
10/23/13: Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (Female)
10/30/13: John Grisham, Sycamore Row (Male)
11/6/13: Sam Wasson, Fosse (Male)
11/10/13: Russell Shorto, Amsterdam (Male)
11/13/13: Victoria Wilson, A Life of Barbara Stanwyck (Female)
11/17/13: Theresa Schwegel, The Good Boy (Female)
11/20/13: Anjelica Houston, A Story Lately Told (Female)
11/24/13: Jane Ridley, Heir Apparent (Female)
11/27/13: Gigi Levangie, Seven Deadlies (Female)
12/2/13: Donald Fagen, Eminent Hipsters (Male)
12/8/13: Michael Connelly, The Gods of Guilt (Male)
12/11/13: Mark Lewisohn, Tune In (Male)
12/15/13: Bob Brier, Egyptomania (Male)
12/19/13: Christopher Fowler, The Invisible Code (Male)
12/22/13: Ann Patchett, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Female)
12/25/13: Robert Evans, The Fat Lady Sang (Male)
12/29/13: Okey Ndibe, Foreign Gods, Inc. (Male)
1/2/14: Nicholas Griffin, Ping-Pong Diplomacy (Male)
1/19/14: Gabriel Sherman, The Loudest Voice in the Room (Male)
1/22/14: Rachel Joyce, Perfect (Female)
1/26/14: Jennifer Senior, All Joy and No Fun (Female)
2/3/14: Robert Harris, An Officer and a Spy (Male)
2/10/14: Matthew Quick, The Good Luck of Right Now (Male)
2/16/14: Laura Lippmann, After I’m Gone (Female)
2/23/14: Blake Bailey, The Splendid Things We Planned (Male)
3/5/14: Chris Pavone, The Accident (Male)
3/6/14: Benjamin Black, The Black-Eyed Blonde (Male)
3/9/14: Nikolas Butler, Shotgun Lovesongs (Male)
3/12/14: Olen Steinhauer, The Cairo Affair (Male)
3/17/14: Walter Kirn, Blood Will Out (Male)
3/19/14: Bob Mankoff, How About Never — Is Never Good for You? (Male)
3/23/14: Holly George-Warren, A Man Called Destruction (Female)
3/26/14: Jean Hanff Korelitz, You Should Have Known (Female)
4/1/14: Michael Lewis, Flash Boys (Male)
4/4/14: Boyd Varty, Cathedral of the Wild (Male)
4/8/14: Emma Donoghue, Frog Music (Female)
4/11/14: Francine Prose, Lovers at the Chameleon Club (Female)
4/17/14: The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan (Male)
4/24/14: Hisham D. Aidi, Rebel Music (Male)
4/29/14: Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See (Male)
5/2/14: Howard Norman, Next Life Might Be Kinder (Male)
5/5/14: David Kinney, The Dylanologists (Male)
5/23/14: Summer Roundup (14 books: 8 Males, 6 Females)

FINAL MASLIN STATS:
Male Writers: 68 writers (68.7%)
Female Writers: 31 writers (31.3%)
TOTAL WRITERS: 99

maslin-graph

librarybooks

The Bedbug Bunk: How the New York Times Used Fear and Misinformation to Spread Public Library Hysteria

On Wednesday afternoon, the New York Times published a story written by Catherine Saint Louis claiming that public libraries were now devoting precious resources to a new threat: bedbugs nesting inside the spines of hardcover books and making their way into public libraries like Norway rats stowing away on dusty ships.

The piece, which drew understandable horror on Twitter on Thursday morning, was the seventh most emailed New York Times story by Thursday afternoon.

But Reluctant Habits has talked with many of Saint Louis’s sources and has learned that the Times article is misleading. Bedbugs are not the major threat that Saint Louis suggests they are. In fact, some of the library directors who Saint Louis spoke with have never had a bedbug epidemic at all. They were merely taking preventive measures in the wake of recent media stories.

“We actually never had an infestation,” said Mary Schubart by telephone on Wednesday evening. Schubart, the library director of the Islip Public Library, was described in the article as taking action against bedbugs “after reading about their alarming resurgence.” But the “resurgence” that Schubart was referring to was the national panic. Schubart told me that the only books believed to have bedbugs under her watch didn’t come from her library, but through interlibrary loan. If bedbugs weren’t a severe problem for Islip’s libraries, why then did Schubart react with such an over-the-top measure?

“I saw the media going crazy a year or two ago,” said Schubart, who also cited a “personal abhorrence to little legs” as one of the reasons she started buying pestilence-resistant furniture for her branches. Schubart wanted to appease an antsy staff and keep her regulars appreciative. The “quarterly” visits made by the bedbug-sniffing dogs cited in the Times article were initially “monthly.”

While Schubart doesn’t regret her vigilance, she does have small worries about how Saint Louis’s reportorial approach could result in a needless panic. “I think that the article could create some hype that isn’t necessarily called for.”

Cynthia Berner Harris, the Director of Libraries for the Wichita Public Library system, also confirmed with me on Thursday that she had bagged books “as a purely precautionary measure” after confirming bugs in a seating area. The bugs were not in the books. She said that she has had only two previous instances “where library consumers forewarned us that materials on loan to them had become infested with bedbugs.” But because of Wichita’s better-safe-than-sorry safeguards, which includes staff training and close attention to the types of chairs purchased, the bedbug situation is under control.

“Let’s not get crazed,” said Sue Feir on Thursday morning. “We were proactive.” Feir, library director at Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, was also singled out in the Times piece as someone taking a bedbug problem into her own hands and for “sending an email blast.” But she told me that none of the library materials had been affected. Only the corner of one bookshelf had a problem.

“The area most cited for furniture/bedbugs,” said Feir, “is an area of the library where people often sit, but do not handle books. Multiple chairs may have become problematic because they are moved around.”

Feir said she had never had a problem with bedbugs before, but she did suspect that institutions don’t talk about bedbugs due to embarrassment. “It is hardly a subject people bring up over coffee.”

* * *

“She called me at least three times,” said Michael Potter by telephone on Thursday morning. Potter, a professor of entomology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, told me that he had spent three hours on the phone with Saint Louis patiently discussing the issue. “I really tried to emphasize that, while libraries should be vigilant, we must also have a dose of caution about all this.”

Yet despite the considerable minutes that Potter racked up in explicative overtime with the Times, Saint Louis opted to use only one sentence: “There’s no question in past few years there are more and more reports of bedbugs showing up in libraries.” This served in sharp contrast to a 2010 appearance Potter made on Fresh Air, where interviewer Terry Gross allowed Potter to explain late in the segment that while bedbugs remained a problem, the risk was quite low.

“I guess I get troubled when you spend an inordinate amount of time and hope that it will be an educational tool for the public. Instead, it turns out that you whip people in a frenzy.”

When I asked Potter if he had any hard stats about how likely it was to contract bedbugs from the library, he informed me, with a twinge of exasperation in his voice, that the chances were extremely slim. Worrying about bedbugs in a public library was akin to being afraid to leave the house because you might get struck by lightning.

“The odds of you picking up a bedbug from a book in a library are so low that it’s not even worth talking about,” said Potter.

So what were the reports that Potter had been referring to? It turns out that in 2011, Potter had co-authored a survey with Kenneth F. Haynes, Bob Rosenberg, and Missy Henriksen called “2011 Bugs Without Borders.” (Professor Potter has graciously allowed Reluctant Habits to recirculate the survey. The full PDF can be downloaded here.)

The survey reveals that while, on the whole, bedbug incidents have increased, the threat within libraries is well behind hotels, motels, college dorms, nursing homes, office buildings, public transportation, and movie theaters.

“I mean, these kinds of articles need to provide some balance in terms of this problem because we’re developing a paranoia for some people who hear these sound bytes.”

“All of the hallmarks of an epidemic can be found when there’s no disease,” said Philip Alcabes, Director of the Public Health Program at Adelphi’s Center for Health Innovation. Alcabes suggested to me that the bedbug panic corroborates with some of the concerns he expressed in his book, Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics.

“Bedbugs cause itching, of course, but they don’t spread any systemic illness and nobody dies from them. The key is that the problem seems to be spreading and that it stands in for — and reflects back to us — our social anxieties, our worries that the culture has somehow gone too far.”

So why would the New York Times feed reader anxieties rather than serve up the facts?

I made efforts to contact both Saint Louis and New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan on Thursday afternoon, but neither returned my request for comment. I did, however, receive an email from Joseph Burgess, claiming that “the public editor can’t speak on behalf of The Times‘s policies.”

In the meantime, the Times article continues to make the rounds. Is there any hope for a rational consideration of the bedbug problem?

“People can’t be expected to be perfectly reasonable all the time,” said Alcabes. “In an era without witches or angels or signs in the sky, the epidemic offers a context in which some irrational behavior becomes acceptable. Which isn’t a bad deal, in some ways.”

12/7 UPDATE: Brooke Borel, author of the forthcoming book Suck: The Tale of the Bed Bug, has also responded to Saint Louis’s article. She points out that Saint Young is outright wrong in declaring that bedbugs have only just “discovered a new way to hitchhike” through books. “This is an ancient pest, and it has been doing its thing for at least thousands of years. Probably far, far longer.” She also reiterates what entomologists have been telling me over the past two days. The risk is low. “You aren’t very likely to pick up bed bugs in these types of public spaces. The bugs are far more highly concentrated in residences, where they can breed and multiply in close proximity to their food source.”

12/17 UPDATE: A commenter named Joe alerted me to this article, in which CBC News claims that bedbugs are infesting multiple branches of the Vancouver Public Library. The story is suspicious, because it relies upon the hearsay of library patron Gail Meredith conveying to the reporter that “the pest control people came to the conclusion that the only thing that was going on in my life that was likely to bring them in is my library books.” But the story doesn’t confirm this fact with the pest control people, nor does it attempt to corroborate this incident with the VPL. On Monday morning, I spoke with VPL spokesman Stephen Barrington by phone just before he was about to hit a Monday morning meeting. He said that he didn’t have his notes in front of him to spell out the details of the bedbug incidents alleged by CBC News, but that he would try to get back to me later in the afternoon to give me details. I will report any additional details I learn from Mr. Barrington.

12/21 UPDATE: There have been a number of stories circulating in Canadian news outlets about bedbugs in public libraries (including the above-referenced CBC News story). We’ve looked into these claims in a second investigative piece on Vancouver Public Library and Toronto Public Library.

goldmansleep

Does Andrew Goldman, New York TImes Misogynist, Owe His Career to a Harvey Weinstein Headlock?

In recent months, The New York Times Sunday Magazine has published a remarkably tasteless series of misogynistic interviews that feel more at home in a pulp circular devoted to Bobby Riggs’s dwindling fan base than a renowned newspaper ostensibly committed to first-class journalism.

“I gather that people frequently assume you’re a lesbian,” began a question to esteemed Fresh Air host Terry Gross back in July, which went on to suggest that Gross had chosen to host Fresh Air rather than have children (a false insinuation which Gross corrected). Last month, the Times asked Whitney Cummings, “On those Comedy Central roasts, your fellow comedians liked to joke about how you slept your way to fame. How accurate is that criticism?” And last Sunday, The New York Times asked the 82-year-old Tippi Hedren, “Actors have been known to sleep with less powerful directors for advancement in show business. Did you ever consider it?”

These misogynistic queries all came from one man: Andrew Goldman, who took over the one page Q&A slot previously occupied by Deborah Solomon. Solomon’s questionable journalistic practices were exposed in 2007 by the New York Press‘s Matt Elzweig, and the longtime incompetent was pushed from her perch a few years later. (She last made waves debasing the 92nd Street Y and has disappeared from the New York media world like some troublesome bird obliterated into feeble feathers by a drunken gunman.)

But Goldman is far worse than Solomon ever was. He willfully infers a sexist half truth (“Did you sleep your way to the top?”) predicated on nothing more than his puerile imagination. This may have something to do with his lack of commitment to truth and fairness. As he revealed in a interview with The Slant back in April, Goldman was shocked that The New York Times would actually make an effort to get a quote right:

Two things surprised me when I started writing my column for the Times magazine. One, they insist on having an outside transcriber transcribe my interviews. They want to make sure they have a handle on the veracity of the transcript. Second, they actually call back the subjects and in full or in context read back the quotes to see if we misunderstood.

Goldman’s latest vulgar inquiry to Hedren led celebrated novelist Jennifer Weiner to tweet:

But as Galleycat’s Jason Boog reported this afternoon, Goldman, whose Twitter account has now been deleted, responded with the repulsive inventiveness of an eight-year-old sociopath who believes fart jokes or burning insects with a magnifying glass to be the ne plus ultra of comedy:

This resulted in a justifiable firestorm from New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum and Gimme Shelter author Mary Beth Williams, among others. Much of the exchange, collected before Goldman cowardly deleted the account containing his tweets, was put together by Jason Boog on Storify and can be found here.

While Goldman eventually apologized, this is not the first time that his hot and foolish head has steered him into trouble. On November 8, 2000, The New York Times reported that Goldman, then a reporter for the New York Observer, got into a scuffle with Harvey Weinstein at a book party for Karen Duffy’s Model Patient. The conflict began when Rebecca Traister, who was also a reporter for the Observer, put forth a question to Weinstein that he reportedly did not like. As Traister was abandoning her interlocutory efforts, realizing that she wasn’t going to get any quotes from Weinstein, Goldman interceded. What followed was fairly hazy. Weinstein placed Goldman in a headlock.

Despite the considerable media presence, it was hushed up rather well. As David Carr reported in New York Magazine:

“You know what? It’s good that I’m the fucking sheriff of this fucking lawless piece-of-shit town.” Weinstein said that to Andrew Goldman, then a reporter for the New York Observer, when he took him out of a party in a headlock last November after there was a tussle for Goldman’s tape recorder and someone got knocked in the head. Weinstein deputized himself and insisted that Goldman apologize. His hubris would be hilarious if he weren’t able to back it up. Several paparazzi got pictures of the tussle, but Goldman bet me at the time that they would never see print.

I mailed him his dollar a week later. I’d talk to Goldman about it, except he now works for Talk magazine, which is half-owned by Miramax.

Did Goldman’s antics earn him the job at Talk Magazine? When Talk folded, Goldman ended up at Elle, where he put forth insipid questions to major names for many years (such as telling will.i.am. that Fantasy Island was created to provide “bathroom fodder for 14-year-old boys”) before falling upward into the New York Times‘s lofty heights. Perhaps Goldman should be commended for his pugilistic chicanery. Sometimes it’s not just who you know, but who puts you into a headlock.

10/10/12 UPDATE: New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan has looked into this matter. Sullivan interviewed Jennifer Weiner about the incident and used this article as the basis for an investigation, asking questions to Times Magazine editor Hugo Lindgren about Goldman’s culpability. Lindgren replied:

We don’t publish material we believe to be misogynist or sexist. The blog post you sent me cited 3 examples, out of probably a thousand published questions that Andrew has asked since he took over the column. In the context of the full interviews, none of them struck me as sexist or misogynist. There were frank, sensitive questions, not declarations or assertions of his own. In the Terry Gross interview, Andrew is not making his own presumption about her sexuality. He is referring to an anecdote that was published in the introduction of her own book, which was made even clearer when she makes a joke about how widespread this misperception is. The Whitney Cummings question is perhaps a little cheekier but still refers to something other people have said about her — “On those Comedy Central roasts, your fellow comedians liked to joke about how you slept your way to fame. How accurate is that criticism?”

10/19/12 UPDATE: In response to Sullivan’s investigation, associate managing editor for standards Philip B. Corbett issued a memo, extending the Times guidelines to social media. Moreover, Goldman was suspended for four weeks. In response, Jennifer Weiner offered the following tweets:

10/20/12 UPDATE: Despite Goldman’s apology and his suspension, Goldman’s latest Q&A with T.C. Boyle continues in the same misogynistic direction as Goldman’s previous Q&As, with Goldman suggesting that Boyle’s wife isn’t “letting the dishes pile up in the sink.”

jshousewife

Jennifer Schuessler: “Literary Occupation: Housewife”

On September 21, 1832, Maria W. Stewart became the first African-American woman to lecture on women’s rights. She was jeered at by male crowds, who pelted her with tomatoes. A few years later in Philadelphia, Lucretia Mott received a similar reception when she pointed out that it was “not Christianity, but priestcraft” that had subjected women. Mott’s remarks, along with those of other women, were widely ridiculed by the press. On November 5, 1855, The New York Times would write of Mott:

The evident sincerity of feeling and intensity of thought produce a strong impression on the mind, but the utter absence of imaginative power stripped the impression of those almost higher attractions which beauty of illustration lends. Still, though the absence of this quality may neutralize the effect as far as popularity with a general audience is concerned, the effect on those who came with a preconceived sympathy with the ideas of a preacher, is likely to be more powerful, in proportion as the enunciation is simple and unaided by the poetical assistance of sensuous flights of imagination or classical touches of cultivated intellect.

In other words, Mott was merely some sincere country bumpkin who could only preach to the already converted. As far as The New York Times was concerned, Mott’s rhetorical approach, despite “a large and eager congregation,” could never reach the higher plains of cultivated intellect.

These ugly and prejudicial avenues were revisited on June 4, 2011, when The New York Times published a baffling article by Jennifer Schuessler. Schuessler suggested that, any time a woman author tweets a 140 character message, she is engaging in a literary feud. Was Schuessler longing for a presuffrage America? Or a continuation of the complacent and sexist approach from 150 years before? It certainly felt that way. Despite claiming that feud watchers “question whether Twitter feuds really qualify” (and who is a feud watcher anyway? Jonathan Franzen when he’s not watching birds?), Schuessler condemned numerous women for speaking their minds. By criticizing the establishment, numerous bestselling authors were somehow transformed into a mindless mob. And if Schuessler has possessed the linguistic and argumentative facilities of her 1855 counterpart, she might very well have claimed that these women carried an “utter absence of imaginative power.”

After serving up a laundry list of all-male literary “feuds” (Theroux v. Naipaul, Vargas Llosa v. Garcia Marquez, Moody v. Peck), with the feud defined as “a willingness to throw actual punches along with verbal jabs,” Schuessler writes:

If the literary feud has lost its old-school bluster, it might be tempting to lay the blame with what Nathaniel Hawthorne might have called “the mob of damn Twittering women.” These days, in America at least, it’s women authors who seem to start the splashiest literary fights, and you don’t need a stool at the White Horse Tavern to witness it.

The problem with this logic is that it assumes that those who have tweeted critical comments (the names cited in the article are Jennifer Weiner, Jodi Picoult, Ayelet Waldman, and Roseanne Cash) wish to engage in physically and verbally aggressive behavior, or that they have little more than barbaric contributions to offer to public discourse. In Schuessler’s defense, there is a modest case that Waldman, in defending her husband, was engaging in ongoing ressentiment towards Katie Roiphe. But the other women cited in Schuessler’s piece were not. If Weiner and Picoult “led a Twitter campaign against what they saw as the male-dominated literary establishment’s excessive fawning over Jonathan Franzen,” one must ask whether a campaign constitutes a feud.

The feud, as described by Schuessler, is one predicated upon hatred for another person. When an author receives a black eye or a knockout, this is little more than an ignoble pissing match revolving around egos. When Paul Theroux writes a poison-pen memoir condemning his former friend Naipaul, does this stand for any corresponding set of virtues?

Yet when a group of women is trying to raise serious questions about the manner in which books are covered by the media, can one really call it a feud? The evidence suggests nobler intentions. In an August 30, 2010 NPR article, Jennifer Weiner stated that the establishment is “ignoring a lot of other worthy writers and, in the case of The New York Times, entire genres of books.” On August 26, 2010, both Weiner and Picoult were interviewed at length by The Huffington Post‘s Jason Pinter about their positions. And it becomes clear from Pinter’s piece that the purported “mob of damn Twittering women” isn’t just “a Twitter campaign,” but an attempt to start a discussion.

Schuessler also condemns “a similar crew” who “took aim at Jennifer Egan” after Egan declared chick lit as “very derivative, banal stuff.” But in refusing to identify the “crew” in question (and only getting a quote from Katie Roiphe, who had little to do with the “feud”), Schuessler proved herself to be an irresponsible journalist. The conversation about Egan’s remarks extended well beyond Twitter, with detailed essays appearing for and against in such outlets as The Frisky and The Millions. Does such a debate really constitute a feud?

When Roiphe says, “The nature of Twitter is you don’t need to think about what you’re saying. Most of us need to think more about what we’re saying, not less,” she demonstrates her total ignorance of the way in which Twitter works. As seen by the Egan remarks and the Franzenfreude statements, there was an initial emotional outcry on Twitter that became dwarfed by a more serious discussion. People formulated their thoughts and wrote lengthy online essays. If the comments to those essays were somewhat heated, there remained numerous efforts by thoughtful people to maintain a civil debate.

So when Schuessler gets Waldman on the record to speculate about how Jane Austen might have engaged in a Twitter debate over Naipaul’s recent comments, Waldman (perhaps unwittingly) upholds the status quo: “Only those of us with impulse control issues take our snits into the ether.” But this falsely suggests that Twitter encourages nothing less than our worst impulses and that one’s initial outburst can’t be tamed into a more rational discussion. It also upholds a dangerous double standard: a man is permitted to speak his mind and punch somebody out (presumably for the amusement of “feud watchers”); but if a woman does anything close to this, she’s little more than “a damn Twittering woman.” If the purported paper of record — an outlet that suggested a few months ago that a gang-raped schoolgirl had it coming — is seriously equating today’s talented female authors with Freidan’s “happy housewife heroines,” then it is clear that The New York Times is ill-equipped to operate in the 21st century.

Is the New York Times Banning “Tweet” in the Newsroom?

This morning, The Awl‘s Choire Sicha reported that New York Times standards editor Phil Corbett had issued a memo to the newsroom suggesting that “tweet” (that verb used to refer to the act of posting on Twitter) was being actively discouraged within the Gray Lady’s mighty halls. The memo, which announced that “‘tweet’ has not yet achieved the status of standard English” went on to express dismay about “tweet” being used as a noun or verb. How could a word — reflecting a colloquialism, a negologism, or jargon — ever be used in a serious newspaper? Corbett advised using the staid “say” or the vanilla “write” as a surrogate.

Rumors then began to circulate on Twitter — in part, promulgated by The Awl — that the Times was banning the use of “tweet” entirely. New York Times Artsbeat blogger Dave Itzkoff was the first to declare that the ban was not true. Yet there remained the matter of confirming the memo’s veracity.

I contacted Corbett, and he confirmed that the memo published by The Awl had indeed been disseminated around The New York Times. “I specifically say that ‘tweet’ may be acceptable in some situations,” wrote Corbett in an email. “I’m basically urging people to view it in the category of colloquialisms, which we might use in for special effect and in contexts that call for an informal, conversational tone. But we try to minimize use of colloquial language — as well as jargon — in straight news writing.”

In other words, if a New York Times reporter is using Twitter to get a quote from a source for a big news story, the very practical notion of using “wrote” instead of “tweeted” is sound policy. But does “tweet” get an outright ban? Hardly.

kakutani

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.

picoiyer

Pico Iyer: A Critic Calling for the Pissboy

Pico Iyer’s anti-intellectual review in today’s New York Times Book Review begins with the sentence: “I confess, dear reader: I’ve always had a problem with William T. Vollmann.” This raises the question of why Iyer was even assigned the review in the first place. Certainly, Iyer is a widely revered travel writer, a man who has called himself “a global village on two legs.” His peripatetic escapades might be viewed, by those who rarely step outside Manhattan’s boundaries, as an able match to Vollmann’s. But in pairing Iyer up with Vollmann, the NYTBR‘s has once again demonstrated its crass commitment to useless criticism, stacking the deck against writers who do anything even a little idiosyncratic or anyone who sees the “global village” as one with broader possibilities.

The New York Times is supposed to be the Paper of Record. But in assigning a critic who is already dead set against the author he is writing about, a critic who, in this review, deploys his loutish prejudices in a manner comparable with a fulminating Tea Party protester, the Times reduces itself to a crazed right-wing pamphlet put together in a gun nut’s garage.

But here’s the thing. Pico Iyer isn’t a crackpot. He’s a distinguished critic who has cogently wrestled with William Buckley’s oeuvre and written about Tibetan movies for The New York Review of Books. But in accepting the assignment and alerting the assigning editor of his tastes and conflicts of interest, he has sufficiently announced that he’s no longer interested in being taken seriously. He has reduced himself to some dime-a-dozen snark practitioner: that old guy sitting in a lawn chair with a six-pack and a shotgun, spitting out a homebrewed fount of crass and uncomprehending commentary. Iyer has become just as culpable in debasing the New York Times Books Review as the usual gang of sophists. He claims in his review that Vollmann’s “paragraphs…seem to last as long as other writers’ chapters [and] can suggest a kind of deafness and self-enclosure.” But anybody who has read Iyer’s Sun After Dark (as the NYTBR‘s editors surely must have) knows how much Iyer objects to “long sunless paragraphs.” So why assign him a book with prose that he will never enjoy? If he hoped to challenge his inflexible assumptions about Vollmann, surely there was a more dignified way to go about it.

Before I demonstrate why Iyer’s review is so wrong, and why he cannot even cite Vollmann’s passages correctly, I should probably offer a disclaimer here that I’m a great admirer of William T. Vollmann’s work. I’ve interviewed him twice. I believe Imperial was a needlessly condemned masterpiece. But I’m not a blind zealot who believes that every sentence that Vollmann is gold. (I have problems with The Butterfly Stories, and I offered a respectful pan to Poor People in the Los Angeles Times). Still, Vollmann is not a writer to dismiss lightly. In The Ice-Shirt, Vollmann nearly froze to death in Alaska to know what it was like to shiver. In Imperial, he chronicled a California territory that is not likely to see such dutiful attention again in our lifetime. He has been in war zones. He has seen friends and family die, and written movingly about it. He has charmed his way into circumstances that puffups like Pico couldn’t begin to fathom from a gutless perch. And he’s remained a committed talent who has skillfully weaved these experiences into several unforgettable books. He’s won a National Book Award for Europe Central. Love him or hate him, there is simply no other American writer who has, over the course of more than twenty books, written with such unusual style and verve on so many variegated topics.

So when Iyer calls Vollmann’s obsessiveness “almost demented,” what makes this any different from calling Vollmann himself “almost demented?” “Obsessiveness” is indeed one of Vollmann’s qualities as a writer. And Iyer’s statement is nothing less than an ad hominem attack. (Sam Tanenhaus, of course, would tell you otherwise.)

But Iyer is also a stupendous misreader, a man who misquotes from the opening sentences of chapters, often conflating one sentence with another. He claims that Vollmann declares himself an “ape in a cage” because “he cannot understand a word.” But let’s study the context context of what Vollmann actually wrote, in the sentences that opens the second chapter (not the book’s opening sentence, as Iyer deliberately misleads):

This book cannot pretend to give anyone a working knowledge of Noh. Only a Japanese speaker who has studied Zeami and the Heian source literatures, learned how to listen to Noh music and wehat to look for in Noh costumes, masks and dances could hope to gain that, and then only after attending the plays for many years. Zeami insisted that “in making a Noh,” the playwright “must use elegant and easily understood phrases from song and poetry.”…But century buries century, and the performances refine themselves into an ever noble inaccessibility, slowing down (some now require at least double the time on stage that they did when Zeami was alive), evolving spoken parts into songs, clinging to conventions and morals now gone past bygone; as for me, I look on like an ape in a cage.

In other words, Vollmann is clearly delineating Noh’s great complexities, aspects that are difficult even for a native Japanese speaker to entirely ken (and that Iyer clearly has no curiosity to understand; he proudly proudly boasts about “the very dramas that have often sent me toward the exit before the intermission”). But if Vollmann is “an ape in a cage,” he is pointing out, with sincere humility, that neither he nor any audience member can ever hope to reach the civilized heights of a noble art form.

Iyer suggests that Vollmann’s “comparison” of Kate Bosworth with Kannon zany, but fails to comprehend that Vollmann has a larger goal. Here he is discussing Bosworth:

Her skin is a flawless blend of pinks; I suppose it has been powdered and airbrushed. Her mascara’d gaze beseeches me with the appearance of melancholy or erotic intimacy. Her mouth pretends to say: “Kiss me.” This professional signifier appears on many women in pornographic magazines and in the long slow sequences of romantic films. For some reason, I rarely see it on the faces of strangers in the street. (127)

It’s clear from this passage that Vollmann is attempting to place Hollywood magazine representations within the context of Noh. And, true to form, Iyer continues to take Vollmann out of context, implying that Vollmann’s confession about loving woman is (a) related to the above exchange and (b) related to the manner in which he asks Hilary Nichols, “Who is a woman?” (Actually, the “loving woman” sentence occurs on page 110, in a chapter on Noh faces, having little to do with either of the subjects from which Iyer draws his false associations. That Iyer ascribes Vollmann’s private sentiment to what he says to some woman in the bar indicates that not only is he unskilled to write this review, but that he has no real clue about the conversations that actually occur in bars.)

He attempts to accuse Vollmann of hypocrisy by pointing to his “extravagant” spending in Kissing the Mask, after writing Poor People. But lacking the ability to understand that a book on Noh theater is entirely different from one on poverty, Iyer fails to note that Vollmann confessed in Poor People that (a) he was “sometimes afraid of poor people,” (b) he is “a petty-bourgeois property owner,” and that (c) he has been mostly transparent about noting when he has paid an interview subject or how much one of his chapters have cost.

So if the Oxford English Dictionary had a listing for “incurious elitist with a hatchet and an agenda,” Pico Iyer would take up the entire entry. It says something about Iyer, I think, that his review can’t even make a civilized case against the book he so clearly loathes, that the manner in which he strings together so many unrelated items has no singular critical thrust. Reading his review is like watching an autistic fire a submachine gun in an upscale shopping mall. When Iyer claims, bizarrely, “that reading for more than 30 minutes at a time can induce headaches, seasickness, and worse,” and fails to qualify this observation with specific experiential examples, you get the sense of a desperate man without streetcred struggling to take a piss in an alley when his experience is limited to Larry David-style sitdown techniques confined to palatial restrooms.

No, it’s Iyer here who’s the one who fails to grapple with the big questions. Perhaps what truly motivates Iyer’s review is that, despite all of Iyer’s travels, he’s never quite found the courage or an interest in people outside his comfort zone. Here’s Iyer writing about Dharmamsala in The Open Road:

The people who were gathered in the room, maybe thirty or so, were strikingly ragged, their poor clothes rendered even poorer and more threadbare by their long trip across the snowcaps. They assembled in three lines in a small space, and all I could see were filthy coats, blackened faces, sores on hands and feet, straggly, unwashed hair.

Now here’s Vollmann writing a man named Lupe Vasquez in Imperial:

For an eight-hour job, it’s forty-five bucks. When I first started, in the early seventies, I used to make about seventeen bucks a day. Two-fifty an hour times eight hours is what? [Footnote: It would have been twenty dollars.] With taxes you take home about seventeen, eighteen bucks. I’d say the work’s the same now; it’s the same. [Footnote: I wish you could have heard the weariness in his voice as he said this.] Maybe the foremen don’t hurry you up and treat you as bad as they used to. We were scared, you know. We had to hurry up. For the foremen, money is more important to them than their own people. They gotta kiss ass, and the way they do that is by making us work harder.

Unlike Iyer, Vollmann actually provides tangible testimony on what it is to be poor, and what it is to live poor. Iyer, by contrast, is a vapid and unconcerned tourist who will never comprehend much beyond an impoverished man’s look. Still, I’m confident that none of my quibbles with Iyer’s incompetence will deter this bourgeois monster from writing. And that’s just fine. Because when future readers want to know about the world that we live in, when they wish to feel thrill, passion, and horror about the late 20th and early 21st centuries, my guess is that they’ll go to Vollmann before even flipping through Iyer. Unless, of course, they’re the types who, as Mel Brooks once satirized, call for the pissboy instead of understanding that even the pissboy has a soul.

[UPDATE: Over at The Constant Conversation, John Lingan also addresses Iyer’s review, pointing out that the piece fails to address the basic questions of arts criticism: “How about engaging the man’s ideas head-on, and not simply expressing your mild distaste with the presentation?”]

lehrer

Jonah Lehrer: A Malcolm Gladwell for the Mind

As the terrible news of Andrew Koenig’s suicide and Michael Blosil leaping to his death, both after long depressive bouts, emerged over the weekend, the New York Times Sunday Magazine had aided and abetted Jonah Lehrer’s continued slide into unhelpful Gladwellian generalizations by publishing his sloppy and insensitive article claiming that depression really isn’t that bad. Lehrer, an alleged bright young thing who found his own tipping point with How We Decide, appears to have cadged nuanced examples from such thoughtful books as Kay Redfield Jamison’s Touched with Fire and Daniel L. Schachter’s The Seven Sins of Memory, proving quite eager to cherrypick tendentious bits for a facile sudoku puzzle, or perhaps print’s answer to a “fair and balanced” FOX News segment, rather than a thoughtful consideration.

Lehrer attempts to establish a precedent with Charles Darwin’s mental health: a troubling task, given that the great evolutionist kicked the bucket around 130 years ago and, thus, didn’t exactly have the benefit of psychiatric professionals watching over his bunk, much less a DSM-IV manual. Lehrer suggests that the “fits” and “uncomfortable palpitation of the heart” that Darwin referenced in his letters represented depression. While it’s difficult to diagnose a mental condition in such a postmortem manner, John Bowlby’s helpful book, Charles Darwin: A New Life, has collected various efforts to pinpoint what Darwin was suffering from. And Bowlby’s results tell a different story. Darwin, who was very careful to consult the top medical authorities of his time, described his “uncomfortable palpitation” in a letter to J.S. Henslow on September 1837, when he was hard at work making sense of his data after the Beagle had landed back. In 1974, Sir George Pickering made an analysis of Darwin’s symptoms from these shards and attributed this state to Da Costa’s Syndrome, more commonly known as hyperventillation. Da Costa’s is most certainly unpleasant, but it is not depression. Dorland’s Medical Dictionary describes Da Costa’s as “a manifestation of an anxiety disorder, with the physical symptoms being a reaction to something perceived to be dangerous or otherwise a threat to the person, causing autonomic responses or hyperventilation.” (Emphasis added.) This diagnosis was backed up, as Bowlby notes, by Sir Hedley Atkins and Professor A.W. Woodruff.

Later in his book, Bowbly suggests that Darwin may have suffered from fairly severe depression during the months of April and September 1865 — which corroborates the “hysterical crying” that Lehrer eagerly collects and that Darwin conveyed to his doctor. But where Bowbly is careful to note that the “hysterical crying” leading to depression is a speculation based merely on a phrase and an anecdote conveyed by Darwin’s son, Leonard, Lehrer conflates both Darwin’s “hysterical crying” and Bowlby’s other non-depression examples into depression. Furthermore, Lehrer fails to note that the reason that Darwin was “not able to do anything one day out of three” (as he noted in a letter to Joseph Dalton Hooker on March 28, 1849) was because, as Darwin noted, his father had died the previous November. (Lehrer does note Darwin’s grief following the death of his ten-year-old daughter and proudly observes that the DSM manual specifies that the diagnosis of grief-related depressive disorder “is grief caused by bereavement, as long as the grief doesn’t last longer than two months.” But David H. Barlow’s Anxiety and Its Disorders cites a 1989 study*, which points out that “it is not uncommon for some individuals to grieve for a year or longer” and observes that some people may need longer than two months to escape severe incapacitating grief. A major depressive disorder may not necessarily be the result after two months of grief. In other words, the human mind is not necessarily an Easy-Bake oven.)

The basis for Lehrer’s thesis — that Darwin conquered the totality of his apparent “depression” to “succeed in science” and that his “depression” was “a clarifying force, focusing the mind on its most essential problems” — is predicated on a willful misreading of the primary sources, one that apparently eluded the indolent army of Times fact checkers, who only had to consult Bowlby’s more equitable analysis. This was irresponsible assembly from Lehrer: bad and inappropriate badinage intended to back up a sensational headline and convey Darwin as a falsely triumphant poster boy for severe depression. But depression is a deadly disorder, a condition that requires a less specious summary.

Lehrer later cites David Foster Wallace’s short story, “The Depressed Person,” as a qualifying example for how the depressive mind remains in a “recursive loop of woe.” One may find comparisons between DFW’s real depression and the details contained in the story. But the story, written in third person and loaded with clinical details, might also be read as something which depicts the regular world’s failure to comprehend inner torment. Prescriptive analysis may very well apply to patterns of behavior, but fiction is an altogether different measure.

It is doubtful that DFW ever intended his story to be some smoking gun for lazy cognitive science, as Lehrer insists that it is, when Lehrer declares that those with “ruminative tendencies” are more likely to be depressed. Daniel L. Schachter’s The Seven Sins of Memory, a book that Lehrer appears to have relied upon for the Susan Nolen-Hoeksema example, pointed out that people “who focus obsessively on their current negative moods and past negative events, are at a special risk for becoming trapped in such destructive self-perpetuating cycles.” But what of those who are ruminating after a positive mood or after positive events? The danger of using a phrase like “ruminative tendencies” is that it discounts Nolen-Hoeksema’s clear distinction between dysphoric subjects inclined to ruminate (and feel worse) and “nondysphoric subjects [who] would show no effects of either the rumination or distraction inductions on their moods.” Perhaps by warning his readership of “ruminative tendencies,” Lehrer is encouraging them not to ruminate and therefore become mildly depressed about Lehrer’s dim findings. Lehrer is right, however, about the Loma Prieta earthquake data (also found in the Schachter book). But his failure to distinguish between the dysphoric and nondysphoric perpetuates a convenient generalization rather than an article hoping to contend with conditional realities.

Near the end of his piece, Lehrer confesses that the criticisms against the analytic-rumination hypothesis are often responded to “by acknowledging that depression is a vast continuum, a catch-all term for a spectrum of symptoms.” Well, if only he had told us this at the head of the article before leading us down a rabbit hole. He later writes, “It’s too soon to judge the analytic-rumination hypothesis.” Well, it wasn’t too soon to speculate on Darwin’s letters (not all the result of depression) or David Foster Wallace’s inner psychological state, as reflected through a story.

Lehrer also brings up Joe Forgas’s experiments at a Sydney stationery store, whereby Forgas hoped to get his subjects to remember trinkets. He played different music to match the weather. Wet weather made the subjects sad, and the sadness made the subjects more attentive. But in a Financial Times article written by Stephen Pincock, Forgas was careful to note “that any benefits that he has found apply only to the passing mood or emotion of sadness, rather than the devastating illness that is severe, clinical depression.” Once again, Lehrer neglects to mention this scientific proviso, leading readers to conclude that Forgas’s results are more related to depression.

It’s also important to note that the Paul Andrews study Lehrer relies on, which drew an interesting correlation between negative mood and improved analysis, defines “depressive affect” as “an emotion characterized by negative effect and low arousal.” This is a fundamentally different metric from outright depression, which Andrews’s study is clear to specify. But Lehrer confuses the two terms and retreats back to his clumsy Darwin metaphor of “embrac[ing] the tonic of despair.”

I don’t doubt that Lehrer wished to point out how depressive affect, or modest negative feelings, need not translate into a crippling existence. But his distressing conflation of “depressive affect” and “depression,” and his insistence that even a modest negative feeling might be categorized as depression, may very well suggest to readers that hard-case depressives in serious need of care and treatment might do without these essential long-term remedies. As someone who has offered assistance to friends living with this very real condition, I find Lehrer’s willingness to lump every sad behavioral pattern into “depression” truly shocking. I’m also greatly concerned that the New York Times — the ostensible paper of record — has failed to fact-check the selected studies, thus misleading readers into believing that depression is always a “clarifying force.” Depression, as Andrews attempted to convey to Lehrer, is “a very delicate subject.” Andrew did not wish to say anything reckless for the record. It’s just too bad that Lehrer did.

* Jacobs, Hansen, Berkman, Kasi & Ostfield (1989). Depressions of bereavement. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 30(3), 218-224

davidpogue

David Pogue and the Gray Lady’s Double Standard

In a post on Saturday, the NYTPicker, a website devoted to “the goings-on inside the New York Times,” pointed to the recent firing of Mary Tripsas, who was let go after writing a positive column just after taking an all-expenses paid trip from 3M. The NYTPicker also highlighted Clark Hoyt’s recent column, in which Hoyt reported that the Times had “parted company” with Joshua Robinson after Robinson had “represented himself as as a Times reporter while asking airline magazines for free tickets to cities around the world for an independent project he was proposing with a photographer.”

But David Pogue’s ongoing ethical infractions were not addressed by Hoyt and, as the NYTPicker put it, “Pogue continues to keep his gig while traveling the country — courtesy of corporations who pay him to speak at retreats and confabs, identifying himself as a NYT columnist. It’s a double standard that NYT has yet to address.”

This prompted David Pogue to leave the following comment at the NYTPicker’s site:

I spoke 30 times in 2009.

One of them was for a corporation–ONE. It was Raytheon. And that was an engagement that had been individually approved by my editors.

(As part of the Times crackdown on this issue, ALL of my speaking engagements must be individually approved. It’s been this way since June.)

The remaining 29 were for educational and non-profit outfits. Examples:Florida Virtual Schools; eCollege; Cleveland Town Hall speaker series; FOSE (government training); Society for Technical Communication; CT Librarians’ Association; CUNY; Educomm; MBL (Woods Hole); Memorial Sloan Kettering; Syracuse University.

Ooooh, look at Pogue jetting around the country for big corporations!!

You just have no idea what you’re talking about.

Actually, the NYTPicker does have some idea about what it’s talking about.

Here’s the pertinent clause from the New York Times‘s ethical guidelines: “Staff members should be sensitive to the appearance of partiality when they address groups that might figure in their coverage, especially if the setting might suggest a close relationship to the sponsoring group.”

Alas, in the examples that Mr. Pogue kindly offered to the NYTPicker, the ostensible “journalist” proved quite careless in disclosing his partiality. Had Mr. Pogue bothered to investigate or research the entities he was speaking to before accepting the invitations and the honorariums, he might have discovered that there was decidedly more than one corporation here.

As its website proudly announces, eCollege is a division of Pearson PLC, a London education and media conglomerate that specializes in making educational software.

Ergo, a corporation.

FOSE is run by the 1105 Government Information Group, part of 1105 Media, Inc., whose California corporate record can be found here.

Ergo, a corporation.

The Society for Technical Communication is a for-profit New York corporation. Here’s a link to the bylaws.

Ergo, a corporation.

The Educomm conference is run by the Professional Media Group. You can search here for the limited liability company record from the Connecticut Commercial Recording Division:

While an LLC is slightly different from a corporation under Connecticut law, it’s safe to say that the Professional Media Group’s structure is far from nonprofit.

So that makes three for-profit corporations and an LLC in a pear tree. That squarely puts the corporations in the plural and confirms the NYTPicker’s allegations.

In a further gaffe, Mr. Pogue claimed that the NYTPicker’s author was “David.” But in an embarrassing series of developments last September, the New York Times issued a retraction for misidentifying David Blum as the man behind NYTPicker.

According to the NYTPicker, New York Times editors and spokesmen have refused to answer important questions about this double standard in journalistic ethics, whereby Mr. Pogue continues to breach the Gray Lady’s ethical standards without apparent penalty.

[UPDATE: David Pogue has left a few followup comments at the NYTPicker, which has prompted this followup post.]

The Impotance [sic] of the Editor

Editor & Publisher has revealed that Kill Beller doesn’t believe editors is necessary. Beller, whom is the Executive Washroom of the New Turk Times, believes that Assendup Stanley, the media critic who got a few things wrong about Walter Disney’s recent death, is “a brilliant critic.” But the future of the public editor has remained “much debated within out walls.”

In congress with James Rainey to the Los Angles Time, Beller moaned loudly about some “cocks” being given too much leeway. But most of the Beller comics were not used as Rainey focused on cameras on former Times public editors and other uncircumcised Times newsroom fluffers.

In that full dimpled cheek, Beller defends the New Turk Times‘s correction prances; says that any editor who fails to fuck a writer about an error because of the writer’s supposed ass is failing to blow their job; and admits the fluffing of the public editor position is in serious jeopardy.

More wads to blow as the information comes loudly.

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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.

susanboyle

Yes, The Master Race Does Matter

For more than a week now, people on both sides of the Atlantic have been wondering whether Susan Boyle is a frumpy, middle-aged cipher or someone who actually possesses some skills outside making sandwiches. Fortunately, we here at the New York Times are happy to intellectualize this extremely troubling issue for you. Our demographic data suggests that you are, in all likelihood, a trim, upper middle-class Caucasian. And while these lowly types are getting into our clubs and newspapers, there is now the suggestion that some of us are shallow. I, Pam Belluck, certainly don’t consider myself shallow. I consider myself selective. And I hope to demonstrate with this article that being shallow is an essential survival skill.

susanboyleBefore she sang, Ms. Boyle was one of those people that just about anyone with taste made fun of. The kind of person who might wander into White Castle or enjoy a Seth Rogen film. One of those terrible unsophisticated types who many of us ridicule over a round of golf. The kind of worthless human specimen who we ask to fetch our coffee or to type our letters.

Now, after the video of her performance went viral, a troubling flurry of commentary has focused on whether we should even bother to give the groundlings the limelight. I suppose there are some situations in which, yes, we have to let someone as unappetizing as Ms. Boyle through the velvet rope. After all, a handful of these people seem to have a few special skills, such as tossing grapes into their mouths or juggling chainsaws, and we only find out about these skills by accident. These special skills are quite entertaining, but it’s very important not to talk with these subhumans or express any curiosity in their lives. But if we don’t offer them a token acknowledgment from time to time, then these subhumans will complain that we’re conforming to the prejudices of ageism or look-ism, or whatever these damn things are called these days.

But many social scientists and others who study the science of stereotyping (I don’t have to name names, do I? You do know what I’m talking about, right?) say there are reasons we quickly size people up based on how they look.

On a very basic level, racism and sexism are just something harmless and impersonal, much like deciding whether an animal is a dog or a cat. “Human beings don’t have feelings,” said David Avocado, an assistant professor of eugenics at New York University. “They are essentially pieces of information that we must categorize, and certain types are prioritized as better. There was a brave man in the early 20th century who understood this problem very well. Unfortunately, he went about it in the wrong way.”

Eons ago, this capability involved making decisions that were of life-and-death importance. But even today, humans have the ability to gauge people within seconds. And this can be of great value. Because who knows when a normal-looking person like Ms. Boyle or even some random black guy standing on the corner waiting for a cab might attack you?

“In ancient times, it was important to stay away from people who weren’t friendly or attractive,” said Susan Grant, related to the famed Bronx Zoo pioneer who had the courage to display the subhuman Ota Benga before a crowd. “If we don’t lionize the beautiful people, then how can we possibly enforce the fact that we’re better?”

Grant’s research suggests that those in low or ugly status register differently in the brain. “We’re still working on a way to improve upon phrenology,” said Grant. “We do have to come up with something that seems vaguely plausible to the scientists for a few years.”

But perhaps with the reintroduction of the Malthusian concept of “moral restraint,” we might prevent many of these ugly or lower people from reproducing.

“Susan Boyle is not a problem,” said Professor Avocado. “She is 47 and quite unlikely to have children. She was not brought to public attention until later in life. And people will forget her. History is written by the winners.”

And so are New York Times articles.

juliekrapp

An Alarming Discovery In One of the Dead Tree Outlets

This afternoon, as I was counting the twenty-two badly oxidized pennies in my piggy bank over the last three months and flipping through a five-dollar newspaper that I had stolen from a Starbucks, I was especially alarmed to find the following article, located on the inside back page of the newspaper’s renowned Sunday magazine. (I have scanned the newspaper article. Click on the image to enlarge.)

juliekrapp

I am not certain if Ms. Krapp’s article represents an effort to “spice up” the magazine, which I noticed was a mere 54 pages this week, or if it was a candid outreach campaign to the newspaper’s not-so-secret affluent demographic. I only knew that I did not quite relate to Ms. Krapp’s homicidal tendencies. But if this article is true, it appears that the so-called “safe” side of Central Park hardly lives up to the modifier casually tossed around by various convention bureaus.

updateupdike

Regretting the Error

updateupdike

[UPDATE: Apparently, it’s amateur hour at the New York Times. After fixing the above headline, Matt Bucher observed that The Broken Estate was not published in 1966. James Wood was then only a year old. (And, no, the above screenshot wasn’t faked. I resized it to fit it into the window.)]

[UPDATE 2: More errors in the piece. “More important, the move to a small town seemed to stimulate his memories of Shillington and his creation of its fictional counterpart, Ollington.” It’s Olinger. Also, John Updike was interviewed by the Paris Review in 1968, not 1967. Also, it’s Terrorist, not The Terrorist. It should be “outsized talents,” not “outsize talents.” Good Christ, don’t they employ copy editors and fact checkers at the Gray Lady?]

[UPDATE 3: The Gray Lady has fixed these errors, without “regretting the error.” In the haste of my horror, I added an extra L to Olinger — as pointed out by a pedantic commenter named Albert. This has been fixed. I regret the error.]

friedmanmoustache

Time to Reboot My Privilege

I had a bad day last Friday, a day considerably worse than Thomas L. Friedman’s, but it was an all-too-typical day for America. Because, as we all know, my own comforts and needs naturally reflect everything we need to know about America. Mr. Friedman has a ratty moustache. But I have a beard. Which means there are more follical receptors on my face for America to kowtow to my seer-like economic prophecies.

My day actually started well, where I was taking the collective virginity of three underage girls in Bathsheba, Saint Joseph, Barbados, pissing into the mouth of one, while observing two other descendants of slave laborers cry. The two crying girls had realized that they had made a big mistake, but, since I throw around money more carelessly than Thomas L. Friedman, they had agreed to my specific carnalities. I stood under the magic cabbage palm trees, and talked to my girlfriend back home, static-free, using a friend’s iPhone. Then I played around with the iPhone Fart App, and sent a few snarky emails to Paul Krugman. (Krugman may have won the Nobel, but he refuses to understand the joys of being alive. He insists on being thoughtful, and refuses to remain ecstatically ignorant. He insists that the economic underclass is composed of real people with feelings. I do not understand.) A few hours later, I took off from the Grantley Adams International Airport, after riding out there in a taxi that thankfully did not permit me any glimpse of the downtrodden. I was surrounded by rich and wonderful white people! The wireless connectivity was so good I was able to enjoy porn on the Web the whole way on my laptop.

Landing at Kennedy Airport from St. Joseph was, as I’ve argued before, like going from Mr. Belvedere to Family Matters. St. Joseph was like enjoying Christopher Hewett sparring with Brice Beckham. But you knew that Mr. Belvedere always held the upper hand and that you were paying him a lot of money, that your comforts were never interceded by the troubling presence of black people, and that good money could always be used along the way to mold assorted people like golems into the figures you needed. But at Kennedy, there was a sargasso sea of low-class Urkels to endure while picking up your luggage. Other people, who made considerably less money than I did, actually had the effrontery to stand very close to me. (Couldn’t we at least supply foreign visitors with a complimentary whore, who will willingly bob up and down on your cock and tell you what a genius you are as you wait for your precious luggage?) As I looked around at this dingy room, it reminded me of somewhere I had been before. Then I remembered: It was when I first started out as a journalist and the women wouldn’t sleep with me and they all laughed because I didn’t yet write books that were international bestsellers and that regularly insulted the intelligence of thinking people.

I then went to Penn Station, where I traveled in something that people called a subway. I saw a rat scamper underneath the tracks. I took the E line. On the train, there were odious buskers who asked me for change. There was even a man who appeared on the train with his wife and daughter, announcing that he had become unemployed because of the recent job cuts and telling all who would listen that he needed money. How dare he interrupt my ruminative ride home! How dare he attempt to usurp my happy reality! I pondered punching him into the face or maybe hiring his wife and daughter to service me, or even urging him in the strongest possible terms to read my book, The Carrera and the Olive Branch. There needed to be a way to get this man to control himself. Along the way, I tried to use my cellphone to send a picture message of my expensive chateau in the Hamptons to Paul Krugman, just to spite the bastard, but I could not receive a signal within this goddam sewer.

All I could think to myself was: If we’re so smart, why do people like me have to suffer? What has become of our infrastructure, which is crucial in subsidizing men who fall into the highest income bracket?

My fellow Americans, we can’t continue in this mode. We’ve indulged ourselves for too long with this uppity talk of Main Street, when we really need to provide for the needs of Wall Street, even if it means executive suites and high-priced hookers. It is absolutely vital that people like me have everything they want, no matter how spurious the possession may seem to Joe Sixpack, in this economic downturn. It is also important that this nation accommodate my rich Redwood-sized ego at every turn.

John Kennedy grew up in a privileged environment. Obama needs to lead on us a journey to rediscover the importance of privilege, where we can then maintain our wondrous disparity between the haves and the have nots, and I can jet around the world without thought or guilt, hiring anyone who makes under $40,000 a year to serve as a professional footstool to prop up my pedicured feet. The new president should enact legislation to ensure that the nation mourns if my type is ever pied in the face again.

Happy holidays!

tanenhausknopf

The Knopf Times Book Review

[UPDATE: On the evening of January 21, 2009, I asked Tanenhaus in person about the concerns satirized below, and I was able to get a few answers. I point readers of this post to the direction of my later post, “In Which I Talk with Tanenhaus,” where some questions are answered and Tanenhaus’s perspective is reported.]

It started with Sam Tanenhaus’s ridiculously uncritical review (and fawning video interview) with John Updike. It continued with Tanenhaus’s lips nearly licking Toni Morrison to a needlessly sensual premature death. But this afternoon, Sam Tanenhaus proved that The New York Times Book Review isn’t an independent organ, but rather a throbbing and dependent organ shoving itself restlessly into Knopf’s moist vagina. The New York Times Book Review selected its top ten books of 2008. Seven of the books were from Knopf. Of the remaining three selections, two were from other Random House imprints under Knopf’s watch. The only other publisher served was Farrar, Straus & Giruoux.

I think it goes without saying that someone is getting a cock sucked here.

My beef here is not with Random House, who has been consistently receptive and helpful to journalists of all stripes, but with Sam Tanenhaus’s embarrassingly tendentious selection process. These are malodorous results that reek as shamefully as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s “decision-making process” during the Golden Globe Awards. It bears the skunkish whiff of junkets and favoritism. And it certainly doesn’t behoove any “paper of record” that expects us to take it seriously.

If this is a desperate ploy on Tanenhaus’s part to coax Random House to buy more advertising space in the New York Times Book Review, well, the joke here’s on Tanenhaus. Because why should Random House buy an advertisement in the NYTBR when they’re getting all this free publicity?

Look, I love Updike as much as the next guy. But let’s face the facts. By and large, the critics seemed to agree that The Widows of Eastwick didn’t quite cut the mustard. For Tanenhaus to write, in all seriousness, “At 76, he still wrings more from a sentence than almost anyone else. His sorcery is startlingly fresh, page upon page,” suggests very strongly that Tanenhaus assigned the wrong guy to review the book. It is one thing to marvel at Updike’s prose. But it’s quite another to fawn over it like an uncritical and sycophantic lapdog. For all the love and fanboyish accolades that have been granted to Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Roberto Bolano’s 2666, I’ve never seen any of these plaudits spill over into Tanenhaus’s unmitigated hero worship.

How can any man live with himself knowing that he is such an unrepentant whore? Thank goodness Dwight Garner got out of this sausage factory when he did for the daily book reviewing gig. Compare Garner’s more adept review of Alison Bechdel’s The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For in today’s edition. It’s just as effusive as Tanenhaus’s Updike review, but at least Garner still has some respect: both for himself and the readership.

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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.

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RIP John Leonard

If the reviews are read, it is by those who seek a confirmation, either of their own gut reaction to a new sit-com or of a suspicion that you are a jerk. You can no more review TV according to agreed-upon criteria than you can review politics or sports or old girl friends — or compile a mobile history of the infinite. The lout on the next barstool also considers himself an expert; “Seen in this matter,” says Borges, “all our acts are just, bt they are also indifferent. There are no moral or intellectual merits.” Less attention was paid in March of 1972 to Senator John Pastore’s hearings on the impact of televised violence than was paid to spring-training baseball.

However, the consolations made up for the desperations. (A) You are being paid to watch television, which means that you don’t have to apologize what all your friends do secretly and feel guilty about. (B) It is something you can actually do with your children, instead of reading Babar aloud for the 157th time or running a staple through your thumb. And (C) being powerless is liberating. You can say what you want about the play and the actors; it won’t close, and they won’t be fired, on your account. Since television is about everything, you can review everything. Attention may not be paid, but hostilities will be projected, and you’ll be the healthier for the projecting of them, even if your society is not. As Borges put it, “We took out our heavy revolvers (all of a sudden there were revolvers in the dream) and joyfully killed the Gods.”

— John Leonard, This Pen for Hire (1973)

John Leonard is dead. He was 69. Aside from serving as editor of the New York Times Book Review (back when it actually meant something) during its glory years between 1971 and 1975, Leonard contributed a monthly books column for Harper’s and served as television critic for New York Magazine.

Leonard was one of the last old-school greats, and one of the people I looked to in developing my own critical voice. (When I was commissioned to write a books column for the decommissioned 02138, John Leonard was one of my key models.) He wrote honestly and passionately about literature, was not afraid to take prisoners, was inclusive of genre and translated titles. When I plunged into his pre-NYTBR work for the first time some years ago (namely through the above-referenced quote), I was stunned to see how wonderfully feral and sensible he was. I’m convinced that if Leonard had started writing a decade ago, he probably would have been a litblogger. In the last two decades, Leonard had calmed down a bit, refraining from some of his take-no-prisoners pieces. As he explained at a BEA panel a few years ago, if he didn’t like a book, he wouldn’t write about it. He wanted to continue the conversation.

I had the good fortune of meeting Leonard just before this panel. Only an hour before, my bald pate had collided with a STOP sign, prompting considerable blood and a trip to Duane Reade. With a gargantuan bandage on my head, I looked something like an escaped mental patient. Leonard didn’t bat an eye. I thanked him for his years at the NYTBR, which I had read on microfilm as an undergrad. Leonard then told me that he read my site daily, and liked the work I was doing. When I asked him if he saw any comparisons between the ongoing print-digital debate and his early career as a journalist, he beamed up, “Oh yeah! This is nothing new. They said the same thing about the alt-weeklies, and look where they are today.” In an interview with Meghan O’Rourke, Leonard said, “Reviewing has all become performance art; it’s all become posturing. It’s going to have to be the lit blogs that save us. At least they have passion.”

It’s difficult to imagine a literary world without John Leonard. He was the rarest of critics: a sharp, populist-minded essayist with an open mind writing beautifully without fear.

More Tributes: Scott McLemee, Sarah Weinman, Emily Gordon, Hillary Frey, Jason Boog, and Mark Lotto.

See Also: Studs Terkel on John Leonard, Leonard archive at New York, Leonard archive at New York Review of Books, Leonard archive at The Nation, Leonard’s introduction to Paradise Lost, Leonard’s early championing of Toni Morrison, Leonard on Lethem, and Bill Moyers interview.

Also: A must-read autobiographical account of Leonard fighting for journalistic ethics as editor of the New York Times Book Review.

NYTBR: Polishing the Rails

News emerged over the weekend that Dwight Garner was fleeing the New York Times Book Review for a gig as a daily books critic. With Rachel Donadio leaving the Book Review in the summer and Sam Tanenhaus performing double duty as editor of NYTBR and Week in Review, one wonders just who actually is running the NYTBR these days. Sure, Gregory Cowles was just bumped up to preview editor in September. But with the deputy editor slot open, does this mean Cowles will get two promotions in two months? Or will this slot go another editor over there?

One can only hope that all this staff shuffling reflects the beginnings of a much-needed regime change at the NYTBR. The NYTBR has become an out-of-touch, calcified rag in which it now takes two months after pub date for a major review to run, no-nothing dunces like Dave Itzkoff review science fiction, vaguely quirky writing (in the books reviewed or the reviews itself) is actively discouraged, translated fiction is regularly limited, and the editors actually believe that Henry Alford is funny. Compare any issue of the NYTBR under the Tanenhaus-Garner run against any issue under any issue edited by John Leonard, and you will see just how far this once-important section has fallen.

And as the Observer‘s Leon Neyfakh reported today, there was a time not long ago in which Dwight Garner felt the same way. Today, Garner has changed his tune, pointing out that “it’s a piece that clings to me on Google like a vampire bat.”

Is that Garner’s wry way of telling us that he’s in dire need of a blood transfusion? That he’s washed up? That he, just as he predicted twelve years ago, is incapable of regularly throwing sparks? Sounds very much like business as usual. In other words, why buy Valium when Garner is there in the daily?

A Brief Interlude

Some brief housekeeping between these longass NYFF reports: I had intended to write a report on Saturday afternoon’s panel, which I believe was called “Holy Shit! The End of Film Criticism is Nigh! It’s the End of the World!” But it appears my work has already been done for me. Details of what went down, not as hysterical as the title implied, can be found over at Mr. Hudson’s place. There are links to reports and even an MP3. Last I checked the thread at Mr. Hudson’s, there was some modest shit-talking of Cahiers du cinema editor Emmanuel Burdeau. But Burdeau, despite being French, is okay in my book. Burdeau and Jonathan Rosenbaum, sitting on the left wing of the panel, offered thoughtful and progressive answers that made up for the out-of-touch blathering from Kent “I don’t watch TV but The Wire is okay” Jones on the right wing of the panel. (I am assured by a third party that Kent Jones is an okay bloke. But from what I observed of him on Saturday, Jones has the finest worldview that 1989 had to offer.)

Due to deadlines, I had to miss this morning’s screening of Changeling. But why bother with it? It’s coming out later down the pipeline. Well, Clint Eastwood was holding a press conference. Well, with all due respect to Mr. Eastwood’s talent, big whoop. Yesterday, I left midway through the press conference for The Wrestler because I was hopelessly bored. The questions dealt predominantly with the cliched “how difficult it must have been” line of inquiry that one sees too often in these silly affairs.

I bring this up not to impugn those who were questioned, but only to remark upon the media’s relentless concern with superficiality. Many media outlets, including Reuters, have only now begun offering some coverage of the New York Film Festival. But most of these bloated entities have concerned themselves only with Steven Soderbergh and Mickey Rourke. And isn’t the whole point about the NYFF to celebrate filmmaking talent from around the world?

I made a personal promise to myself that I wanted to give as many of the films that didn’t have distributors a chance, and, rest assured, more reports are coming. (Still to be reviewed here are Waltz with Bashir, Hunger, and The Wrestler. But these big-ticket items can wait a bit. Because they all have distributors.) Unfortunately, it appears that not even The New York Times is willing to devote its considerable resources to in-depth reviews of such unusual films as Tokyo Sonata. Don’t they have a whole team of reporters over there for this? I’ve conducted a New York Times search for “New York Film Festival” and all we’ve had since A.O. Scott’s jejune list of film summaries is Manohla Dargis on Che, which, again, has distribution.

Well, this cannot continue if film journalism is expected to survive in any decent form. As I have discovered in the past two weeks, it doesn’t take that much effort to turn out a few thoughtful paragraphs for every film. You can stay on top of the situation if you constantly keep on top of the films you watch, meaning sitting down at the end of the day and writing reviews for all the films you’ve seen that day. You can even set up radio interviews. And you can also work on other professional obligations at the same time.

That the New York Times is incapable of doing this, even through the Web, makes me conclude that the newspaper isn’t really that serious about film. Not even the major film festival that operates within its own metropolitan area. If this is the kind of cultural journalism the print mavens are championing, then I believe the time has come to replace it with something else.

Fair is Fair

A few days ago, Gregory Cowles was upbraided on these pages for getting his facts incorrect in relation to a blog post concerning itself with the Franzen/Marcus affair that went down in Harper’s over the past few years. The error was not noted with the Gray Lady’s customary regret, but it was observed respectfully by Mr. Cowles in a supplement to his post at Paper Cuts.

Nevertheless, upon seeing Mr. Cowles’s name in this Sunday’s NYTBR attached to a review of David Harris’s The Genius — a book concerning itself with the late 49ers football coach Bill Walsh — and being particularly knowledgeable about this period in football history, I felt compelled to check his facts. If Mr. Cowles’s phrasing is somewhat borrowed from Dave Anderson’s New York Times article reporting on The Catch on January 10, 1982, Mr. Cowles, nevertheless, does have his facts straight this time. And Mr. Cowles is to be commended not only for being accurate (as the above YouTube video of the drive in question indicates), but for writing a piece about football that does not carry the NYTBR‘s usual stuffiness.

So congratulations, Mr. Cowles. You did good this time. But rest assured. I’ll be watching.

Misheard Lyrics — The New York Times Edition

New York Times Corrections: “Because of an editing error, the TV Watch Column on Wednesday, comparing coverage of Senator Barack Obama’s trip overseas with coverage of Senator John McCain, gave an incorrect title in some copies for a Frankie Valli song used in a video by the McCain campaign to mock reporters’ coverage of Mr. Obama’s trip. The song is ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ — not ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.'”

One can only imagine the 20-minute conversation that occurred because of this slip-up. A poor copy editor, no doubt feeling the vicious sting of too many twelve-hour days, received a terrible phone call at his apartment last night, just before placing his well-earned spliff between his lips.

OMBUDSMAN: You call yourself a copy editor! This is inexcusable!

COPY EDITOR: Wha…what?

OMBUDSMAN: The Frankie Valli reference, you cocky son of a bitch! It’s “Off You,” not “Off of You.” How old are you, son?

COPY EDITOR: Uh….twenty-eight. Look, can we talk about this tomorrow in the office?

OMBUDSMAN: The New York Times never sleeps! We’re journalists, you arrogant incompetent. Twenty-eight? Just as I thought! You’ve never even heard of AM radio, have you? You’re too young to know who Frankie Valli is! Well, this time, you’ve gone too far! Our readers depend on us for accuracy. And if you can’t be bothered to get it right…

COPY EDITOR: It wasn’t a Frankie Valli profile.

OMBUDSMAN: That’s not the point. You think you’re hot shit, son? Let me give you a two-word sentence to improve upon: You’re fired! Clean out your desk tomorrow.

COPY EDITOR: (sounds of crying) It was just a throwaway reference. Please, sir, I’ll download the top 500 Boomer hits on iTunes and memorize all the lyrics. It won’t happen again.

OMBUDSMAN: Only if you can lick my boots while you’re downloading.

COPY EDITOR: I’ll send a letter of apology and some flowers to Frankie Valli. Please, sir, anything!

OMBUDSMAN: We’ll talk about it tomorrow morning. I’m glad you understand the gravity of this situation. In the meantime, I’ll have another copy editor print up a correction for the morning edition.

COPY EDITOR: Thank you, sir! I’m sorry.

OMBUDSMAN: This is the 21st century, son. There’s no place for gratitude in journalism.

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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.

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.

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.”]

Janet Maslin: Abdicating Her Critical Faculties One Review at a Time

Slushpile has dug up further evidence of Janet Maslin’s critical inadequacies, as evidenced by this review of John Leake’s Entering Hades. Apparently, the fact that Michael Connelly did not give the book a blurb is reason enough to quibble with it. In fact, I’m wondering why Maslin didn’t just throw the book in the fireplace and devote her 900 words to qualities that had nothing to do with the book. What of John Leake’s pronounced fro or the fact that he sits with his arms crossed, but doesn’t appear intense enough in his author photo? (For Christ’s sake, he wears sandals! Well, that’s two strikes against the book, I’m afraid.) This is the news that’s fit to print in the dailies these days. Reading the New York Times‘s daily book coverage makes me so disheartened that I’d rather watch Michiko and Maslin in a nude mud wrestling match. That’s hardly my first choice of perverse entertainment, mind you, but I dredge this conceptual horror from my unwholesome imagination in order to make a larger point about journalistic integrity.

New Disclaimer from Deborah Solomon

The Deborah Solomon interview, recently revealed to be more of an inept collage experiment in which the interviewer is a humorless and badgering solipsist rather than anything close to a respectable journalist, now carry this bold shibboleth:

“Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Deborah Solomon.”

And if that isn’t enough, Solomon, who appears not to be a fan of the Oxford comma, will also begin adopting the bold moniker “sprezzatura” to stave off any additional criticism that comes from the New York Press or the blogosphere.

Rest easy, America! The Times has rectified the Solomon disgrace with one single sentence! Clearly, standards have been corrected and we can count upon the Times to treat this middle-aged white woman with the same hard circumspection that was once meted out to a twentysomething African-American named Jayson Blair, who did more or less the same thing. Alas, Blair was shown the door before he could get in a recurrent disclaimer. A double standard? Well, they don’t call the Times the Gray Lady for nothing.