Against Essays About Reviews That Have No Corresponding Set of Virtues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Responding to Orwell: October 30

George: I must again commend you on your succinctness. “Fine, not very hot. One egg” likewise describes many sad Sunday mornings in my twenties. There was a period in which I would wake up alone in my San Francisco hovel after a night of unsuccessful carousing, realizing that it was “not very hot” in both the literal and figurative senses. I would then walk to the refrigerator, ponder breakfast, and observe that there was one lone egg in a cardboard carton. (Which in turn reminds me of my crazed attempt to soundproof a basement at the age of nineteen. But that’s another story, George, for another one of your dutiful diary entries!) I had developed a strange habit of cooking many eggs on Saturday morning, but had not yet developed the dexterity to cook a decent omelette. But I was more ashamed by my failure to count the eggs. Looking at the sad shelled elliptic leftover, it seemed somewhat futile to whip up some scrambled eggs from one yolk. “Scrambled egg” was the more accurate breakfast appellation, but it sounded like a 75 cent side item on a dive menu. You could have the “scrambled egg” if you had were a bum with change jangling in your pocket. But real men ordered “scrambled eggs, sausage and toast” for $4.99. Regrettably, I was often too lazy to walk to the convenience store down the street. It was an altogether different walk of shame from me — a bachelor who couldn’t keep track of his eggs, much less perform shopping with any reasonable frequency. And so I would cook the one egg, sometimes singing a Ray Davies song to tap into some irony that really wasn’t applicable, consume the scrambled concoction and realize that it wasn’t what you might call a reasonable breakfast. Fine, not very hot. One egg.

Responding to Orwell: September 15

George: Seventy years from your epoch, the average person getting a gustatory rush from news and information enjoys considerably more than two newspapers. We now have RSS feeds propagating endless items of interest that stop us in our tracks, that we must learn to wrestle with and filter, and that make some of the distinctions between liberal, conservative, and centrist somewhat unnecessary. I say this is all fine, provided one steps away from the computer for long stretches and talks to souls in the waking world. This is not to suggest that pinpointing partisan journalism is impossible. (Christ, you should see FOX News, George. Winston Smith’s varicose ulcer would have expanded across his entire right leg, rather than keep its confinement to the ankle.) But I suspect this explains, on the writing front, why op-ed remains more in demand than good old-fashioned journalism, and why those who practice “journalism” often do so with a regrettable preference for decor over taut details. Since the tendentious timbre cannot be so easily cracked sometimes, and since the manner of viewing an article has transformed dramatically, it has come down to identifying these sorts of slipshod impulses within the writer himself. Accountability has dropped down to the byline level. A newspaper isn’t only as good as its last article. We expect even the best of newspapers to screw up. But the working journalist? Always judged from what she has just written. The free ride has ended. One would hope that today’s equivalent transfers of troops to Morocco would be more transparent because of these circumstances, but they won’t show coffins or carnage on television.

Responding to Orwell: August 28

George: It pleases me immensely that you were fond of using the shorthand term, “ditto.” The word has intriguing etymology and yet you didn’t sprout (as I did) during the 1970s and 1980s, when “ditto” was more commonly used in reference to a mimeographed paper or a copy that was circulated amongst schoolkids and businessmen (who often behaved like schoolkids). But before good ol’ Xerox, it was used in a more common “see previous” capacity. You knew this of course. But let me confess my youthful ignorance. For years, George, I actually believed that the practice of saying “ditto” in this “see previous” capacity originated from the photocopy! I believed this as late as the early days of Limbaugh, circa 1993, when he referred to his listeners as “dittoheads.” (I am pretty confident, George, you wouldn’t have liked Limbaugh so much. For many years (1990-1993, to be precise), I exerted needless energies expressing my hostilities towards the man who gave us “feminazis” — an affront to the English language you likely would have observed.

And, in fact, while on the subject of Limbaugh and photocopied dittos, I remember one summer job (1993) I had in Sacramento. I was nineteen. I worked in a printing house and collated brochures. There was no air conditioning. It was tedious work, but I didn’t complain. And the owner, who was an unassuming but friendly conservative, played all three hours of Limbaugh every day. This drove me bananas. And I was patient. Up to a point. Until I finally confronted the owner and asked him whether he actually believed Limbaugh, why he listened to him, what he got out of him. Seriously, this guy is spouting a lot of bullshit. And what’s a guy like you, a man running a fairly successful small business, okay no air conditioning but even so, what’s a guy like you doing swallowing this codswallop? He speaks for me, said the owner in a very quiet voice. Limbaugh speaks for him. And I realized there and then that it was largely meek and mild-mannered men who were Limbaugh’s listeners. Not the callers, mind you. The callers were the most vocal of this bunch. And I realized that they were afraid of expressing what was on their mind. And I realized that they would flock to damn near any remotely entertaining demagogue because this was the only way that they could be part of the political process.

The Left here in America has failed to understand this. They are only just starting to get remotely angry, but they remain subdued for the most part, even after two terms of Dubya! Air America doesn’t cut it. It doesn’t represent that vicarious thrill that the print shop owner had. The idea, presumably, is to appear “civilized” in comparison to the “brutishness” of the Right. But nobody other than a pugilist finds use in a punching bag. So the Left is as much to blame as the Right for the past eight years of horrors. At the end of the day, we are all dittoheads. Small wonder then why it remains so hot & overcast. Yesterday, ditto.

Responding to Orwell: August 22

George: Crazy day, quite sunny, with no showers. So much on the plate that a synapse malfunctioned. Was forced to grovel on the phone to a sadistic friend. Mood starting to ripen. No slugs to speak of here, but plenty of rats. Saw one, measuring about 6″ long, scurrying in the East Village without any remarks from those it passed. Boarded ancient warship the other day and was amazed by four-deck structure, cargo organization belowdecks, and pulley and hatches system used to hold and distribute rations. Would not have wanted to be a sailor for the hardtack alone, which I was informed was often consumed with maggots embedded into the flavorless matzo-like affair. Suspect the maggots were less interesting (and less tasty) than your stag-beetles. Have never personally supped upon insects, but have you, George?

Responding to Orwell: August 18

George! You’re back. Was getting a little worried. Had figured that the weather, which you were dutifully recording over the days, had at long last taken the wind out of you. But here you are with not one, but two diary entries. I don’t know if your thoughts on barley represent some insight into Animal Farm. Was reading Daniel Levitin’s The World in Six Songs the other day, and I was struck by his observation about Paul McCartney (we don’t have newspaper cuttings here on the Internet, George, so I hope this blockquote is semi-tantamount to your prudent applique):

Similarly, Paul McCartney seemed to be trying to capture both the sound and the aesthetic essence of a forties dance-hall tune in a string of songs beginning with “When I’m Sixty-Four” (written in 1958, recorded in 1967), “Your Mother Should Know” (1967), and “Honey Pie” (1968). With each one, he got a little closer, until 1976, when he released “You Gave Me the Answer,” with production and orchestration sounding almost exactly like a Fred Astaire record. McCartney never attempted a dance hall-style song after this, and so I assume that he finally met his artistic goal and moved on to other experiments and other challenges.

I’m wondering how your current concerns about wood and barley fit in with this observation. Maybe you’ll be pursuing this question in your diary in the years to come, but to what degree, George, does your diary represent continued efforts to pinpoint the precise book you have to write? And since you expired so young, I’m hoping that your eyes didn’t close with too many regrets along these lines.

I’m sorry to report that greenheart wood (aka Chlorocardium rodiei) is now redlisted by the IUCN as a threatened species. The folks at the Orwell Estate don’t wish to point this out, but I think it’s important to place your enthusiasm in some context. I may be experiencing certain joys and pleasures that, sixty years from now, will be unthinkable. It is for this reason that I consider almost every day blessed in some sense.

I’m glad to hear that some of the blackberries have ripened and that the elder-berries have begun to grow purple! This may seem the kind of routine observation to be mocked, but I suspect those who have ridiculed your efforts fail to understand the pleasure of flora and fauna unfurling and adapting at a slow and leisurely clip.

When I get around to trying out my own efforts with lumber (sometime this year), maybe the two of us will swap some notes. Obviously, it won’t be greenheart. But I do plan to build a few bookcases. Just need to take some measurements of the apartment and draw up plans.

And thank you for referencing the Sardinian mouflon sheep on August 16. It’s a bit embarrassing, but I love the way that phrase rolls off the tip of my tongue and have uttered it a few times to ensure that it is indeed a mellifluous marvel.

Lots of work here, George, but let’s check in with each other.

Responding to Orwell: August 14

George: Nothing from you in the past few days. What’s going on? Hesitant to log weather and reddening blackberries? I don’t think you have anything to worry about. Who could possibly have anticipated so many souls hanging onto your most pedantic words seventy years later? And, yes, George (can I call you Eric?), I’m one of them. I know that, being dead, you’re not exactly in a position to care about what your readers might think now. But if some residue remains aside from the tomes that settle in the dust, don’t let the haters bring you down. At least you have the comfort of writing words without getting instant feedback from readers. None of us have that now, George. Not anymore. I suppose that’s why the book exists. There, we can write about damn near everything and in the early stages of applying the nib to paper (or, more pragmatically, fingers to keyboard), we can machete through an unfettered wilderness of words before we start hunting endangered species. Got caught in the rain myself this afternoon. Heavy downpour, soaked shirt, no grass snake. Wildlife encounter yesterday. Loud squeak from rail, followed by rat just more than a foot long, dragging a bit of Styrofoam into a hole, then screechy onset of approaching car. The rats do seem to know when the subways come, making their cameos at the eleventh hour. This evening, saw spitting image of old high school friend in the streets. Gait, swagger, height, loping arms, and frame a total match. Followed man a block to see if he was truly a Doppelganger, but when he turned, there was no physiognomic resemblance. Phone rings frequently now that cell’s back in action, but am trying to make this more of a luxury. Frequently unplugging from Internet to get work done, to map out terrain while there’s still some time. Rest easy, George. Am eagerly awaiting your next volley and will respond in kind, even though some are losing patience with this format. Well, I like it. So there.

Responding to Orwell: August 13

George: No diary entry today? Come on, pal. I know you’ve been taking some flack because of your concern for weather and blackberries. And I know that I’m not the only one waiting around here to see just how the blackberries will redden or how you will describe other garden snakes and the like. But your diary entry encourages me to produce my own. And when you don’t write, what am I to do? Guess I’ll have to do the work for us. Somewhat hot, with an insinuation of autumn cool. Am currently hacking away at Segundo shows I need to get in the mail, reducing them to 58 minute installments. Hard and often painful job, but if someone has to make the cut, it may as well be me. Future of Segundo uncertain and may have to pull the plug after all. Future on freelancing also uncertain. But then you’re well aware of that uncertainty. Uncertainty seems to be the new certainty. But if I have to pack it in, at least I had a good run. 235 shows over three years is nothing to complain about. Nor was the newspaper work. Just wasn’t good enough to stay alive doing this. That’s capitalism for you. Or maybe social Darwinism. Of course, once one has tasted the nectar of the gods, it’s a bit difficult to go back to tepid tap water. Which was probably why I drank so heavily last night. Still, I remain pro-active, hoping for an eleventh hour reprieve stemming not from fortune or coincidence, but my own industry. We’ll see.

Responding to Orwell: August 12

George: Always going on about the weather, I see. Not as hot an August afternoon here in New York, naught eight. But I’m beginning to understand why your diaries haven’t been publicly released until now. You’d be alarmed by the BlackBerries we have these days. Unfortunately, they don’t redden, and neither do their users. Unless, of course, the recipient has just received a naughty email. Alas, it’s business as usual with most BB communiques, with the recipients playing King. Really, just as disheartening as always writing about the weather. Then again, weather is one of those safe topics which harms nobody. Last night, two crazy nightmares involving John Barth dying and my website being replaced by a monotonous voice telling readers, “We’ve corrected him. Don’t worry.” Very funny in the waking world. It made me laugh anyway. But at 3AM, I had to race to the computer in a barely awake stupor to make sure that this wasn’t real. Did you ever have nightmares like this? And if you raced such imaginative steed, did you spill your seed upon your diaries? Or is the Orwell Estate holding back on the juicy stuff? And for goodness sake, what are you reading these days? Me? I’ve read Auster’s new one and am working my way through Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side. Both quite interesting. Very hot in the morning. In the afternoon sudden thunder-storm & very heavy rain within the head upon realizing the full scale of what Mayer’s writing about.

Responding to Orwell: August 11

George: Good to hear from you. No mist here, but some rain. Windows closed, so no mist inside. But I do wonder what kind of snuff-box you’re using and whether I should be using one. Surfaces of desk are laden with books and papers. On deadline and all. Also damned lazy. What have you been reading these days? Can you at least spill this much to us? Not as hot here as it was last week. There was rain in the morning and there may be rain in the afternoon. The super here cowers at grass snakes, doubt he has even seen one, but is braver when it comes to catching mice and cockroaches. Even though he seems to leave these duties to the tenants. I wonder what you’d think of the early 21st century American class system. Suspect there’s some beauty here in New York, although there are many glum faces. Spoke to a man in the elevator yesterday. Both of us agreed that it was the economy that was making it hard for both of us, but we planned to carry on surviving. Georgia’s on my mind. Saved a cabbie last night from a possible accident when I shouted at him to turn on his lights as he was driving. Was he absent-minded or as glum as the guy in the elevator? You tell me, George. By now, I suspect you may be coming up for air.


George Orwell’s Diaries Remixed as Blog

The Diary Junction reports that, as of tomorrow, George Orwell’s diaries will be available to the public. With the exception of a few diary entries contained in the four volume Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell published in 2000 by David R. Godine, Orwell’s diaries as a whole have not been published in collected form. Like Samuel Pepys’s diary, Orwell’s diaries will be published as a daily blog. It remains unknown whether The Orwell Trust will see fit to introduce an Andrew Keen or Sven Birkerts-like antagonist who will tsk-tsk the late author from offering his work in blog form.