NYTBR for Dummies: No Revision Required

To read Jim Lewis’s review of Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke is to enter an overvalued campanile of stupidity, amateurish insight, half-baked conclusions, and insufferable smugness that one expects from a Forbes 500 member who has the apparent misfortune of running into a groundling. The groundling, of course, is you, me, any curious insect climbing up an unsightly sandhill to scout out the dreaded conformists who would replace a beautiful literary vale with their high colonic obstructions.

“Good morning and please listen to me,” begins Lewis, adopting the tone of a bemused rube looking around a restaurant, unsure of how to pay the bill while others simply settle up. In fact, Lewis is so unsure of nearly everything about Johnson that he lacks even the self-starting impetus to ask. This rube is more preoccupied with where Johnson has talked and when Johnson has been photographed, but is so indolent a critic that he cannot even perform two Google searches to answer his own questions. (And whether such junket-like qualifiers matter in a review that has plenty to mine from a meaty 614-page book is debatable.) That such an dull and incurious reader would be assigned for a major Sunday newspaper section — indeed, Lewis openly confesses that he doesn’t care much to review books — is truly astonishing, or would be less so, if the boys’ brigade at the NYTBR were not in the regular habit of offering reviews written by idiots, signifying nothing.

For example, here’s Lewis on his ostensible hero:

But unlike most books about the dispossessed, they’re original (how strange it feels to use that word these days, but it fits), and what’s more, deliriously beautiful — ravishing, painful; as desolate as Dostoyevsky, as passionate and terrifying as Edgar Allan Poe.

Nice to see Lewis taking a writer as sui generis as Johnson and comparing him like some terrified undergraduate haphazardly flipping through a syllabus to meet the requirements of a term paper. Any good literary critic would have known damn well that Denis Johnson was one of the “dirty realism” poster boys a few decades ago and weaved something of this early assessment into his piece. (David Ulin, who should know better, did not, I’m afraid. But at least one gets a comparative example in Ulin’s review that cannot be found anywhere in Lewis’s review.)

Lewis is so lazy that he cannot even point out that Jesus’s Son was, in fact, a series of linked stories. (Has he even read it?) In Lewis’s myopic universe, there are only clumsy taxonomies: “novelist-performers or novelist-pundits or novelist-narcissists” and “novelists who can write this well,” but never any crossover. Lewis is likewise incapable of understanding a sentence, or, like a true linguistic explorer, even venturing a stab at what it might mean. He quotes a sentence, only to flex his critical acumen like so: “What a thing to say, but the book is moving on.” In the same paragraph, he demonstrates that he probably has no business being a critic, seeing as how he cannot even offer precise imagery that one would expect from a novelist. Lewis describes sentences that “roll like billiard balls with weird English on them.” This is an assessment? It strikes me as the kind of thing a literary enthusiast might say to you in a bar after five martinis, but not something that any reasonable person would include in a review in lieu of an attempt to parse the text. (“Y’know thot ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan’ sentence? Rolls like a bowling ball with odd Irish neologisms on it…me few pounds, give me a lash.”)

Like the same frightened undergraduate meeting every prescribed point in a five-paragraph essay, Lewis confesses to his readers: “But I haven’t told you what the thing is about yet.” With sentences like these, one wonders why the NYTBR didn’t just run this review with bracketed sentences. (“[Insert compelling lede here.],” “[Mandatory plot summary.],” the like.) He complains about the “hardware on display (guns, airplanes, intelligence equipage),” but doesn’t seem to understand that a novel involving a CIA agent might actually require such objects. He then offers one of the grandest insults imaginable to Johnson:

And he can occasionally overindulge in significance: a longish journey, at the end of “Tree of Smoke,” left me with the uneasy sense that he can’t tell the difference between Joseph Conrad, who was a genius, and Joseph Campbell, who was not.

I think Johnson’s work stands for itself, but, since Lewis is the kind of yokel who won’t be satisfied until he hears it from the horse’s mouth, here’s Johnson questioned about his post-apocalyptic novel Fiskadoro — by the New York Times, no less:

”Fiskadoro” grew out of Mr. Johnson’s earlier idea ”for a book about a person left after the holocaust, living in sort of a savage state. It was much more primitive than this, and very tribal.” He expected that ”Fiskadoro” too would be centered on a single character, the adolescent boy of the title. ”But I found that he was actually always a little bit distant. For that reason, the two other characters representing different modes of consciousness became more and more prominent.”

This clear emphasis on narrative compartmentalization doesn’t sound to me like a guy who mixes up his two Josephs.

And here’s a hint for the Tanenhaus crew, or any other book review editor: A “critic” or a “reviewer” who calls a mammoth book written by a leading contemporary writer a mere “thing” should probably be led to the door or thoroughly flogged in front of a throng of illiterate cokeheads.

If this is the kind of long-form review that Sam Tanenhaus considers acceptable, Tanenhaus’s remarkable ability to enervate the life and love of fiction through such crude and base shepherding keeps the NYTBR a dessicated husk more fit for automatons than enthusiasts.


  1. Wow. I’m usually with you on the NYTBR critiques, but I had a good time reading Lewis’s piece. I obviously don’t know Denis Johnson’s work as well as you do, though, so a lot of this stuff went over my head. But, as a critic’s visceral reaction to a book, I thought Lewis’s review was an enjoyable ride, and he never lost me at any point. A visceral, fitful critical voice also matches Denis Johnson’s prose style well enough.

  2. I agree with Levi. I loved this review, and had initially been disinterested in the new novel. Now, it’s on my reading list, and I can’t remember the last time a review in the NYTBR convinced me.
    It sounds like you’re a big Johnson fan, and the fact is, this review might get more people to read him who otherwise wouldn’t have.
    Also, I’ve read all of Jim’s books, and he’s a hell of a writer.

  3. Why the Tree Loves the Axe is a great novel. Jim Lewis wrote it. Maybe you should read some of his stuff, or, publish a book as good as that one before you overreact the way you did.

  4. Gotta agree with other comments. you lost me at ‘overvalued campanile’. like watching a nascar driver crash at the first turn. it made me wonder, what is the correct value of a campanile? are there undervalued campaniles? how much is that campanile? too much. definitely over-valued. i never pay that much for a campanile. this other campanile, though, is definitely undervalued. it’s a good bargain. how do i enter a campanile, anyway? do i have to climb up the stairs, or can i just fly in like a pigeon? what other things, when joined with the notion of excess value, yield incoherent metaphors? that’s an over-valued sidewalk. yeah, definitely overvalued. that’s an undervalued flagpole though. a flagpole like that is definitely more valuable than people realize. this apse, though, is valued just the right amount.

    also, is lewis a fortune 500 member looking down, or a rube looking up? choose one and stick with it. basic rule of writing. try and keep your insults consistent.

    you seem to not know what english on a billiard ball is.

    plus, do you think the review was not positive enough? hard to she how it could have been more gushy.

    jesus christ. they pay you to write this badly?

  5. Boy Howdy: If you can’t figure out what “overvalued campanile” is, you may want to do what any semi-literate member of human society does. Look it up. A campanile, you hopeless dunderhead, is commonly associated with a cathedral. The NYTBR is likewise considered something of a cathedral, and by placing this review at its front, it is ringing its own bells. Or do you think so astonishingly literal? Good Christ, I cannot even begin to ponder your lack of imagination. Likewise, if you had even bothered to read the post, you’d see that there was a concern for the vertical axis. The sandhills and so forth. And it is self-evident what I was referring to in relation to Fortune 500, you oaf. But you only half-skimmed this post. Just as I suspect you half-skim your sad little existence.

    I know damn well what English on a billiard ball is. It is a bullshit way of describing one of Johnson’s sentences, for the reasons cited above. Just as you, sir, are about as obtuse in your reading interpretation as an inexperienced fornicator consulting the “Insert X into Y” page in a sex manual while a beautiful woman in waiting lies beneath him.

    And, by the way, grow some balls and use your real name, you coward.

  6. might as well do the whole fisk. you can thank me later.

    what’s an ‘unsightly sandhill’. are some sandhills more sightly than others? when you say “is truly astonishing, or would be less so”, don’t you mean “is truly astonishing, or would be”? and if it isn’t really astonishing, then why did you add the ‘truly’? could you possibly have found a shakespeare line more shopworn than “written by an idiot, signifying nothing”? confessions are almost always open, just as habits are usually regular. can you say anything without adding needless modifiers?

    freshman comp continues. can a universe be myopic? people are myopic, aren’t they? are there universes with good eyesight? you use the word ‘even’ far too much (“lacks even” “cannot even”, “cannot even” again, “has not even”, “even venturing” “cannot even” again). how do you know what insults are imaginable to johnson? or did you just structure the phrase so clumsily that that’s what it looks like you’re saying. ‘in lieu’ doesn’t need to be italicized, unless you’re a pretentious twit. was the ‘yokel’ ‘horse’s mouth’ juxtaposition deliberate or an accident? ’emphasis’ can’t ‘sound like a guy’, it can only sound like the way a guy would speak. books aren’t things? what do cokeheads have to do with anything? when you say ‘tanenhaus considers acceptable” you can start the next clause with “he”. you don’t need to repeat his name. ‘dessicated husk’ is a cliche. as i would say to my 18 year old students, go easy on the metaphors. ‘enervate’ ‘shepherding’ ‘husk’ and ‘automaton’ don’t belong in the same sentence.

    i give it a c. i had my problems with lewis’ review, but this is much worse.

  7. “unsightly sandhill” — Obviously, you are unaware of ants. (See “beautiful literary vale,” implying “lawn.”)

    You’re right about “truly astonishing, or would be less so,” although we obviously have stylistic differences concerning modifiers.

    Confessions aren’t open if they are privately written. Or are you aware of diaries? Implication: Lewis’s gushing should be confined to a journal, not a serious review.

    A universe can be myopic when it is equated with a worldview, as it clearly is here. And I’ll use “even” as frequently as I want to. Johnson may very well not be insulted, but it’s still insulting to suggest that a writer of his talents doesn’t know the difference between the two Josephs. I’m emphasizing “in lieu” as in screaming IN LIEU! Whether I come across as a pretentious twit is your business. Think hard about cokeheads. You appear averse to wordplay. Since I am using “like” in relation to “emphasis,” it’s a legitimate comparison. Books certainly aren’t things. Not for anyone who seriously cares about literature.

    Perhaps too many classes of freshman comp has destroyed your ability to appreciate some of the choices here. But this seems more of a difference in stylistic tastes. I’m glad that you at least clarified your stance in a civil manner, which is more than most here do.

    So why hide behind a moniker and a proxy IP address?

  8. why do you insist on taping a ‘kick me’ sign to your own back? obviously, you’re unaware of ants yourself. they don’t live in sandhills. they live in anthills. which are made out of dirt. and how does a sandhill imply a lawn, anyway? how does a cathedral ring its own bells? doesn’t a bell-ringer have to be involved? or is this an automated campanile? what does ‘concern for the vertical’ mean? if you knew what ‘english’, in the sense of ‘spin’ was, then why did you compare it to putting ‘irish’ on a bowling ball? what is ‘a beautiful woman in waiting’? is that something like a lady-in-waiting? or did you mean ‘a beautiful wman lies waiting beneath him’? must you make these elementary grammatical errors? how could you possibly mean to scream ‘in lieu’? if a book isn’t a thing, then what is it? “too many classes” takes the plural, ‘have’, not the singular, ‘has’. do you talk to all your editors this way? i’m changing that to a c minus.

    boy howdy is my real name. my parents were big lester bangs fans. i hide my ip adress because i’m right next door.

  9. Now now sir, your previous comment was entirely reasonable. But this latest flummery simply will not stand. It’s Labor Day. Get out of the house and have some fun.

  10. it’s not labor day where i am, mate. why do americans always think that everyone is american? i’m not done with you yet, either. don’t you want to hear the rest? i haven’t even started on the content of your post. i was too busy trying to hack my way through your grammatical errors, incoherent images and mixed metaphors.

    you haven’t read tree of smoke, have you? i haven’t either but i’m not making claims about it. do you always write reviews of reviews of books that you haven’t read? would you write a review of a book about oliver twist without reading oliver twist? wouldn’t that be presumptuous? wouldn’t it be dishonest? wouldn’t it make you look like a fool? wouldn’t it get you kicked out of the nbcc, for doing something obviously inappropriate. isn’t this pretty basic reviewing ethics? don’t the members of the nbcc get together every so often and eject people for things like this? when you say tree of smoke is a novel about the cia and therefore doesn’t have too many guns, how do you know this? how many guns are in the book? how many guns would be too many, do you think? 100? 500? how could you possibly know? since you haven’t read the book.

    oh, and btw. do you really expect people to believe that you italicized in lieu because you were trying to emphasize it, and not because you’re too ignorant to realize that it’s considered english, not latin or french? come on, now, can you possibly expect anyone to believe that? aren’t you trying rather desperately to salvage some esteem by coming up with a ludicrous excuse for a hideous blunder? can you possibly think this isn’t perfectly evident? don’t you know that it’s not the crime that gets you dismissed, it’s the cover-up? shouldn’t i seize on this and shake you, like a terrier with a rat, until you learn your lesson? do you really need to be ground into small pieces before you yield and apologize for writing an illiterate essay on a review of a book that you have not read? how small? this small? smaller?

  11. Thanks for the laughs, Boy Howdy. Boy, you’re a piece of work.

    You’re still too cowardly to use your real name. How does it feel to waste so much of your energy hiding behind anonymity? How does it feel to spew and sputter like Porky Pig and have absolutely NO effect upon the manner in which I think and write because, instead of having a constructive conversation (as we did in a few comments above), you can’t be bothered to THINK in any manner approaching civilized discourse? I don’t apologize or respond because your own ludicrous efforts amount to nonsense.

    As I said, your earlier comments were reasonable. But it’s clear that we disagree about style, but that you can’t be bothered to agree to disagree. And you are dutifully incoherent here. Since you have nothing constructive to contribute and you cannot be bothered to use your real name, I refuse to dignify your folderol with a response. Come back when you have a name. Come back when you actually have something to say. Come back when you want to be a man instead of the small squirming worm too bitter to write coherently because you’re perhaps too miserable teaching freshman comp or some such chamber of horrors.

    Now if you’ll excuse me I have author interviews to prepare for and deadlines to meet. Unlike you perhaps, I have a valuable life that I enjoy. I pity you your miserly existence and I genuinely hope you figure things out.

  12. Or should I say KEITH HOWE, rather than Boy Howdy? Shall I forward your comments to your employer and let your employer know how you’re using an anonymizer to send such remarks on company time? Or do you want to end this right now?

  13. yes, please contact my employer. nothing could give me greater pleasure. please, i beg of you, contact my employer. in fact i insist, and i won’t rest until you’ve done so. in the meantime i have contacted the nbcc, to let them know that one of their members regularly writes about books he has not read — under the cowardly pseudonym dr. mabuse — in contravention of the basic rules of book reviewing.

    now, will you please explain why you italicized ‘in lieu’? why do you keep ducking this question?

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