Questions for Sam Tanenhaus

  • Since Faust was a tragic play, an opera, and a film, how can Schlesinger “paint” his defection as Faustian? Sure, Goethe was an occasional painter, but even he had his doubts.
  • Also, as neologisms go, “irono-babe” is about as inviting as Infobahn. (And why the hyphen? The first step in coining any noun is to present it without a grammatical eyesore.)
  • How can Schlesinger be an omnivore “and a carnivore?” An omnivore eats both plants and animals. Since this little contradictory morsel was inserted via a hyphenated clause, could it be that the copy desk doesn’t know the difference between a herbivore, a carnivore, and an omnivore?
  • What business does an unsubstantiated rumor about Philip Roth’s sex life have in a review of Exit Ghost? I cannot help but wonder if Clive James was asked to spice things up with an indiscretion.
  • If a dead man “has been close to all” four men throughout Graham Swift’s Last Orders, must we conclude that these four men have been lingering close to the dead man’s ashes throughout the novel? Or is proper past tense not part of NYTBR house style?
  • Likewise: “In telling her story in a nighttime whisper, Paula reveals facets of herself and her experience the reader might otherwise never glean.” Conjunction junction, what’s your function?
  • If one buys a book online, one buys it from one’s home computer, not necessarily from Britain.
  • If a shape is a visual form, how does it snap back? Aren’t shapes silent? Also, if time “warps at the edges and then stops altogether,” is time a temporal or a visual noun here? Make up your mind.
  • Also: “Together, this seemingly ordinary couple became the poles of Hampl’s existence, opposing magnetic forces that held their conflicted daughter firmly between them.” Aside from the messy syntax here, this sentence could be easily read the wrong way. If Hampl’s parents are opposing magnetic forces, would they not repel their daughter?
  • “Her previous memoirs portray a woman watching the world go by without her, an outsider gazing in.” Wait a minute. I thought she was gazing outside. Danielle Trussoni appears to be directionally challenged.
  • Conflict of interest much, Sammy baby?
  • “The essays are more chewy — what one imagines Milan Kundera might sound like before his first cup of coffee.” Nice try, Ms. Harrison, but why not evoke a chewy snack instead of coffee?
  • You “want” this and you “want” that, Mr. Taylor. Good Christ, you sound like a spoiled teenager who demands a Porsche on his sixteenth birthday. Criticism isn’t about wanting. It’s about interpreting and understanding.


  1. Regarding the present perfect “has been close to”, there is a good reason why the reviewer has chosen this tense. It’s been used to show an indefinite past, particularly since it suggests that the dead man had been close to the four men at different times. I’ve used the past perfect, but that would have been inappropriate in Leavitt’s sentence, since he uses the present tense for the main action, and not the past.

    Four guys are driving to Margate to scatter the ashes of a guy who has, at various times, been close to all four of them.

    Four guys were driving to Margate to scatter the ashes of a guy who had, at various times, been close to all four of them.

    The book is Last Orders, by the way, not Last Chances.

  2. Re: Clives James on “Exit Ghost”: this novel is turning out to be a veritable Roach Motel for sloppy reviewers. Carlin Romano signaled his trashy reviewing practises to the world with the same banner James waves when he very foolishly writes, “There is a beautiful young woman in the novel, Jamie Logan, who is willing to be made love to by the avowedly decrepit Zuckerman, but he deliberately fails to keep the appointment, or seems to.”

    As Roth explains (and as anyone who didn’t skim, but actually *read*, the book can tell you) in a recent “interview” with Hermione Lee:

    “Zuckerman, who has yielded to any number of ‘rash moments’ by leaving his rural retreat for New York and then deciding to stay there, tries unsuccessfully to get Jamie to succumb to one by taking an interest in him, if not in real life, at least in his playlet He and She . All he succeeds in doing – in He and She – is getting her to read The Shadow-Line. In real life, it’s worse – she doesn’t like him at all. ‘Rash moments,’ Jamie says in He and She , ‘lead to rash encounters. Rash moments … lead to perilous choices.’ Well, in real life she’s having none of that, certainly not with a man 41 years her – and her husband’s – senior.”

    The bit in “Exit Ghost” these guardians of the Common Good persistently harp on is the shame/squalor/phallocentric repugnance of the sexy young Jamie Logan character even entertaining the *notion* of bedding the nearly-DWM Nate Zuckerman…when, in fact, she does no such thing, and the “script” in which she does is the poor old writer’s *fantasy*, which is presented as nothing more than that, in a fairly unflinching portrayal of an old man clinging to Life (or The Past…same thing) with his imagination.

    If Clive James can’t even get the *first* layer of the book straight (what the actual words on the page say), how can he be trusted to read between the lines? As for going all Meta on it for us…nuh uh: try again. after. read. ing. the. book.

    PS As to the astronomical improbability of a beautiful (and ambitious) young woman flirting with (and bedding) a much older, wealthy, celebrity writer in New York: anyone check out Salman Rushdie’s Ex recently? Sheesh. Are Clives James and Carlin Romano both clamoring for posthumous fellatio from Bella Abzug, or what?

  3. Enjoyed your rundown. My evaluation of your evaluation: “Conjunction junction, what’s your function” got the best laugh, but I have to disagree about whether or not a shape can snap. Anybody who’s used Photoshop extensively is familiar with the “grid” feature, which includes “snap to grid”. Therefore, shapes can snap, and can do so silently.

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