March 27, 2005

Tanenhaus Watch: March 27, 2005


WEEKLY QUESTION: Will this week's NYTBR reflect today's literary and publishing climate? Or will editor Sam Tanenhaus demonstrate yet again that the NYTBR is irrelevant to today's needs? If the former, a tasty brownie will be sent to Mr. Tanenhaus' office. If the latter, the brownie will be denied.


Fiction Reviews: 1 - 1 1/2 page review, 1 one-page review, 1 one-page roundup (Fiction in Translation), 1 half-page crime roundup, 1 half-page review. (Total books: 13. Total space: 4.5 pages.)

Non-Fiction Reviews: 1 2 page review, 1 - 1 1/2 page review, 3 one-page reviews, one half-page review. (Total books: 6. Total space: 6.5 pages.)

This week's fiction coverage, most of it asphyixiated in roundups, is such a joke that not even Tanenhaus could be compelled to list the crime roundup novels in the table of contents. In fact, I'm surprised that Sarah hasn't weighed in on this. It's bad enough that Marilyn Stasio devotes a mere paragraph to the reissue of Joe Gores' A Time of Predators, only to dwell upon how the Edgar Award-winning novel "shows its age" while declaring it a "good choice." But Rupert Holmes' innovative mystery novel-plus-CD, Swing, is pretty much dismissed through a comparison to one of "those interactive mystery game-books that were popular back in the mid-1980s." Consider, by contrast, an honest assessment of Holmes' caper, along the lines of what John Orr did last week in the San Jose Mercury News.

You have to love the disingenuouness of the roundup format, where you can offer general platitudes for the blurb whores ("thought-provoking fiction" and "strirring, impassioned glimpses of lost souls amid the rubble of history," says Anderson Tepper), while avoiding any penetrating insight because you don't have the space.

Conversely, if the fiction-to-nonfiction ratio isn't bad enough (a mere 41% this week), adding insult to injury is Clive James' self-serving takedown of Paglia and poetry (of which more anon) and the deliberate padding within Pete Hamill's review of Boss Tweed. Hamill not only spends an execrable amount of space summarizing Tweed's life, but he wastes half a paragraph informing readers about Thomas Nast. Wouldn't someone interested in Boss Tweed, let alone any NYTBR reader, already know about Nast? Hamill also takes his opening Gore vs. Tweed gimmick a paragraph too far, beating a horse that didn't deserve to die. (What next, Petey? Telling us you'd rather play sqaush or cross-stitch a quilt with the man? Ha ha! You amuse me. Sushi on me!)

Beyond proving once again how out-of-step he is with today's fiction (even the Rocky Mountain News covered A Changed Mind two weeks ago), it's clear that Tanenhaus has abdicated any effort to find the happy medium: the format allowing the reviewer to focus his energies within a taut word count, while preventing unfortunate asides. The 800-900 word review has served several newspapers quite well for so many years. Tanenhaus again demonstrates a truly unfortunate allocation of column-inches.

Brownie Point: DENIED!


This test concerns the ratio of male to female writers writing for the NYTBR.

A total of four women have contributed to eleven reviews. As usual, three of these are fiction chicks, while the only female-penned nonfiction review goes to (go figure) Fat Girl.

This is infinitely worse than last week, particularly when one considers that the big reviews were handed off to those with Y chromosomes.

While it's true that Rachel Donadio has penned an essay on Harvard, the essay spends most of its time chronicling Larry Summers' exploits than the two books it cites (and is thus excluded from the fiction-to-nonfiction ratio).

Brownie Point: DENIED!


Pete Hamill, Clive James, Rachel Donadio, Liesl Schillinger, Barry Gewen. Yawn yawn and yawn. We haven't seen such a predictable crop of names since the Fortune 500. What's the matter, Sam? Is March Madness keeping you from approaching the interesting people?

Brownie Point: DENIED!


The Sgt. Pepper-style numbered image collage of poets matches Clive James' essay to a tee. It is as suitably insipid as James' arrogance in print, little more than a paint-by-numbers palette for bored children who believe in image first and the love of language last.

James bemoans "the airless space of literary theory and cultural studies." He claims that John Ashbery is "the combined status of totem pole and wind tunnel." Most alarmingly, he declares that his "own prescription for making poetry popular would be to ban it -- with possession treated as a serious misdemanor, and dealing as a felony."

That such passive ignorance and anti-intellectualism would be promulgated in a book review section of a major newspaper is truly disheartening.

With such obvious enmity against the liberal arts expressed in the first five paragraphs, one wonders why any level-headed editor assign a book about poetry to an overrated, perhaps permanently impotent essayist. It's clear enough that James would rather spend hours working himself up into an erection over Daffy Duck, Anne Heche and Charlton Heston. The answer: An editor looking for a train wreck, because the very notion of thinking about an interesting problem like the decline in poetry is too difficult and certainly not good enough for the money men.

If badmouthing poetry isn't enough, James is ready to decimate Paglia over details that have little to do with the book in question. James has taken the opportunity to pull a Wieseltier here, spending a good chunk of his two pages spouting off ad hominen attacks rather than offering specific examples about why and where one should search Camille Paglia for the Number of the Beast. How dare this woman possess "wide knowledge" and "expressive gifts," while daring to be a clear thinker "on top of a pair of Jimmy Choos!" To suggest (as the cover does) that James "fancies Camille Paglia" is as great a lie as claiming that a Democrat desires to give George Bush a hug.

What's interesting is that James has very little to find fault with in the book. He declares that Break, Blow, Burn has "few sweeping statements." He commends her comparison of Wallace Stevens' "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" with a Satie piano piece. Still unable to separate Paglia the thinker from Paglia the feminist, he points to Paglia's defense of Ted Hughes as "a quixotic move."

So why complain that Paglia's "young students might listen too well?" What the hell does appearing in Inside Deep Throat have to do with the book in question? Why quibble over Ava Gardner being manufactured in a Hollywood studio when Paglia didn't champion Gardner, but was merely inspired by her at a mere four years old?

Such smears are the telltale signs of a man looking for a fight, combing minutiae and finding nothing to support his argument. This is what's known in the trade as ignoratio elenchi, or an irrelevant conclusion.

As such, we award Tanenhaus an F for fake, seriously considering the future of our Sunday New York Times subscription.


Brownie Points Denied: 3


[UPDATE: Bud Parr has an altogether different response to Clive James' review.]

Posted by DrMabuse at March 27, 2005 03:21 PM

Actually, I kinda thought the whole point of the "prescription for making poetry popular" was ironic--i.e., if you wanted kids to dig poetry, make it something they're not supposed to have which they'll then chase after endlessly the way they do beer.

Posted by: Ron at March 27, 2005 07:07 PM

Yes, and pretty obvious irony. The James piece is actually complimentary to Paglia with a few reservations about her obvious excesses.

You need a sense of humor to appreciate Clive James.
I suggest you invest in one.

Posted by: Martin at March 28, 2005 10:19 AM

Sorry, Martin, but when I sent the order off to Wichita, I didn't check "Dull barbs lobbed at easy targets without thought" on the form. But I've been on the phone with the Humor Institute for the last hour trying to get my money back.

Posted by: Ed at March 28, 2005 10:46 AM

i love u

Posted by: theresa at April 3, 2005 12:03 PM