West with the Night (Modern Library Nonfiction #85)

(This is the sixteenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: This Boy’s Life.)

She remains a bold and inspiring figure, a galvanizing tonic shimmering into the empty glass of a bleak political clime. She was bright and uncompromising and had piercingly beautiful eyes. She was a stratospheric human spire who stood tall and tough and resolute above a patriarchal sargasso. Three decades after her death, she really should be better known. Her name is Beryl Markham and this extraordinary woman has occupied my time and attentions for many months. She has even haunted my dreams. Forget merely persisting, which implies a life where one settles for the weaker hand. Beryl Markham existed, plowing through nearly every challenge presented to her with an exquisite equipoise as coolly resilient as the Black Lives Matter activist fearlessly approaching thuggish cops in a fluttering dress. I have now read her memoir West with the Night three times. There is a pretty good chance I will pore through its poetic commitment to fate and feats again before the year is up. If you are seeking ways to be braver, West with the Night is your guidebook.

She grew up in Kenya, became an expert horse trainer, and befriended the hunters of her adopted nation, where she smoothly communed with dangerous animals. For Markham, the wilderness was something to be welcomed rather than dreaded. Her natural panorama provided “silences that can speak” that were pregnant with natural wonder even while being sliced up by the cutting whirl of a propeller blade. But Markham believed in being present well before mindfulness became a widely adopted panacea. She cultivated a resilient and uncanny prescience as her instinct galvanized her to live with beasts and brethren of all types. It was a presence mastered through constant motion. “Never turn your back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead,” wrote Markham when considering how to leave a place where one has lived and loved. This sentiment may no longer be possible in an era where one’s every word and move is monitored, exhumed by the easily outraged and the unadventurous for even the faintest malfeasance, but it is still worth holding close to one’s heart.

In her adult life, Markham carried on many scandalous affairs with prominent men (including Denys Finch Hatton, who Markham wooed away from Karen Blixen, the Danish author best known for Out of Africa (to be chronicled in MLNF #58)) and fell almost by accident into a life commanding planes, often scouting landscapes from above for safari hunts. Yet Markham saw the butcherous brio for game as an act of impudence, even as she viewed elephant hunting as no “more brutal than ninety per cent of all other human activities.” This may seem a pessimistic observation, although Markham’s memoir doesn’t feel sour because it always considers the world holistically. At one point, Markham writes, “Nothing is more common than birth: a million creatures are born in the time it takes to turn this page, and another million die.” And this grander vantage point, which would certainly be arrived at by someone who viewed the earth so frequently from the sky, somehow renders Markham’s more brusque views as pragmatic. She preferred the company of men to women, perhaps because her own mother abandoned her at a very young age. Yet I suspect that this fierce lifelong grudge was likely aligned with Markham’s drive to succeed with a carefully honed and almost effortlessly superhuman strength.

Markham endured pain and fear and discomfort without complaint, even when she was attacked by a lion, and somehow remained casual about her vivacious life, even after she became the first person to fly solo without a radio in a buckling plane across the Atlantic from east to west, where she soldiered on through brutal winds and reputational jeers from those who believed she could not make the journey. But she did. Because her habitually adventurous temperament, which always recognized the importance of pushing forward with your gut, would not stop her. And if all this were not enough, Markham wrote a masterpiece so powerful that even the macho egotist Ernest Hemingway was forced to prostrate himself to editor Maxwell Perkins in a letter: “She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer.” (Alas, this did not stop Hemingway from undermining her in the same paragraph as “a high-grade bitch” and “very unpleasant” with his typically sexist belittlement, a passage conveniently elided from most citations. Still, there’s something immensely satisfying in knowing that the bloated and overly imitated impostor, who plundered Martha Gellhorn’s column inches in Collier’s because he couldn’t handle his own wife being a far superior journalist, could get knocked off his peg by a woman who simply lived.)

In considering the human relationship to animals, Markham writes, “You cannot discredit truth merely because legend has grown out of it.” She details the beauty of elephants going out of their way to hide their dead, dragging corpses well outside the gaze of ape-descended midgets and other predators. And there is something about Markham’s majestic perspective that causes one to reject popular legends, creating alternative stories about the earth that are rooted in the more reliable soil of intuitive and compassionate experience. For Markham, imagination arrived through adventure rather than dreams. She declares that she “seldom dreamed a dream worth dreaming again, or at least none worth recording,” yet the fatigue of flying does cause her to perceive a rock as “a crumpled plane or a mass of twisted metal.”

Yet this considerable literary accomplishment (to say nothing of Markham’s significant aviation achievements) has been sullied by allegations of plagiarism. It was a scandal that caused even The Rumpus‘s Megan Mayhew Bergman to lose faith in Markham’s bravery. Raoul Schumacher, Markham’s third husband, was an alcoholic and a largely mediocre ghost writer who, much like Derek Stanford to Muriel Spark, could not seem to countenance that his life and work would never measure up to the woman he was with. Fragile male ego is a most curious phenomenon that one often finds when plunging into the lives of great women: not only are these women attracted to dissolute losers who usually fail to produce any noteworthy work of their own, but these men attempt to make up for their failings by installing or inventing themselves as collaborators, later claiming to be the indispensable muse or the true author all along, which is advantageously announced only after a great woman has secured her success. Biographers and critics who write about these incidents years later often accept the male stories (one rarely encounters this in reverse), even when the details contain the distinct whiff of a football field mired in bullshit.

I was not satisfied with the superficial acceptance of these rumors by Wikipedia, Robert O’Brien, and Michiko Kakutani. So I took it upon myself to read two Markham biographies (Mary S. Lovell’s Straight on Till Morning and Errol Trzebinski’s The Lives of Beryl Markham), where I hoped that the sourcing would offer a more reliable explanation.

I discovered that Trzebinski was largely conjectural, distressingly close to the infamous Kitty Kelley with her scabrous insinuations (accusations of illiteracy, suggestions that Markham could not pronounce words), and that Lovell was by far the more doggedly reliable and diligent source. Trzebinski also waited until many of the players were dead before publishing her biography, which is rather convenient timing, given that she relies heavily on conversations she had with them for sources.

The problem with Schumacher’s claim is that one can’t easily resolve the issue by going to a handwritten manuscript. West with the Night‘s manuscript was typed, dictated to Schumacher by Markham (see the above photo). The only photograph I have found (from the Lovell biography) shows Markham offering clear handwritten edits. So there is little physical evidence to suggest that Schumacher was the secret pilot. We have only his word for it and that of the friends he told, who include Scott O’Dell. Trzebinski, who is the main promulgator of these rumors, is slipshod with her sources, relying only upon a nebulous “Fox/Markham/Schumacher data” cluster (with references to “int. the late Scott O’Dell/James Fox, New York, April 1987” and “15/5/87” — presumably the same material drawn upon for James Fox’s “The Beryl Markham Mystery,” which appeared in the March 1987 issue of Vanity Fair, as well as a Scott O’Dell letter that was also published in the magazine) that fails to cite anything specific and relies on hearsay. When one factors in an incredulous story that Trzebinski spread about her own son’s death that the capable detectives at Scotland Yard were unable to corroborate, along with Trzebinski’s insistence on camera in the 1986 documentary World Without Walls that only a woman could have written West with the Night, one gets the sense that Trzebinski is the more unreliable and gossipy biographer. And Lovell offers definitive evidence which cast aspersions on Tzrebinski’s notion that Markham was something of a starry-eyed cipher:

But this proof of editing by Raoul, which some see as evidence that Beryl might not have been the sole author of the book, surely proved only that he acted as editor. Indeed his editing may have been responsible for the minor errors such as the title arap appearing as Arab. Together with the Americanization of Beryl’s Anglicized spelling, such changes could well have been standard editorial conversions (by either Raoul or Lee Barker – Houghton Mifflin’s commissioning editor) for a work aimed primarily at an American readership.

The incorrect spelling of Swahili words has an obvious explanation. In all cases they were written as Beryl pronounced them. She had learned the language as a child from her African friends but had probably never given much thought to the spelling. Neither Raoul nor anyone at Houghton Mifflin would have known either way.

In his letter to Vanity Fair, and in two subsequent telephone conversations with me, Scott O’Dell claimed that after he introduced Beryl and Raoul “they disappeared and surfaced four months later,” when Raoul told him that Beryl had written a memoir and asked what they should do with it. This is at odds with the surviving correspondence and other archived material which proves that the book was in production from early 1941 to January 1942, and that almost from the start Beryl was in contact with Lee Barker of Houghton Mifflin.

When Raoul told his friend that it was he who had written the book, could the explanation not be that he was embittered by his own inability to write without Beryl’s inspiration? That he exaggerated his editorial assistance into authorship to cover his own lack of words as a writer?

From the series of letters between Beryl and Houghton Mifflin, it is clear that Beryl had sent regular batches of work to the publishers before Raoul came into the picture. As explained earlier, Dr. Warren Austin lived in the Bahamas from 1942 to 1944, was physician to HRH the Duke of Windsor and became friends with Major Gray Phillips. Subsequently Dr. Austin lived for a while with Beryl and Raoul whilst he was looking for a house in Santa Barbara. The two often discussed their mutual connections in Raoul’s presence. Dr. Austin is certain that Raoul had never visited the Bahamas, reasoning that it would certainly have been mentioned during these conversations if he had. This speaks for itself. If Raoul was not even present when such a significant quantity of work was produced, then that part – at the very least – must have been written by Beryl.

Lovell’s supportive claims have not gone without challenge. James Fox claimed in The Spectator that he had seen “photostated documents, from the trunk since apparently removed as ‘souvenirs’ and thus not available to Lovell, which show that Schumacher took part in the earliest planning of the contents and the draft outline for the publisher and show whole passages written by Schumacher in handwriting.” But even he is forced to walk the ball back and claim that this “proves nothing in terms of authorship.” Since Fox is so fixated on “seeing” evidence rather than producing it, he may as well declare that he visited Alaska and could see Russia from his AirBnB or that he once observed giant six-legged wombats flying from the deliquescent soup he had for supper. If this is the “Fox/Markham/Schumacher data” that Trzebinski relied upon, then the plagiarism charge is poor scholarship and poor journalism indeed.

So I think it’s safe for us to accept Markham’s authorship unless something provable and concrete appears and still justifiably admire a woman who caused Hemingway to stop in his tracks, a woman who outmatched him in insight and words, a woman – who like many incredible women – was belittled by a sloppy, gossip-peddling, and opportunistic biographer looking to make name for herself (and the puff piece hack who enabled her) rather than providing us with the genuine and deserved insight on a truly remarkable figure of the 20th century.

Next Up: Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie!

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

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.

Born of a Bitter Bland Seed

How This Post Originally Appeared (December 3, 2003):

So who is Laura Miller anyway?

Here’s an audio interview* of Miller extolling the wonders of the Internet back in 1999. But, beyond her nasal droll, I must warn you that, if you click on the stream, you’ll probably be frightened by Miller’s pronunciation of the word “niche” or the moment when she kvetches about carrying all those complimentary books around. A harsh life, to be sure. Despite all this, she’s still bitter.

This profile reveals that Miller was born in 1960 and, before getting into writing, started off as a publicist for a co-op that ran “a San Francisco sex toy store and mail order company.” (Apparently, it was Good Vibrations.) One of her first big breaks came with an essay called “Women and Children First”* which appeared in a collection called Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information, whereby she proffered the following Third Wave generalizations: “In the meantime, the media prefer to cast women as the victims, probably because many women actively participate in the call for greater regulation of online interactions, just as Abbie Irving urges Wade Hatton to bring the rule of law to Dodge City. These requests have a long cultural tradition, based on the idea that women, like children, constitute a peculiarly vulnerable class of people who require special protection from the elements of society men are expected to confront alone.”

Her last column for The New York Times Book Review section was more about the documentary The Weather Underground than books, but didn’t have nearly as many generalizations as previous inside back page columns. But I’m mystified. Just why is Miller still writing for the Times? And can we hope that Charles McGrath’s replacement will see the light?

To look at this from a pugilistic standpoint, if you threw Michiko Kakutani and Laura Miller into a gladiator pit, I’d favor Michiko by twelve points. At least she has a sense of humor. Plus, the Pulitzer helps.

[3/22/04 UPDATE: Months later, I’ve largely ignored Laura Miller. And looking back at this entry, I see that I’ve demonized her a bit. That isn’t really fair. I should clarify that, since I’ve already spilled my thoughts (some would say foolishly), the transformation of Laura Miller is one of the saddest things that ever happened to books coverage. But I have every hope that the Miller I read five years ago will return.]

Addendum (May 20, 2013):

* — I have made efforts to track down the 1999 Laura Miller audio interview from Platform #3 referenced in this 2003 post, but it appears to have disappeared: no doubt deleted in a frenzy of redesigns and server reorganization over the last fourteen years. But you can read this text version of the same article, which appeared on Radio Australia. Additionally, I believe my original link led to Miller’s early essay, “Women and Children First,” but I can’t find it through Web Archive. I have pointed to someone else writing about it.

It wasn’t fair of me to chastise Miller for her “nasal droll.” But in 2013, Miller suffers from the same problems. When she is edited (such as her essays in The New Yorker), she can be an astute critic. But much of her ongoing work at Salon is not edited. I’m a little embarrassed by my cocky 2004 update. I haven’t been able to ignore Miller, in large part because some people still read her criticism. But her influence has faded in recent years, replaced by the likes of Roxane Gay and Michelle Dean, who have both proven to be more astute critics. But Miller has gone out of her way to ignore me. I only met her once at the National Book Awards, where we were introduced by a well-meaning third party and she gave me the look of someone who had just her dog die in a hot car during summer.

This was the first of many posts that laid into Miller. I had this tendency in my early blogging days to seek out obscure bits of biographical data about people — often material that nobody else had found — in an attempt to try and understand them. From what I’ve learned about Miller from others since, I can see why she would hate this. I didn’t know in 2003 how touchy literary people could be. I have fixed all the non-working links.

Because the Luke Ford reprint of the Examiner article cannot be adequately verified from New York, I’ve confirmed Miller’s stint at Good Vibrations through two separate sources: a biographical note that appeared in the anthology Travelers’ Tales San Francisco: True Stories. Additionally, Sallie Tisdale’s Talk Dirty to Me reports that Miller worked at Good Vibrations, where

“she hosted video nights for women who have never seen pornography. She shows clips from some of the new, more romantic, female-produced films, and then clips from older hard-core films with more traditional themes. “The difficult part for women is that they haven’t had the opportunity to even see what’s available,” she says. The surprise is how many of the women prefer the old hard-core films. “It’s so politically incorrect. I’m glad when they’re willing to admit that it really turns them on, but they also say, ‘It really disturbs me, but this works, and the other one didn’t.'”

Now this Laura Miller sounds really cool.