The Decline of Book Reviewing: A Case Study

It is said that the Eunectes murinus — referred to by laymen as the anaconda or the water boa — spends most of its time shooting its slimy body beneath the water, waiting for a hapless gazelle to stop and take a drink, only to grab the lithe animal with its jaws, coil its scaly muscular husk around its quivering body, squeezing and constricting until the animal is helpless (the animal is never crushed), where it then feasts upon the meat. It does this, because, while the boa does surface on land from time to time, the boa is more taken with the scummy agua. It does not know any better.

And while most mainstream newspaper book sections are devoted to thought over carnivorous instinct, there remain some critics, terrified of inhabiting any topography foreign to their hermetic environments and who remain needlessly hostile to any author crossing multiple ecosystems.

vollmann.jpgThe author in question is William T. Vollmann. And the book is Riding Toward Everywhere, a surprisingly thin volume (by Vollmann standards, at least) that concerns itself with trainhopping and vagrants. (Full disclosure: While the book isn’t Vollmann’s greatest, I did enjoy the book. And while I may be a devotee to Vollmann’s work, I have never let my admiration for the man hinder fair and critical judgment. Above all, I recognize that Vollmann, like any original and idiosyncratic author, must be read on his own terms. This would seem self-evident to even the most elementary reader, because of Vollmann’s style and his distinct subject matter. But other individuals, as I shall soon demonstrate, don’t share this commitment to due consideration.)

A number of recent reviews reveal an astonishing paucity of insight and, in some cases, remarkable deficiencies in reading comprehension. And this all has me greatly concerned about the state of contemporary criticism. While there were dismissals from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette‘s Bob Hoover and the Los Angeles Times‘s Marc Weingarten that had the good sense to avoid dwelling so heavily on Vollmann’s peccadilloes, the majority of these negative reviews not only failed to comprehend Vollmann’s book, but appeared predetermined to despise it from the onset. They wished to judge Vollmann the man instead of Vollmann the author. Which is a bit like judging Dostoevsky not on his literary genius, but on his abject personal foibles. Or dismissing Woody Allen’s great films because he married his adopted daughter. This is the stance of blackguards who peddle in gossip, not criticism.

And yet speculation into Vollmann’s character was unfurled in messy dollops under the guise of “criticism” or “book reviewing.”

From Rene Denfeld’s review in The Oregonian:

There is a saying among some bloggers: “I think I just vomited a little in my mouth.”

That’s how I felt reading “Riding Toward Everywhere.”

William T. Vollmann is a mystifyingly respected writer, a man who has made his reputation by exploiting sex workers, the poor and other helpless targets as he plumbs their depths with his supposedly insightful pen, not to mention other appendages.

Well, this blogger has never typed that hackneyed sentence, in large part because resorting to cliches are about as enticing as four hours with a dentist (or, for that matter, dwelling on an essay written by a lazy writer). But then Ms. Denfeld has no problem letting false and near libelous conjecture get in the way of understanding what’s in the text. She fails to cite any specific examples on how Vollmann has “exploited” his subjects. And she has deliberately misread Riding Toward Everywhere to suit her false and incorrigible conclusions. To be clear on this, it was not — as Ms. Denfeld suggests — Vollmann who referred to “citizens” contemptuously, but the vagrants who Vollmann interviewed. Since Ms. Denfeld doesn’t appear to know how to read and infer from a book, here is the specific manner in which Vollmann establishes a “citizen.” Vollmann starts talking to vagrants in search of the notorious gang, the Freight Train Riders of America. Early on in the book, Vollmann approaches a man with a bandana and bluntly asks him, “Are you FTRA?”

You goddamned dufus! shouted the man. That’s the stupidest fucking thing I ever heard. You wanna commit suicide or what? I’m not even FTRA and you’re already starting to piss me off. Don’t you get it? We hate you.

Why’s that?

Because you’re just a goddamned citizen.

Sorry about that, I said. (33)

Denfeld further claims that Vollmann “fancies himself the Jack Kerouac of our times,” but it’s quite evident that Vollmann, in addition to pointing out the differences between hitting the roads and riding the rails, views himself as a somewhat clumsy traveler and does not permit his literary antecedents to define him:

Neither the ecstatic openness of Kerouac’s road voyagers, nor the dogged cat-and-mouse triumphs of London’s freight-jumpers, and certainly not the canny navigations of Twain’s riverboat youth define me. I go my own bumbling way, either alone or in company, beset by lapses in my bravery, energy, and charity, knowing not precisely where to go until I am there. (73)

Denfeld also writes, “His concession to the law is to borrow friends’ cars when he picks up hookers so if he gets caught, it won’t be his license that is lost.”

Again, Denfeld deliberately twists Vollmann’s words around. Here is what Vollmann actually wrote:

My city passes an ordinance to confiscate the cars of men who pick up prostitutes. This compels me to walk….It may well be that I am a sullen and truculent citizen; possibly I should play the game a trifle. But I do, I do: When I pick up prostitutes I use somebody else’s car. (4-5)

denfeld.jpgIt is clear here that Vollmann is being as straightforward as he can about his life, trying to set down personal fallacies he may have in common with his subjects. It would be one thing if Ms. Denfeld stated the precise problems she had with the book, but she remains so fixated in her happy little universe — which involves living with her partner with three adopted children and OMG! “teaching writing in low-income schools and volunteering in adoption education and outreach”; could it be that Vollmann is not the only “rich” person who “brags” about philanthropy? — that she can’t seem to consider that other people relate to the world a bit differently. And it’s clear that she can’t be bothered to engage with the issues that the book presents. Masticating upon this book, good or bad, seems beneath Ms. Denfeld’s abilities. Beyond Ms. Denfeld’s consistent failure at basic reading comprehension, I likewise remain gobsmacked that these flagrant errors, easily confirmed by checking Ms. Denfeld’s statements against the text (which runs a svelte 186 pages), were allowed to run in a major newspaper.

Ms. Denfeld isn’t the only venerable nitwit assigned to review a book outside her ken. Here’s the opening paragraph from “respected” author Carolyn See’s takedown at the Washington Post:

William T. Vollmann is revered and venerated by a lot of men whose brains and souls I deeply respect. They love his ideas, the sheer length of his work (one book of his, “Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means,” runs over 3,000 pages); they love his freedom and eccentricities — he’s been to and written about Afghanistan, the Far East and the magnetic north pole, and has spent vast amounts of time with prostitutes while also managing to keep a wife and kid. He seems to be a man of prodigious abilities. At the same time, I can say I’ve never had a conversation with a woman about his work. He just doesn’t seem to come up on our radar. Is it that we don’t have the time to read 3,000 pages? That we don’t care as much as we should about the magnetic north pole? I don’t know.

Rather then dredge up my own empirical evidence of women I know who do read and enjoy Vollmann in response to this egregious sexism, which is particularly ignoble coming from a Ph.D., I’ll simply presume that See’s sheltered life at UCLA, much less basic library skills, precludes her from consulting such books as Linda Gregerson’s Magnetic North (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), Kathan Brown’s The North Pole (Crown, 2004), or Helen Thayer’s Polar Dream: The First Solo Expedition by a Woman and Her Dog to the Magnetic North Pole (NewSage, 2002). Further, Laura Miller’s womanhood didn’t hinder her from devoting 2,000 words to Poor People, pointing out (although critical) that Vollmann was “a writer of extraordinary talent.” Dava Sobel called him “ferociously original.” Numerous other examples can be readily unearthed in newspapers and academic journals. Vollmann is no more an author just for men than Jennifer Weiner is an author just for women. And only a fool or a John Birch Society member would declare otherwise.

See’s prefatory paragraph, of course, has nothing to do with the book in question. And if See had been a responsible reviewer, she would have recused herself from reviewing an author who “doesn’t come up on [her] radar.” An ethical and responsible reviewer knows her own intellectual or perceptive limits.

And then there is J.R. Moehringer’s offering in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review. Like Denfield, Moehringer has reading comprehension problems, although thankfully not as severe. Moehringer completely misses Vollmann’s point that Cold Mountain is, much like Shangri-La, an unobtainable destination, although he does seem to understand that it’s “a nonexistent mountain.” But for Moehringer, “the words lose all meaning.” It doesn’t occur to Moehringer that Vollmann’s repetition of “Cold Mountain” might be a way of expressing the ineffable or the unfindable. Or as Vollmann puts it:

I stood here wondering if I had reached Cold Mountain. Where is Cold Mountain, anyway? Isn’t it for the best if I can never be sure I’ve found it?

But Moehringer’s biggest sin is to ask Vollmann the hypothetical question, “Pal, what the hell’s wrong with you?” He finds Vollmann crazy for “get[ting] his kicks breaking into rail yards and hopping freight trains,” and wonders why nobody has caught him. But he fails to consider that Vollmann’s romantic description of the open air or the modest code of honor that prevents a fellow hopper from stealing another hopper’s sleeping bag might hold some appeal to a man of Vollmann’s eccentricities. Clearly, there are reasons why Vollmann hops trains. And Vollmann dutifully explains why. But since Moehringer lacks the intellectual flexibility to understand this, he breaks John Updike’s first rule of reviewing (“try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt”) at the onset.

He declares Vollmann “miserable” and “filled with irredeemable gloom about the state of the world,” wondering how anyone could feel this way more so than others, but fails to recognize that one of the major thrusts of Vollmann’s work has been to chronicle the misunderstood. Kindness and empathy, and writing about people that other novelists and journalists are all too happy to ignore, are at the core of Vollmann’s output. Further, there is more to Vollmann’s mantra than Cold Mountain. As Vollmann explains:

I am sure that the fact that my wife had expressed her wish for a divorce two days before had nothing to do with the fact that I kept saying to myself: I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve got to get out of here.

Moehringer also writes, “Early on, Vollmann mentions ‘a Cambodian whore’ he nearly married. Why? No reason.” But what Moehringer conveniently elides is how Vollmann mentions this in connection with taking a bus trip out to Oakland. When the bus stopped at Cheyenne, Vollmannn felt that he had reached “true West.” He did not get out of the bus, but he felt that “Cheyenne changed me at that moment.” And if Moehringer is so indolent a reviewer that he cannot grasp the basic concept — indeed, the specific “reason” Vollmann is bringing up this anecdote — of how one decision often changes a life at a crossroads, let us consider the specific passage:

Once upon a time I almost married a Cambodian whore, or at least I convinced myself that I was on the verge of wedding her; once I considered moving in with an Eskimo girl; in either case, I would have learned, suffered and joyed ever so intensely in ways that I will never know now. And what if I had gotten off the bus in Cheyenne in the year of my youthful hope 1981? California is only half-western, being California. Cheyenne is one hundred percent Western….And had I stepped off the bus in Cheyenne, I might have become a cowboy; I could have even been a man.

If Moehringer — a Pulitzer Prize winner, for fuck’s sake — is incapable of seeing the reason why Vollmann mentioned the incident, then I shudder to consider his dull worldview and nearly nonexistent sense of adventure. Why climb Everest? No reason. “Because it’s there.”

All three reviewers demonstrate a remarkable devotion to remaining incurious and to condemning an author personally rather than trying to consider an author’s perspective. Small wonder, given this reactionary clime, that book reviewing sections face extinction.

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9 Comments

  1. I shall nitpick.

    First off, it’s Eunectes murinus. When using scientific nomenclature, you capitalize the genus name.

    It’s not clear why you use E. murinus in your example — unless it’s simply to draw unfair comparisons bewteen the snake and book reviewers you disagree with. The phrase “its scaly muscular husk” makes little sense and smacks of the overwritten; the snake, being aquatic, would seem better served by a different word than “husk” which sounds dry, withered, of the earth.

    Later in that opening paragraph, you overwrite again: “where it then feasts upon the meat.” This smacks of bad contemporary poetry or the clogged essay. The snake doesn’t “feast upon the meat.” It swallows the animal whole. “It does this,” you try helpfully to explain, “because, while the boa does surface on land from time to time, the boa is more taken with the scummy agua. It does not know any better.”

    I don’t think much of you as a literary critic — but I am even less impressed with your tries at zoological acumen. What a snake knows or doesn’t know is difficult to pin down. However, seeing as how these particular animals are very successful, it doesn’t make sense to claim that they’re in the water because they don’t “know any better.” They’re a mostly-aquatic species. They know enough to know that water suits their hunting just fine.

    But you seem to want your opening paragraph because you seemingly feel that it does the best job possible in maligning the other reviewers that you take on in the rest of your piece. You’ve created a biological fallacy, and with this fallacy you hope to make clear the mistakes others have made — assumably because these reviewers, as well, don’t “know any better.”

    I’m interested in your gripes against the other reviewers, especially after reading your own review in The Sun; or, actually, not so much a review as it is a synopsis of the novel. Your final paragraph attempts to provide a modicum of critical analysis, if only to say that, “The book’s slim size sometimes hinders Vollmann from fleshing out these interesting thoughts, or probe more fully into the question of why train-hopping is tolerated when it’s now impossible to get to a flight terminal without a boarding pass. ” But that’s as far as you go. You give no reason to read the novel; you don’t tell me what I will gain, save knowledge of train hopping, from this work. While you disagree with the other reviewers for their stance, they at least have a stance: they don’t like the novel. They don’t feel Vollmann has earned the insights he reports. They call him out as an uninteresting eccentric. This, at least, is information.

  2. You’re entitled to any opinion of me that you like. The argument speaks for itself. But for someone who prides himself as a nitpicker (and who apparently is incapable of separating literal from figurative zoology), I should point out that I’ve never written for the New York Sun.

  3. “…in either case, I would have learned, suffered and joyed ever so intensely in ways that I will never know now.”

    Hm, is this particularly insightful or original in its thinking? I haven’t read the book, but I’m not sure the quotes you’ve provided seem to indicate any reason to actually pick up the book (vs. say, RURD).

  4. I like Updike’s reviewing dictum: “”try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt”.

    I might add a few more guidelines

    1) no ad hominem attacks (or praise – ie don’t praise Hemingway’s writing about fishing just because he is a fisherman himself)

    2) don’t be mean spirited, like, for example B.R. Myers’ recent hatchet job on Denis Johnson’s wonderful new book, “Tree of Smoke”, which appears in the December Atlantic Monthly – but it’s a complete waste of space so don’t bother with it. I can’t tell you the number of ways Myers is just plain wrong, but what’s worse is his snarky, willful misunderstanding of what he read. He is beyond ignorant: he is mean-spirited.

  5. “I should point out that I’ve never written for the New York Sun.”

    Yeah. I got that entirely wrong. I’d like to hide behind at least I got the ‘Sun’ part right — but a mistake’s a mistake.

    I don’t understand what you mean by “literal from figurative zoology.” Or, rather, I don’t see the use of it. You wrote a really bad analogy; are you now trying to say that you wrote the bad analogy on purpose, under the guide of “figurative zoology”?

    And I don’t know that your argument does stand for itself. You’ve done nothing but disagree with other reviewers for not liking an author you admire. You accuse others of willfulness in their misreading — when, perhaps, maybe all they’ve done is figurative reviewing. It’s like figurative zoology, only with fewer animals.

    You accuse Denfeld of “deliberately twist[ing] Vollmann’s words around” — and yet I don’t see any twisting at all in the passage about Vollmann, cars, and prostitutes. You and she disagree about what Vollmann is writing, but that doesn’t make either of you right or wrong necessarily. The only thing that gives Denfeld a bonus point is that you haven’t shown she is wrong when you set out to show she was wrong. If that’s your best evidence, then there may be a problem. Where Denfeld does get the information wrong is that Vollmann says, in his passage, that the law will confiscate cars; Denfeld has the law confiscating Vollmann’s license. That seems a minor offense.

    I also don’t understand the long tirade against Denfeld as a person. She doesn’t bring that into the review; you had to go to her website to find that information. Nowhere in the Oregonian review does she mention her wealth or philanthropy. However, you need that information to continue your ad hominem attack. (Also, how exactly does one “masticate upon”? Is that figurative chewing? And isn’t the preposition unnecessary? Unless this is a harkening back to your labored anaconda metaphor — but, of course, maybe you feel that figurative constrictors chew where literal constrictors don’t.)

    You very much want us to believe that this is just you, as a reviewer, telling us like it is about how other reviewers got it all wrong. But really, this reads like a long whine against people who don’t “get” what you like. That’s not reviewing.

  6. […] has good things to say about Vollmann saying good things about train-hopping, and bad things to say about critics saying bad things about […]

  7. Mike B: As a nitpicker (most especially of Mr. Champion’s writing style), I can’t believe you refer to Mr. Vollman’s book as a “novel”.

    Sir please define a novel for me, for it is in my limited knowledge that a novel refers to a work of FICTION. The discussion centers around a work of …[here you fill in the blanks when you get my meaning].

    Mr. Champion has a point about reviewing. If you’ve read his other rants about this topic (and in the last year the writers misinterpreted/understood has varied broadly); this is just another shot in the war against lazy reviewers and more specifically, lazy book section editors…

    To whit: “Bad Monkeys” by Matt Ruff was reviewed in a Seattle newspaper with the writer concluding that she’d hoped that the author had gotten “it” out of his system [‘it’ being a psycho-science fiction thriller] and would get back to writing more like Ruff’s earlier “Set This House in Order”, a rather more mainstream (read: bookclub) novel. The point being Ruff has never written a book that followed his previous in style or subject, and an editor (or reviewer, doing a smidgen of research) would’ve known that “Bad Monkeys” would not appeal to fans of the former work.

    I belabor the point; I know.

    But fathom me this: Next time you read the NYTBR, look at all the fiction reviews, delete what is purely plot description, keep what is analytical (without spoiling storyline), and I guarantee a book review newspaper that could DOUBLE it’s fiction review if it enforced a stricter reviewer policy…

  8. We won’t get far in a semantical discussion of whether or not Vollman’s most recent work is a novel or not. Much of it beggars belief — but I will also cop to not knowing the man and not having anything approaching an extensive understanding of him. I’m not suggesting there’s something Freysian about him; however, I get the same feeling from what I’ve read of Vollman that I get reading Augusten Burroughs.

    As to your later points — I understand Champion’s bugaboo. I’ve read my share of reviews, both of books and of film, where it would seem impossible that the reviewer actually participated with the work he’s reviewing.

    These here, in this post, aren’t those reviews. There’s no misreading, deliberate or otherwise. There’s disagreement, that is all. Champion hasn’t made a solid case with this particular example of Vollman’s treatment by a variety of reviewers — most particularly Ms. Denfield, on whom he spends a considerable amount of time. What he has shown is that he very much likes Bill Vollman, feels that there is much in Vollman’s writing worth considering, but is unable to account for the fact that other people may not.

  9. What bugs me about some reviews of the new book is that their tone is condescending and dismissive, which in my experience is a new response from the book community toward Vollmann’s work. (His last name has two N’s, by the way.)

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