Virginia Heffernan: The Sarah Palin of Journalism

The review came over the long Thanksgiving weekend, but the 757 words that Virginia Heffernan devoted to savaging Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates on Sunday have little to do with Vowell’s book. Heffernan is the kind of reviewer that Coleridge accurately identified as failed talent. The embittered dunce who gave up her punch and passion eons ago, and who now approaches the craft of reviewing like a helper monkey trained to take a coat at a snap, only to deposit this winter wear into a pile of her own excrement. It is a predictable exercise that just about any marsupial with a cluster of barely functioning brain cells can accomplish. You could employ a human resources manger of average intelligence (and with some experience in professionally humiliating people for pedantic reasons) to write a review like this. Even Dale Peck understood this years ago when he gave up his hatchet to write unapologetically commercial fiction. But since the act requires little in the way of cognitive ability, one wonders why Heffernan isn’t employed in a position that better suits her skill set. Perhaps pumping gas in the New Jersey cold or putting together bankers boxes for minimum wage in a damp basement.

Heffernan’s review fails on just about every level. It isn’t particularly informative for a reader hoping to get a sense of who Vowell is or what this new book is about. It represents a predictable scenario in which the New York Times Book Review has opted to wear its ugly internal politics on its sleeve, with Heffernan unable to stretch past her own prejudices against the quirky and the interesting.

And isn’t it rather intriguing that one-liners and “blogger tics” serve as “weak liquors” for this digital culture columnist when Heffernan’s review (and her work as a whole) has employed the same? Is Heffernan even remotely curious about her beat? Or is she waiting for the joys to kick in upon the onset of menopause? One delves into the Heffernan oeuvre finding bitter and flavorless canapes instead of tasty tapas prepared with care and excitement. Heffernan cannot get her location details right. She is more interested in the girls who cling to Virgil Griffith’s arms than Griffith’s geeky achievements. Most egregiously, she talks down to her readers as if they are numbskulls. (“Search ‘Unforgivable’ on YouTube or go to Definitely not safe for work,” reads one of her smug asides.) Here is the village idiot who, like Sarah Palin, believes herself to be an indispensable gatekeeper. She has foolishly equated the YouTube success of Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech with length and political tech savvy rather than the substance of Obama’s convictions — writing yet again with disdain against those who use the Internet. Because in the Heffernan worldview, people who use the Internet can’t possibly be interested in long-form exercises. Indeed, Heffernan is so out-of-touch that she could not even account for the rise and ubiquity of wi-fi networks in an article on cybercafes. And all of these disgracefully written and uninformed articles were written for the Times in just the past month.

Heffernan is an aging debutante who will never quite understand why others are drinking the last pre-Wet Planet cans of Jolt Cola, why geeks code or create open source software for others, or why other techheads plunder through buckets of abandoned components to build new machines. But she’ll still be insistently tapping your shoulder to ask you what HKEY_CURRENT_USER is all about, even when you’ve explained the REGEDIT niceties to her a thousand times. This is a stubborn dunderhead who cannot stick to her own hoary and boring cliques, and who does not realize just how much of a laughing stock she is in New York. She believes that the regular newspaper reader is an idiot. And anybody, like Sarah Vowell, who does get through to the public in a semi-geeky or slightly idiosyncratic way must be nuked from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure. (At least that’s the vernacular the geeks are using. But what Jim Cameron film did that come from again? Oh noes! My people skills and Google prowess aren’t quite up to snuff!)

Now Heffernan has besmirched a book review section that should matter, but that continues to remain mostly a disgrace — in large part because the editors continue to assign creative typists like Heffernan to write drivel to fill up its pages. Heffernan lacks the decency and the acumen to inform us about what the book is trying to say. Here is a reviewer who cannot be professional enough to pay attention. Heffernan fundamentally misunderstands that Vowell’s dips into the past aren’t really about “enlighten[ing] slacker Gen-Xers with a remedial history of our nation,” but about how one particular voice approaches this subject. Nobody expects to be entirely enlightened when reading Sarah Vowell. But a reader is often entertained. And is that not one of the basic functions of books? To transmit one person’s ideas to a reader.

Of course, for Heffernan, it isn’t about the book. It’s about Vowell’s vocal appearance in The Incredibles. It’s about Vowell’s work with This American Life. It’s about how other people like and enjoy Vowell, goddammit. Why don’t they like and enjoy Heffernan? It’s about prohibiting how another person’s perspective is committed to print. We can’t have references to Happy Days. We can’t have material that is written to be performed. (Never mind that, more often than not, the best prose is often that which can be spoken aloud.)

Should it really matter that Vowell is discovering John Winthrop and Roger Williams for the first time? (Or pretending to with her schtick?) Is Heffernan so sheltered a human being that she does not recognize that, because of American educational inadequacies, many people in America do not know who Winthrop and Williams are? Is she so stupid that she cannot recognize that Vowell is writing for a popular audience?

Evidently she is. If Heffernan so loathed and misunderstood Vowell, she should not have been assigned this review. The biggest clue that Heffernan, in all likelihood, lacks even the rudimentary joy to enjoy so much as a carousel or a roller coaster is this sentence: “She sounds as if she’s enjoying herself.” Well, I sure as hell hope that Vowell is enjoying herself. Or any author for that matter. Could Heffernan be seriously suggesting that a dip into history should not be enjoyable? To pillory Vowell for not being an academic is to miss the point of what Vowell and similar commentators are all about. To attack Vowell for the people she cites in the acknowledgments section rather than specific examples from the text is the act of an amateurish cunctator.

When one is dealing with an eccentric writer, even an apparent middlebrow one, it is sometimes necessary to consider the writer’s eccentricities. What we do know is this: Vowell has not contributed to the New York Times Book Review since February 2005. It remains unknown if Vowell has ever declined an assignment under the Sam Tanenhaus regime. But if she has declined, she has chosen wisely. We can indeed afford to lose this sinking ship so long as the fools who write for it continue to misunderstand the most rudimentary elements of reading and reviewing, while alienating the fun and adept people who remain quite capable.


  1. I’ve griped here from time to time about your going over the line when you savage critics who’ve written bad reviews, but I’m not doing that now.

    I was hoping you’d weigh in on this Heffernan piece, which was truly atrocious.

  2. While I wouldn’t presume to assess the reviewer’s IQ level from this review it does read alarmingly personal. It’s as if Heffernan met Vowell one day at a Paris Review party (at which she didn’t get an invite but had to suffice with being a “+1”) and found her really annoying. Then she looked up Vowell’s career highs and became even more embittered. She gnashed her teeth in the dark for many nights aching to fight back at this injustice and finally! the book came up for review. (To get the assignment she, again, had to act the toady, sell her record player, something.)

    How did the NYTBR let that go to print? Bizarre.

  3. The main difficulty for this embarrassingly failed rant is that Vowell is terribly overrated and Heffernan’s review was pitch perfect.

  4. I have a feeling that this review was an attempt, badly failed, at parody. It contains too many elements of the very thing it’s decrying to be otherwise.

    If I’m wrong, then it is indeed atrocious.

  5. Virginia Heffernan writes witty putdowns. She puts bloggers down along the way, and Ed reacts, as he does, with witless, cumbersome ressentiment. And yet still Ed does not get the invite he so richly deserves to write for the NYTBR himself. Who can explain it? What a mystery. Hey Ed, if the NYTBR offered you a review, would you tell them to fuck off unless they fire every one of the employees you’ve trashed during your glittering career?

  6. I look to the NYTBR to provide more than reviews filled with “witty putdowns” – a debatable description — of a non-fiction history text even if it is pop history. I don’t recall any blogger insults only that the most basic premise of a book review — to convey to readers a book’s content and ambitions, the writer’s intentions and an evaluation of her execution — was not fulfilled. Take away all the review’s “witty putdowns” and it holds as much information as the jacket copy.

    As usual the NYTBR goes for the biographical approach — no one’s gonna care about this book unless one gets some juice on the author’s personal life whether or not it’s relevant to the book — but Heffernan gives a petty and trivial interpretation of that mandate.

    I swear, ever since I was 19 and heard how awesome the NYTBR was supposed to be I’ve tried to get into it. I must not be a newspaper book review kinda girl (except for an occasional dip into The Guardian/Observer). During the 2000s its offerings are meagre and trivial compared to any random issue of the TLS, LRB or Bookforum unless one is a foodie. (I do give it props for covering children’s fiction, an area lit mags ignore.)

    For a better example of clever book pans sample pretty much any review done by Steve Donoghue over at Open Letters Monthly. Surprisingly, he manages to make it about the *book* and not the *author*: a radical approach, I know, but often successful.

  7. I haven’t read The Wordy Shipmates, but I read Assassination Vacation and all I can say is I agree with Heffernan on most points. I happen to be Heffernan-like in my distaste for quirkiness, and, for some reason, there’s something vulgar about being cute in public like Vowell does. Vowell is so easy to make fun of that I can hardly respect her, and the first impulse I get is to separate myself from her and her writing and career. Heffernan’s view, in my opinion, should be treated with respect, and possibly be referenced in more diatribes against what has increasingly become an annoying and typical thing, the “look how quirky I am” identity.

  8. right, but Heffernan writes a weekly column for the NYT magazine, and her review appeared in the New York Times Review of Books. you, howev, are ranting like a lunatic to nobody in favor of sarah vowell. this rant freaked me out, and it made me love Virginia Heffernan even more, an amazing feat!

  9. Who is Edward Champion? The embittered dunce who gave up his punch and passion eons ago, and who now approaches the craft of reviewing like a helper monkey trained to take a coat at a snap, only to deposit this winter wear into a pile of his own excrement. He is the Michele Bachmann of journalism, a pretender to knowledge and experience he utterly lacks, an unwitting chronicler of his self-pleasuring mirror reflection. Hail, Champion of Metaphorical Sewage! Hail, Edward Discordia! Thy steed awaits thee, but step ye not in his puckey as ye take the saddle and spur him to victory o’er…. well, you know. “Objects in mirror are much closer – and far, far smaller – than they appear.”

  10. Virginia Heffernan is a joke.

    The trick of writing a good book review is that you actually review the book. Which she clearly doesn’t. She reviews the topic, what she thinks of the author (whom she’s never met) and what she thinks about the kind of people who would read this book that the Times has – to her horror – asked her to review. Every review of hers is some variant of: well, first let me shit on the kind of people who would be interested in this topic or this writer. Makes one wonder why she has been chosen to review such books.

    Heffernan’s review is always about her and not about the book. And if she were a prose stylist of some repute, she might get away with it. But she isn’t. She is a minor league writer whose “style” is to register her disgust and offense that the book exists or that the author has an actual career as a writer. Worse yet, the author has a career in which they wrote a book that’s being reviewed in the NYT and other major venues – as opposed to her meisterwork “The Underminer.”

    See, I’m being like Heffernan. I haven’t read the underminer, but I know it sucks and that the kind of people who read it are idiots. Perhaps the NYT will start using me in the book review.

    Negative book reviews are fine, so long as they make valid points and actually discuss the content and style of the book in a constructive, educated and respectful way.

    Mrs. Heffernan just spews, tries to show us how smart she is – displaying an amazing level of insecurity for someone who works at the NYT, where we presume a certain level of intelligence. She makes bold statements about subjects on which she is wrong – quite literally, as a matter of pure fact, just completely wrong.

    What is dangerous about Heffernan is that she is a symptom of the disease that is affecting journalism. She is untrained as a journalist and thus doesn’t have any sense of boundaries or the need to base anything in fact or even the subject at hand. She doesn’t do her homework, blows forth her venom and doesn’t care what happens.

  11. Virginia Heffernan is a over-the-hill writer who left the New York Times to become a never was at YAHOO.

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