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 isthatunforgivable.com. 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.