On the Cowardice of Literary Omphaloskepsis

On July 21, 2014, 3:AM Magazine published the second most preposterous essay about books of this year. It was purportedly a review of Shane Jones’s Crystal Eaters, only to turn out to be a non-review that was purportedly about something else, but that was really about the reviewer gazing at his own navel. While the most preposterous essay about books of this year (published less than a month before) went to the trouble of naming names, thereby allowing all who took offense at it to align themselves into factions and swiftly attack the author, the second most preposterous essay about books of this year attacked Roxane Gay and Justin Taylor in the most pusillanimous manner possible — quoting them without naming them. The second most preposterous essay about books of this year cited Gay’s Goodreads review of Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams (offering the additional claim that Gay never read the book), Gay’s response to an AWP questionnaire, and Taylor’s HTML Giant assessment of Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel as “a work of startling interiority.” This was not only disrespectful towards Gay and Taylor, but also greatly unhelpful for anyone wanting to piece together the purported literary world that the essay was trying to map and pinpoint. The essay was written by a middling writer named Lee Klein, who spearheaded an online literary magazine called Eyeshot for several years before running out of gas. Klein’s forthcoming novel, The Shimmering Go-Between, which was sent to me out of the blue a few months ago, is not very good. It is not very good, not because I disagree with Klein’s essay or because of any allegiance I may have for Roxane Gay or Justin Taylor, but because it fails to live up to my extremely high literary standards. Klein’s novel exists so firmly in that “not very good” realm that it isn’t even worth discussing at length — especially because it is published by a small press. This is just one man’s opinion.

By quoting people without naming them, Klein immediately establishes himself as a cowardly dick, yet claims later that, in not divulging his opinion about Shane Jones’s novel, he was somehow avoiding being a dick and a wuss:

Look: it’s not that I’m a dick when it comes to this stuff. It’s that I like to think that I have standards based on exposure to the interdependent duo of lit and life. But if I decide not to wuss out and instead uphold my particular notion of standards, I’m a dick, and being a dick could lead to dickish reviews of my own stuff from Shane Jones, his friends, and friends of the publisher.

But Lee Klein is fooling himself. His essay was the kind of gutless and dishonest omphaloskepsis (a fancy word for navel gazing, which I serve up because the look of the word makes me very happy and it slyly acknowledges a literary masterpiece, thus representing an altogether different and more benign omphaloskepsis) that does nobody any favors. The author (in this case, Shane Jones) may be left wondering why the reviewer (in this case, Lee Klein) went to all that trouble, further contributing to needless confusion. The reader has no real idea why the reviewer went to all that trouble. The preposterous essay ultimately becomes little more than performance art, one swiftly forgotten in the kudzu of assholes with opinions, possibly discouraging readers from reading anything more from Lee Klein — including the very novel (again, not a very good one) that he has hoped to get people to read in the first place by writing the provocative essay.

Here’s how I heard about Shane Jones. A number of people told me that his latest novel, Crystal Eaters, was quite good. These people had no vested interest to tell me this, other than their considerable passion for good books. Moreover, they told me this in person, not online. Now I have an independent mind that will form its own opinion, as I’m sure that you (the reader) do. I am sure that some of you are disagreeing with what you’re reading right now. But it is also a completely natural impulse to want to get in on something that other people with smart sensibilities are enjoying, unless you are a nihilist who enjoys being miserable. So if Shane Jones’s book was as good as these people were saying, it seemed worth checking out.

On April 20, 2014, I contacted Eric Obenauf at Two Dollar Radio and asked if he could send me a copy. On May 2, 2014, Obenauf got back to me, apologizing for his delay in response (entirely unnecessary, but Obenauf is a total pro) and telling me that he was out of galleys. I thanked Obenauf and told him that if he had any finished copies to spare, I’d be happy to read the book when it was available. The entire exchange was cordial. I knew Obenauf wouldn’t begrudge me if I didn’t get around to reading the book. Obenauf knew that I had been trying to write something about his excellent outfit, Two Dollar Radio, for quite some time and it was really a matter of waiting for the right book to come along, something that would cause my patch of the earth to tremble. Both of us were doing the best we could. A few weeks ago, a finished copy of Crystal Eaters arrived in my mailbox. But I had ten books I had to finish reading first.

That changed this week. When I read Klein’s essay, I realized that I had to put everything else aside and read Shane Jones’s book. Even if I ended up hating Jones’s book, the only possible remedy to Klein’s vulgar rejoinder was to read Crystal Eaters, feel it and think about it, and perhaps forge these thoughts into a carefully considered opinion. It turns out that I like Crystal Eaters a great deal and that Jones is a smart and imaginative writer. And I hope to write a separate essay extolling his book further.

I knew that it was possible to form an opinion without compromising my tastes or my ethics because, at some point within the past year, I read another book published by Two Dollar Radio. The author and I were bandying about the possibility of him appearing on my podcast, The Bat Segundo Show. While I liked the author, the book itself was not to my liking. I didn’t want to express phony enthusiasm for the book, but I also didn’t want to leave the author in the lurch. So I sent him the following email:

First off, my profound apologies in getting back to you later than expected. I have read ___________ in full and, while I enjoyed a chunk of the neglected perspectives you wrote about (with such details as ___________________ and the wry reference to ________________), its narrative approach didn’t congeal with me. I realize that this is part of the point, but I wanted to let the book sit with me for a few weeks before making a final decision.

I have thought about it and, rather than leave you hanging, I’m going to respectfully decline booking a Bat Segundo interview with you at this time. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but I do have to trust my instincts on this one. If I’m not completely passionate about the book, then my listeners will know. And that would be a disservice to you. But I do know that several authors have enjoyed your book. Please understand that this is just one man’s taste.

If you like, I would be happy to introduce you to Gil Roth of The Virtual Memories Show. He also reads all the books before talking with his authors and yields very smart insights from this guests. You can check out his show here:


Please also keep me informed of your future work. There are often authors whose present titles don’t sit with me, but who I end up talking with later on down the line

Again, my apologies that this didn’t work out. Like anyone, I much prefer saying “yes” than “no.” But I hope my respectful candor atones for any disappointment on your part. I do wish you the best.

Thanks and all best,


The author sent back a gracious reply, fully understanding that his book would divide people. The two of us can run into each other while respecting our literary differences. Should he write a book that lights my Roman candle, I will most certainly be one of the first guys encouraging people to head to the fireworks stand. There is nothing about this that involves me selling out my principles or being a dick or a wuss. I’m constitutionally incapable of talking up a book I don’t love. This is what’s known as developing a failsafe bullshit detector — something that pinged off the charts when I read Klein’s essay.

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)

Male Writers: 45.5 writers (65.9%)
Female Writers: 23.5 writers (34.1%)


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)

Male Writers: 37.5 writers (69.4%)
Female Writers: 16.5 writers (30.6%)


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: 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)

Male Writers: 68 writers (68.7%)
Female Writers: 31 writers (31.3%)