An Urgent Plea to Sam Tanenhaus

Mr. Tanenhaus, while we profoundly disagree on a number of points, I must echo the sentiments of my colleague. Your concerns, interests, and curiosity are clearly within politics, and the time has come for you to resign from the New York Times and take a chance. It is abundantly clear from the thoughtful and striking qualities of your New Republic piece that politics, not literature, is your beat. Your heart is in finishing the Buckley bio, not in books. Your literary hero, John Updike, is dead. And you clearly aren’t interested in any the emerging literary talents. So why continue to pretend?

But here’s the good news. There are plenty of people who can do what you cannot on the literary front. And with Democrats now controlling a sizable stretch within the Beltway, there are plenty of conservatives who cannot do what you can do on the politics front. If you wish to flail the sheets of conservatism and get a movement going, would such linen-shaking be best served in your current sinecure at the New York Times? Or would it better served through work carried out at The New Republic and other publications? I may be a liberal, but frankly a number of my progressive friends and colleagues could use a few swift kicks in the ass. Right now, there is no better candidate than you to puncture the complacency that has settled in among certain sectors of the Obama camp, who still genuinely believe that questioning even a few notions of Obama’s decisions do not involve the gestures of a natural skeptic, but a liberal drifting right. Like Jefferson, I like a little rebellion now and then. Natural storms must inhabit any partisan atmospheres if the American system is to remain honest. And while we both rest on different wings, I sense that you feel the same way.

Would not the sparring that you once unsuccessfully attempted by assigning Leon Wieseltier to write an ad hominem attack on Nicholson Baker be better served through politics? I’m sure you know by now that what works for politics does not always work for books. Humorless and austere writing — that Burkean tone you so admire and attempt to employ, often stubbornly, within the Review — does not blend particularly well with the fun and bipartisan possibilities of literary journalism. But it does work for politics.

I know what you’re thinking, Mr. Tanenhaus. Did the Democrats fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this current political climate represents a .44 Magnum pointed in your direction, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself a few questions. Do I cower away from the principles with which I’ve lived my life? Or do I accept who I am and write and work with my strengths in mind?

Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?

In Which I Talk with Tanenhaus

On Wednesday night, Sam Tanenhaus and I talked. I was in the middle of arguing with my colleague Levi Asher about the future of literary coverage, saying something to him about a priori arguments in relation to rumors about The Washington Post Book World. A soft voice behind us asked, “Book World?” It was Tanenhaus.

I must give Tanenhaus credit. It was a particularly freezing evening and Tanenhaus clearly wanted to go home. But he did take the time out to chit-chat.

Our discussion was fiery but civil. I had blunt words to say to him about the New York Times Book Review‘s paucity of translated fiction coverage and its poor attention to genre — particularly science fiction. (I suggested a replacement name for Dave Itzkoff when he asked.) He had blunt words to say to me about the harsh language directed his way on this blog — and there has been, much to my present shock, quite a lot of posts devoted to Tanenhaus. But any man who can tell me to my face that he doesn’t care for my work, without a cowardly online pseudonym or an entirely batshit perspective, can’t be all bad. And I certainly took no offense to anything he said.

I had approached Tanenhaus earlier in the evening, just after he had concluded a talk at Barnes & Noble. I came to him pointing out that I merely had one question, that there would be no ambush journalism on my part, and that I simply hoped he could clarify the record. Why had seven of the top ten books of 2008 been granted to Knopf? He did not know who I was initially. It could have been the beard. And while he grew visibly agitated when I told him I was Ed Champion, he did stick around a bit to answer my question.

He indicated to me that the books selection process was publisher-blind and suggested that “the readers don’t really care.” (He seemed to be insinuating that the NYTBR only cared about the “common reader.”) In a scenario in which one conglomerate dominated the top ten monopoly (in 2008, nine of the ten titles had gone to Random House), Tanenhaus was strongly against the idea of offering a level playing field in which a few titles from another publisher might fill in some of the slots. “We can’t really say to ourselves which one doesn’t fit,” said Tanenhaus. Although he did insinuate that “seven Graywolfs” would also be great, if the selection process had veered down that direction.

But what of a hypothetical alternative list that involved splitting up the top ten books among multiple publishers? Or one that considered genre? This was, in Tanenhaus’s perspective, reflective of “commerce at the center.”

I then pointed out to Tanenhaus that commerce was perhaps more “at the center” when the NYTBR placed 90% of its top ten list with one conglomerate, and noted that other newspapers had different criteria in place to present such a scenario from happening. Tanenhaus tsk-tsked this, before another guy, who looked to be either a friend or a colleague, came to rescue Tanenhaus and extract him from my inquiries.

I returned to my amigos, and we began shooting the shit about all this. I believe Eric was the first to point the predictability of Tanenhaus’s answers. But one had to try. Tanenhaus then came rushing by, looking for his coat. I then introduced Tanenhaus to Levi, notably responsible for the excellent “Reviewing the Review” weekly series. I asked Tanenhaus if he had found any of Levi’s observations helpful. He said no.

And so we left to grab drinks. I had joked that Tanenhaus’s inflexibility to other perspectives made him the “George W. Bush of the literary world” and suggested that perhaps the NYTBR “needed an Obama” to restore coverage back to the heights of John Leonard. The group then suggested that I was that Obama, and I responded that they couldn’t possibly be serious.

As it turned out, my Bush comparison was also wrong. For Tanenhaus did talk with us about twenty minutes later. He did express some regret that he hadn’t given enough space to translated titles, but he had no answers as to how or when he would do this in the future. The sense I got was that Tanenhaus was completely reliant on his editors’ respective judgments and that this judgment permitted him to do what he needed to do in an executive capacity, but prevented him from plunging first-hand into some of today’s realities. Levi brought up the rather unfunny offerings to be found in The Back Page. And Tanenhaus suggested to us that we should send him ideas on how to improve it. The Back Page was largely freelance.

Ideas? Freelance? I know damn well that there’s no way in hell that I will ever write for The New York Times Book Review, but I decided to present a mock hypothetical. What if I were to pitch him ideas? He suggested that my journalism was “irresponsible” and “defamatory.” I asked him when he had last read my blog, and he indicated it had been many years. Well, how could he be certain that everything I was writing was “irresponsible” and “defamatory?” Another editor had told him. I mentioned the 1,600 word response to Adam Sternbergh’s review of David Denby’s Snark.

Tanenhaus was stunned to learn that I had been published in other newspapers. There was a tinge of fury flushing through his face upon hearing this news, but Tanenhaus did keep things civilized. He insisted that my “defamations” were not up to the New York Times‘s “standards.” I had the feeling he had been wanting to say much of this for some time and, given that I had zinged him here multiple times, it seemed only fair to shut up and let him deliver his apparent vitriol. I pointed out that I went after all targets, and Levi and I both observed that these posts were largely satirical. Levi defended me and compared my work to Paul Krassner. A kind and humbling comparison, but I doubted that Tanenhaus had much appreciation for a yippy.

“Ad hominem” was the key term on Tanenhaus’s mind. And I pointed out that Leon Wieseltier’s review of Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint was just as ad hominem as anything I had ever written in calling Baker’s novel “a scummy little book.” Ah, Tanenhaus responded, but Wieseltier was attacking the book, not the person. (I probably should have said to Tanenhaus that the definition of ad hominem involves attacking the object of the argument instead of making an effort to discredit it. Wieseltier calling Baker’s novel “a scummy little book” is just as low and pointless, a missed opportunity to explain to the reader why it doesn’t hold up as a novel.) This was where Tanenhaus remained stubborn. I had pointed out that Wieseltier’s aside about liberals vs. conservatives had very little to do with the quality of the book. Tanenhaus flatly declared that it was a tight argument.

“You don’t have to like what I do. I don’t have to like what you do,” said Tanenhaus. Fair enough. But this seemed absurd. Couldn’t we agree on a few common points?

He was particularly fixated on my “The Knopf Times Book Review” post, in which I had proposed that The New York Times Book Review had been bought and paid for by Knopf. But the words I wrote, while quite blistering, were satirical in the end. And beneath the vituperation was the telltale entreaty to Tanenhaus that he should exercise more judgment in his selection process if anyone wanted to take the New York Times Book Review seriously, with Dwight Garner’s recent work as daily book reviewer held up as a more virtuous model. (Not unlike Tanenhaus’s entreaty to me that I should stop tossing around ad hominem bombs. But Tanenhaus has admired Tom Wolfe and Joe Queenan, both writers who specialize in ad hominem. There were, of course, double standards on this question.)

In the end, I’m glad that Tanenhaus and I finally got to chat a bit. No, we’re not going to be BFF anytime soon. And I will continue to criticize the NYTBR‘s inadequacies, particularly when Tanenhaus and his team continue to perform grave injustices to covering translated fiction, debut fiction, graphic novels, and genre. But we were able to come together and have a civil disagreement and an exchange of views, and clear up a few points. That, in the end, is a healthy and constructive form of communication.

[UPDATE: Levi Asher has posted his report of the events.]

A Decent Issue of the NYTBR for Once?

I am especially surprised to see that this week’s edition of the New York Times Book Review has a lot of good material. I don’t know if some crafty editor over there who still cares about books had the bright idea of tying up Sam Tanenhaus and throwing him into a closet for a week in review. I cannot possibly envision Tanenhaus coming up with the brilliant idea of having Tom McCarthy review Jean-Philippe Toussaint (a literary translation, Orthofer, can you believe it?), getting Douglas Wolk weigh in on Spiegelman, Ames, and Heatley, and securing Sophie Gee to politely dismiss the Hensher novel, among other things.

This issue seems to have arrived from a parallel universe in which Tanenhaus declined the Times gig and finished his Buckley bio. There is a whiff of revolution in the air. The deputy editors seem eager to seize the means of production and make the NYTBR matter again. Yes, the NYTBR could certainly improve its terrible male-to-female ratio. But this week’s articles don’t bear the sleazy telltale assignment pairups that regularly spawn from Tanenhaus’s grubby little mind. This is an issue written by informed people who wants to assess literature and who are chomping at the bit to go all the way. Which is all that many of us have been asking over the years. None of Tanenhaus’s stuffy and out-of-touch regulars — Joe Queenan, the hopelessly unfunny Henry Alford, Lee Siegel, the pair of thirtysomething dopes Troy Patterson and Dave Itzkoff, et al. — are in here this week. (But sadly, neither is the one good regular mainstay: Liesl Schillinger.)

If the issue still carries the stigma of sleazily tendentious decision making, at least it has managed to restore itself with pretty decent coverage.

Of course, I fully expect next week’s issue to go to pot. It has become abundantly clear that Sam Tanenhaus is the primary reason why the NYTBR is mostly a joke. Keep Tanenhaus away from the cookie jar, and the NYTBR has some chance of recapturing a modicum of its former glory. And we’ll all have some tasty gingerbread to munch on.

The Knopf Times Book Review

[UPDATE: On the evening of January 21, 2009, I asked Tanenhaus in person about the concerns satirized below, and I was able to get a few answers. I point readers of this post to the direction of my later post, “In Which I Talk with Tanenhaus,” where some questions are answered and Tanenhaus’s perspective is reported.]

It started with Sam Tanenhaus’s ridiculously uncritical review (and fawning video interview) with John Updike. It continued with Tanenhaus’s lips nearly licking Toni Morrison to a needlessly sensual premature death. But this afternoon, Sam Tanenhaus proved that The New York Times Book Review isn’t an independent organ, but rather a throbbing and dependent organ shoving itself restlessly into Knopf’s moist vagina. The New York Times Book Review selected its top ten books of 2008. Seven of the books were from Knopf. Of the remaining three selections, two were from other Random House imprints under Knopf’s watch. The only other publisher served was Farrar, Straus & Giruoux.

I think it goes without saying that someone is getting a cock sucked here.

My beef here is not with Random House, who has been consistently receptive and helpful to journalists of all stripes, but with Sam Tanenhaus’s embarrassingly tendentious selection process. These are malodorous results that reek as shamefully as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s “decision-making process” during the Golden Globe Awards. It bears the skunkish whiff of junkets and favoritism. And it certainly doesn’t behoove any “paper of record” that expects us to take it seriously.

If this is a desperate ploy on Tanenhaus’s part to coax Random House to buy more advertising space in the New York Times Book Review, well, the joke here’s on Tanenhaus. Because why should Random House buy an advertisement in the NYTBR when they’re getting all this free publicity?

Look, I love Updike as much as the next guy. But let’s face the facts. By and large, the critics seemed to agree that The Widows of Eastwick didn’t quite cut the mustard. For Tanenhaus to write, in all seriousness, “At 76, he still wrings more from a sentence than almost anyone else. His sorcery is startlingly fresh, page upon page,” suggests very strongly that Tanenhaus assigned the wrong guy to review the book. It is one thing to marvel at Updike’s prose. But it’s quite another to fawn over it like an uncritical and sycophantic lapdog. For all the love and fanboyish accolades that have been granted to Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Roberto Bolano’s 2666, I’ve never seen any of these plaudits spill over into Tanenhaus’s unmitigated hero worship.

How can any man live with himself knowing that he is such an unrepentant whore? Thank goodness Dwight Garner got out of this sausage factory when he did for the daily book reviewing gig. Compare Garner’s more adept review of Alison Bechdel’s The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For in today’s edition. It’s just as effusive as Tanenhaus’s Updike review, but at least Garner still has some respect: both for himself and the readership.

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.

NYTBR: Polishing the Rails

News emerged over the weekend that Dwight Garner was fleeing the New York Times Book Review for a gig as a daily books critic. With Rachel Donadio leaving the Book Review in the summer and Sam Tanenhaus performing double duty as editor of NYTBR and Week in Review, one wonders just who actually is running the NYTBR these days. Sure, Gregory Cowles was just bumped up to preview editor in September. But with the deputy editor slot open, does this mean Cowles will get two promotions in two months? Or will this slot go another editor over there?

One can only hope that all this staff shuffling reflects the beginnings of a much-needed regime change at the NYTBR. The NYTBR has become an out-of-touch, calcified rag in which it now takes two months after pub date for a major review to run, no-nothing dunces like Dave Itzkoff review science fiction, vaguely quirky writing (in the books reviewed or the reviews itself) is actively discouraged, translated fiction is regularly limited, and the editors actually believe that Henry Alford is funny. Compare any issue of the NYTBR under the Tanenhaus-Garner run against any issue under any issue edited by John Leonard, and you will see just how far this once-important section has fallen.

And as the Observer‘s Leon Neyfakh reported today, there was a time not long ago in which Dwight Garner felt the same way. Today, Garner has changed his tune, pointing out that “it’s a piece that clings to me on Google like a vampire bat.”

Is that Garner’s wry way of telling us that he’s in dire need of a blood transfusion? That he’s washed up? That he, just as he predicted twelve years ago, is incapable of regularly throwing sparks? Sounds very much like business as usual. In other words, why buy Valium when Garner is there in the daily?

Responding to Tanenhaus: August 13

Sam: Very tepid on your blog. Not hot at all. Am told the men caught another snake nuzzling into Keller’s neck and that the snake responded to your name. Who knew that serpents could colloquize? In any event, a missed opportunity with your latest post. To suggest that only one party can be right in this case is to miss the very particular points that Messrs. Wood and Baker were making. Wood responded to Updike’s passage with an aesthetic eye. Baker rejoined with a clear passion for language. Cannot both be right? To suggest that there is only one opinion on a passage is to have a very limited and incurious mind indeed. Those of us who actually love literature may love a sentence for its feeling while simultaneously loathing it for its bombast. Have adopted this gimmicky Orwell-inspired approach to blogging that I find quite fun, but one commenter lodged his displeasure. Is he right? I would not deign to suggest that I have a superior opinion of my own writing because I happen to have written it. But some may judge it good, others bad. But nobody is “right.” Nobody has the ultimate answer. Did you not learn from Freud, Sammy Baby, that when one presents a definitive codex of human behavior, it will be easily usurped and outmoded in half a century? And have you not learned in your years as editor of The New York Times Book Review that literary criticism or even the casual appreciation of literature is not a matter of being “right,” but of presenting a thread to be picked up by another resourceful stitcher.

David Kamp, Blog Snob

Ten years from now, we’ll all be inured to David Kamp. A whole generation will have grown up as his book, The United States of Arugula, has been long forgotten — the remaining copies pulped or perhaps used as oversized skeet shooting pellets, because they couldn’t even sell as remainders. For what imagination can one expect from a hack writer whose grand contributions to letters include The Food Snob’s Dictionary, The Film Snob’s Dictionary, The Rock Snob’s Dictionary, and The Wine Snob’s Dictionary? (One senses a trend. A writer so content to plant the word “snob” to his contributions in four different terrains, even satirically, must truly be an insufferable asshole.)

Right now, this great parvenu David Kamp has turned the prick of his pen to blogs. Using the finest epithets that 1999 had to offer, Kamp rails against the “untamed blogosphere” and the “Wild Web.” He displays his considerable ignorance in suggesting that the Smoking Gun is merely a place “best known for the documents it unearths via the Freedom of Information Act,” failing to understand that it was indeed the Smoking Gun that broke the James Frey scandal. This was the kind of lengthy investigative journalism that the New York Times once practiced, before it turned its resources to the women who New York governors were schtupping. (There’s also this neat little thing called the Internet Archive! Wow! That’s even better than the brand new 56k modem I bought last month from a guy on the street who said that it was “cutting edge.”)

He is content to cast aspersions about specific blogs based entirely on their titles (“cutesie-poo,” “mock-suave,” et al.), without bothering to cite any specific examples as to how the content lives up to these modifiers. (Look, I think the name “David Kamp” sounds like some cult member waiting for the big day when his shaky pyrotechnics knowledge will be enlisted in the jihad, or, failing that, the sad and klutzy moment when he accidentally blows off his hands and it’s all settled up as a dutiful sacrifice to The Leader. But you won’t see me belittling the man’s three syllables. Particularly when his piss-poor argument is so patently ridiculous.)

Indeed, Kamp appears so deaf to the idea of text that he compares Sarah Boxer’s post-excerpt pages to Johnny Carson. In this age of Quark and word processors, Kamp can’t seem to wrap his head around the concept of text being read on an LCD screen and later transposed to book form. It’s certainly bad enough that Kamp can’t even get his medium right. But in citing Johnny Carson, a dead talk show host who has been rotting under the earth quite well for three years and who hasn’t aired on a regular basis in sixteen years, Kamp demonstrates that he is as culturally au courant as a Deadhead who doesn’t quite understand that Jerry Garcia’s fat ass has been long chewed up by the maggots.

In Kamp’s view, a blogger cannot just have an “esoteric interest.” He feels compelled to add the word “obsessive,” as if those who compose their words for a screen are no different from Branch Davidians. He is quick to tell us that “[i]n the case of the blogger Benjamin Zimmer, a linguistic anthropologist, it’s language that turns him on.” That reminds me of the case of the quantum physicist who was turned on by quantum physics. Or David Kamp, the dumbass book critic who was turned on by dumbass observations.

Of course, reading sections of a 368 page book — composed of speedy prose, no less — was “a chore” for poor David Kamp. Kamp doesn’t report if he’s ever done a day of hard labor in his life, something like working on a farm or in a warehouse that might offer a sufficient comparative basis. (I’ll take a wild guess: no.) He doesn’t say what or why. That, of course, would involve actual thought. He merely says that what David Byrne does on his blog is a thousand times better than what Momus does on his. When Kamp resorts to ratios like this, he demonstrates that the true soporific wonkery on display here is not found within blogs, but in Kamp’s utter failure to provide any substantive analysis.

Leafing through much of David Kamp’s indolent and hastily assembled review — lightweight thought, lack of curiosity, comic misfires, recountings of personal travail (i.e., the “chore”) — I was reminded less of a book review than of a dreary speech delivered by a doddering conspiracy theorist for a Rotary International chapter. Sure, you want to encourage the man. But you would never expect his ramblings to be published in The New York Times Book Review. Not without a team of editors to rival a junta. And even then, there’s the old adage about cooks and broth.

And who is Kamp to speculate about Boxer’s vacillating motivations in writing the book? Can’t Boxer change her mind?

A thoughtful, and even critical, review of blog writing is by no means a dreadful idea for a newspaper piece. But this particular review goes well beyond a missed opportunity. If the NYTBR has any good sense, it will have a team of security guards punch David Kamp in the face if he ever tries to set up a lunch meeting with Sam Tanenhaus or Dwight Garner again.

Oh, That Sam Tanenhaus!

It appears that Sam Tanenhaus will be expanding his editing duties to the Week in Review section, which he will also be editing. Apparently, one section isn’t enough for good old Sammy Boy. Bill Keller hopes to work Tanenhaus to death until he leaves the paper. Keller writes, “I can’t wait to see what creative energy he will bring to the continual reinventing of the Week in Review.” Now that’s quite cruel — the kind of thing I expect from someone dousing salt on the participants in a snail race and then shouting, “Go go go!” as the competitors dissolve just before the finish line. I actually felt sorry for Tanenhaus, until I was reminded by Jim Sleeper that Tanenhaus can’t stop prioritizing demagoguery before debate. Really, just about the best thing that Tanenhaus can do under these circumstances is throw in the towel and go back to working on the Buckley bio. It’s clear that’s where his true passion lies.

Did Someone Hook Tanenhaus Up With Some Acapulco Gold or Something?

I am absolutely stunned to see this week’s edition of The New York Times Book Review contain not one, but TWO, pieces devoted to comics: Stephanie Zacharek’s review of The Completely Mad Don Martin and Douglas Wolk’s column. Plus, there’s this cheeky review of the David Levy book and Liesl Schillinger reviews Zeroville and makes this very astute observation: “Both Biskind’s and Erickson’s books begin with the Manson murders and an earthquake.”

Regrettably, Joe Queenan is also in there with another bland attempt at wit. One can’t have everything. But I’m truly astonished to see a far more relaxed attitude in place at Tanenhaus’s rag this week and, for this, I must applaud this week’s issue.

Sam Tanenhaus: You’ll Like Our Translation Pick Or Else!

Languagehat unearths a hilarious online expose involving Sam Tanenhaus’s failure to dictate to the masses. It seems that Tanenhaus attempted to strong-arm his readership into loving the Richard Peevar and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace and his readers, begging to differ, express their preference for other translations. Peevar then shows up, defends his translation, is then humiliated, and then comes back again with a whiny defensive rejoinder. And Sammy Boy just can’t stand it! How dare the readers think for themselves? How dare they fail to recognize the Grand Importance of the New York Times Book Review?

Needless to say, I don’t have to analyze this week’s issue or dig up the Brownie Watch to tell you that this kind of hubris from Tanenhaus, his inability to listen to readers and his colossal misunderstanding of dissent among the blogosphere, deserves no brownies.

No brownies for you, Sam! Not this week, or for the next four weeks! Maybe if you considered that the people who read the New York Times actually have brains inside their heads, you might do better.

(Thanks, Kári!)

Questions for Sam Tanenhaus

  • Since Faust was a tragic play, an opera, and a film, how can Schlesinger “paint” his defection as Faustian? Sure, Goethe was an occasional painter, but even he had his doubts.
  • Also, as neologisms go, “irono-babe” is about as inviting as Infobahn. (And why the hyphen? The first step in coining any noun is to present it without a grammatical eyesore.)
  • How can Schlesinger be an omnivore “and a carnivore?” An omnivore eats both plants and animals. Since this little contradictory morsel was inserted via a hyphenated clause, could it be that the copy desk doesn’t know the difference between a herbivore, a carnivore, and an omnivore?
  • What business does an unsubstantiated rumor about Philip Roth’s sex life have in a review of Exit Ghost? I cannot help but wonder if Clive James was asked to spice things up with an indiscretion.
  • If a dead man “has been close to all” four men throughout Graham Swift’s Last Orders, must we conclude that these four men have been lingering close to the dead man’s ashes throughout the novel? Or is proper past tense not part of NYTBR house style?
  • Likewise: “In telling her story in a nighttime whisper, Paula reveals facets of herself and her experience the reader might otherwise never glean.” Conjunction junction, what’s your function?
  • If one buys a book online, one buys it from one’s home computer, not necessarily from Britain.
  • If a shape is a visual form, how does it snap back? Aren’t shapes silent? Also, if time “warps at the edges and then stops altogether,” is time a temporal or a visual noun here? Make up your mind.
  • Also: “Together, this seemingly ordinary couple became the poles of Hampl’s existence, opposing magnetic forces that held their conflicted daughter firmly between them.” Aside from the messy syntax here, this sentence could be easily read the wrong way. If Hampl’s parents are opposing magnetic forces, would they not repel their daughter?
  • “Her previous memoirs portray a woman watching the world go by without her, an outsider gazing in.” Wait a minute. I thought she was gazing outside. Danielle Trussoni appears to be directionally challenged.
  • Conflict of interest much, Sammy baby?
  • “The essays are more chewy — what one imagines Milan Kundera might sound like before his first cup of coffee.” Nice try, Ms. Harrison, but why not evoke a chewy snack instead of coffee?
  • You “want” this and you “want” that, Mr. Taylor. Good Christ, you sound like a spoiled teenager who demands a Porsche on his sixteenth birthday. Criticism isn’t about wanting. It’s about interpreting and understanding.

A Kinder, Gentler NYTBR Podcast

It appears that the NYTBR podcast has shifted to a kinder, gentler opening tune — which is to say opening music that as safe as elevator music (but certainly not houses). And Tanenhaus is now trying harder to sound warmer than he has in the past. One can only imagine the memos that were disseminated. I commend Tanenhaus for attempting to access that lovely portion of the human spectrum that exists beyond the walls of the New York Times building. But Tanenhaus has all the believability of Tor Johnson in Plan 9 from Outer Space. All the media training in the world won’t do anything to change a man who has all the charisma of a bitter accountant in early April. This podcast, predicated on the We Take No Chances model of corporate complacency, really needs to be abandoned or taken over by someone who still has a shred of genuine ebullience about literature.

Sam Tanenhaus: Let the Cheap Sensationalism Continue

Have you heard the latest from Sam Tanenhaus’s dismal literary tabloid? Writers should be pilloried for writing the sentence “Men are rats.” It’s an absolute scandal. Toni Bentley, presumably recruited because this offered the boys another opportunity to pump her for more thoughts on posterior probings, proceeds to characterize Katha Pollitt’s latest book as another volume in “[g]roaning and moaning from clever, sassy women.” After spending three paragraphs attacking the right of intelligent women to write about being burned by men (in a remarkably sexist term of art, Bentley characterizes these women as “vagina dentata intellectualis”), while failing to point out precisely where Pollitt went wrong in her work. Four paragraphs into the review, we still have no explicit quote from the book that will support Bentley’s thesis, but we do have this extraordinary sentence:

It’s hard to tell if she’s coming into her own, trying to sell more books or has lost it entirely.

I don’t see how speculating upon the mental health or financial motivations of a writer offers any thoughtful insight into a book. It’s clear enough that Bentley hated the book. I get that. Pollitt is a polarizing figure. But as a reviewer, does not Bentley have the obligation to tell us why specific passages reflect what she perceives as inadequacies? Instead, Bentley merely summarizes some of the essays and spends most of her review offering limp wisecracks. (“Not being in drowning mode, I, for one, am bringing a cliché-proof life jacket to the party.”)

It is stupendously irresponsible to take a sentence like “Men are rats” and not provide any additional journalistic context to offer us a few clues about what Pollitt was writing about. In publishing such a piece, it seems evidently clear that Sam Tanenhaus has no interest in examining social issues with any degree of maturity. It is bad enough that he would resort to cheap sensationalism. But it is the act of a thug to permit a piece that would attack Pollitt’s character rather than her words.

NYTBR for Dummies: No Revision Required

To read Jim Lewis’s review of Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke is to enter an overvalued campanile of stupidity, amateurish insight, half-baked conclusions, and insufferable smugness that one expects from a Forbes 500 member who has the apparent misfortune of running into a groundling. The groundling, of course, is you, me, any curious insect climbing up an unsightly sandhill to scout out the dreaded conformists who would replace a beautiful literary vale with their high colonic obstructions.

“Good morning and please listen to me,” begins Lewis, adopting the tone of a bemused rube looking around a restaurant, unsure of how to pay the bill while others simply settle up. In fact, Lewis is so unsure of nearly everything about Johnson that he lacks even the self-starting impetus to ask. This rube is more preoccupied with where Johnson has talked and when Johnson has been photographed, but is so indolent a critic that he cannot even perform two Google searches to answer his own questions. (And whether such junket-like qualifiers matter in a review that has plenty to mine from a meaty 614-page book is debatable.) That such an dull and incurious reader would be assigned for a major Sunday newspaper section — indeed, Lewis openly confesses that he doesn’t care much to review books — is truly astonishing, or would be less so, if the boys’ brigade at the NYTBR were not in the regular habit of offering reviews written by idiots, signifying nothing.

For example, here’s Lewis on his ostensible hero:

But unlike most books about the dispossessed, they’re original (how strange it feels to use that word these days, but it fits), and what’s more, deliriously beautiful — ravishing, painful; as desolate as Dostoyevsky, as passionate and terrifying as Edgar Allan Poe.

Nice to see Lewis taking a writer as sui generis as Johnson and comparing him like some terrified undergraduate haphazardly flipping through a syllabus to meet the requirements of a term paper. Any good literary critic would have known damn well that Denis Johnson was one of the “dirty realism” poster boys a few decades ago and weaved something of this early assessment into his piece. (David Ulin, who should know better, did not, I’m afraid. But at least one gets a comparative example in Ulin’s review that cannot be found anywhere in Lewis’s review.)

Lewis is so lazy that he cannot even point out that Jesus’s Son was, in fact, a series of linked stories. (Has he even read it?) In Lewis’s myopic universe, there are only clumsy taxonomies: “novelist-performers or novelist-pundits or novelist-narcissists” and “novelists who can write this well,” but never any crossover. Lewis is likewise incapable of understanding a sentence, or, like a true linguistic explorer, even venturing a stab at what it might mean. He quotes a sentence, only to flex his critical acumen like so: “What a thing to say, but the book is moving on.” In the same paragraph, he demonstrates that he probably has no business being a critic, seeing as how he cannot even offer precise imagery that one would expect from a novelist. Lewis describes sentences that “roll like billiard balls with weird English on them.” This is an assessment? It strikes me as the kind of thing a literary enthusiast might say to you in a bar after five martinis, but not something that any reasonable person would include in a review in lieu of an attempt to parse the text. (“Y’know thot ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan’ sentence? Rolls like a bowling ball with odd Irish neologisms on it…me few pounds, give me a lash.”)

Like the same frightened undergraduate meeting every prescribed point in a five-paragraph essay, Lewis confesses to his readers: “But I haven’t told you what the thing is about yet.” With sentences like these, one wonders why the NYTBR didn’t just run this review with bracketed sentences. (“[Insert compelling lede here.],” “[Mandatory plot summary.],” the like.) He complains about the “hardware on display (guns, airplanes, intelligence equipage),” but doesn’t seem to understand that a novel involving a CIA agent might actually require such objects. He then offers one of the grandest insults imaginable to Johnson:

And he can occasionally overindulge in significance: a longish journey, at the end of “Tree of Smoke,” left me with the uneasy sense that he can’t tell the difference between Joseph Conrad, who was a genius, and Joseph Campbell, who was not.

I think Johnson’s work stands for itself, but, since Lewis is the kind of yokel who won’t be satisfied until he hears it from the horse’s mouth, here’s Johnson questioned about his post-apocalyptic novel Fiskadoro — by the New York Times, no less:

”Fiskadoro” grew out of Mr. Johnson’s earlier idea ”for a book about a person left after the holocaust, living in sort of a savage state. It was much more primitive than this, and very tribal.” He expected that ”Fiskadoro” too would be centered on a single character, the adolescent boy of the title. ”But I found that he was actually always a little bit distant. For that reason, the two other characters representing different modes of consciousness became more and more prominent.”

This clear emphasis on narrative compartmentalization doesn’t sound to me like a guy who mixes up his two Josephs.

And here’s a hint for the Tanenhaus crew, or any other book review editor: A “critic” or a “reviewer” who calls a mammoth book written by a leading contemporary writer a mere “thing” should probably be led to the door or thoroughly flogged in front of a throng of illiterate cokeheads.

If this is the kind of long-form review that Sam Tanenhaus considers acceptable, Tanenhaus’s remarkable ability to enervate the life and love of fiction through such crude and base shepherding keeps the NYTBR a dessicated husk more fit for automatons than enthusiasts.

Sam Tanenhaus: The Architect of Decay

This week’s New York Times Book Review includes a potentially promising meditation on ideology by Stephen Metcalf, who writes about a recent essay anthology, Why I Turned Right: Leading Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journey. Ensconced within this essay is Metcalf attempting to come to terms with his personal ideology, with a surprisingly uncharacteristic use of the first-person — surprisingly uncharacteristic, at least, for the Tanenhaus crew, who have continually operated as if writing in first-person was akin to shaking hands with a leper or eating an entree with a salad fork. But I must agree with Levi that Metcalf misses a significant opportunity with this revelation:

In short, I am white, privileged, middle-aged and boring. But one thing I am not, and never will be, is a conservative.

Never will be? Countless individuals have written statements like this over human history, only to live against the promise. While I commend Metcalf for copping to his alleged “privileged” and “boring” status (would Rachel Donadio ever confess anything like this?), it is a great misstep to remain so convinced that one will not change over the course of time — particularly in unexpected ways — while also closely examining a collection with contributors likely to adopt a similar position from the other side (“I own a home. I make good money. I never will be a liberal.”). This could have been a more compelling essay if Metcalf had stopped to examine the plausibilities of conservatism influencing him and others, the rhetorical similarities behind any ideology left or right, or if he had kept up his daring personal perspective throughout the piece’s entirety. Instead, we get this overly tidy generalization:

Because these conservatives were, by and large, low-status males (or the feminism-disdaining women who loved them) in high school and college, they know instinctively how to connect with the culturally dispossessed.

Whether this specific sentence came during the writing or the editing process is difficult to say, but it does fit in with the NYTBR‘s current m.o. Never let the audience contemplate a position outside of a rigid dichotomy. Ironically, this is the very position that Metcalf objects to in the anthology.

I have enjoyed some of Metcalf’s work for Slate, which often has him adopting the contrarian position, only to gradually work against this initial summation over the course of a piece. (See, for example, this essay on Bruce Springsteen.) It’s a nice approach that allows Metcalf to drift eventually to the more interesting gray areas. But I’m wondering if the NYTBR‘s rigid orthodoxy allows Metcalf to take the same intellectual liberties.

Dave Itzkoff on How to Write for the NYTBR

The first dirty little secret of writing a review for Sam Tanenhaus is to come across like an ill-informed wanker who knows nothing of the genre he is writing about. The second is that everyone who reads the NYTBR are — dare I say it? — intended to be treated as idiots.

It’s important to state a very obvious observation about a genre and then back it up with even more obvious examples — the kind of thing that just about any remote geek would have long since talked about, but that the pretentious literary types insist is “hip” or “new” because they decide to keep their heads in the sand about this crazy little thing called genre. It’s also important to pad out your obvious observation into a really long paragraph like this that sounds sophisticated — that’s written in that insufferable Tanenhaus-sanctioned vernacular — but that has very little fucking substance to it.

It is this axiom that shapes and empowers Sam Tanenhaus’s far from imaginative and, at times, achingly nauseating book review section. In contrast to book review sections like The Washignton Post and The Los Angeles Times, who actually go to the trouble of not only employing people who are passionate about literature but actually read the work of their contributors so as to offer pitch-perfect assignments, the NYTBR, which is less important in the grand scheme of things than it thinks it is, takes the opposite approach, applying the bullshitter’s tools to what is essentially a tabloid section of hot air and gormless content. In essays that alternate between the occasionally provocative to the truly dead, the NYTBR doesn’t come close to telling the story of literature as we know it, remaining openly hostile to anything that isn’t Saul Bellow — apparently, the only author who gives Sammy Boy a hard-on — or part of that petit-bourgeois nonsense that a saner world would shun. You need not possess a brain to masticate upon this stuff, for take away the faux ornate language and there is nothing here to chew on — no penetrating insights or enthusiasm about literature.

Factor in the continued employment of Dave “What’s Skiffy?” Itzkoff — as opposed to people who know something about the genre (like, say, Ed Park or Jeff VanderMeer) — and you have one colossal joke of a newspaper book review section.

Sam Tanenhaus’s Soul-Sucking Tentacles

Litkicks: “Rachel Donadio’s articles have no point of view. I’ve read at least ten of her essays or interviews in this publication in the last two years, and I have never once felt I had the slightest indication what she thought about her subject. She is the only regular NYTBR writer who does not ever deign to share a point of view with the reader. In theory, this type of dispassion could have some value — perhaps some sort of Joan Didion-esque blank journalistic resonance — but it would have to be handled more artistically to achieve this effect. When I read an article like today’s Donadio piece on Salman Rushdie, I simply feel empty and unsatisfied. I expect a New York Times Book Review writer to communicate some type of point of view to me, or else I’m eating a bowl of flavor-free ice cream. Rachel Donadio, what do you think about Salman Rushdie?”

I agree with Levi, with one vital qualifier: Donadio’s work at the Observer did have a point of view to share with the reader. Consider this sardonic 2004 report of BookExpo:

Nearby, Jonathan Karp, the boyish and rising (if not already risen) Random House senior vice president and editor in chief, aggressively introduced passers-by to Robert Kurson, a slightly frightened-looking author whose book, Shadow Divers , is about divers who find a U-boat off the coast of New Jersey. It is expected to do well.

Or this amusing Caitlin Flanagan report:

So she doesn’t wash the sheets, but she does sew buttons. Does she like to sew buttons? “I do like to sew buttons. I think it’s very rewarding that you can take a garment that’s shabby and unwearable and in this quick way you can really transform it,” she said. “It’s an easy little gift for me to give him.” Yet this is from the same woman who in her 2003 essay on Erma Bombeck wrote that “I have been married a total of fourteen years to a total of two men, and never once have I been asked to iron a single item of either man’s clothing or to replace even one popped button, for which I suppose I have the women’s movement to thank. But I realize now, late in the game, that we’d be much better off if I had a few of those skills.”

This is the kind of skepticism and juxtaposition that one expects from a literary reporter along these lines. But this playful tone — which once made Donadio’s pieces so much fun to read — has disappeared in recent years. Did Donadio check in her sense of humor upon signing on with Tanenhaus? What caused her work to become what Levi suggests is “empty and unsatisfied?”

I don’t think it’s an accident that things shifted the minute that Donadio signed on with the NYTBR. Just look at the soulless banter in Donadio’s latest piece and compare it with the Observer work. This wholesale evisceration of this journalist’s strengths into prose that resembles a humorless hack is yet another reason why the NYTBR needs several swift kicks in the ass. Good editors recognize life and do their best to cultivate and nurture a journalist’s voice. While this thankfully seems to be the case with Liesl Schillinger, whose reviews continue to remain engaging and enthusiastic (perhaps because Schillinger keeps herself at arm’s length as a freelancer), I think something terrible may have happened to Donadio when she succumbed to the moth effect.

“Visions and Violence” — Vollmann and Drew at the Whitney

There are indeed people in New York who are interested in William T. Vollmann. On Thursday night, accompanied by Marydell, Levi, and Jason, I attended the Whitney Museum “Summer of Love” lecture featuring photographer Richard Drew — the man behind the Falling Man photos — and, of course, Vollmann. There, I also met a smart Pynchon enthusiast by the name of Christopher Byrd, a guy named Doug (a Barth fan who I met in the lobby), and another gentleman named Ralph, who apparently discovered The Vollmann Club while trying to find information on the man to teach a class. There was also another pleasant gentleman who reads this site, but whose name I sadly don’t recall. I was pleasantly surprised that my announcement drew a few WTV fans out of the closet who apparently recognized me and were kind enough to say hello.

richarddrew.jpgDespite the event’s title “Vision and Violence,” I was particularly surprised that nobody had mentioned the Abu Ghraib photos during the course of the conversation. But both Vollmann and photographer Richard Drew had interesting things to say about the role of photography, of which more anon.

The moderator, whose name I neglected to jot down in my notes because of an unexpected shift in lighting that startled me, was a regrettably stiff gentleman who worked for The New Yorker. I feel that I can sufficiently call him stiff because, when Vollmann read a stirring passage (“The White Knights”) from The Rainbow Stories, the moderator stared at Vollmann the entire time, craning his neck like an affluent ostrich ensnared in the unexpected Swedish cold. I know that he was doing his best and was no doubt apprised by someone that discussing violence was a serious business. Nevertheless, it was a bit awkward to see the moderator, Vollmann, and Drew crammed around a small table on stage right, so that the same twenty-five photographic images — John Filo’s Kent State photo, Nick Út’s Vietnam napalm girl, Eddie Adams’s execution photo, et al. — could be projected on a large screen in front of the audience. But the talk itself was interesting, with Drew even becoming defensive near the end.

The moderator began by asking what the two men were doing during the Summer of Love. Vollmann replied that he was not even a teenager, but said that he remembered his mother driving him home from school, when Kennedy was assassinated. His mother was crying and couldn’t stand this news. The young Vollmann looked to the other cars and saw that other people were crying.

“How do you find your subject matter?” asked the moderator. (This was a sampling of the generalized questions he had at his disposal.) Drew indicated that his daily assignments are determined on a minute-by-minute basis. Recently, he had taken photos of “the girl from Harry Potter on the Today Show,” as well as a 280 point jump at the New York Stock Exchange. Vollmann said that his subject matter came from a desire to understand, learn, and help others. He remarked upon how the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had upset him, particularly when it started disappearing from the newspapers. His desire to help became “more attenuated.” Vollmann said that in all journalistic capacities, he wanted to give something to the people he met. In 1992 Sarajevo, Vollmann said that he “wanted understanding of who was more wrong.”

Upon Vollmann’s response, Drew became a bit rankled with this journalistic notion of helping people. “I’m not the Red Cross!” he insisted, shortly after declaring that he “records history every day.” Drew declared that there’s nothing political in what he does. And while one might argue that there may not be much of a political stake in photographing “the girl from Harry Potter” (I’m certain that future historians will be looking back at a Today Show publicity junket when chronicling the important moments of our time), are not Drew’s Falling Man photos political in some sense? Drew later mentioned that some newspapers thought it inappropriate to publish these photos. He also observed that this Channel 4 documentary (full one hour, eleven minute YouTube link) examining the subject of whether the photos were appropriate had not yet aired in the States. During the Q&A session that came later, Drew was adamant that he was not pushed around or pressured to shoot particular photos as an AP photographer. But surely a man with 37 years in the business understands that the decisions of editors and publishers to prioritize lionized firemen over a man plunging to his death from the Twin Towers is certainly political in nature. Without discounting Drew’s artistry as a photographer, surely a man who knows what photos are going to sell is more likely to tilt his lens in a certain direction if it will make ends meet. (Drew later confessed that, despite accepting nearly every assignment that came to him, he elected not to go to Iraq between the two wars because he had a kid on the way. It’s worth noting that Vollmann has continued to travel to faraway locales despite having a family to support, although, unlike Drew, he did not mention his family.)

Vollmann pointed out that he tried not to judge people — “at least not too early.” He offered a novelist’s comparison between flat and round characters, and pointed out distinction between understanding and telling, using an example of Muslims who had never heard of the Holocaust and couldn’t believe that it was true.

In response to the moderator’s question of whether the two men had observed the world becoming a more dangerous place, Drew again divested himself of politics, observing, “You don’t have to choose a side. You just have to be in the right place at the right time.” Vollmann didn’t think the world had become any more dangerous. But when the talk shifted to assignments, he pointed out that his only criteria in turning something down was (1) the publication not paying him enough and (2) whether his work is going to be helpful and worth the risk. Vollmann stated that if he were to go to Iraq today, he would have to think about it. “What good would it do? Would I have anything new to contribute?”

Concerning photography, Vollmann pointed out that he relied on Comtex cameras when going to a war zone because the lenses are very sharp and durable. For situations that are less dangerous, he relied on an 810. The photographs that Vollmann takes often allow his readers to get another sense of a person, such as some of the subjects that Vollmann included in Poor People.

Drew noted that photos tell the story and that he doesn’t have the luxury of 10,00 words. He had only one picture. The moderator noted that the Falling Man photos were “formally beautiful,” and in referring to his Falling Man photos, Drew pointed out that he had not experienced nearly as much controversy when he published his Kennedy photos.

Vollmann said that he didn’t face much in the way of restrictions. “A lot of people don’t read. So I don’t have too many problems.” He then referred to his Bosnia experience, when two friends of his were killed in a jeep. He said that he had the right and the duty to publish something, but that he didn’t want to publish pictures of their dead faces. He didn’t feel this ws right. Nevertheless, Vollmann said, “The job of the reporter is to show conflict, to show suffering.” So while in the back seat, he grabbed his notebook and started writing. Drew grew visibly uneasy over this and Vollmann simply responded, “They were already dead.” He pointed out that had that not been the case, he would have helped them.

Despite Drew’s quibbles over Vollmann’s personal concern for his subjects, Drew nevertheless pointed out that he would carry on taking photos without obtaining the permission of his subjects. Drew said that his motto was Shoot first, ask questions later. “I have to capture reality as it happens.”

Perhaps observing Drew’s growing discomfort, Vollmann then said that he doesn’t necessarily believe that Drew’s approach is wrong, but that his own approach involves “wanting to understand a person or event over time.” He said that it was important to earn the trust of his subjects. If he knew the subject, then he was more inclined to ask their permission. But when it come to depicting naked violence — such as an extreme Serbian nationalist shooting someone — “some of the rules don’t apply.”

nytdrew.jpgThe moderator then asked another regrettably general question: “What made you want to do what you want to do?” Vollmann said that he hopes that he can document moments in time. Drew pointed out that his photography started off as a hobby. When in college, a street sweeper had overturned. He took photos and, upon getting an offer for $5 for the picture or a free roll of film and a photo credit, he chose the latter. He then became a freelance photographer, constantly listening to the police scanner. Today, with digital demand, Drew said that “the beast has become more insatiable.”

Vollmann pointed out, “As the beast becomes more insatiable, it’s for more and more types of meat in smaller bytes.” He said that he was more inclined to write books and less inclined to write magazine pieces, because there was no longer the demand for 20,000 word stories, as there was in the ’90’s. But he also observed, “If your heart is really in something, no one’s going to stop you.”

When Don DeLillo’s Falling Man was brought up, Drew offered a remarkable story. When DeLillo’s book was reviewed in the NYTBR, the review came with an accompanying graphic for the cover. Without accreditation to Drew, it seems that Sam Tanenhaus’s team not only stole Drew’s image for the cover, but egregiously smudged out the figure of the man (see above image to left). Drew was understandably upset about this, simply asking for “credit where credit is due.” And it makes one wonder how many other images have been appropriated by Tanenhaus’s team without credit.

[UPDATE: Jason has a brief writeup, which also references the conversation that Vollmann and a good cluster of us had afterwards.]

[UPDATE 2: Marydell also has a report up.]

Gunter’s Such a Great Guy!

I’m with Orthofer. How precisely does John Irving’s “Give my buddy Gunter a chance” piece tell us anything about Peeling the Onion? By this sleazy standard, one would expect Tanenhaus to sully the NYTBR further by publishing a 4,000 word essay authored by one of George Bush’s remaining friends, telling us to look the other way on the unethical commutation of Scooter Libby because Bush is such a great guy to have a beer with.

This is the kind of self-serving approach that belongs in a stag club’s meeting notes, not a weekly publication that purports to cover the arts and humanities.

The White Collar Critic

Why aren’t there more white collar critics? Or, more specifically, why aren’t there more snobs who believe they’re championing blue collar critics when they have about as much interest in the working class as a permanent resident of a gated community?

It is a very good thing indeed that the white collar critics could care less about devoting their precious real estate to those scruffy baristas or those dirty steelworkers (despite NAFTA, believe it or not, there remain some mills open on American soil! Who knew?). How dare they quote Aeschylus? And how dare some of these overeducated white-collar doctorates remember their Greek playwrights? We all know the game: ignorance and conformist thinking is bliss!

The white collar critic’s limo liberal guilt has been a grand ruse for some time now. The book reviewing landscape has been a closed system. And a good thing too! Who needs some interloper with a mere bachelor’s degree ready to shake things up when you can embrace the lackluster “humor” of a complacent reactionary like Joe Queenan? He’s “funny,” because the superior white collar system says so! And because anybody who worked at Vanity Fair with Tanenhaus, washed up or not, is “Funny” with a capital F! Who needs speculation on Marianne Wiggins’s fascinating new novel when the white collar environment can explain every detail to you like you’re a rictus-mouthed literary socialite at a bland cocktail party? Intellectual conformism — the great stock in trade of the white collar critic — dictates that the white collar critics know what’s best, mostly because their shirts are so impeccably starched. They are the grand gatekeepers. The ONLY gatekeepers! So let’s take all the fun out of newspapers by populating these book review sections with a sea of Babbitts! The white collar critics will never permit their readers a scintilla of independent thought, much less an idiosyncratic insight. They dictate. They decide how you think. They’re white collar and they’re proud. And they live by the admirable mantra: We take no chances!

Support your white collar critics today! Don’t just buy one edition of the New York Times every Sunday. Buy twelve!

Erica Wagner Gets an F (And Tanenhaus Too!)

Erica Wagner, whose first name is Erica and whose last name is Wagner, displays needless padding in the third paragraph, which comes before the fourth and after the second, in her review of Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero in today’s issue of the New York Times Book Review. It would be disingenuous for me to say that these sentences are loosely braided together like slack rope, for they are about as extraneous as a congealed fatty bubble that a cook not only neglected to trim from a porterhouse steak, but cooked and served to a devoted carnivore. How did such a paragraph, which appears inspired by Bart Simpson offering an impromptu book report to Ms. Krabappel, make it through the editing stage?

Dwight Garner Ripping Off Blogosphere

Dwight Garner, newly minted blogger of The New York Times Book Review, apparently has few new ideas on how to blog and is now content to rip off ideas from the blogosphere.

Case in point: “Living With Music”, an egregious ripoff of Largehearted Boy’s Book Notes. This is particularly shameful, because I can tell you that David Gutowski is one of the most generous bloggers around, more than living up to his moniker.

At this rate, I fully expect Garner to unleash The Cat Primero Show, a bold new podcast that offers a counterpart to Sam Tanenhaus’s social ineptitude as “podcast host.”

[UPDATE: Sarah has more observations.]

[UPDATE 2: I have left a comment pointing out the similarities to Book Notes on Garner’s blog. I suspect that the comment will not be approved, but we shall see.]

[UPDATE 3: Yup, Garner has censored my perfectly reasonable comment. Jeff has also been running a few amusing experiments, demonstrating that Garner isn’t interested in any dialogue other than conversational fellatio. That’s too bad. There are far more interesting things that a head can do aside from bobbing up and down on Garner’s cock. Garner also claims that he’s “never seen Largehearted Boy before,” but has promised many future lists. But if that’s the case, why does his post look so similar to a Book Notes entry? Perhaps Mr. Gutowski might want to check his IP address log to see if anyone at the Times has been visiting his site to set the matter straight.]

Katie Roiphe’s Critical Inadequacies: A Case Study

While it’s good to see the ever reliable Liesl Schillinger offer a quirky and personal take on the new Clive James book, Schillinger’s pleasant review (as well as an appearance by the witty and dependable Lizzie Skurnick, regrettably reduced to capsules) is offset by the disastrous employment of Katie Roiphe, who, in her review of A.M. Homes’s The Mistress’s Daughter, demonstrates the troglodytic level of insight regularly witnessed in her Slate Audio Book Club appearances.

Roiphe gets so many things wrong about A.M. Homes that it’s hard to know where to start. She claims that A.M. Homes has “made a minor specialty of luridness,” only to contradict herself paragraphs later by characterizing Homes’s books as “sleek, violent cartoons.” Roiphe writes of Homes’s heightened reality as if ignorant of the relationship between realism and surrealism that has long been at the center of much of contemporary fiction from Flann O’Brien onwards, perhaps best epitomized by John Cheever’s “The Swimmer.” In fact, Homes herself has stated repeatedly in interviews that her m.o. is to to continue her work along the lines of this novelistic tradition.

Of course, auctorial intention, as revealed through interview answers, only takes us so far. So let’s ignore the idea of a narrative being only as realistic as an author’s ability to make it believable and dwell upon Roiphe’s limited perception of reality. Roiphe appears truly astonished that a husband and wife would “not only have affairs but smoke crack and set fire to their suburban house with a grill.” If Roiphe truly believes this moment, uncited but clearly referencing the first moments of Music for Torching, to be so unusual, I’m wondering why she was assigned this review. In a world in which a man pours gasoline on his girlfriend after she breaks off the engagement and crack cocaine has been in use in the Washington suburbs for many years, I think it can be sufficiently argued that Homes’s fiction is drawn from these darker and quite real aspects of the human condition. Describing this book then as a “sleek, violent cartoon” is thus inaccurate, more so because Roiphe prefers generalizations to concrete examples from the prose. Also resultantly wrong is Roiphe’s assertion that “the figures in Homes’s life often behave as if she had invented them.” Could it be that Roiphe is simply incapable of understanding that Homes’s fiction and particularly her memoir are, in fact, drawn from reality?

Of The Mistress’s Daughter, she writes, “the prevailing mood is that of film noir.” Never mind that Roiphe offers no examples. Perhaps she felt that any book containing a DNA test or detectives tracking down individuals, both inescapable aspects of Homes’s story, is intended to be categorized in the mystery section. Or maybe “this book is really about a wild goose chase.” Again, Roiphe appears unable to stick with an assertion. Maybe the book is just plain “false,” because the book “veers toward the sentimental, concluding with an unusually straightforward tribute to her inspiring adoptive grandmother.” Of course, any memoir involving two unexpected parents entering an author’s life is bound to unleash a torrent of emotions, particularly when the author is as fiercely protective of her private life as Homes is.

However, it never occurs to Roiphe that Homes’s “straightforward” memoir might just be an effort to come to terms with the private and the public. Sven Birkets, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, certainly understood this and limited his cogent observations to the book in question. Roiphe, by contrast, wishes to contrast this memoir against the ferocity of her fiction.

While this comparative approach is certainly an interesting critical exercise, in Roiphe’s hands, it’s quite catastrophic. While Roiphe can at least see that Homes’s memoir as “a document of a flawed, incoherent self” and is able to pinpoint the memoir’s tendency to invent rather than confront, she opts not to dwell on the most interesting example of this — a moment in the book’s second half in which Homes imagines how her biological mother must have lived decades ago — but with the deposition testimony near book’s end.

Roiphe writes, “How can the ruthless author of ‘Music for Torching’ and ‘The Safety of Objects’ allow herself this easy way out of a story that can have no easy way out? It feels false.” Maybe false to Roiphe, because she seems to have no clear understanding that Homes is writing about reality. Birkets and others have understood this, and a careful reader can see what Homes is up to.

As Maud Newton observed last week:

The memoir in its contemporary iteration seems to demand a Triumphant Conclusion. Homes, to her credit, mostly sidesteps this trap, focusing on her adopted grandmother. The result is a muted finale honoring the mystery of family.

While I’m glad that Sam Tanenhaus has granted space to A.M. Homes’s The Mistress’s Daughter, I’m troubled by how poorly analytical these results are. I believe this book to be an interesting turning point in Homes’s career: an effort to confront aspects of her life that have hitherto remained private and a fascinating expansion of her concern for the existential moments that seem larger than they are and are often confused with surrealism.

But Roiphe lacks the critical chops to consider these questions, much less place them within the trajectory of A.M. Homes’s oeuvre. Thankfully, Birkets and Newton do. While Sam Tanenhaus may shy away from the kind of nuanced criticism I am suggesting should be the norm of any weekly book review section, at least there are other editors happy to devote their pages to these more serious questions.