Reviewing the Review: February 18 2007

A nasty review of a novel is a recognizable form in itself, and a nasty review is entirely different from a bad review, in which a critic will often express sympathy for the book’s author or try to locate some saving grace. But if an author is too popular or successful to need sympathy, or if the book represents some new literary nadir, then the critic must reach back, aim, and begin pummeling. This is the treatment Sophie Harrison attempts to give to Paul Auster’s new and highly self-referential Travels in the Scriptorium in this week’s New York Times Book Review.

But writing towards a recognizable format can be hazardous. Just as a Broadway musical needs to have a certain number of big dance numbers, a nasty review better have some great jokes and killer insights, and Sophie Harrison’s performance in the ring with Paul Auster is underwhelming. She trots out stuff like this:

His frankness about technique is complemented by the modesty of his sets. All you need is a bed, a chair, a notebook a room — or perhaps Manhattan or Brooklyn, if you prefer some slightly bigger rooms — and you’re there, a modern post-modernist, like Beckett and Kafka, only cooler.

Or, the article’s big closer:

Later, Mr. Black finds the labels on the objects have been changed by an unknown hand — DESK is now marked LAMP, and so on. Which made this reader want to place a label marked WHY? on Mr. Auster.

That’s lukewarm stuff at best. As a longtime Paul Auster fan, I don’t like this book either, though if I were the critic I’d probably complain that both Auster and Henry Holt have the nerve to charge $22 for an intellectually and physically slender 145 page novella. I’d like Travels in the Scriptorium just fine if it were a little $12 Melville House paperback, but the hardcover’s physical grandeur shows up the slight contents within. That is the goods on this book; as for Sophie Harrison’s review, it feels just as tired to me as Auster’s book feels to her.

Langdon Hammer, on the other hand, does a bang-up job with Paul Muldoon’s poetry collection Horse Latitudes and lecture collection The End of the Poem. Hammer aims to help us see past Muldoon’s off-putting gimmickry — “weird levity”, he aptly calls it — to understand the messages the poet wants to deliver, which turn out to be clearer and more earthbound than I’d previously thought. A critic who helps readers understand a difficult writer is performing a useful service, and that’s why I appreciate Hammer’s article so much.

I can even forgive a critic who writes badly if they do their job well, and this issue’s cover article on Mayra Montero’s Dancing to ‘Almendra’ by Jim Lewis is a perfect example. I like this article because it makes the Cuban gangster saga sound exciting, and because the critic’s enthusiasm is a palpable presence. However, I still find it unbelievable that the New York Times Book Review lets so much sloppy writing slip through. For example:

Her writing is swift and agile; it dances like a tough kid in a good suit — well pressed but never boring, and never calling attention to the strength that lies behind it.

Which is it that’s “well pressed but never boring” — the tough kid or the good suit? You could work on that puzzle for a while, or you could spend time with this awful passage:

Not a single sentence in the book stands out as being special or quotable, but none seem flat, either; they roll past you without ever knocking you over, and if you think that’s an easy feat to pull off, I’d ask you to reconsider. It isn’t often done.

Isn’t the NYTBR supposed to be the major leagues? I get the feeling Jim Lewis hasn’t reviewed many books before. But, again, no matter; I’m glad the Book Review is telling us about this book, and I’m looking forward to checking it out. I also like Rachel Donadio’s endpaper on Nixon-era conspirator E. Howard Hunt, who was a prolific author of spy fiction before becoming a co-leader of the Watergate burglary team. I wrote a similar piece shortly after Hunt died, but Donadio’s research honestly kicks my ass, since I failed to uncover the truly surprising fact that Hunt has been published in the New Yorker, or that he’d palled around as a young writer with Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Arthur Schlesinger and William F. Buckley.

Rachel Donadio is one of four Book Review insiders who were interviewed this week in a widely circulated series of interviews with a Queens College newspaper, and since Rachel calls herself “blog fodder” and tells us to “bring it on” I’ll have to concede that she herself “brought it” this week. Editor-in-chief Sam Tanenhaus, on the other hand, punches himself in the face a few times during his interview, openly whining about the way bloggers treat him. His clueless remarks have already been roundly trounced by Ed Champion and Michael Orthofer, so I’ll just add two points.

First, Tanenhaus describes a painstaking internal vetting process before books are sent to critics to be reviewed. He paints a pretty picture of a highly selective sensibility, but then I turn to page 30 of this week’s issue and find that an entire page has been wasted on The Hardest (Working) Man in Showbiz by porn-star Ron Jeremy. Something tells me I’ll turn to page 30 a year from now and see a review of a deeply serious book about the death of Anna Nicole Smith. Why does the NYTBR waste time on this dumb junk, and brag about their rigorous selection process at the same time?

Finally, the editor wonders why the literary bloggers who he thinks hate him (actually, we don’t) write so volubly. “All they’re doing is publicizing what we do. I don’t understand that.” What Mr. Tanenhaus doesn’t understand is that we do this because we hope our points will have some impact. Maybe I don’t care whether or not Sam Tanenhaus ever reads what I write about his publication; maybe it’s Sam Tanenhaus’s boss I’m trying to reach.

6 Responses

  1. I disagree with the premise.
    I disagree with the premise. What I garner is that you want to hold the NYTBR to the highest standards because of their unique position as the pre-eminent judge of creative writing.

    To me, the NYTBR is just some folks with some opinions. When they were little kids maybe they built snowmen and wanted to be astronauts when they grew up. At any rate, their point of view is no more considerate than anyone else’s. Why would anyone in the blogosphere bother with them?

    To me, that kind of reinforces the notion that New Yorkers think everyone else is interested in New Yorkers. And if every other newspaper in the world – from Sydney to Edinburgh – copies the NYTBR, that’d be a bad thing. That’d be like saying – we’re real good at imitating, not so keen on originality. Monkey see, monkey do; to put it bluntly.

    I guess I wouldn’t trust that kind of mindset to review anything. On a personal note, I occasionally get a favorable reaction to my fiction, and that amazes me because so many readers come from “old thinking” and just don’t get it.

    Let me try to break it down. Again on a personal level – human speaking to human – I really like your book. Never have I bothered that there is a typo on one of the pages. For example, imagine a misspelled word in the Declaration of Independence. Today we’d see that an interesting curio. Back then, King George would’ve been laughing at that, while one of his aides would’ve said “uh…George, there’re more pressing issues than that.”

    Sure, I care what the NYTBR says, but only insofar it wields global influence. Until I see them engage the planet in a discussion of “what is the purpose of writing,” I won’t bother with their silly talk. (Because I don’t think they know – what is the purpose of writing.)

  2. Nat King Cole said…Critics
    Nat King Cole said…

    Critics dont buy records.

    They get ’em free.

  3. NYTBRYou ask, “Which is it

    You ask, “Which is it that’s “well pressed but never boring” — the tough kid or the good suit?”

    It’s the kid: it’s not unheard-of for writers to use “well-pressed” as a sort of reverse synecdoche, applying to the person qualities more often applied to their clothes. The New York Times (aside from here) and the Toronto Star have both done so, recently.

    So you’re wrong on that one. As for the second passage, I can’t see what’s wrong with it, and you never do say. It sounds fine to me, and I understood it perfectly.

  4. Well, I’ll yield that
    Well, I’ll yield that “well-pressed” may pass on this technicality, but the fact that I stumbled on it means that many other readers probably will too.

    Now, what’s with “well pressed but never boring”? This seems to suggest that most people that are “well pressed” are boring, which is a strange idea, unless, again, it’s the suit that’s well pressed and boring, which is slightly easier to accept. Overall, I say this phrasing is badly chosen, and I’m sticking by my remarks.

    About the other phrase, the “I’d ask you to reconsider” bit, I find this amateurish. The critic is describing a very general characteristic of competent writing in overly dramatic terms.

    Anyway, I know that there’s always room for disagreement when I poke fun at questionable writing in the NYTBR. This is my platform where I get to mouth off about stuff that bothers me. I don’t think it’s a matter of strict “right” and “wrong” … however, I do believe that many readers besides myself will find Jim Lewis’s writing in this article to be sub-standard.

  5. Jim LewisI guess there’s no
    Jim Lewis

    I guess there’s no accounting for taste. I thought the sentence about the kid in a suit was magnificently expressive, and I singled it out for praise.

  6. I guess so! And I think
    I guess so! And I think that’s fine. I also thought (I have no end of complaints with this article, apparently) that the “tough kid in a good suit” thing played on a Hispanic stereotype. Other than that, it is an appealing sentence on its own.

    Overall: to each his own.

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