Reviewing the Review: June 5, 2005

For my fourth review of the Sunday New York Times Book Review, I’d like to say a few words about what the Book Review is and what it isn’t.

It’s easy to assume the New York Times Book Review is where books get reviewed in the New York Times. This is not correct. That happens every day in Section C of the regular paper, somewhere between the movie reviews, the TV reviews and the bridge column. These daily book reviews are by New York Times staff critics. Jack Kerouac’s On The Road became famous because of a review in the New York Times, but despite a popular misconception, this review was not in the Book Review — it was in the daily Times.

The Book Review is a separate publication, an outlier at the Times designed to allow non-staff writers and critics to exchange ideas. Novelists review novelists, critics review critics, and free-lance journalists step outside their comfort zones. In a sense, it’s a public forum, and it’s designed to be ambitious, controversial and somewhat ethereal, as befits high literary style.

When reading these book reviews, though, you have to consider the fact that writers are evaluating their peers. It’s sort of like the tribal council in “Survivor”. Curtis Sittenfeld, the up-and-coming lit-darling author of “Prep” reviews “The Wonder Spot” by up-and-coming lit-darling Melissa Bank. In this kind of situation, the reviewer may choose to play nice, or may decide to open fire. Sittenfeld opens fire at Bank’s book, damning it as worth a few laughs and then dismissing it as chick lit, shallow and limited.

It’s at least a lively chop job, though I imagine Melissa Bank wouldn’t mind getting a few swipes back at Sittenfeld’s next book (and the Book Review may just arrange that).

In my opinion, the Book Review is at its best when a reviewer is actually excited by a book. Which rarely happens in these pages. Today’s best article is Liesl Schillinger’s summary of three summer novels, “Childhood at Oriol” by Michael Burn, “Leeway Cottage” by Beth Gutcheon and “The Lake, The River and the Other Lake” by Steve Amick. Schillinger’s writing is passionate and enchanted, and she seems to have thoroughly absorbed the purposes of each of the three books she is writing about. She makes me want to read all three, and I think that’s the best thing a book review can do.

The rest of the magazine, which has a vague Summer Reading theme, is okay. “The Word Crunchers”, a back-cover essay by Deborah Friedell about the objectification of language that takes place at sites like, is a welcome read. I’m glad to see the Book Review occasionally noticing this thing called the internet, this thing Al Gore invented a few years ago that the rest of the world seems to be using a lot.

If I seem to be going easy on the New York Times Book Review today, this may be because my own name shows up in this issue, in a special feature called ‘The Literary Map of Manhattan’, constructed by ethicist Randy Cohen with the help of numerous contributors like myself. We were asked to send in notable literary Manhattan moments, and I was glad to contribute an East Village classic from the swinging sixties, Horse Badorties from William Kotzwinkle’s dorky, dorky, dorky novel The Fan Man. You can check out the online version of the literary map — it’s a nice presentation.

4 Responses

  1. Wanting vs. DoingI think it’s
    Wanting vs. Doing

    I think it’s interesting you mention the review makes you want to read the three summer novels outlined in Liesl Schillinger’s section — but I wonder if that will translate into actually doing so. We won’t tell anyone…

    Also — from reading around this morning, it seems that Sittenfeld’s pop-a-cap review of Bank has the literary circles a twitter. Oh how they twittered. Regardless how you feel about either one, I think it’s at least nice to see someone rising above the sleepwalking type of reviews we’re used to reading. Maybe the trend will tip back to sharper, more challenging critique — reviews with a little sport.

  2. The Literary MapI love this
    The Literary Map

    I love this kind of presentation.
    I spent quite some time this morning exploring the map, stopping of course, first for coffee and later for pizza, without the necessity of hailing a cab. Great fun.

    Levi, I always did like your article “Summer Of Love: Hippie Writers & Latter-Day Beats” and how you divided it into Presidential administrations.

  3. Thanks Bill. Of course, as
    Thanks Bill. Of course, as some of you have pointed out to us, the online version of the map has me contributing “Sister Carrie” instead of “Fan Man” (I assure you I did no such thing). So I don’t think the Times has it’s tech act together yet, but it is a good map, and I’m glad to see the Book Review having some fun (and including me in it).

  4. I don’t think I like the idea
    I don’t think I like the idea of writers reviewing other writers. It’s hard to be genuinely critical because you never know if the object of your vilification will be assigned to review your next book. And if the reviewer is afraid to be honest, then it just contributes to the impression of a clubby atmosphere of the privileged, an impression not helped by the fact that when someone actually does get critical, it causes a stir for violating the upspoken rules of the Big Published Writers Society. And if you’ve ever heard Jonathan Franzen twitter, you know the last thing you want is a stir. Fingernails on a chalkboard. I don’t really think it’s desirable for a the NYT Book Review to turn into a mutual admiration society.

    And even in the case of a critical review, writers are such fickle, often jealous bastards you never know what the possible motivations might be. I do know I’d never want to get on Dave Eggers bad side.

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