Reviewing the Review: August 28 2005

I don’t know if young author Chelsea Cain is ready to write for the NY Times Book Review yet. “He peppers his colorful tale with words like ‘rigmarole’ and ‘mawkish'”, she tells us in reviewing Jeffrey Ford’s The Girl in the Glass. Golly gee! This type of uncharacteristic lameness pervades several pieces in today’s Book Review, which seems to have been produced by a backup crew while the regular editors gather for one last week in the Hamptons.

I’m not sure what to think of David Orr’s poetry column, in which he parodies bad internet writing and praises the letters of poet James Wright. David Orr tries to be funny, and maybe he needs to hire a joke writer. Here’s his opening line: “Poets who write only poetry are like musicians who play only cowbell; oddly cool, but mostly just odd”. Well, not really. There are two well-known songs in the history of music where you can hear a cowbell, “Honky Tonk Woman” by the Rolling Stones and “Mississippi Queen” by Mountain, and I think being a dedicated poet ranks just a little higher in importance. Let’s move on, though, to Orr’s ridiculous statement that the genre of epistolatory literature cannot survive in the age of email and instant messaging. Not that old chestnut again. Orr shows us what Keats’ explanation of ‘negative capability’ would look like today:

“JKEATS1: Iz tryn 2 dev more neg cap”

In fact, Orr must know that it is possible to speak in complete sentences on the internet (we even sometimes do it here on LitKicks). Also, that’s not even real text slang. The Times must have a joke writer around that Orr can use for future columns.

On the positive side, bravo to Camille Paglia for diving deep into Michael Schmidt’s ambitious new survey, The First Poets: Lives of the Ancient Greek Poets. I also enjoyed Francine Prose’s intelligent letter to the editor, and Susannah Meadows’s review makes Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart — apparently a fictional spin on the later lives of the original atomic bomb scientists responsible for Hiroshima and Nagasaki — sound compelling enough that I am going to check it out.

9 Responses

  1. Ha”Poets who write only

    “Poets who write only poetry are like musicians who play only cowbell; oddly cool, but mostly just odd”.

    You’re right. He does need a joke writer. Because everyone needs more cowbell from time to time, so obviously, he should’ve picked the triangle. Duh.

    Anyway, good review of the Review. Though The First Poets: Lives of the Ancient Greek Poets has the word “poets” in it too many times to be a very good title. I’m just saying.

  2. Don’t Fear the ReaperI’m not
    Don’t Fear the Reaper

    I’m not sure if the NYTBR is fearing the reaper or not, but I think they should be because someone needs to put it out of its damn misery (and mine). Sadly enough it seems that many of the columnists and reviewers that bother to show up for work are many times hackneyed masters and more enamoured by their own writing style and bylines than the subjects they’re (supposedly) covering. I sure hope that this is just some strategic positioning to make us hungry for the real stuff that’s just waiting in the wings.

    David Orr’s poetry column doesn’t do much for poetry or literary review. Poets who write only poetry are like musicians who play only cowbell? I think that’s a contender for the most idiotic thing said all year. I don’t have much to say about the “bad internet writing” gag — like you said, even my grandma stopped throwing that one out back in 2002. Not only are Orr’s remarks nonsensical and moronic, they manage to insult the everyday reader, poets, internet communicators and Blue Oyster Cult. It seems to me, in review, that the Times does have a lot of “joke writers” hanging around and is not afraid to use them.

    On a good point, I have heard great things about Millet’s book over the last few months, so I think it’s probably a safe bet.

    Finally, I know I can’t be the only one out there who can’t stand Camille Paglia, the one writer who might rival David Orr in the category of writer who says the most ridiculous and unsupportable things per page. I think she’d probably win out, though, because she has pretentiousness on her side. Ok, I will admit Camille Paglia’s wouldn’t be so bad … if she’d just shut up every now and then.

    And that is all — good review review. Still waiting on the weekly summation of the ads, though.

  3. Corky Lang on drums!Good
    Corky Lang on drums!

    Good review, Levi. I can’t add much to what has already been said. When I read Orr’s example of Keats using text slang, I thought, what kind of text slang is this? I was glad you cleared up my confusion.

  4. Wow, I think this means you
    Wow, I think this means you and Jamelah and I are all in agreement on something. Isn’t there a rule against that?

    About Camille Paglia, well, I guess I see your point about pretentiousness. On the other hand, I really appreciate her emphasis on the great writing of the past, and her belief (as demonstrated by her most recent book about poetry) that our entire literary legacy is deeply relevant today. This is something I think we have always stood for here at LitKicks as well, and that’s why she’s on my good side lately.

    Oh, and … I realized this morning that I completely forgot to mention Jay McInerney’s cover article on Benjamin Kundel’s novel Indecision in the NYTBR review. And, I suppose, the fact that I didn’t even remember to mention the cover article indicates exactly what I thought of the cover article, which is that it wasn’t very memorable.

  5. No, because we all also like
    No, because we all also like pancakes and pigs in a blanket. But anyway …

    The problem I have with Camille Paglia (my “beef” with Paglia, if you will) is that I don’t see that she does much of what you state. I don’t think she does much to embrace an enduring literary legacy — unless it’s something she happens to like or agree with. It’s relevant … if Camille sayeth so. I don’t really buy that — I think the difference between Paglia-style and others is that I think the rest of us try to allow a small amount of leeway for things that we don’t necessarily value actually retaining value on a larger scale. Sure, we all can be like that to an extent, however most of us don’t run around making sweeping statements about it as if we’re the definitive end all be all of literary wisdom. It’s great for anyone to talk with passion and opinion about literature and ancient poetry, but it doesn’t make her a savior or champion of it by any stretch of the imagination. She’s obviously a prominent figure, well-versed, decent writer and seems to have an unlimited supply of strong opinions, but I personally find her to be a severe irritant, much like sodium hydroxide or U2. And that’s what I think about that. In conclusion, Camille Paglia is on “the list” right alongside David Orr, Russell Simmons, Best Buy and Applebee’s.

  6. Russell Simmons! I am
    Russell Simmons! I am dumbstruck.

    At least we are of like minds on Applebee’s and BestBuy. I probably shouldn’t even mention that I’ve always liked David Orr’s poetry columns, up until yesterday’s aberration.

  7. Bill, I just knew if I
    Bill, I just knew if I mentioned Mountain I’d get your attention. And I was right.

  8. Hey, I calls ’em like I sees
    Hey, I calls ’em like I sees ’em.

    David Orr, well he’s not really worth the energy of a lit-fuse style jihad, but I think there’s just so much more to the poetry universe than the tiny square he’s blathering on about. And let’s face it, he’s no Ted Kooser.

  9. but…but…all you can eat

    all you can eat fire grilled riblets

    for a limited time only…

    Not that I loved LitKicks less, but…

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