Reviewing the Review: January 22 2006

A book review should be well-written, but a poetry book review must be well-written. Why should we trust a poetry critic who can’t turn out a great sentence? It’s fitting, then, that one of the two worthwhile pieces in today’s Sunday New York Times Book Review is Joshua Clover’s study of the career of Charles Reznikoff, whose retrospective has just been published by Black Sparrow Press.

Clover’s article has a rare organic quality; the critic leaps through a small set of significant concepts, establishing key points about Reznikoff’s intentions and problems, moving briskly along with good rhythm and a smart undertone:

Having been fired from the American Law Book Company for being, in this book’s editor’s terms, “an unproductive perfectionist” (we pronounce that “poet” where I come from) …

Today’s issue gets even better with “Black Humor”, a lively, opinionated endpaper by Paul Beatty. Beatty punctures the tradition of dullness and predictability in African-American literature (“I already knew why the caged bird sang“) and lauds a few authors who broke the tradition, like Darius James and Bob Kaufman. Beatty’s article is easily the best Book Review endpaper in months (I’m just not sure that’s saying much).

Two articles with a true touch of class … but the rest of today’s Book Review is the standard dross. David Kamp’s cover article about Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man, in which Vincent masqueraded as a man and wrote about it, doesn’t steer clear of the gender-role cliches any critic writing about this book would churn out.

Anthony Julius has a hot topic — the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides, subject of a new treatment by Sherwin B. Nuland — but his review fails to catch fire.

Christopher Hitchens’ spin on a newly published translation of Bouvard and Pecuchet, Gustave Flaubert’s never-completed Laurel and Hardy novel, contains some amusing observations but in the end only convinces me that there’s no reason to read the book. Which naturally raises the question: since this book wasn’t newsworthy to begin with, and Hitchens doesn’t recommend it, why the hell is the Book Review reviewing it?

4 Responses

  1. Why TryHave you ever read
    Why Try

    Have you ever read Martin Amis’s “The War Against Cliche”? I seriously agree that the NYT is pretty much a dead horse. It seems to me that the most prescient critiques of lit today can be found in print that takes a little while to be published…like William Glass’s thoughts on Emerson in “Habitations of the Word”, for crude example. Or Amis although he hasn’t written anything on lit in a little while. I may be just reaching here, but don’t you think that there just isn’t anything meaningful to say about modern lit? Just think, Foucault is pretty much the last meaningful philosopher, and he died over 20 years ago, which seems ages in this techno year. And Foucault suffered for his art…is there any mainstream artist today suffering for art? I challenge you to name one… DeLillo perhaps. “Arts reflection on itself is terminal”. Who said that?

  2. David Foster Wallace said
    David Foster Wallace said that in response to an interview question by Larry McCaffery. I don’t know if Wallace thought of it, or if he’s quoting someone else.

    McCaffery asks (in reference to a story called ‘Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way’ from ), “Isn’t Armageddon the course you set sail for in Westward?”

    and Wallace says, “Metafiction’s real end has always been Armageddon. Art’s reflection on itself is terminal, is one big reason why the art world saw Duchamp as an Antichrist. But I still believe the move to involution had value: it helped writers break free of some long-standing flat-earth-type taboos. It was standing in line to happen. And for a while, stuff like ‘Pale Fire’ and ‘The Universal Baseball Association’ was valuable as a meta-aesthetic breakthrough the same way Duchamp’s urinal had been valuable.”

  3. TH, I haven’t read those
    TH, I haven’t read those books you mention, but my inclination is not to agree that literature has exhausted its originality, or that philosophy has either. I think it’s basic human nature to always think the past was somehow better than the present — Hesiod was one of the very earliest Greek writers, and he wrote centuries before the height of Athenian literature and philosophy in the age of Pericles. If I remember correctly, even Hesiod wrote that his age was a debased age, that in his time the golden years were long gone. Shakespeare was still over two thousand years in the future when he wrote that …

  4. Philosophy in literature will
    Philosophy in literature will keep cycling because our brains are closed systems. Can we really ever “get outside” our brains?

    In his 1952 article, This Is the Beat Generation, John Clellon Holmes said that while the so-called Lost Generation “was occupied with the loss of faith, the Beat Generation is becoming more and more occupied with the need for it . . . not content to bemoan His absence, they are busily and haphazardly inventing totems for Him on all sides.”

    Approximately twenty years later, Hunter S. Thompson described the counter-culture as “a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody… or at least some force – is tending the light at the end of the tunnel.” (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). Around that same time, a character in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, upon seeing a person who is unable to control his motor functions, suggests that all humans are robots.

    In the 1800’s, the Romantic Movement rejected the cold logic of the Age of Reason preferring emotion and spirituality over logic and intellect.

    I think it’s safe to say, we don’t know and we’re not going to figure it out.

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