Reviewing the Review: March 12 2006

When reviewing controversial new books of social science or humanities, the New York Times Book Review’s method resembles fraternity hazing more than literary criticism. Invariably, a new title that presents an original thesis in a field like psychology, sociology, philosophy or biology will be assigned to an academic who has devoted his or her life and career to a completely incompatible thesis, who will then proceed to annihiliate the book. It’s like watching a guy with a sledgehammer review a work of sculpture. One can only assume the Book Review approves of this long-running sadistic practice.

Please note that I am not against viciously nasty book reviews in this or any publication. I love a good slash-up. But when the Book Review is introducing me to a new original idea, it defeats the purpose to present the idea to me via the dulcet tones of a sneering academic. If the idea was worth a NYTBR article in the first place, then the NYTBR should at least give the idea a minute to breathe before butchering it.

I’m thinking of last week’s one-sided battle between Daniel Dennett and Leon Wieseltier, which occupies the entire Letters section in today’s publication, and I’m thinking of today’s review of a book called This Changes Everything: The Relational Revolution in Psychology by Christina Robb, who is apparently a student and admirer of three psychological theorists, Carol Gilligan, Jean Baker Miller and Judith Lewis Herman, who have become identified with a new approach known as Relational Psychology.

I know a lot about relational databases but nothing about relational psychology, which seems to locate the core of human motivation not in the will for individual success and happiness but in the carrying out of goals shared between people, and in the problems and issues people have in connecting to each other. As explained by reviewer Annie Murphy Paul, this approach seems quite fascinating and thought-provoking, and so I was disappointed when Paul’s review turned into a heckling session. I’m not even going to quote her dull rebuttals and conventional snarky one-liners, because I’ve read this kind of thing a thousand times before. The fact that Paul chooses to dismiss this book as “windy nonsense” and comes up with a couple of good jokes at its expense does not in any way persuade me that the book deserves such treatment; it only shows that this review is Paul’s moment in the spotlight and she’s sure as hell not going to let Christina Robb get the applause. Robb, I am sure, is now composing her letter to the editor, which will be published in two weeks along with a snarky “Annie Murphy Paul replies:” follow-up, and the game continues.

So much for the social sciences. The best thing today’s Book Review gives me is a sparkling half-page by Atlantic Monthly editor David Barber on The Sights Along The Harbor by the notable poet Harvey Shapiro. The critic’s language is exquisite and his enthusiasm is refreshing. Nicholas Christopher’s engaging analysis of Louise Gluck’s new Averno is also a rewarding read.

I’m glad to see the increasingly iconic Erica Jong show up to review Sarah Dunant’s In The Company of the Courtesan, and Lucinda Resenfeld does fine in covering Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes by T Cooper. Pankaj Mishra’s take on David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster is limp and also late on arrival (damn, I already covered this book, and if I beat the Book Review by a month that’s pretty sad).

Lee Siegel’s endpaper, yet another yet another yet another attempt at James Frey inspired humor, is also pretty sad. It has one good line, in which a fact-checker complains to St. Luke, “We’re going to get a lot of epistles”. But really, it’s time for the Book Review to find a better use for each week’s endpaper and give up on this attempt to present original satire in this space. Humor is just not the Book Review’s forte, and it’s starting to make me feel sorry for them.

3 Responses

  1. like something burroughs
    like something burroughs might say..

    DOCtor BENwaaaay addresses the overflowing lecture hall with the “the dulcet tones of a sneeeeering academic” …

  2. Levi, I disagreeI finally got
    Levi, I disagree

    I finally got the chance to read Annie Murphy Paul’s review of This Changes Everything by Christina Robb. It seems to me that you characterized the review as shriller than what it really is. The book is, after all, non-fiction, so the reviewer is within her rights to point out flaws in the author’s research. Paul does say, “And yet the idea that relationships are critical to our mental health is an important one – so important that the movement that produced it deserves the tribute of a trenchant examination.” At least two of the book’s shortcomings pointed out by the reviewer, failure to substantially address the skeptics or to demonstrate real-world applications of the theories therein, seem sound enough to me.

  3. Well, Bill, I may have been
    Well, Bill, I may have been overly cranky in my response. That wouldn’t be the first time this has happened.

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