Reviewing the Review: July 2 2006

I wasn’t sure I’d be able to put up a full review of the New York Times Book Review today, since I’m starting a short vacation. Let me tell you something, though — travelling from New York City on a holiday weekend ain’t no vacation.

So, while I sat on the floor at LaGuardia Airport waiting for the staff of Northwest Airlines to get their heads out of their asses and put me on an airplane, I had several hours to spend with this weekend’s Book Review. I needed a good issue more than ever, and happily this one came through.

Yay, yay, yay for Walter Kirn, whose takedown of Cynthia Ozick is the best thing I’ve read here in weeks. Of course, I always enjoy a good beef piece – but the keyword here is good. The Book Review’s regular stable of critics often do more damage to themselves than their opponents when they attempt a frontal assault (your weapons must be sharp if you face Cynthia Ozick in battle, and I better stop this now at the risk of sounding like Dwight Schrute). Let’s just say that Kirn delivers the goods regarding Ozick’s book of essays, A Din in the Head, which argues that our culture and our literature are debased by modern trends. Kirn thinks Ozick is full of it, and he doesn’t mind saying so. Observe:

Though few thinkers still bother to attack it, let alone go on proclaiming its death, the novel remains exceedingly well defended, commanding larger, more ferocious armies than such a modest institution requires. Indeed, protecting novels from all threats, real and imagined, seems at times to constitute a more vigorous cultural enterprise than the actual writing of the things.


If novelists were all to go on strike someday, the world might finally understand that it can’t live without them, as they insist, but since they can’t seem to bear to drop their pens, society must rely on fuzzier evidence for the necessity of their services.

Ouch, Cynthia. And:

A writer who opts for the feathered word “haunch” over its flightless synonyms, such as “thigh,” who calls the speechlike prose of Philip Roth a “dazzling demotic voice,” and who knows, as though by instinct, that the proper term for something Saul-Bellow-ish is “Bellovian” …


She’s a bohemian fundamentalist, convinced that if imaginative literature should lose its special status as the final arbiter of humanness, the deity will unleash another Great Flood. But she concedes that it may be too late. Homer may have shrugged already and the fountainhead run dry. Her seeming model of utopia — a world that resembles the 1950’s campus of Columbia University — has not caught on as a blueprint for all existence, and appears unlikely to.

Now, I like Cynthia Ozick — a lot. The Shawl is her most anthologized short story, but I prefer the earlier Envy, a wicked satire about egotistical modern Yiddish writers enraged by the success of one of their own (this story is alleged to have been inspired by the rising fame of Isaac Bashevis Singer). I haven’t read her new book yet, so I don’t know if Kirn is correctly characterizing it as single-minded and intellectually bigoted. Nothing in Kirn’s review dissuades me from wanting to read this book, however, and I am looking forward to forming my own opinions.

Elsewhere this week, Ana Marie Cox ponders feminism while reviewing Katha Pollitt’s Virginity of Death!, David Thompson utterly ignores the two biographies of Upton Sinclair he’s reviewing in order to summarize the life himself, and Akash Kapur persuades me to pick up English, August, an Indian adolescent-lit classic by Upamanyu Chatterjee now available in a new English translation.

Only one big complaint this week: Joel Brouwer’s consideration of Ishmael Reed’s new collection of poetry is frenetic and cliche-ridden. A phrase like “setting out honey instead of vinegar” is mundane in any review, but unforgivable in a poetry critique. At one point, Brouwer elucidates Ishmael Reed by quoting Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself”. But wait! There’s more: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” My god … does Brouwer really think he’s turning us on to something we haven’t heard before?

Between the hopelessly square David Orr and the desperate Joel Brouwer, I have to say that the New York Times Book Review’s poetry coverage is a complete mess. Come on, management. Let’s get some bigger talent in there.

4 Responses

  1. in a nutshell…”It’s a fight
    in a nutshell…

    “It’s a fight waged largely with long words over big issues that now feel small, not to mention slightly archaic. Nothing gets older faster than an apocalypse that was scheduled for two days ago.”

    Exactly. Great article.

  2. if you want my
    if you want my opinion

    everyone should start reading short stories.

  3. where are the giants?I also
    where are the giants?

    I also read the review of Ozick – your summary was certainly on-target. My unhappy question is: are these tiresome trolls all that is left? I mean Roth, Updike, Morrison, and other darlings of, yes, people still dwelling in the ‘Columbia campus of the 50s.’ Who has taken up the torch from Hemingway, Beckett, Joyce, Faulkner, Nabokov, and other giants?

    It’s not just literature. Who is the new Picasso or Warhol or Giacometti or Hopper or Twombly? The pathetic crop of MFA dweebs that flood the galleries and museums with adolescent installations? Nope.

    On the bright side: modern dance (performance and choreography) has never been better. Classical music and jazz (performance) are first-rate, with great new talent arriving every year.

    Why have some arts prospered and others wilted?

  4. I think a lot of it has to do
    I think a lot of it has to do with the essential conservatism of writers and critics like Ozick. Which is odd, because politically speaking, novelists have become a far more liberal bunch, while progressive-minded critics of the past like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were often hyperconservatives (Eliot) if not outright fascists (Pound).

    As ivory-tower as they may seem now, all of the masters of the 20th century were obsessed with modernity. Joyce drew inspiration from gossipy newspaper articles and vaudeville. Eliot eschewed grammar and spelling to capture the music of drunken Cockneys. Pynchon saw poetry in early rock and roll records, long before Dylan made it acceptable to do so. And in his last book DeLillo even makes a well-meaning (if somewhat cringe-inducing) attempt to write his own pomo hip-hop lyrics.

    Whenever I see the latest installment of this shrill “death of the novel,” unironic Village Green Society stuff, I end up agreeing, but for all the wrong reasons. If novelists are in fact an endangered species, then critics like Ozick are to blame. People who still see fit to bash “rap CDs” and the like.

    Personal opinion: anyone overly concerned with the death of the novel should be forbidden from writing them. Because they’re really not helping. The best novelists of any period wanted to be highly individualistic conduits of their culture, absorbing it and filtering it out, not reactionaries seeking to alter its course, or worse, to stop its flow.

    Apologies if this is a less-than-eloquent post, but arguments like these get my blood going a bit.

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