Reviewing the Review: October 1 2006

I attended a fascinating panel on book criticism and blogs earlier this week. The evening’s discussion hinged on whether or not there exists a clear distinction between “book critic” and “litblogger”, and among many interesting points one statement by host John Freeman has lingered with me. He mentioned that litbloggers can be overly critical to book critics, and indicated that book critics were taking this treatment unkindly. A similar point was recently made in Time magazine by Lev Grossman in which he talks about being criticized by a blogger and tells us:

I’m not actually sure of his exact words, because I have a hard time reading his blog entries. I don’t really look at them directly–I’m kind of hypersensitive to criticism, so I just side-glance at them, squinting, with my head at an angle to the monitor.

I find this a surprising attitude, since critics are after all critics themselves. I should think they’d be fair game. But since I do spend a fair amount of time reviewing the New York Times Book Review each week, and since I have at times joined shooting parties when the publication has deserved it, Freeman’s point did cause me to think about whether I have ever gone too far in criticizing the Book Review on LitKicks. Perhaps I have.

But I don’t think so. I just browsed some past weeks, and I discovered that I am generally more complimentary than not. I notice that I have also taken trouble from the beginning to explain what my standards for evaluation are, and to affirm that it is only because I have such a high opinion of the institution of the New York Times Book Review that I hold their writers to the highest standards. I treat their writers as writers, and I try to critique them fairly on that basis.

Am I ever personal? I don’t think so. I tend to gather favorites — I always smile when I spot a Walter Kirn or Liesl Schillinger byline, because their work is usually sharp and clear. I have developed a few un-favorites (Rachel Donadio for air-kissy style, Joel Brouwer for pretentious foppery, David Orr for lousy jokes, Ron Powers for needing to really calm down). But I have also at times criticized my favorites, and I have praised my un-favorites. When I start at the first word of an article, I always want to like it.

And here we go right now! I can happily report that David Orr rocks the house with his On Poetry column today. He begins by discussing the popular (and uselessly general) understanding of the meaning “poetry”:

So, for example, different audiences might describe a performance by Cecila Bartolia or Tiger Woods or Ferran Adria or Zakk Wylde as “pure poetry”.

He goes on to examine and praise a new book by British comedian-intellectual Stephen Fry, who once played Jeeves on public TV and has just written a new introduction to the zen of poetry, The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within. I share Orr’s admiration for Stephen Fry, and I hope this book is a success. I also heartily agree with Orr when he states that “Robin Williams” is a diabolical name, and not just because of the dreadful Dead Poets Society (my kids used to watch Mrs. Doubtfire over and over, and I was starting to smell sulfur).

Despite the fact that Orr clearly likes Fry’s book, he doesn’t hold back from correcting Fry for miscounting the number of syllables in a Robert Frost line (Fry, a Brit, would not know that “flowers” has two syllables north of Boston and elsewhere in the USA). This means that I shouldn’t have to feel bad for mentioning that Orr delivers one clunker himself in his otherwise good piece, when comparing baseball to poetry:

But poetry has a problem that baseball doesn’t; it exists both as an art and as a metaphor for certain kinds of experience. It’s both poetry and Poetry.

Whew. If Orr doesn’t know that baseball is Baseball, he’s obviously never read Roger Angell in the New Yorker or George Vescey on the Mets or Jeff Bryant after a Braves winning streak.

Okay, on to the rest of this rag. I very much like Rob Nixon’s summary of Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, which looks like a must-read for me. Nixon explains the historical backdrop of the novel, the vicious late-60’s war and famine in Biafra (a name that is barely remembered anywhere but as the ironic surname of Jello Biafra, the lead singer of the rabble-rousing Dead Kennedys). Nixon makes a strong case that the horrible losses of this war stand as a revealing parallel for our current struggles.

Troy Patterson of Slate weighs Chuck Klosterman IV, named after Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, and comes up with a mostly positive eval. Many literary critics have beat up on Chuck Klosterman in the past, and I think this may be because this Spin rock critic (surely a lower life form) gets his stuff published in books and they don’t. But you’ve got to like a guy who interviews Robert Plant and asks: “On Whole Lotta Love you say you’re going to give some girl every inch of your love. But you’re British. Why don’t you use the metric system?”.

Today’s very satisfying New York Times Book Review ends with Gary Shteyngart’s funny piece on a 19th Century Russian slacker novel nobody’s ever heard of, Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov. Overall, big thumbs up for the NYTBR this week.

6 Responses

  1. The Good News And The Bad
    The Good News And The Bad News

    The good news is that I never thought I would live long enough to see the day when the “New York Times Book Review” was something I would read to lighten up my week with. The bad news is that I now read the “New York Times Book Review” to find some (relative) sanity in an insane world.

    Trust me. If I found Levi Asher’s comments on writers and books to be mean-spirited, I would not be here. I find him to be the brilliant EXCEPTION when it comes to blogs.

    That is why I am here.

    I am so glad this came up.

    The book blogs scream so often and so loudly and usually over issues that are found embedded in a political correctness that serves in lieu of some kind of cheap morality one can only wonder at the competition for numbers.

    It always comes down to this. Numbers.

    If I scream louder than the next guy, I’ll have better numbers.

    Okay. Let’s forget the screaming.

    Let us go to sheer meanness and cruelty.

    Most of the book bloggers remind me of the teenage boys who would beat up the homeless and kill them for sheer sport.

    I wish I was kidding. I’m not.

    They’re horrible, monstrous things, and they are far more interested in gossip than THOUGHT.

    They don’t think. They react.

    They can’t differentiate between bitchiness and irony. There is a difference.

    It is vaudeville. It is burlesque. It is also tragic and sickening.

    Most of them sound like a bunch of snide fourth grade girls in a snit.

    “Isn’t it outrageous that….”

    Oh, their panty hose gets all caught up in there and bunched.

    I don’t read them anymore.

    I had to stop.

    Their interviews with writers are a hoot. Right off Madison Avuenue. It’s called let us get some advertising.

    The cynacism alone.

    I’m sorry, but the sniveling meanness of the book bloggers precludes anything they might actually have to say. But they feel it’s not worth articulating unless someone gets hurt in the process.

    But here’s the real nut to it, and it’s not a problem just with book blogs; it’s a huge problem with the Internet, and one that has changed my entire approach to what I do.

    If one blog or media outlet publishes something as fact that has not been checked out — and is not true and might even be a smear job; it DOES happen — the book blogs just pile on. They’ll repeat anything as long as someone said it first. As fact. When, in fact, very few of them have the resources to REALLY check the facts.

    So many utter myths have been printed about me that I just give up the ghost — why BOTHER fighting with people who only want to spit and foam at the mouth and who have no intention of exploring any subject in depth beyond the realm of gossip whatsoever.

    The book blogs make the National Enquirer seem like, ah, yes, the “New York Times Book Review.”

    Which I now read to keep my sanity intact even if they are arrogant snobs. They’re CAREFUL arrogant snobs.

    They find my books “disturbing.” And, you know, I am FINALLY glad they do. They should be distrubed by what I write. Their little comfortable world should get messed with. But they go after me because of what I WRITE. Not because they allow themselves to be used by people who are adept at manufacturing innuendo and libel and slander to make their point. What is going to happen someday (oh, please, god, let me live long enough to see it) is that some lawyer is going to finally figure out that if he sues the book blogs, there’s money to be made there.

    Which is why agents who are lawyers and not English majors are interesting.

    The book blogs overstep. What they do is not criticism. It is assassination. And they know it and they are amused. For now. They seize in a quest for numbers and one of these days they are going to seize the wrong writer. It will be someone who is not amused one bit with libel, slander, and assassination. That writer will sue. And the other book blogs will ALL take note.

    It is only a matter of time. What goes around comes around. It really does. And their turn is coming.

    You can go after me all you want (it’s been done to death).

    But it happens to be the truth.

  2. the weekly roundupI look
    the weekly roundup

    I look forward to your review of the Times Book Review every week. I see nothing wrong with critiquing the critics as long as you explain your standards and do it fairly.

  3. OblomovI was twice assigned

    I was twice assigned to read Oblomov as an undergraduate at Brooklyn College in the 1970s: for a survey course in Russian literature and for a comparative literature course in 19th century literature.

    Then I was assigned it again when I went for an M.A. in English.

    I would have thought it was a novel most people have heard of, if not actually have read.

  4. I guess you’re right, Richard
    I guess you’re right, Richard — I accept your correction. I thought I knew the Russians myself, but apparently I’ve missed this one …

  5. i, too, agree with
    i, too, agree with richard.

    at least around here, oblomov is part of the obligatory russian literature reading canon.

  6. I guess I need to tear myself
    I guess I need to tear myself away from Dostoevsky and Chekhov and Gogol and survey the landscape a bit more …

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