Reviewing the Review: December 3 2006

Boring New York Times Book Review today.

It’s the dreaded “Holiday Books” issue, which means we get a lot of summary articles on topics like “Food”, and “Travel”. The issue feels as thick as a Mineola telephone book, and it’s about as exciting as a Mineola telephone book too.

I’ll get right to the complaints. Jay McInerney, who is clearly positioning himself for a continuing career as a wine critic, reviews John Hailman’s Thomas Jefferson on Wine and delivers this ill-considered observation:

Jefferson is usually assumed to be a Bordeaux man, in part because he wrote about it most and in part because Bordeaux seems like the wine that reflects his character; Bordeaux is an Appolonian wine, a beverage for intellectuals, for men of patience and reason.

First of all, women can enjoy wine too; secondly, I believe “Appolonian wine” is an oxymoron in this context, since McInerney is using “Appolonian” in the Nietzschean sense wherein Apollo and Dionysus represent the opposite poles of the human spirit, and Dionysus is the god of wine. I also completely disagree with McInerney’s characterization of Jefferson as an Appolonian. Jefferson was obsessed with the alternative literature of his day (Voltaire, Rousseau), lived on a mountain, preferred Paris to America, played violin and became embroiled in a sex scandal. Jefferson was the most Dionysian of our founding fathers (his love of wine is yet more proof), and I really don’t know what McInerney was thinking. The first of many missteps in today’s issue.

Ben Yagoda is supposedly a journalism professor and an expert on writing style, but his review of Charles Addams: A Cartoonist’s Life by Linda H. Davis is bad, bad, bad. He begins by telling us that Charles Addams singularly represents the essence of what is special about America, which means the critic went and used up his entire hyperbole quota in his first paragraph (this is always a bad strategy when reviewing books). He admires Addams because “over the next five and a half decades, he contributed 64 covers and more than 1,300 cartoons [to the New Yorker], and they came steadily — there were no slowdowns, no blocks, no ruts.” Yo, Yagoda, what makes you think you know this? Cartooning is not a real-time profession. Editors hold on to numerous cartoons and run them as they wish; Addams might have suffered from long periods of creative slowdown and readers of the New Yorker need never have known.

That’s just the first paragraph, and there’s much more banality ahead. “The mirror cartoon exemplifies one of Addams’s two main categories, the sight gag,” Yagoda tells us. Whoa, whoa, whoa … a cartoonist using a sight gag? That’s downright revolutionary! Addams must be the essense of what’s special about America for this reason alone. Yagoda then offers this about Addams’s work: “over and above the joke, his drawings are pleasurable to look at, in their detail, composition and scope.” Does Yagoda not realize that this could be said about every excellent cartoonist in the world?

This bad article culminates in this observation about an Addams cartoon: “Works of art that can make you laugh and cry in turn are rare. This is one of them.” Yeah, and book reviews that can make me snort with derision and fall asleep at the same time are rare too. This is one of them.

More complaints: I’m glad the Book Review called on the interesting new author Marisha Pessl to review Leanne Shapton’s graphic novel about love and jealousy, Was She Pretty?, but her energetic effort doesn’t scan. She talks only about the book’s text and fails to describe the artwork, which can’t be the right way to review a graphic novel. She provides many contextual references: “Annie Hall”, James Dean, “Star Wars”, Marlon Brando, “Eyes Wide Shut”, Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca”, “Gone With The Wind”, “Where the Wild Things Are”, but it’s disturbing to realize that these add up to seven movie references (okay, maybe Pessl’s referring to du Maurier’s novel, but somehow I’m guessing she saw the movie instead) and one kid’s book. This is the Book Review, Pessl. Break out the Kafka and Joyce references or get out of the way! Based on her novel, I believe she can do better in the future.

Joseph Dorman’s review of Stefan Kanfer’s Stardust Lost: The Triumph, Tragedy and Mishugas of the Yiddish Theater in America is a fine work overall, though some copy editor should have prevented this from appearing:

The densely packed Lower East Side provided a hungry audience for the Yiddish theater and its impersarios; and in its infancy Yiddish drama was barely discernible from vaudeville …

I think the fact that the actors onstage were speaking Yiddish would have been a tip-off.

Praise? I got some. Charles McGrath does a great job reviewing a new edition of John Betjeman’s Collected Poems and A. N. Wilson’s Betjeman: A Life. His article is informative and engaging from beginning to end. Thomas Mallon also keeps my attention and tells me a few things I don’t know about George Sand, the subject of Benita Eisler’s biography Naked in the Marketplace. David Hajdu’s review of Ivan Brunetti’s An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons and Stories turns out to be my tipping point: I’ve now finally decided I want to own this book.

Finally, there’s a substantial piece on South Africa’s literary scene by NYTBR editor Rachel Donadio in today’s New York Times Magazine, and even though this piece is less bad than the other uniformly terrible articles Donadio has written for the Times, I have to point to Ed Champion’s deft analysis of why so many of us dislike her work so much. He’s absolutely right that Donadio writes as if marketing managers were her audience. She never describes the work she is writing about; instead she always writes about the effect the work has on people. Her analysis is always external. This is a profoundly offensive way to look at literature, and this is why so many of us seem to agree that Donadio lacks the sensibility required to write for a top literary publication.

My first encounter with Rachel Donadio was in August 2005 when, as I wrote then, she turned in a “breathy, overly respectful interview with V. S. Naipaul’s aura” (I still think that was one of my funnier lines, and I guess I’m reproducing it here today in the hope that somebody will finally give me props for it). I’m also proud to remind the world that I was the first one in our sub-literate blogosphere to declare Rachel Donadio “the worst writer on the staff of the New York Times Book Review”. The date was September 4, 2005, and you were there.

Unfortunately, Rachel Donadio is still here as well. How long will the NYTBR stay the course?

10 Responses

  1. Good stuff!Your review of
    Good stuff!

    Your review of “The Review” is definitely better than the NYTBR itself: “Yeah, and book reviews that can make me snort with derision and fall asleep at the same time are rare too” – ouch! I must say, I chortled with glee when I read that.

    By the way, what kind of wine connoisseur would Jack Kerouac be? He was a Tokay man. Dionysian definately: anyone who sits on the floor in a jazz club swagging on a gallon bottle of Tokay and yelling “Go!” is Dionysian in my book.

  2. Ownership of StoriesI liked
    Ownership of Stories

    I liked Isherwood’s piece on writers owning stories. I was surprised to read the suggestion that if a writer “owns” a story then perhaps he ought to write it.


    But I give up. How is it that when this discussion gets articulated we always go to the “greed” of the writer who ostensibly used another person’s “life story” versus the greed of the writer who claims to own all stories that even remotely resemble something of his life.

    For the past year, NO WRITER has dared express what that miight mean for culture.

    “I was a truckdrver therefore I own all truckdriver stories.”

    “I survived Katrina therefore I own all stories about hurricans for all time.”

    “I was raised in the suburbs therefore I own all stories written about 7-11.”

    “My parents were from Manhattan and they went out a lot at night therefore I own all stories about bright lights and big cities.”

    I’m sick of it. The entire writing scene is sickening.

    It’s not even that this is second-rate thinking so much as it is a situation where NO WRITER dares confront this patently absurd political correctness (“my parents were both full-blooded as opposed to seven/eights-blooded Native Americans therefore I own all stories about anyone from a reservation even if I do live in a white townhouse in Seattle”) for an entire year before someone peeks around the literary corner and says: the ownership of stories is ridiculous and if you think you own it then why didn’t you write it.

    Because he does not know how.

    The thrill is gone. The thrill has gone away. And the chill is on, babe. If you were raised as a pumpkin-grower in Half-Moon Bay, California, I would strongly advise you to limit whatever you write to the subject of growing pumpkins or TIME and ESQUIRE will urinate all over themselves that you broached the subject of Halloween.

    Publishing is Halloween. It’s a cast of ugly characters begging house to house for morsels with pins stuck through them. Then, the next day they fight viciously over who owns the pins and candy.

    None of whom ever wore a mask.

    Because they’re transparently stupid.

    This was the first time a peep was heard if not around the world, then at least in my tiny garrett where not one canvas contains a droplet of anything or I will be accused of impersonating Jackson Pollock.

    The writers have such a case of Mouth-Tied-Up-With-Barbed-Wire-Syndrome the publishers win again and especially in light of who owns what.

    In the end, they own everything.

    Wait and see.

    I’m out of it. I would rather paint than write. In the painting world, no one cares about anything I wrote. Everyone’s canvas begins with white and it’s the one thing no one claims to own.

  3. sticking up for ApolloFirst
    sticking up for Apollo

    First off, I always enjoy your reviews of the Review — in fact, I usually wait until you’ve weighed in before I decide which articles to read. But I have to take issue with your “Apollonian wine” scoffing.

    Of course, Dionysus is the god of wine, and looking at it in literal terms, it would be ridiculous to call wine anything but Dionysian. But if we are, as you say, looking at the opposition in Nietzschean terms, then you can’t just dismiss it so easily. (Interestingly enough, Nietzsche, the great prophet of Dionysus, was not a wine-drinker himself.)

    Bordeaux wines are almost prototypically Apollonian — they’re structured, meticulously balanced, ponderous, obsessively traditional, and farming techniques in the region are approached with a scientific rigor bordering on the ludicrous. You always know what you’re getting with a good Chateau Margaux or Mouton-Rothschild, which is why they can so consistently demand amazingly high prices. Contrast that with the southern Rhone valley, Piemonte, anywhere in Austria: these are Dionysian wines — wild, earthy, unpredictable, changing from minute to minute and all but exploding out of the glass.

    And yes, Jefferson was an atheist and liked the ladies. But more importantly, he was a disciple of the Age of Reason, a complete Apollonian, striving to create a society ruled by reason and the rights of man, as opposed to gods, rituals, rites. Nietzsche was no fan of democracy, nor of libraries or knowledge for its own sake. An active social life does not a Dionysian make.

    (Also — there’s a wine bar in Vegas that has, under glass, a bottle of wine once owned by Jefferson. Medoc all the way.)

    Anyway, keep up what is otherwise excellent work.

  4. Thomas JeffersonHe may have
    Thomas Jefferson

    He may have been “Dionysian” but his Notes on the State of Virginia suggest otherwise (i.e, self-righteous bigot of the worst sort).

  5. Well, you seem to be equating
    Well, you seem to be equating Dionysus with virtuous behavior. I don’t think that’s necessarily part of the package though — at least Euripidies didn’t think so in “The Bacchae”.

    I think there is a strong Dionysian element to militarism and violence, as well. This is one reason wars start so easily.

  6. Interesting, Milton. Clearly
    Interesting, Milton. Clearly you know your wines, whereas I’m simply a guy who watched “Sideways” on DVD. So I’m not going to dispute you on the characteristics of Bourdeaux, but I will say that McInerney could have at least made it clear to the reader that he was aware of the oxymoron. Perhaps Jay used the term knowingly, but it came across as thoughtless to me.

    I will also defend my statement that Thomas Jefferson is not a particularly Appolonian personality. I would describe John Adams as Appolonian, or Alexander Hamilton, because their personalities seem very grounded in logic and common sense. But I see Thomas Jefferson as much more attuned to the artistic sensibilities of, say, Geothe, Kant, Voltaire, Rousseau — the same sensibility that would soon burst forth into the Romantic movement in Europe and the New England Transcendental movement in America. I see this as a basically Dionysian view of life. I guess we’re all projecting our own images onto Thomas Jefferson (who, obviously, none of us can know) … but at least I think McInerney should not have stated it as a matter of fact that Jefferson was an Appolonian personality, when I think many people would agree with my view.

    BTW, I visited Monticello last year, so I got to look at his bookshelves. Maybe I’ll find that wine glass next time I’m in Vegas.

    Thanks for writing, anyway, Milton, and please do post again.

  7. I suppose my calling
    I suppose my calling Jefferson “Apollonian” had a bit more to do with his contributions to history than his personality. The Founding Fathers did certainly tilt to one side of the equation when they wrote up the Constitution (balance of power, representative democracy…almost everything, right down to their architectural choices, would have made Apollo proud). Although Jefferson can’t be credited with that, and as he was both a stately university founder and hermetic wine-drinker he probably falls somewhere in the middle of the scale.

    Can we at least agree that James Madison and John Adams were starch-shirted Apollonians, Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry were crazy yahoo Dionysians, and everyone else was somewhere in between?

    But things do get a bit hairy when you try to categorize like this, don’t they? When I think Dionysian I think Wagner, Whitman, Thoreau et al, yet would hardly give that label to their progenitors that you mention, especially not Kant. And I don’t know where to put Goethe. What category CAN’T you fit Goethe into?

    But, of course, this is all of secondary importance to the massively half-assed nature of McInerney’s article.

  8. Sounds like a good compromise
    Sounds like a good compromise agreement, Milton! Nietzsche would have approved.

  9. I likeyour reasoning in re:
    I like

    your reasoning in re: Apollo and Dionysius. Economical and implication-rich: _elegant_ yes. As Hunter Thompson would say a ‘purely elegant […] bit of _writing_’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!