Reviewing the Review: February 11 2007

Jim Harrison’s new Returning to Earth is about a terminally ill man who chooses to die in a family nature ceremony with a bear-claw around his neck, after which his survivors begin to experience visions of his return as a bear. It sounds like quite a fable, and I’m encouraged to see a thoroughly positive evaluation on the cover of today’s New York Times Book Review. Critic Will Blythe’s summary of the plot is quite compelling, and I think I’ll check this book out.

Stephen Metcalf provides an illuminating overview of the career of British poet James Fenton, who Metcalf considers lucky for having managed to transcend an excess of academic appreciation. “Maybe it is best, when young, to be stranded amid philistines than dandled by old toadies.” I wouldn’t know.

The best moment in today’s issue comes from a furious letter-writer, Daniel Halpern (the editor of Ecco Press). Halpern slashes, torments and ultimately impales an article the unfortunate William Logan recently wrote about the work of Hart Crane. This is some good letter-writing, and the contest is basically a knock-out as far as I can judge.

Interestingly, one of the issue’s worst moments also comes from a letter writer, William Pritchard of the English Department at Amherst College, who says:

When, in his windy review, Lee Siegel eventually addresses “The Castle in the Forest,” he assures us that Mailer has no sympathy for his devil-narrator, Dieter. But since that narrator is the only voice we hear in the novel and is responsible for whatever wit it contains, how can this possibly be true?

Actually, it’s perfectly possible for an author’s point of view to be expressed separately from his narrator’s point of view. You better sit in on Postmodernism 101 and catch up on the new style, “Professor Pritchard”.

Back to the articles section, James Campbell is very engaging about Allen Shawn’s Wish I Could Be There, a memoir of growing up as the mentally unbalanced brother of actor Wallace Shawn and son of New Yorker editor William Shawn (Shawn also discovers a hidden twin sister, even more unbalanced than himself).

Geoff Nicholson is vicious to Joe Hill’s Heart Shaped Box, and since the daily Times gave this book a rave and the plot sounds quirky and fun, I’m wondering if this review amounts to a fair shake. Evidence: Nicholson mocks Hill for describing characters by comparing them to movie stars, saying “This really doesn’t count as novel writing at all”. Yeah, except that Jack Kerouac introduced Dean Moriarty as resembling Gene Autry on page 2 of On The Road, and a lot of people think On The Road was pretty good. No knock-out punch here.

I’m impressed by the number of substantial articles in this issue, the best so far of the year. Matt Weiland keeps up the pace with a consideration of Walter Kirn’s The Unbinding, which was originally published online, and which has not made a perfect transition to the print format in Matt Weiland’s opinion. I’ll take a look at it anyway.

Then we have a roman a clef about Judith Regan, of all people, Because She Can by Bridie Clark. The reviewer is Alexandra Jacobs, who pulls off a deft Homer Price reference in describing this glazed donut of gossip and industry intrigue. Field Maloney’s endpaper on cover design is the usual yawner, but who cares? I enjoyed this weekend’s issue very much.

* * * * *

As I draw the last thin gray page closed with a sigh of appreciation, I’d like to take a moment to address something brought up by Mark Sarvas on his blog The Elegant Variation. Mark refers to the fact that many bloggers seem to loathe the NYTBR in the era of editor Sam Tanenhaus. This comment gives me pause. I want to make sure I am always fair and impartial here, and if it’s true that I “loathe” the Book Review or its editor then I can hardly serve a useful purpose with this weekly column.

Luckily, I don’t loathe the Book Review or Sam Tanenhaus, and I don’t think anybody else does either. I do sometimes fling a bit of invective in the editor’s direction, but honestly I only do this when I think I’ve got a funny line. And yes, I do have some serious misgivings about Tanenhaus’s editorial judgement. In his writings and personal appearances, he does not show the singular sensitivity towards fiction and poetry I’d hope to see in a New York Times Book Review editor. His approach seems a bit too corporate and too cautious for my tastes. Doesn’t the NYTBR deserve a Kurt Anderson, a David Remnick, a George Plimpton at its helm? Tanenhaus does not appear to have the steely independence, nor the transcendent vision, required of a great editor. And I think the New York Times Book Review is a great publication that deserves a great editor.

I don’t think Tanenhaus does an absolutely terrible job, though. If he did, I wouldn’t bother reading the Book Review every week, much less writing about it. It’s a good publication produced at a fast pace, and I’m sure Sam Tanenhaus deserves more credit than I usually give him, though maybe less than Mark Sarvas offers.

5 Responses

  1. Movie StarsI’ve always
    Movie Stars

    I’ve always resisted comparing my characters to famous personalities, even though, at times, it was tempting. It felt like cheating – taking the easy way out. Also, not everyone knows movie stars, especially after time passes, and somebody who is famous now might be obscure later. I quoted a line from William S. Burroughs to my son, “Daddy Longlegs looked like Uncle Sam on stilts.” My son asked me who “Uncle Sam” was. Kerouac referenced W.C. Fields more than once in Dr. Sax but I have a feeling many younger readers don’t know who Fields is. Ever since I was a kid, if I come across something in a book that puzzles me, I look it up, but I’m not sure I want to rely on readers doing this for my prose.

    A friend of mine said that Stephen King often uses movie stars to describe his characters. That could be a pro or a con, depending on your point of view. King probably just assumes Robert Loggia will play the General in his next TV mini-series.

    Here is a paradox: If I compare one of my characters to an actor, it might be viewed as “dumbing down” my work. But if someone has to look up the character to understand what I’m talking about, they are exhibiting smart reader behavior.

    What does everyone else think?

  2. I do agree that a writer
    I do agree that a writer appears to be taking the lazy way out when describing a character by comparison to a celebrity. Personally, I would try to avoid it.

    Bill, your point that Kerouac also compares characters to W. C. Fields is interesting — I’m pretty sure he also compares a character to Harpo Marx at one point, though the exact reference escapes me (although it also counts that he named a character “Carlo Marx”).

    Also interesting that you mention Stephen King in this context — the author we’re discussing here, Joe Hill, is Stephen King’s son.

  3. Wow, I didn’t know Hill was
    Wow, I didn’t know Hill was King’s son. Now I see the resemblence in his photo. I’ll say this, he has a hell of a cool website for Heart Shaped Box.

  4. I don’t describe characters
    I don’t describe characters by comparing them to actors. For one thing, since I don’t watch much TV or see many movies, I generally have no idea who a particular actor might be, much less what s/he looks like. For another, I never assume that the TV/film I do watch is the same stuff viewed by others (in fact, I know it is not). I’m seldom aware of who the current “hot stars” might be, and as the classic actors become more forgotten, I find no shared touchstone for this sort of reference. Ironically, I live & work in Hollywood, where celebrity and notoriety can get you more than a credit card or a lump of cash. My dimness about such things is the source of great amusement among my celebrity-wise friends. Although living here has taught me one thing: what you think the matinee idol looks like from his/her movies if often nothing like their appearance in “real life.”

  5. That’s funny, because every
    That’s funny, because every character I write is a Phyllis Diller/Carol Channing hybrid. Especially the men.

    I never turn my TV off.

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