Reviewing the Review: June 17 2007

The New York Times Book Review just launched an exciting new blog, Paper Cuts, manned by senior editor Dwight Garner. If future weeks are as good as the first week, this site is sure to become a key literary destination. So far we’ve gotten a superb display of vintage book ads (featuring a baby-faced Cormac McCarthy and many other apparitions), notices about Martin Amis and Chinua Achebe, institutional memories of Theodore Dreiser and Eudora Welty. Dwight Garner has even managed to piss some people off in his first week, which is more than most bloggers manage to do in their first month, so I think we’re off to a great start.

I bet Paper Cuts won’t shout out to LitKicks in a million years, but I don’t care and I’m glad this site exists.

So, let’s look at the literary offerings in this week’s Book Review, and let’s discuss the worst ones first, and the better later. Why, oh why, oh why do reasonable literary critics think they should start writing like Snoopy the minute they get a New York Times Book Review assignment? Jonathan Lethem delivered a pompous, windy Ian McEwan cover piece two weeks ago, and now Lee Siegel is frothing it up just as bad in his review of Joyce Carol Oates’s The Gravedigger’s Daughter. Here he begins:

When all is said and done, when you have contended with the hampering undertow of Joyce Carol Oates’s flaws, there comes a moment when you surrender to the overpowering force of Joyce Carol Oates’s virtues. You yield to Oates much as her beleaguered heroines yield to the relentless, intoxicating strength of her dangerous men.

Oates’s routes of excess often lead to rambling mansions of truly apprehended life. On the other side of her sentimentality lies a rare intensity of feeling; driving her melodrama is a heightened receptivity to tragedy. Her stereotypes fall, like overripe fruit, from the fertile boughs of her archetypes.

Just stop that, Siegel. Or, as Groucho Marx once said, “Was that you or the duck? Because if it was you, I’m going to finish this ride with the duck.”

I don’t mind a book review working itself up into a swoon of baroque eloquence — as, say, a James Wood or John Updike or Cynthia Ozick piece almost always will — but, by god, a critic has got to build the reader up to that point. You can’t just start shoveling the stuff from paragraph one.

Siegel’s first mistake is to blather about Joyce Carol Oates as an icon, as a phenomenon, as America’s dream — as everything but a novelist — for the first third of this piece. He clearly doesn’t like her or care much about her, and is much more interested in the flow of his sentences than in the subject of his article. In his last paragraph he finally calls Oates’ book “sloppy” and “self-indulgent.” Hah.

If today’s Book Review were a theme issue, the theme would be “ambivalence”. I don’t know what to take away from Erica Wagner’s full-page article on Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero. She doesn’t seem to like the book at all, and she makes it sound like an absolute bore, but her review fails to locate any useful insight about the author or the book, and simply meanders and summarizes as if we’re supposed to find the conclusion ourselves. After reading this review, I have no idea why Ondaatje wrote this book and I also have no idea why Wagner wrote this review (except, I suppose, that it was assigned to her).

Jennifer Egan does a much better job with Jean Thompson’s book of elliptical short stories, Throw Like A Girl, describing what makes the collection unique:

Thompson appears to have made a pact with her crusty protaganists to renounce every literary convention traditionally perceived as feminine: sentimentality, pathos, sincerity, melodrama.

That’s all I ask for from a book critic — a single clear sentence that helps me understand a book’s essential thrust or purpose. Give me that and I’m happy.

Other good articles this week include a useful introduction by Morris Dickstein to a mostly forgotten novel of academia published in 1965, Stoner by John Williams, and a pointed dissection of Peter Godwin’s memoir of growing up as a white post-colonialist in Zimbabwe, When A Crocodile Eats The Sun. Mark Gevisser finds Godwin’s unintended expressions of alienation from African culture more telling than the author’s professed longing for common ground with the continent’s population, and I’ve got to admit Gevisser presents a solid case.

Walter Kirn is even harsher on Howard Zinn’s A Young People’s History of the United States, a liberal-minded children’s volume of American historical context. Kirn slams Zinn for overdoing the American guilt, and while I’m generally inclined to favor Howard Zinn on many issues, I have to admit that Kirn does the man some serious damage here, as in this paragraph about the legacy of Abraham Lincoln:

Circumstances appear to change decades and chapters later, during the Lincoln administration, but it makes little difference in the rotten scheme of things. By the time Zinn calls Lincoln “the perfect figure to bring about the end of slavery,” we’re familiar enough with his methods to know he isn’t paying Abe a compliment. The term “figure” is a tip-off. It suggests that Lincoln was a tool, like that genocidal old weasel Columbus. “Lincoln,” Zinn continues, stripping more flesh from the profile on the penny, “understood the needs of business. He shared the political ambition of the new Republican political party. Finally, he spoke the language of doing good, and he could argue with passion against slavery on moral grounds.” Here is the president famed above all others for the vigor and genius of his oratory and it turns out his stuff was mere ad copy, just “language.” How much of a total bummer is that?

Skill for skill, Kirn’s performance is the best in this week’s issue. Pete Hamill isn’t too bad on Taxi!: A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver by Graham Russell Gao Hodges, and Dominique Browning introduces us to Nature’s Engraver, a book about Romantic-era (Bronte and Wordsworth liked him) woodblock artist Thomas Bewick by Jenny Uglow. Finally, critic James Wood makes a surprise appearance in the letters section. This small battle seems to be about whether or not a critic can understand a translated book without being a translator and whether or not book reviewers appreciate translators enough. I’m staying out of this one.

One Response

  1. Vintage AdsYou know, I have
    Vintage Ads

    You know, I have really enjoyed Paper Cuts so far. The vintage book ads are hilarious and remind me of classic commercials on TVLand…but for bibliophiles.

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