Reviewing the Review: November 11 2007

I’ve often wondered (naively, perhaps) if New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus’s personal political views are expressed in the publication’s selection of reviewers for books about history and current events. According to this well-reasoned article by Jim Sleeper from Talking Points Memo Cafe there is a clear neo-conservative slant, specifically a slant towards political critics who believe that “hate America” liberals are to blame for our nation’s current problems. Is this true?

Maybe it is, and maybe I’ve been oblivious since it’s always been my stated purpose here to review the NYTBR on aesthetic grounds. I’ve always tried to apprehend each new issue, and each article in each new issue, with a blank memory. Rather than seeking out patterns, I’ve tried to seek out surprises, and I’ve never bothered to keep track of who’s zooming who. So when Richard Brookhiser trashed Richard Kluger’s Seizing Destiny: How America Grew from Sea to Shining Sea last August I praised his colorful insults (“I felt as if I were inside a bass drum banged on by a clown”), but I was then privately informed by somebody who knows the field better than I do that assigning Richard Brookhiser to review Richard Kluger amounted to a hit job, that Kluger’s book could have never had a fair chance with this critic.

I’ll have to pay closer attention to this in the future. The greatest political offense I can recall since I’ve begun reviewing the Review is the choice of Henry Kissinger to review a biography of Dean Acheson (which I have already complained about at length, and even managed to complain about on BookTV). But the big offense here is the fawning before celebrity, the bald desire to be associated with the “stature” of Henry Kissinger even at the cost of running an obviously compromised and self-serving article on the front page when the better choice would have been to send it back to the Kissinger office with a note saying “Try harder next time”.

This was an offense against taste and against truth — however, it was not primarily a political offense, although it is noteworthy that the Book Review editors believed Henry Kissinger to have any stature left to fawn over after he played a key role in encouraging the 2003 invasion of Iraq (forget Norman Mailer, here’s your overrated buffoon).

I have also been disgusted by the wheezy, tired politics expressed in the NYTBR by critics like Stephen Metcalf and David Brooks. Yet here, again, the offense is more literary than political. And, I have at times (though not very often) been pleased to find some incisive and admirably idealistic political writing by the likes of Samantha Power in the Book Review. Conclusion: I will look harder for signs of political bias in these pages in the future, though I am not convinced I’ve spotted these signs yet. Consider my eyes officially opened.

All of which leaves very little time to comment on this week’s publication, which contains a plethora of political articles that don’t, as far as I can tell, either support or contradict Jim Sleeper’s thesis. In fact, none of these articles got my heart racing at all, not even Matt Bai’s appreciation of Richard Ben Cramer’s 1988 election chronicle What it Takes, which Bai calls “the ultimate campaign book”. Bai believes that a book this good can never be written again because candidates now “seal themselves off behind phalanxes of consultants and aides”. I’m unconvinced; are we actually now feeling deeply nostalgic for the way Presidents were elected in 1988? I’m pretty sure there were phalanxes of consultants and aides back then too, and as for access, let’s not forget what a lone guy with a videocamera and a YouTube account was able to do to Virginia Senator George “Macaca” Allen last year.

These political musings have already busted my length limit (yes, readers of LitKicks, I *do* have a length limit) so I’m going to move quickly through the rest of this week’s Book Review. James Longenbach’s review of the new Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander translation of Dante’s Paradiso strikes me as way too solemn and self-satisfied:

Throughout the three-line stanzas, or tercets, of the “Commedia”, the first and third lines rhyme not only with each other but with the second line of the previous tercet. As a result, the poem seems simultaneously to surge forward and eddy backward. The poem feels swift because its energy has been artfully stymied, the way well-placed rocks increase the vigor of a stream.

I’m pretty sure Lil’ Wayne does the same thing, though, and the New York Times Book Review never writes about him. A cover article by Jed Perl on John Richardson’s A Life of Picasso: the Triumphant Years, 1917-1932 is written with the vibrancy that Longenbach’s piece lacks:

The paintings of Marie-Therese that emerged from the artist’s own collection have a what-the-hell radiance, a crazy red-and-purple-hot lyricism that can make them feel like transcriptions of sex itself.

But I am surprised and dismayed that both Jed Perl and John Richardson seem to believe that Picasso did great work between 1917 and 1932. As far as I can see, even 1937’s “Guernica” notwithstanding, Picasso spent the years after 1912 groping desperately for relevance, and Cubism remains his only great contribution to modern art. I will not be reading this 592-page biography, and I honestly feel sorry for anybody who seeks artistic revelation within. They may find intriguing moments of history and romantic gossip, but in artistic terms Picasso’s post-Cubist career was a long indulgence, and a four-volume biography (yes, another volume is coming) of the artist’s long life amounts to far more detail than any general reader needs.

Liesl Schillinger is skillfully brutal to Peter Hoeg’s The Quiet Girl, which she considers so far below the standard set by Hoeg’s previous Smilla’s Sense of Snow that she blames the translator. Walter Kirn is also rather harsh towards The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux, though he makes the first story in this collection — a wealthy American couple who meet disaster in India — sound quite appealing despite the fact that he’s dismissing it as a predictable Paul Bowles retread.

Jay McInerney treats Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read respectfully, pointing out the serious purpose beyond the goofy title:

Bayard tells us, “culture is above all a matter of orientation”. Being cultivated is a matter of not having ready any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others.

I agree with this. In fact, I personally talk about books I haven’t read every weekend when I review the New York Times Book Review, so I’m glad to be able to justify this egregious ongoing act in such lofty terms. See, I’m not just mouthing off here, I’m carefully laying out “the system”.

9 Responses

  1. NYT Reason for Being”I’ve
    NYT Reason for Being

    “I’ve often wondered (naively, perhaps) if New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus’s personal political views are expressed in the publication’s selection of reviewers for books about history and current events”

    I have been under the impression that this is the entire purpose of any and all sections of the New York Times.

    It is probably the main purpose of most book publishing as well.

    These are reasons these industries are decreasing in value and relevance.

    But support for neocons (often too often a euphemism for Jews (see Pat Buchanan and mirror images on left) is a novel one.

    New York Times in the two thousands spreading Right Wing viewpoints? Quite a delusional idea.

  2. I’m not completely sure if
    I’m not completely sure if you’re saying that a neo-con agenda is the entire purpose of the NY Times or if you’re saying more generally that political bias is inevitable and should be accepted as such.

    If you’re saying the latter, then yes, I agree with you. Some amount of political bias is natural and inevitable and should be recognized as such. What I am objecting to specifically here, and what I think Jim Sleeper is objecting to as well, is the fact that the specific neo-conservative slant (which Sleeper alleges, and I am reserving judgement about) does not represent the viewpoint most readers want and expect to find in the New York Times Book Review.

    The reason I’m reserving judgement is that I don’t actually know anything about Tanenhaus’s political points of view. I haven’t read his books or studied his past articles. My personal impression, though, is that the NY Times chose him primarily for his “Vanity Fair cachet” and generally strong journalistic reputation, and that any bias he may have brought with him to the NY Times would have been an accidental result of his selection as editor.

    Again, I am going to start paying more attention to this and will hopefully have more informed things to say here soon.

  3. I am saying the latter.New
    I am saying the latter.

    New York Times is considered very biased and at the level of advocacy journalism — ie their “news” service is actually secondary to putting forth points of view and agenda.

    This is much more true than of the Washington Post which alos has a strong left/liberal/democrat point of view and bias, but the Post is seen as retaining some mdicum of professionalism as per what it is — a NEWSpaper.

    Los Angeles Times is seen somewhere in between the NY Times and Washington Post.

    As far as pushing neo-con agenda — not. The NY Times is absolutely against any neo-con agenda. The idea that the NY Times pushes their bias in their paper is pretty obvious. That the bias is toward neo-cons is delusional.

    I don’t know anything about Tannehaus either, and I think that the fellow who proposes that the book review is pushing a neo-con agenda is probably a bit extreme.

    A lot of the anti-neocons are at the extremes. So not fully damning anything remotely smacking of neo-conism (as if there is such a term) can be seen as therefore propping up the neo-con agenda. Not viscerally hating and having the book review reflect such a hatred (for example) could be seen as somehow promoting a neo-con agenda.

    Neo-con is a term that reflected people who were more on the left but later came to see the oppression of the soviet and communist systems were very real and much worse than admitted on the left. For this forum there
    s a great example — Norman Podhoretz is one the the fathers of what is known as neo-conservatism. His My War with Allen Ginsberg is a great read.

    Often they were Jewish and have solid support for Israel due to Israel’s commitment to freedom and democracy.

    Examples of neo-con haters are Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul and Cindy Sheehan, the latter who talked about them in the same breath she claimed Israel was running our foreign policy and her son died for a neo-con led Israel-directed war.

  4. bugs and not-bugsI take you
    bugs and not-bugs

    I take you seriously. But you dismiss Sartre, you dismiss Picasso. You might have dismissed Kissinger after Allende and Vietnam, why wait ’til Iraq? I assume Hemingway, Picasso, and others led an artistic movement in Paris in the 20’s. As we are artists who are concerned about our planet, this is our history. This is important stuff. Kissinger and cohorts are merely bugs on the windshield who blur our vision. Their global effect is to be our foil, our life and death adversary. These are choices.

  5. I never dismissed Sartre! Or
    I never dismissed Sartre! Or Picasso in his best years. The rest of the stuff you say, I pretty much agree.

  6. Perhaps in an unintended
    Perhaps in an unintended offhandedness – you said ‘Sartre was a Communist dupe.’ Which regularly gets argued to death at The Guardian, but at least they stomped all over me when I said ‘Wodehouse was a Nazi sympathizer.’

  7. Dante, and hip-hopReading
    Dante, and hip-hop

    Reading Dante, the terza rima is essential, and any new English translation should be judged in part by how well this rhyme scheme is incorporated. In addition to the propulsive yet backward-looking momentum, the whole “Commedia” is an amazing numerological maze, with particular emphasis on threes. (There are three canticles, each containing 33 cantos, written in a three-line structure with a three-part rhyme-scheme, describing three different places that are organized into nine terraces apiece, often with subsections within that are organized by multiples of three. And you start finding more groups of three the more you look — seriously, it can get a bit insane.) So yeah, preserving Dante’s rhyme scheme is pretty key.

    And for the record, I don’t think Lil’ Wayne raps in terza rima, nor does any MC I’ve ever come across. What he does often do is employ a similarly propulsive backward-looking rhyme structure, one that I think was perfected by Jay-Z on “Reasonable Doubt,” where he buries the rhyme to the previous line in the middle of the new line, then starts a new rhyming sequence at the end of that line. This is actually a lot like Dante in terms of its momentum, as it catches you off-guard because the closure you’re expecting comes a few beats too soon, and then you’re right in the middle of a new rhyme sequence before you even realize what’s happening.

    (For example, listen at the last verse of “Can’t Knock the Hustle” — Jay does this twice.)

    Dante aside, I DO think the NYTBR should write about people like Jay-Z and Lil’ Wayne; if they’re going to review slam poetry, why not hip-hop lyrics? Jay-Z’s most recent album, actually, reveals a lot of very clever wordplay and phantom rhymes when you read the lyrics on paper. (My favorite: “Blame Oliver North and Iran Contra / I ran contraband that they sponsored.” I love how the last four syllables of the first line are also the first four syllables of the second, which you don’t really notice when you’re listening to the song. Clever man, that Shawn Carter.)

  8. Oh, that. Well, yeah, he
    Oh, that. Well, yeah, he *was* a Communist dupe. But that never stopped me from liking him very much. He wrote “No Exit”, what more do I need to see?

  9. Yes, how dare you misspeak
    Yes, how dare you misspeak about Sartre, brooklyn. Everyone knows he wasn’t a Communist dupe, rather a Communist wank.

    Get it straight.

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