Reviewing the Review: February 24 2008

Lit-critics and bloggers have been debating whether or not Vladimir Nabokov’s never-seen Laura should be published or burned (as Nabokov had instructed it should be). The public’s verdict seems to be against incineration, but based on the evidence in today’s New York Times Book Review one must guess that Ron Powers votes for the flames. He reviews Richard Wright’s unfinished and apparently Dostoevskian murder-mystery A Father’s Law here, and cannot get past the fact that the unfinished, unedited manuscript is, well, unfinished and unedited.

“A Father’s Law” is not simply an unfinished novel; it is an unfinished novel in abject need of revision. Its flaws are so many and so foregrounded that they all but dare the reader to work through them and engage the ideas with which Wright was grappling. Without having first read his thunderous classics, one might plausably dismiss this author as a tendentious, technically naive amateur and disdain the works that made him indispensable in American letters.


This early-draft expedience saturates the manuscript and bleaches it of plausibility.

And, as if we haven’t already heard the news:

Far more obvious is that Wright’s draft could use, and doubtless would have received, a good deal of work. To present it to the public at this embryonic stage violates his writerly privacy and does him a disservice.

Richard Wright will be just fine. First of all, there is no evidence that an excellent author’s responsibility for an inferior work has ever harmed that author’s reputation. If this were the case, our literary canon would be empty. More crucially, Powers fails to deliver the in-depth review this book deserves, instead fixating on the mistakes that are a necessary consequence of the fact that this is a published first draft. Julia Wright, the author’s daughter and literary executor, has made the decision to publish this book exactly as is, a choice that may be controversial but is certainly reasonable, and in my opinion the best of all possible choices. Should she have hired a ghostwriter to polish it up? Should the manuscript lie fallow in some University library? No, and no — so what is Ron Powers so upset about? Because he’s still going on about this, up until the very end of the article:

Yet it’s hard not to believe Wright would have spotted and corrected the most troublesome flaws of “A Father’s Law.” Indeed , the book sometimes reads almost as notes for a later, more carefully written draft.

Ron, get over it! Harper Perennial is not trying to over-hype this book as a hot bestseller, and in fact their decision to publish it as an affordable ($14.95) paperback is commendable. The text deserves a review on its own terms, and it doesn’t get one here. With today’s poor showing, Ron Powers elevates his standing as one of the least credible of the Book Review’s regular critics. He may win the trophy from Lee Siegel if he keeps this up.

Happily, today’s Book Review gets much better. Steven Millhauser’s Dangerous Laughter is on the cover, decorated with a stylishly blurry and Village-Voice-esque photo of the author. Reviewer D. T. Max does this beguiling American magical realist credit with a perceptive and skillful summary of the book’s contents. I appreciate that Max tries to communicate the unique strangeness of each individual story here, and I like it when he puts us at ease with this:

These are fables, not allegories, and their hermetic quality discourages us from wandering outside the text. It is for this reason that Millhauser seems less a descendant of Jorge Luis Borges, to whom he is sometimes compared, than of, say, Shirley Jackson or even “The Twilight Zone”.

I do know that reading Millhauser, like reading Borges, is rewarding but hard work. I’ve read several of his stories and one really good novel, a satire on literary biography called Edwin Mullhouse, which Max refers to in this review. I can’t promise I’ll go out and read Dangerous Laughter right this minute (for some reason, I have lately been favoring novels over story collections) but I think I will pick up my old copy of Edwin Mullhouse and give it a second spin.

Maud Newton’s prose sails trippingly in her review of another story collection I wish I’ll read but probably won’t, Dark Roots by Cate Kennedy:

A writer, Eudora Welty insisted, must know her characters’ “hearts and minds before they ever set visible foot on stage. You must know all, then not tell it all, or not tell too much at once: simply the right thing at the right moment.” When fiction doles out its revelations in this way — when it allows just the right sequences of glimpses through a parted curtain — we misleadingly call it “realistic”. Actual existence is rarely well choreographed.


… the measured precision of her storytelling gives the writing a muted quality, as though it has been benumbed by the characters’ despair. Their pain unfolds before us like an aquarium show: silent, slow-moving, seen through glass.

Not many literary critics try to write like this. I wish more would try.

This is a fine NYTBR, featuring Stacy D’Erasmo on Roberto Bolano’s Nazi Literature in the Americas, Caryn James on The Age of Shiva by Manil Suri and an impassioned August Kleinzahler on Robert Creeley’s new volume of selected poems.

I am disappointed in David Hajdu’s vain review of Nathaniel Mackey’s jazz novel Bass Cathedral, mainly because I like Mackey’s experimental poetry and I also generally like David Hajdu’s non-fiction about alternative/pop culture. But this pretentious article reads like a private conversation between two annoying jazz enthusiasts, especially when Hadju breathlessly whispers:

The satisfaction “Bass Cathedral” provides is that of the moment. It feels, sentence to sentence and page to page, like a work in the act of being created. It is not simply writing about jazz, but writing as jazz.

Way excessive, especially since Jack Kerouac, Ted Joans and Bob Kaufman were jazz writers decades ago, and also because Hadju’s description of the book (which “expresses ecstasy with little interest in inducing it”) unwittingly makes it sound as dreary as a long, slow recording of Miles Davis on a bad night.

Finally, I must register a complaint about the increasing frequency of familiar and overused phrases at the Book Review (this has always been a problem, but is getting worse). Three examples:

1. Writing about Johnny One-Eye: A Tale of the American Revolution by Jerome Charyn, Stacy Schiff writes “the boudoir is the last refuge of a soundrel”. Tired.

2. Ben Marcus, reviewing My Unwritten Books by George Steiner: “When Steiner courts controversy, his word choices often splash egg on his face.” First of all, the “splash” doesn’t even make sense, since liquid egg is not usually found near anybody’s face (we usually cook eggs before we eat them). More importantly, again, it’s a very tired phrase.

3. David Hajdu, in above review: “There is a cliche about music writing, sometimes attributed to Thelonius Monk, among others: ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture'”. Yes, it is a cliche. So why are you using it?

5 Responses

  1. I have to agree with Ron
    I have to agree with Ron Powers. Levi says, “The text deserves a review on its own terms, and it doesn’t get one here.”

    How else should a reviewer proceed? Powers actually shows respect to Richard Wright’s other work by negative comparison.

  2. Well, Bill, what I meant by
    Well, Bill, what I meant by “a review on its own terms” is that, if the book is clearly marked as a published first draft rather than a fully edited and polished work, there isn’t much point in harshly criticizing it for being a published first draft rather than a fully edited and polished work.

  3. Both Nabokov and Wright’s
    Both Nabokov and Wright’s manuscripts should be published and read, giving proceeds to their heirs and be read realizing that they are unedited and perhaps downplayed by their authors.

    Take a look at Arthur Conan Doyle’s SHERLOCK HOLMES. Doyle hated the writing about the character, but we are glad he did. Moreover, we should read his short stories and spiritual novels and see that he was more versatile than many give him credit for. I’ve read some of these other works and appreciate them very much.

    Reading books “not approved” by the author give us another facet of the author’s abilities.

  4. I don’t usually read the book
    I don’t usually read the book review, sometimes I browse the non-fiction reviews in an effort to glean some knowledge without actually having to read the books, but this one sounds like an interesting crop of books. The truth is that the NYTBR is so tedious that sometimes the review of the review is even tedious by its very nature (to me), but at least it has less spoilers.

    That being said, Millhauser and Bolano are right up my alley. Millhauser for his soft simple prose and Bolano as a relic of expatriate rogues (in the vein of Paul Bowles, Henry Miller, JP Donleavy, etc). And although I get your point, I love the phrase:

    writing about music is like dancing about architecture

    Also, it seems silly to me that you would give a serious full-sized review to an unfinished first draft an author never would have published as is. This cannot be a good use of time and energy.

  5. Since an author owns his own
    Since an author owns his own writings I assume, until sold to a publisher, shouldn’t an author’s works be burned if so wanted? Or does the written material pass on like say a house or car to his heirs to be decided on what then if not stated to be burned in his will? As to Wright’s unfinished work, it should be seen as an unfinished work. If finished it might have been totally changed. In Wright’s mind who knows what direction he might have been headed in with this work.

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