Reviewing the Review: April 20 2008

Michael Orthofer has been bemoaning the English-only literary focus of the New York Times Book Review for a long time, and he reaches a brilliant sarcastic pitch with a recent blog post titled 29 Words. It’s more important that you read this than that you read anything I will say here this weekend.

Of course, the Book Review editors might feel singled-out by this type of analysis, since they are effectively a pillar of the USA commercial publishing/bookselling industry, and it’s the entire USA commercial publishing/bookselling industry, not just the New York Times Book Review, that persists in a hot-dog-and-apple-pie America-only scope of vision, refusing to realize that many readers considers themselves citizens of the world and would welcome the chance to read more excellent books from around the world. The NYTBR does seem to be in a position to improve this lame situation, though, and Orthofer is definitely speaking for many loyal New York Times readers when he pleads for more coverage of translated books.

Another harsh critique of the NYTBR was published this week in Bitch Magazine, which says “At the New York Times Book Review, all the misogyny is fit to print“.

It’s been a tough week for the crew up at Eighth Avenue and 40th Street, but I have no solace to offer, because I don’t even like this week’s issue very much.

I appreciate the types of systematic studies of NYTBR editorial practices produced by writers like Michael Orthofer and Sarah Seltzer above. I tend to react more viscerally to individual articles, and one thing I know I’ll react to negatively is the feeling that a critic is puffing up a book (they usually do this, I suspect, not out of any good will towards the book’s author or publisher, but simply because it’s the easiest review to write). I hate intellectually lazy and self-satisfied critics, and I hate a book review that reads like a blurb.

There are no prime offenders this week, but there are a few minor examples. Terrence Rafferty’s cover piece on The Journey Home, a novel about disaffected young Dubliners by Dermot Bolger, is a rave, but I feel an undercurrent of yawns throughout. The book’s big conflict is that the young suburban characters “can’t get a grip on what it means to be Irish anymore”. Okay, but that’s hardly a riveting plot, and in fact somebody already made a halfway decent movie about something like that called The Commitments. Dermot Bolger’s novel sounds fine, maybe even a book I’d try to read, but Terrence Rafferty completely fails to convince me here that the book is seminal or unique enough to deserve an NYTBR rave cover review.

I’m similarly underwhelmed by Langdon Hammer’s slightly wheezy appreciation of John Ashbery’s selected later poems, Notes From The Air. “No figure looms so large in American poetry over the past 50 years as John Ashbery,” Hammer begins, instantly turning me and many other readers off. First of all, this opening sentence is a highly well-trod road. It should be avoided. Second, the claim reeks of cultural elitism, since the average smart person on the street probably has an opinion (possibly even a favorable one) about Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath, but not about John Ashbery. So how exactly does Hammer justify “No figure looms so large in American poetry over the past 50 years as John Ashbery”? Who’s looming who?

There’s some good stuff here. Christopher Benfey turns in a highly engaging examination of Cynthia Ozick’s Dictation: A Quartet. Floyd Norris places a history book by Steve Fraser called Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace in context with a more topical book, The Trillian Dollar Meltdown: Easy Money, High Rollers, and the Great Credit Crash by Charles R. Morris. I’m intrigued by Paul Devlin’s summary of Negro With A Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey by Colin Grant, and there’s a strange, fascinating endpaper by Paul Greenberg about two eco-millenarian novels I’ve never heard of (I’ve also never heard the word “eco-millenarian” before, and I bet you haven’t either).

Joyce Carol Oates seems to have written a very strange new book, Wild Nights!, containing far-reaching fantasias about the elderly lives of writers like Mark Twain, Henry James and Emily Dickinson. Brenda Wineapple’s discussion of the book is strong. All in all, there are probably more good pieces than bad ones in today’s New York Times Book Review.

Still, it adds up to a disappointing whole, perhaps due to a sense of weak conviction that hangs over many of the pieces.

Oh, and, big surprise — no translated books are reviewed.

One Response

  1. I read almost entirely
    I read almost entirely translated literature, and have never really noticed that, or never really cared. I usually scan the book review for interesting biographies I can then scan again so I don’t actually have to read them. I occasionally read a book review of the new John Updike or Julian Barnes novel, so as to reinforce my decision not to read them. Every now and again something catches my eye, but I cannot remember the last time I discovered something great in the NYTBR. To read a full book review of a book I’m about to read would be as unthinkable as reading the introduction to the book. Plus, how excited can you be about “finding” a book in the NYTBR? I do feel bad for foreign authors who might sell a few more books had they been featured on the cover and thus produce more books, but maybe struggling to survive will help them write less, but far better novels. And like all other industries, big corporations like the NYT will be the last to come around to rising trends like translated books, while blogs like this will lead the way.

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