Reviewing the Review: August 17 2008

One of the best things critics can do is complete the thoughts we struggle to formulate ourselves when we read new books. I balked at buying James Wood’s literary study How Fiction Works recently after reading several pages in a bookstore, sensing that I might find the air too rarefied. After reading Walter Kirn’s consideration of the book on the cover of this week’s New York Times Book Review, I feel better about this tough decision.

Kirn appears to be both impressed and offended by Wood’s unimpeachable knowledge and authority, not to mention his increasing fame and “Anton Ego”-like (*) critical aura. Kirn mocks Wood gently at first, then more openly later:

… he flashes the Burberry lining of his jacket whenever he rises from his armchair to fetch another Harvard Classic.

By the article’s last line, Kirn finally dismisses Wood’s book completely:

there is one thing this volume answers dismissively: Why Readers Nap.

Despite the jabs, this is a respectful review of what is clearly an important book, and that’s why I think the NYTBR made a good choice in asking the skeptical Walter Kirn to take it on.

The Wood review provides this NYTBR’s biggest splash. Bill Keller, a NY Times big-shot who resembles Donald Rumsfeld worries me when he paraphrases Garibaldi in the very first paragraph of his review of John Carlin’s Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation. Fortunately, though, Keller turns out to have a good political story to tell (as a former Johannesburg bureau chief for the Times, he must know South African sports from all the angles). He makes a strong case for the relevance of this book, which I think I’ll be checking out.

Beyond those two pieces, I can only report the typical ennui of several more notices of new books that feel hard to tell apart. Sophie Gee says “the bloggers” have been enthusiastic about The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson. Not any bloggers I’ve read lately, but okay. Stacey D’Erasmo does some good work with a “Tempest” theme in reviewing A Blessed Child by cinematic daughter Linn Ullmann, but I still know I’ll never get around to reading this book. Liesl Schillinger doesn’t really breathe life into a novel about hip young American expatriates in Germany, This Must Be the Place by Anna Winger, and I wish Schillinger had pointed out something I’ve said a few times before: if you can’t come up with a better title for your novel than a Talking Heads or Elvis Costello song, you really shouldn’t get to publish a novel at all. (Although I guess we’ll give Carol Alt a free pass).

2 Responses

  1. Man, I sure didn’t care for
    Man, I sure didn’t care for the Kirn piece. He’s obviously a smart guy and he gets the book and he gets what’s wrong with Wood, but that makes everything else about this piece harder to bear.

    Do they have editors at NYTBR anymore? For example:

    “For someone who professes to understand the fine machinations of characterization, Wood seems oblivious to the eminently resistible prose style of his donnish, finicky persona.”

    I think I understand what Kirn means here. I think he means “for someone who professes to understand how character is revealed through language, Woods seems oblivious to the donnish, finicky persona that his prose style evokes.” So why not finish the job? This is either sloppiness or self-satisfaction. Whichever it is, a writer shouldn’t be indulding in it and a copy-editor shouldn’t be blessing it.

    And yes, I did notice that he doesn’t understand the meaning of the word “machinations.”

    I’m not a big fan of Wood, but I’ve read the book and I think it deserves better than this. For example, Wood invokes the idea of a common reader, but what kind of “common reader” does Wood’s book imply, and how does that reader differ from the common reader so memorably and clearly articulated by Samuel Johnson or Virginia Woolf? Does anyone’s definition of the common reader include “that good fellow from the club who tries to keep up with all things cultural but is forever slightly short on time”? I guess that’s a joke?

    Anyhow – irritating in the extreme for this to be the front-page review on NYTBR this week. The common reader turns with renewed gratitude to more serious venues like Bookforum, TNR, TLS, and LRB.:)

  2. Interesting analysis, Sam.
    Interesting analysis, Sam. About the “donnish, finicky persona”, well — I got what Kirn meant and you did too, so maybe it’s not so obscure? All good points, though.

    In a way (as I implied above) a sarcastic review of this book may just be a needed corrective to the growing “cult of Wood”. This kind of argument is, in my opinion, the best thing that can happen when a worthy but ambitious book like this is published.

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