Reviewing the Review: September 7 2008

What does it mean when a critic begins a fiction review by writing about a different text? I think it reveals a lack of interest in the title at hand. Observe the following opening lines, all from today’s New York Times Book Review.

“The ways we miss our lives are life,” Randall Jarrell observed in his poem “A Girl in a Library.” Anne Enright, the Irish writer who won the 2007 Man Booker Prize for her dark novel “The Gathering,” counts some of the ways people miss their lives in “Yesterday’s Weather,” her varied if somewhat disenchanted collection of stories old and new.
— Christopher Benfey, reviewing Anne Enright’s Yesterday’s Weather

A man awakes one morning from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into — wait, haven’t we heard this story before? This time, the setting is post-apartheid Cape Town, the transformee a vain white architect who specializes in stark modernism and attributes his success to having scrupulously avoided taking a political stance under the old regime. His Gregor Samsa moment comes when, while shaving, he peers into the mirror and sees a black face looking back.
— Ligaya Mishan, reviewing Andre Brink’s Other Lives: A Novel in Three Parts

To assert the timelessness of a writer’s work is to invite rebuttal a decade later. The history of literature is, after all, partly a history of trends. Even the language we use to talk about storytelling shifts from era to era. The critics of Flannery O’Connor’s day, for instance, fixated on symbolism, and by this metric her stories — the most famous of which depicts a Bible salesman who steals a young woman’s prosthesis when she tries to seduce him — were adjudged successful. Very well, the author said. “If you want to say that the wooden leg is a symbol, you can say that. But it is a wooden leg first, and as a wooden leg it is absolutely necessary to the story.” She was right. These days only English teachers nearing retirement evaluate literature in terms of symbols, but O’Connor’s stories remain finely etched, sardonic marvels in which details like the leg accumulate meaning as the action unfolds.
— Maud Newton, reviewing Claire Keegan’s Walk the Blue Fields

The short stories in Sana Krasikov’s first collection unfold in two contemporary landscapes: the former Soviet Union and New York City and its suburbs. But an entirely unrelated setting might help explain why these stories work as well as they do: 17th-century India, where court artists created illuminated manuscripts of the ancient Hindu epic the “Ramayana.”
— Gauitra Bahadur, reviewing Sana Krasikov’s One More Year

It doesn’t bode well for any of these titles that their reviewers have other books on their minds, and in the putatively positive appraisals of Sara Krasikov and Anne Enright we can’t help noticing that the critics felt this need to reach elsewhere for their opening lines. A critic who is truly excited about a book will not have a wandering eye.

Maud Newton is mostly disappointed by Claire Keegan’s collection, and it’s amusing to find the many ways she manages to be kind while saying so. The extensive comparison to Flannery O’Connor does not ultimately work in Keegan’s favor, but it takes a close reading to parse this out for sure. Maud Newton is the very breath of politeness, so when she lets it drop that Keegan’s stories are “gentler than O’Connor’s work”, it takes a moment before we recognize this as a skillfully executed insult. Here, the reference to a classic text seems appropriate.

(Note: Newton also delivers a more captivating opening line, with Flannery O’Connor nowhere in sight, in her blog post about this article).

But a positive review that fixates on a different text is less convincing than a negative one, though Benfey’s encouraging consideration of Anne Enright is otherwise well-handled (he suggests “The Bad Sex Weekend” as an alternate title for Enright’s collection, though I think she’s far better off with “Yesterday’s Weather”). The most attractive fiction review today is Ron Carlson on Fine Just The Way It is, yet another story collection by Annie “Brokeback” Proulx, here carefully and lovingly presented. I know I won’t read this book (postmodern spins on Old West archetypes are not my thing) but Carlson just about manages to close the deal.

I will check out The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood by former Liberian rich-kid Helene Cooper, satisfyingly summarized by Caroline Elkins on today’s front cover. I’ll also glance at Alissa Torres’s American Widow, a graphic novel based on a true September 11 family tragedy. Charles Taylor opens his moderate review of this book not by referring to another novel but by referring to another NYTBR reviewer, Walter Kirn (I think this counts as another case of the critical wandering eye).

I nodded with agreement while reading Sia Michel on Suze Rotolo’s less than satisfying A Freewheelin’ Time, a memoir of an early relationship with Bob Dylan which I recently finished reading myself:

Perhaps an inherent contradiction is the problem: she’s writing about her unwillingness to be defined by her relationship to a famous man, in a book with Dylan on the cover.

Not Christopher Buckley again! Blake Wilson raves about his latest broad satire, Supreme Courtship (“Buckley remains our sharpest guide to the capital, and a more serious one than we may suppose”). I beg to differ. This is satire about the trivialization of the United States Supreme Court, and yet Wilson’s review suggests that no part of Buckley’s book confronts the current battle over abortion rights, certainly the hottest issue today’s Supreme Court faces. Buckley is a conservative and may be presumed to have no argument with the recent appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito, who were clearly chosen to help overturn Roe vs Wade, but many others feel greater concern. This issue may even help Barack Obama beat John McCain in the next Presidential election (many Americans seem to like Sarah Palin, but I trust we like Roe vs. Wade more).

So how can “our sharpest guide to the capital” write a “serious” satire about the Supreme Court that sidesteps the battle over abortion rights but contains dumb jokes about “Crispus Galavanter, the humble inhabitant of the court’s ‘black seat'”? Give me a break.

10 Responses

  1. To answer your initial
    To answer your initial question with another: wouldn’t it be remiss of the reviewer if the review failed to put the book under review in the context of the same author’s earlier work, i.e. their different texts?

    A review has to provide some context both for the book and their evaluation of it, so referring to related works (and providing context for that relation) seems not only fair but necessary, and frequently interesting. It depends on the quality of the reviewer.

    And we all have other books on our minds when we read. It would be near impossible to read otherwise, let alone review.

  2. This week I was drawn to the
    This week I was drawn to the review of Syncopation. It turns out the author of that book wrote an earlier historiography of Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg and associates which he titled after the old John Clellon Holmes article “This is the Beat Generation.”

    Something happened with this article as I read it that I am beginning to experience regularly at the NYTBR — reading and enjoying the article that seems to be getting going and hitting its stride, become interesting and it abrubtly and somewhat bizarrely just ends.

    Huh, that’s the end of the article?

    Maybe they ought to publish the full reviews without space constraints of their web site so these bizarre cut-offs don’t have to be done by editors without much space who are anyhow in hurries to go out drinking.

  3. The reference to another book
    The reference to another book is a fairly common NYTBR trope under the Tanenhaus/Garner regime. And I agree. I find this approach to a lede bland and needlessly pedantic. I’d rather see these reviewers grab the reader by the lapels with a sentence that makes you want to read further.

  4. Steve — sure, if a critic is
    Steve — sure, if a critic is referring to a previous work of the author under review, but that’s not the case in any of these examples.

    And, yes, I definitely agree (nobody could argue this) that a reviewer must place a work in context. Isn’t it strange, though, that four critics all chose to open their articles in this way? I wouldn’t be likely to write a book review without some comparison to other words, but I also wouldn’t be likely to spend my opening sentence in this way, unless the comparison amounted to the most interesting fact about the book.

  5. Excellent analysis. One nit:
    Excellent analysis. One nit: you don’t parse something out, you just parse it.

  6. “What does it mean when a
    “What does it mean when a critic begins a fiction review by writing about a different text?”

    It seems in these cases to mean that the critic is trying to show how erudite s/he is.

  7. Dylan Dylan Dylan the guy
    Dylan Dylan Dylan the guy just confuses everything even when it is not himself doing the writing. Of course the only reason she got this book deal was because of her relationship to her long ago beau. I liked the review in that it took stuff about the relationship from both Rotolo’s and Dylan’s book. Can you run from the one thing that got you the book deal? Though the idea of a woman being defined by only a long ago relationship certainly is a drag. It reminds me of Bill Buckner’s career being defined in baseball by the one ball that went through his legs in the World Series. What else has she done that would make me want to read her book? Without Dylan having mentioned the relationship in his book would her name have come back into vogue? Certainly a tough cross to bear.

  8. JDS, at least I will say that
    JDS, at least I will say that Suze Rotolo was true to herself in “A Freewheelin’ Time”. Many of Bob Dylan’s songs about her stressed her emotional coolness and diffidence (“Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”, “Boots of Spanish Leather”). That’s how she came off in the book — she definitely kept her distance from the reader. It’s an interesting read if you’re a Dylan freak (like me), and it has some interesting material about her family’s Italian/Communist background and about her experience in Cuba. But you learn more about Dylan by watching “I’m Not There”.

  9. I think books swim in a
    I think books swim in a literary sea of connectedness and references to other works are quite appropriate in a book review.

  10. No doubt I am reading this
    No doubt I am reading this because I am a Dylan Freak. I did pick up on her background from the review also. After a little more thought on it, her unwillingness to be defined by just her relationship to Dylan fits into my pointing out orginally how hard that must be. YES, just being tied to Dylan, does get her the book deal and my reading it.

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