You all know I care a lot about the future of the New York Times Book Review. That’s why it’s time for some tough love today.
One of the NYTBR’s best fiction critics, the brainy and erudite Stacey D’Erasmo, has written a novel called The Sky Below, prominently featured on the cover of today’s publication. There is an obvious ethical concern in giving a cover rave to an insider, though the Book Review can easily deflect this concern by presenting a convincing piece to justify the favored placement. Instead, Susann Cokal’s review could not be more vapid, more transparently sympathetic. Reading this extravagant piece, a reader can only conclude that Cokal knew a positive appraisal was required but could not come up with the goods. Like a student on deadline, she tried to fake it. The evidence begins with the opening lines:
The box, the simple box, may be the art form of the 21st century. With or without its sixth wall, it promises a mystery; when its contents (or lack thereof) are displayed, some deeper mystery often remains. Past masters like Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp have inspired new generations of artists to fill rectangular solids with an assortment of found objects. Depending on your taste and perspective, this is either a form of sculpture or a short step up from the elementary-school diorama. The box is thus the darling of both the Tate Modern and the community amateur show: the bricolage celebrates vision rather than craft, suggesting to some that art is effortless, to others that it’s inscrutable. Meaning seems either elusive or all too obvious.
This is called “filling space”. How on earth is the box the art form of the 21st Century based on the work of Joseph Cornell, who died in 1972, and Marcel Duchamp, who died in 1968? Am I missing something here? Shouldn’t a writer who wishes to establish the point that the box is the art form of the 21st century name an artist who lived anywhere near the 21st century? Furthermore, Cokal has now thrown a lot of big words into the air (and thoroughly confused us) but has still not mentioned the novel she is supposedly enraptured by.
The Sky Below is about the troubled life of a modern artist named Gabriel Collins. But Cokal, who is clearly more comfortable writing about art than writing about this novel, has more to say, and the inanity continues:
Such assemblages of oddments have, of course, a long history. Beginning in the late 16th century, collectors demonstrated their command over the natural and artistic worlds in the cabinet of curiosities — a room, a set of shelves or even (yes) a box displaying whatever caught the collector’s fancy. Such are the roots of the modern museum. But as museums began to compartmentalize, then specialize, that sense of dizzying abundance was lost, and with it some of the pleasures of the unexpected discovery, the incongruous grouping or juxtaposition that might open up a new dimension of thought or experience.
Yes, such are the roots of the compartmentalized modern museum, which thoroughly lack that sense of dizzying abundance. New York’s Metropolitan Museum? You’ll be in and out in an hour and a half. The Art Institute of Chicago? One-dimensional. Washington DC’s National Gallery? Better bring a book to read, there’s nothing there. What could Susann Cokal possibly be talking about? And why isn’t she talking about the novel?
She gets around to it. The paragraph about today’s disappointing museums concludes here:
D’Erasmo recovers that pleasure in narrative form, presenting Gabriel’s life as if it were a series of cabinets of curiosities — of moments distilled into sets of objects that highlight but don’t define them.
Yawn. I have no reason to think that Stacey D’Erasmo’s novel might not be great (based on her own excellent work as a fiction critic). But Susann Cokal, when she isn’t staring off into space, is only able to justify the claim that the novel deserves the honor of a NYTBR cover rave by prattling in generalities and trying to cover up the emptiness with precious, delicate observations that connect to nothing:
But literature, like art, displays unsuspected facets of the everyday, revealing how extraordinary it can turn out to be.
Sometimes it’s quite pretty, as when young Gabriel’s mother tents his bed with raspberry red silk and reads him stories from Ovid.
Raspberry red silk? Whatever. Here’s how this dispiriting mess concludes:
As in the best books (more rectangular solids), the meaning of these images seems to evolve as they repeat, bumping up against one another, altering slightly, until new combinations and minute adjustments lay bare the complex emotions within.
The rave review could not be more unconvincing. This would be annoying but harmless if the novel in question had not been written by a NYTBR insider. But when ethical questions may be asked, more stringent quality control is an absolute necessity. If the NYTBR had assigned this review to a more hard-boiled critic (say, Walter Kirn or Laura Miller or Francine Prose) and received a rave in response, no eyebrows would be raised. Susann Cokal was a poor choice to write this review, and the fact that the New York Times Book Review went the full distance of placing the limp results on their highly coveted front cover will shock anyone who is paying attention.
Of course, the narcotic effect of Susann Cokal’s thesis on modern art is to inspire readers to hurry their attention elsewhere, and that’s this article’s only hope of passing muster. It didn’t work with this reader.
I’m so disgusted by this that I’m not going to talk much about the rest of today’s Book Review, though it contains decent coverage by the knowledgeable James Campbell on The Letters of Allen Ginsberg and The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, both edited by expert Beat Generation archivist Bill Morgan, a passable review by Caryn James of Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London’s Jazz Age by D. J. Taylor and a good Caleb Crain endpaper about a new book called Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature by Julia L. Mickenberg and Philip Nel, which tells of the Communist partisanship of some of our beloved past children’s authors, including Crockett Johnson (Harold and the Purple Crayon) and Syd Hoff (Danny and the Dinosaur).
This Book Review is another slim one, 24 pages yet again, which indicates that publishers are still not buying ads at their usual rate. The sad truth is, I can’t tie the NYTBR’s quality problems to its ad sales problem: the economy will take its toll whether or not the Book Review editors do a great job every week. However, if this publication will successfully weather the tough financial environment, it will need the goodwill and enthusiasm of readers like myself. That’s where Sam Tanenhaus and his top staffers really need to start doing a better job. The Book Review won’t be able to sleepwalk through 2009, though cover articles like Susann Cokal’s indicate that they would like to try.