Reviewing the Review: April 12 2009

When I read a book review I want to connect with the critic I’m reading, and I expect a reviewer to transmit some of his or her own personality, style and beliefs into every piece. This is why I came down hard last week on rock music writer Alan Light, whose reviews are invariably competent and informative, but dull and bland.

The New York Times Book Review keeps a bench of dull and competent specialists like Alan Light, including John Leland, who gets called up whenever there’s a Beat Generation-related title to review. I don’t know why they can’t find a writer with some panache or maybe an original viewpoint to review these books instead. Leland’s summary of The Beats: A Graphic History by Harvey Pekar, Ed Piskor, Paul Buhle and others in today’s Book Review could not be more rote and mechanical. He hits all the standard points in the standard history, and even dishes up Kerouac’s quote about “the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live”. But there are no new ideas or angles in this article; it may as well have been generated by an algorithm. I read the Pekar/Piskor/Buhle comic-format book myself, was pleased by a few of the tangential chapters towards the end but disappointed by the flat aspect at the book’s core. Leland doesn’t even touch on the book’s real deficiencies, instead delivering a sniffy complaint about clunky prose before winding up for a weak conclusion: “Here was a group of writers who hoped to change consciousness through their lives and art … They rocked.”

Supposedly every snowflake in the world is unique. Can’t the New York Times Book Review find writers who will make sure their reviews maintain the same standard?

The problem may be intrinsic to the Book Review, because even the thoughtful Walter Isaacson seems to strain for insight in his review of Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution by Richard Beeman. He points helpfully to the book’s new emphasis on the role played by a South Carolina politician, Charles Pinckney, but even so his article feels surprisingly conventional (a little pun there, if you think about it). The drafting of the US Constitution is not exactly fresh material, so the main thing the review needs to do is explain why this book is important enough to deserve a full page in this publication. After finishing the article, I’m barely convinced.

Luckily, there are several examples of excellent writing and original thought in today’s Book Review. Arthur Phillips’ novel The Song Is You is on the cover, and here’s reviewer Kate Christensen first sentence:

If novelists were labeled zoologically, Arthur Phillips would fall naturally into the dolphin family: his writing is playful, cerebral, likable, wide-ranging and inventive.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Christensen’s intense level of engagement gives this article life, and so does David Kirby’s in his consideration of poet Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno’s Slamming Open The Door. Michael Meyer’s endpaper essay about how book publishing advances have evolved over the centuries is extremely informative and useful, but a strong point of view also buttresses the piece, conveying a sense of relevance and conviction that makes the piece not only useful but memorable. I hope the Book Review will run more examinations of book publishing practices (a hot topic that gets much better coverage in the blogosphere) in the future.

I always like anything Liesl Schillinger writes, even though she unwisely kicks off today’s review of A Fortunate Age by Joanna Smith Rakoff with an utterly pointless generalization:

Do you remember how bored we all were a decade ago? The cold war was over; the stock market surfed a rising wave; President Clinton had announced a national budget surplus; and good fortune was so rampant that rich neurotics paid therapists to be reassured that it was O.K. to be happy. Belatedly, we’ve learned how lucky we once were to live in uninteresting times.

Hmm, well, as my memoir-in-progress will shortly show, I was personally going through a terrible divorce and a painful work crisis a decade ago, so “uninteresting times” is hardly the phrase I would use myself to describe 1999. I imagine many other readers of this article will react the same way, since we do not measure out our memories by news headlines but rather by events of personal importance, making generalizations like this one rather silly. Still, I would read a Liesl Schillinger review over an Alan Light or John Leland review any day, and her coverage of A Fortunate Age gets better when she explains the novel’s intriguing parallel to Mary McCarthy’s The Group.

The Great Weaver from Kashmir by Halldor Laxness and Leaving Tangier by Tahar Ben Jelloun get some attention from Alison McCulloch in a fiction roundup, and Michael Beschloss offers fresh thoughts following Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy. This all adds up to a satisfying Book Review in a Sunday New York Times that also includes a Deborah Solomon session with Joyce Carol Oates and a Wyatt Mason profile of poet Frederick Seidel in the magazine. There’s also a searching piece by David Barstow on the mystery of Sylvia Plath’s son Nicholas Hughes’s suicide on the front page of the news section.

6 Responses

  1. Agree on the Christensen
    Agree on the Christensen review of the new Arthur Phillips book – got me interested not only in the current book but his other titles.

    Agree also on the endpaper. That was a nice essay on the book business, and like you, I hope to see more.

  2. Have you read any other
    Have you read any other Pekar? I think you would call a lot of his historical stuff flat. My brother thinks Harvey Pekar is an old grouch and I can’t read enough of him.

  3. Interesting, Warren — no, in
    Interesting, Warren — no, in fact, I’ve never caught on to Harvey Pekar, though as you know I’m a freak for Robert Crumb, Harvey Kurtzman, etc. Didn’t go for his movie either. But my real problems with this Beat graphic history have to do with the words, not the pictures — I should have more to say about this in a post to come.

  4. Kate C. is a tremendously
    Kate C. is a tremendously talented fiction writer so it’s no surprise she would write such a great review. Thanks for the interesting post.

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