Reviewing the Review: May 17 2009

(This weekend, the venerable critic and blogger Ed Champion sits in. — Levi)

Bruce Barcott begins his review of Doug Stanton’s Horse Soldiers with Donald Rumsfeld as father figure — an image that that’s too close for comfort to Esquire‘s egregious 2005 profile depicting the ex-secretary of defense as an apparent man’s man — popping out of his chair “with all the speed of the weekly squash player he still is at age seventy-three” and greeting dignitaries with a “grip-and-grin.” With the Rummy as Dad imagery and an aloof Toby Keith name check, Barcott’s review gives us the finest references that 2005 had to offer. I hunted through Barcott’s article wondering if he was going to mention Hurricane Katrina or Harold Pinter recently nabbing the Nobel. After all, when you’re four years out-of-touch, why stop the rust from oxidizing? But I found myself just as confused by Father’s Day mentioned a month early. Apparently, the New York Times Book Review plans its editorial calendar with all the grace of an AIG accounting team balancing its ledger after a lavish government bailout. But no matter. As any elementary reading of the ongoing engagements will reveal, Rumsfeld wasn’t the only figure responsible for the “hell of a fix” we’re now in. And as I understand it, Rummy’s policies had little to do with the equestrian combat forces featured in Stanton’s book. So why bother to compare doctrines? But since Barcott’s clumsiness comes to us during the same week that Code Pink feverishly chanting “War criminal!” to Rumsfeld during the White House Correspondents dinner, I suppose all the political absurdity evens out.

While Barcott suggests that Doug Stanton’s book is really something for the jingoistic kooks, I’m wondering if this is really a fair claim to make. Is it truly impossible for even a progressive-minded peacenik not to marvel at an unusual military maneuver? Is the NYTBR’s intellectual climate really that short-sighted? God, I hope not. Then again, the aloof and tacky comparison of a general’s commands with “Jeremy Piven rocking the headset in ‘Entourage'” suggests that Barcott, despite his environmental journalism experience, probably isn’t the right guy to review this book. There’s a fundamental difference between a transparently sleazy Hollywood agent (particularly a fictitious character on an HBO television series) and a general having to broker deals and make command decisions to save lives. One thing that Barcott succeeds at very well is making this book completely lifeless and uninteresting. That’s a difficult thing to do. Because even a more populist-minded Detroit Free Press review managed to rustle up some excitement. As Levi suggested last week, it’s very possible that Barcott’s front-page review fits into the concern for impressing peers rather than enriching readers. I’d expand Levi’s conclusion to one that involves entertaining or exciting readers. If Barcott had no interest or passion in the subject, he should have recused himself from the review, rather than writing such a phony and lifeless review. But given the New York Times‘s word rate and the hardscrabble conditions that just about every freelance writer is facing right now, it’s doubtful he would have done so. Even if he were assigned The Topeka, Kansas City Directory: 1921 for review. Then again, as we can see in this week’s installment, phony and lifeless reviews are the NYTBR’s bread and butter.

So given one such ho-hum Iraq-themed review, do we really need another? Kamel Sachet, the subject of Wendell Steavenson’s The Weight of a Mustard Seed (and Robert F. Worth’s review), sounds — much like the American horse riders, like a promising subject. But the book is rendered lifeless by Times house style. When a sentence beginning with the words “One of the book’s most powerful moments” reads with the same kind of excitement you’d expect waiting three weeks for a loved one in an unpainted hospital room, you know a review is in trouble.

And if a reviewer is going to write, “His real interest is in finding and detonating grenades in the underbrush,” you’d think that the reviewer would damn well live up to the promise of his metaphor. But calling our present economic crisis a depression and pointing out that a depression is a market failure is hardly the stuff of Molotov cocktails. Then again, the NYTBR is so terrified of taking chances (ergo, its continued irrelevancy) that the likes of Jim Cramer or Glenn Beck (broadcast every weekday) might actually give some editor a stroke.

A David Gates/Janet Frame matchup is promising. Gates’s suggestion that Frame’s novel, Towards Another Summer, shares certain personal qualities with Samuel Beckett’s Molloy trilogy is the kind of interesting comparison you don’t often get from the vanilla editorial crew polishing the rails of this literary Titanic. But Gates’s review feels too compressed for the NYTBR. He’s clearly restricted by space and he seems to be chomping at the bit to expand his considerable thoughts into a 4,000 word review. So why couldn’t the NYTBR give him the space? It’s also disappointing to see Gates offer a far clumsier comparison between Frame and Sylvia Plath later in the piece. But how can any writer look ahead to novelists who haven’t yet started writing? Just say that the book has “a vivid inner ferocity” and tell us why. Gates’s claim is as absurd as suggesting that Buster Keaton made all of his films with Jackie Chan in mind. Writing is done on an intuitive level, with the writer drawing upon a melange of explicit and subconscious influences — in Frame’s case, many Maori legends — while remaining devoted to process. It sure as hell doesn’t involve playing Nostradamus. Gates is a fiction writer himself, and he should know better. He’s smart enough to bring up John Gardner’s sniff test, but, for such a personal book, Gates is a reviewer too committed to theory. If I were still handing out baked goods for literary merit, as I did during my Tanenhaus Brownie Watch days, I’d probably give Gates the brownie recipe for mostly solid thinking. But he’d have to deliver a stirring rendition of Harold Arlen’s “If I Only Had A Heart” if he expected me to bake him the brownies.

David Leavitt opens his piece with some interesting thoughts on what the memoir presently entails. But he’s too hamstrung by the book review’s formalistic exigencies. For goodness sake, the man is so clearly excited about false braggadaccio that you’d think the editors would have told him, “To hell with the Reynolds Price. Just write an essay on the subject!” But Leavitt must apply his crayon between the lines, and his review eludes several possibilities. It’s difficult to go wrong with Jim Shepard, but, for all of his complaints about Martin Edmonds’s digressions, one wonders why Shepard’s review doesn’t quite crack with life.

A far more engaging review can be found in Tom McCarthy’s piece — in part, because the editors let Tom McCarthy be Tom McCarthy. And I must admit that I was amused by the prospect of a guy named Reich reviewing a book on the Third Reich. And what’s nice about Reich’s review is that he doesn’t mess around. Richard J. Evans may not be the most riveting historian, but it’s important for us to not trivialize the Holocaust. That’s the kind of quiet, no-pressure endorsement that you rarely see in this paper of record. It’s also good to see the underrated Howard Jacobson get some coverage. I particularly like Tom Barbash’s sentence, “There are times when Jacobson’s writing becomes as claustrophobic and repetitive as a late-night phone conversation with an unhinged friend.” If Barbash is capable of getting away with that, let’s hope he becoms a regular.

“Flotsam and jetsam are two different things,” begins Paul Greenberg’s review. And the reading audience is immediately insulted by such a stupid lede. At a time in which we need to get people excited about fish and oceanography, Greenberg comes across like some bitter man teaching high school and spouting generalizations because he can’t think of anything else to do.

Caryn James conveys some welcome enthusiasm for David Thomson, but she hardly has the space to flex her wings. And if I read another goddam review that tells me what “an incredible story” some memoir is, I may just go postal. “Incredible story” is one of the worst reviewing cliches. And only the New York Times is capable of such absurd phrases as “through the music of U2 and the spontaneity of television.” Sorry, Gray Lady, you simply cannot jazz up banality with passive noun phrases.

The less said about Julia Scheeres’s banal reviews, the better. I have no idea why the Times keeps hiring her. But her haughty dismissiveness has easily turned her into a second-string Katie Roiphe. The shallow ice queen you hire when you can’t get Roiphe or Virginia Heffernan on line one.

And Jincy Willett really is idiotic enough to write the sentence, “Also, unlike chick lit, chick TV and chick movies, ‘Secrets to Happiness’ is actually funny.” Here are a few things that have made this meat and potatoes guy laugh: Jennifer Weiner, Nora Ephron, some (emphasis on some) post-Blackadder Richard Curtis-scripted movies (I loathe Love Actually, but I must confess that I really like Notting Hill), just to name a few. Point being that Jincy Willett, who tried out murder mystery herself with her last novel, The Writing Class, has no business taking a steaming defacation on genre. Particularly when she’s an overly praised author who tries just so gosh darn hard to be funny, but writes such belabored alliteration as “Amy poured herself another drink, rechecked all the locks, and settled in with Dr. Richard Surtess for dread and drear” or such redundancies as “Dot Hieronymus cleared her throat but said nothing.” Sure, it’s the kind of “sophisticated” flummery that gets you noticed in New York literary circles. But the rest of the world knows it’s humorless and pointless drivel.

Not unlike the majority of this issue of the New York Times Book Review, when it comes right down to it. Levi’s right. I don’t know how he’s done it and stayed mostly cheerful for the past four years. When only 25% of this issue is worth reading (with considerable caveats), reviewing the review is indeed a mind-numbing chore.

12 Responses

  1. At the risk of sounding a
    At the risk of sounding a couple of decades out of touch–sadly I don’t remember the date of John Gardener’s fatal motorcyle ride–what’s John Gardner’s sniff test?
    I know that I only scan book reviews but a new bar has been raised here for the review of the NYTBR!

  2. Um, I think the headline is
    Um, I think the headline is supposed to be “Reviewing the Review: May 17” unless there’s some sort of time lag thing going on.

  3. Sorry I should have clarified
    Sorry I should have clarified on the “sniff test” for those who didn’t read the review. David Gates is referring to John Gardner’s test for “moral fiction.” You can check it out in Gardner’s book, ON MORAL FICTION. By moral fiction, Gardner doesn’t mean didacticism or phony preaching, but narrative efforts to explore human fulfillment.

  4. You’re right about “dread and
    You’re right about “dread and drear.” The more I think about it, the worse it looks (and sounds). I don’t see what’s wrong with the clearing the throat sentence, though. Don’t people often clear their throats just before they speak? Anyway, I’m glad to see that somebody’s reviewing reviewers. It’s about time. I don’t agree with you about chick-stuff, but this may boil down to a define-your-terms dispute.

    One thing: I don’t try to be funny. The universe is funny (and horrible and beautiful and frightening and dull and so on). What I try to do–what many writers try to do–is to see it plain and show what I see. I fail, of course, as most of us do, but in the effort I apparently crack some readers up and leave others cold. Neither group is wrong.

    The proof, always, is in the laughter, or the cold silence. It would make no more sense to say something is funny and not even feel the impulse to laugh than it would to laugh your ass off and then claim it’s not funny.

    I’m not defending myself here–just making the small point that there’s no such thing as universal funny. It’s always a mistake to assume that because you’re not laughing, nobody is, or that people who pretend to laugh–how do you do that, anyway?–are full of crap.

    Keep up the good work. Do you read B.R. Myers? I admire him tremendously and am grateful that I will never become well-enough known to attract his attention.

  5. Jincy: Thanks very much for
    Jincy: Thanks very much for the good-hearted response. I actually agree with you on the notion that what we write shouldn’t attempt to be funny. Nevertheless, with the mind and the heart being what they are, funny things are known to happen when a writer parks buttocks into chair. So the question I have for you is this: If the universe remains inherently funny, then what steps do you take to ensure that you are subconsciously funny? I mean, there are sentences that I write and I can’t tell you where they come from and people tend to find them funny. Anthony Burgess is on record in numerous places stating that he didn’t realize his novels were so funny. The upshot is that sentences such as the ones I’ve quoted here do represent a certain consciousness in relation to your prose. And as we all know, well we can’t control the damn thing: either what we find funny or what readers find funny. So why bother to single out chick lit the way that you did in your review? I mean, do you truly believe that, despite the considerable books, television, and movies that are available, not ONE of them has produced laughter? I mean, that’s a fairly extreme and unrealistic position to take. And this might explain my stance.

    But you’ve left a reasonable comment and responded to the whole thing with good humor. So this is why I pose the question. Come over to the populist end of the pool, Jincy. It’s not always so bad. And it’s not always what you think it is. Like Mets games and stupid Hollywood blockbusters and ice cream and rollercoasters, there’s plentiful pleasures if your funny bone remains broad-minded (and I don’t think it’s calcified like that, if you’ll pardon my modest magical realism). You might even learn a few things.

    As for BR Myers, yes, I’ve read him. Were he not all the way in Korea, I might be tempted to knock on his door and test the Mr. Softee proposition I’ve put forth in the previous paragraph.

    I should point this out. I agree with James Wood perhaps 40% of the time, but I’m still interested in his opinion and I respect the man. Why not the same for chick X, Jincy?

    Thanks again and all best,


  6. Ed-

    Thanks for responding.

    Thanks for responding. This is my dream: for blogs to make possible spirited debates of this sort. We seldom see them in print (in this country, anyway), where debaters are or imagine themselves to be in the spotlight and become self-conscious and blobby, or bullying and doctrinaire, and nothing even gets illuminated, let alone settled.

    But before we can debate, we still need to define terms. For example, the book I was reviewing for the NYT (for which organization I do not work) was about a youngish woman in a big city trying to sort out her life and so on. Chick-lit, right? Wrong. Sarah Dunn, through her protagonist, herself ridicules chick-lit (quite gently, by the way), which is why I jumped on board in my review. But if you Google “Secrets to Happiness” you’ll find that it’s actually identified as chick-lit on some boards. On the Amazon page, readers are weighing in about whether it is or isn’t. Clearly there’s no general agreement on what the term even means. Ditto with “chick-flick.” I’ve heard “Contact” referred to as a chick-flick. Why? Because it stars Jodie Foster? And why identify “Love, Actually” as a chick-flick? (Are movies about love lives automatically chick-flicks?) Is “Pride and Prejudice” chick-lit? “Gone with the Wind?” “The Golden Notebook?” Was Sylvia Plath a chick-lit poet? How about Emily Dickinson?

    Part the problem is the wholesale genrefication of fiction, which happened, like most things, while I was looking in the opposite direction. If we take “genre fiction” to mean something like “fiction which satisfies a certain set of plot and/or character requirements,” then certain genres make sense, at least from the standpoint of a prospective reader, whom I always envision as somebody wandering past the New Book shelves at a library, intent on glomming into the latest mystery, horror, suspense, action, or romance novel. Over the years these genres have sprouted sub-genres, all useful and reader-friendly. Romance novels leave me dead in the water, but I know women in their eighties who still read them avidly; horror horrifies the literary crowd, but I’d rather read a good Stephen King than anything by Annie Proulx. Sometimes I’m just in the mood to get comfortably scared, just as other readers yearn to dive into the cozy world of English tea-and-strychnine mysteries.

    These genres are useful because they promise certain things to the reader, with whom they have an implicit contract. A murder mystery in which nobody was murdered would break that promise, as would a romance in which the heroine got caught up in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and put her love life on the back burner. The ultimate genre, of course, is porn (with all its subgenres), where the reader is absolutely in charge of who does what to whom and how. Genres are useful for certain readers in certain moods.

    But now everything is genre, including “lit-fic.” It’s all about marketing, I guess, and it’s horrible. Updike said (I can’t find the quote, and it’s driving me nuts) that he was alarmed at some point to discover that apparently he wrote lit-fic; he had thought he was just a novelist. When he wrote, he imagined himself free to write in any form, about anything. The “novelist”—not the lit-fic writer, but the novelist—imagines himself in charge of his own book, free to let his imagination take him wherever he thinks he wants to go. He’s not writing on spec.

    That’s the difference between genre and non-genre, and it’s the only difference. It’s not that genre is bad and non-genre is good, or that one is for snobs and the other isn’t. There are beautifully written genre novels—Ruth Rendell, for example, is no slouch—and there are stupidly conceived and executed non-genres. It’s all a question of limitation: genre imposes limits, and you can do fine work within those limits, but if you want to strike off on your own, then you should, and you should resist like crazy being pigeonholed.

    Chick-lit is the most recently branded and easily the most lucrative genre of all. At one point early on it was a sub-genre of Romance; my hope is that someday it will shrink back into that sub-genre, at which point I won’t find it any more objectionable than the others. Right now the term drives me to fits of profound intemperance. I’m too old to own “chick” as a term of anything but insult. I know that younger women are fine with it, and that’s okay—language evolves, and so on. Still, right now any female writer—including me—can be identified as a chick-lit writer, and there’s nothing she can do about it, really, since the chick-lit brigade won’t agree to a definition of the term. One blogger the other day responded to my review with “Way to self-hate.” The hidden premise in this argument is, of course, that I’m a chick-lit writer. And how could I possibly defend myself against this categorization?

    So for the record, here’s my own understanding of what constitutes chick-lit. It stars a young/youngish female, usually urban, often career-oriented, who spends her time having sex, shopping, getting Brazilian waxes, worrying whether her ass is too big, talking with her friends about men, and searching for the right man. But none of these activities—not even all of them taken together—insures that the book is chick-lit. What nails it is this: these characters live in a bubble of narcissism. If a larger world ever intrudes (a terrorist attack, a recession, an epidemic, a positive biopsy), it’s only there to provide them with a new and different mirror. These women may be as old as thirty-five or even older, but really they’re adolescents. They never talk about ideas, because they never entertain them. They are not citizens. They are intellectually, morally, socially, and spiritually unformed.

    If this does not fairly describe a particular book, then, even if the cover features a lot of pink lettering and stilettos and martini glasses, I won’t call it chick-lit.

    So, in answer to your question, I’m guessing that you and I would probably agree that certain books and movies are funny. What we don’t agree on is whether those represent chick-lit and chick-flicks.

    The larger and more urgent question is: why put up with this genre in the first place? Why allow ourselves as readers to be targeted and packaged so crassly? Who wins when that happens?



  7. Jincy:

    My apologies for

    My apologies for taking some time to get back to you here. Your dream about blogs is something that many of us barreling several times over the print-online fence have been trying to make a reality for many years. And certainly this civil exchange demonstrates yet again that this isn’t something confined to Morpheus’s realm.

    You may have been commissioned to write this review for the NYTBR and you quite possibly did not have any knowledge of the outlet’s continued assaults on genres and, most notably, chick lit. In 2005, there was a dust-up between Jennifer Weiner and Curtis Sittenfeld because of similarly stereotypical remarks. The pertinent links can be found here:

    I think we’re in agreement that the category in which a novel falls under should have no bearing on its worth. (I’m a redblooded male who’s certainly not afraid to read those books with the pink covers. And, in fact, I can recommend Candy Tan and Sarah Wendell’s BEYOND HEAVING BOSOMS, which is a funny and well-observed study of the romance genre.)

    By today’s taxonomic standards, it is quite possible that Emily Dickinson would be a chick-lit poet. So if, like me, you agree that labels mean nothing, why then did you traffic in them in your piece? Why then did you suggest that chick lit or chick movies aren’t funny? You ask me to define the terms, only after you have tossed away the terms and defied the terms (which would have made for a stronger NYTBR piece), only to cling to them again like a tourist desperately flipping through a Zagat guide.

    My ideal would be to enter a bookstore and see mystery, chick lit, speculative fiction, and literary fiction simply arranged by last name of author. I mean, that’s essentially how the galleys and ARCs come in the mail anyway. From my position, genre does not impose limits at all. A speculative fiction novel has the entire universe to play around in. A mystery novel can enter into the realm of murder and homicide and use its framework, as George Pelecanos, Richard Price, and Walter Mosley do, to provide insightful explorations into topography. A chick lit novel, by way of its focus on relationships, can reveal more about the manner in which humans deal with the most minute gestures.

    Surely you must likewise recognize that your own suggestion here reeks of genre snobbery. And I must lodge my offense to your characterization of women acting like adolescents. You may not care for their adventures, but they are indeed citizens worthy of narratives like anybody else. If a novel traffics in tropes or cliches, whether it be the criteria that you set down for chick lit or other such criteria, then surely it is the perspective that sustains it. To offer one such recent exemplar, I very much enjoyed a recent novel by Javier Calvo called WONDERFUL WORLD that might be declared a giant cartoon. But despite the present of cartoonish characters, the story was weaved together with great skill and there were unexpected insights about masculinity contained within the entertainment.

    Please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that you are permitting yourself to be more packaged than the rest of us because of your chick lit prejudices and because you have averred that it cannot possibly be funny. Some books are better than others. Some chick lit books are better than others. Some chick lit books are better than literary titles. A book need only be judged on its own terms, independent of the marketing people, and celebrated or vilified as the reader sees fit.

    Thanks and all best,


  8. Ed,

    If Emily Dickinson is,

    If Emily Dickinson is, in fact, marketable as a chick-lit poet, then I take it all back. Still, how well do you think that would work? What about readers who, on the strength of well-placed gushing blurbs and that cover of slender Emily windswept in an Amherst meadow, buy her collected poems and begin to read? Aren’t they going to feel disrespected?

    What I was asking for was a definition of “chick-lit,” and it seems we still don’t have one. Without such a definition, we get, for example:

    –and debates like ours, which essentially dance around the subject without making progress. Is fiction “about relationships” chick-lit? Are “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Swingers” chick-flicks? Is “Passage to India” chick-lit? I’m not kidding; I still can’t tell, on the basis of what you’ve said, what you think the genre actually includes. By not sticking your neck out with an actual definition, you get to call my own descriptive definition a “prejudice.” That doesn’t get us anywhere.

    I love your idea about bookstores simply shelving by author. Never happen, but it’s a fine plan. This shows, I think, that we’re in agreement on the principle that a book should stand or fall on its own merits. So I’m confused by your reeking-genre-snobbery accusation: I thought I’d made it plain (“It’s not that genre is bad and non-genre is good, or that one is for snobs and the other isn’t”) that the formal constraints of at least some genres have nothing to do with the quality of the writing.

    Anyway, this is why I use libraries, not bookstores, for my own reading adventures. I learned decades ago that blurbs mean nothing, and reviews (esp. as excerpted on the back cover) not much more. I remember a time when I was a sucker for every new novel that was supposed to star a “female Holden Caulfield.” (That’s how long ago this was.) Of course, they lied: there is no female Holden Caulfield. That was just some reviewer being lazy, or worse.

    And about those reviews: I suspect you’re much more familiar with the NYTBR than I am. I live on the west coast and spend my days toiling as an online writing tutor; the work is intensive and hard on the eyes (there’s something bad about dancing pixels) and I don’t do online reading for my own pleasure and enlightenment. I keep up with the news through the AP feed and avoid all other sources, for the sake of what remains of my mental health. That’s where my local library comes in, and where I conduct my own book-chases. My latest find: “The Siege of Krishnapur.” Wonderful novel.

    When I am asked by any newspaper to write a review, I do it, because it pays a little money (and I do mean a little, but every dollar counts) and it keeps my name, such as it is, “out there.” I don’t know why other writers work freelance, but I suspect that most of us do it for those reasons. I take the job seriously, in that I read carefully, monitor my own responses, try to make critical sense of them, and then attempt to assemble them coherently. I try to include enough information so that readers could get some idea, on the basis of the review, whether the book is for them. (If, for example, they think I come off as an intemperate snot, then they may run out and by the book.) The opinions expressed are my own, and in expressing them I am not sucking up to anybody. I’d like to believe that I’d never do such a thing, but in any event I wouldn’t know how. Please understand this: I am way too old and much too removed from whatever, if anything, is going on in the world of letters to even think about trying to fit in.

    Thanks for the forum, Ed. I hope that at this point some other debaters jump in. I know you’re out there!



  9. Jincy and Ed — I would love
    Jincy and Ed — I would love to join this excellent debate, but I can’t because I agree with you both.

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