Reviewing the Review: June 21 2009

(Today’s special guest reviewer is Scott Esposito, founder of The Quarterly Conversation, a literary review, and Conversational Reading, an associated blog.)

The June 21 issue of the New York Times Book Review gets off to an bad start with Katie Roiphe’s front-page review of A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century by Cristina Nehring (the review also briefly discusses Against Love by Laura Kipnis).

The problem with Roiphe’s review is twofold: lack of specificity and excessive credulity. She continually hints at “riveting stories” and “creative interpretations,” yet, as Rolphie presents them, Nehring’s ideas sound as cliched as possible:

Elsewhere, Nehring interrogates our steadfast insistence on balanced, healthy relationships, our readiness to condemn doomed, impossible entanglements. She argues that it may in fact be a sign of health to enter into a relationship that is turbulent, demanding or unorthodox. She praises long-distance relationships, arduous relationships, relationships with men who are elusive, relationships the therapeutic culture adamantly opposes. She asks, “Could it be that the choice of a challenging love object signals strength and resourcefulness rather than insecurity and psychological damage, as we so often hear?”

If Rolphie in fact sees this for the bland attempt to be contrarian that it sounds like, she doesn’t let on. Elsewhere, Rolphie quotes Nehring: “We have been pragmatic and pedestrian about our erotic lives for too long,” and is content to let this remark stand, despite the masses of “hotter sex” books available in any bookstore, as well as the mainstreaming of various sexual devices and techniques considered the purview of perverts and Penthouse readers only a generation or two ago. The review concludes with that most damning of critical responses, faint praise:

Nehring takes on our complaisance, our received ideas, our sloppy assumptions about our most important connections, and for that she deserves our admiration. Even if one doesn’t take her outlandish romantic arguments literally, this is one of those rare books that could make people think about their intimate lives in a new way.

Dennis Lehane’s review of The Secret Speech, the second novel by writer Tom Rob Smith, is purely average. It’s your typical “several grafs of plot summary plus a couple grafs of opinion”; none of the writing is particularly good or bad, with the exception that one character is described as “beset by galactic levels of guilt.” I only remark on it here since it is one of only two full-length fiction reviews in this issue and therefore seems like a precious thing.

Toni Bentley’s review of The East, the West, and Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters is a good example of a review that would have been fine if it was better edited. The book is about harems and Western explorers’ interaction with them, a topic not difficult to say at least a few interesting things about. Bentley does just that and quotes the book’s interesting thesis: “most of the world [pre-20th century] still subscribed to what I have been calling the harem culture, and in only the few countries of the West, the small peninsular domain of Christendom, did a different attitude prevail.”

So far so good, although a little more than halfway through, the review loses focus entirely and just becomes a series of unrelated paragraphs. It probably could have been a fine review, but the length draws attention to the loss of focus; additionally Bentley, a dancer and author of books about dance, is way out of her depth here, and it shows. There are also an alarming number of annoying parentheticals, such as “It is not news that Christianity, with its Virgin Birth (just to start things off right), has had little interest in exploring human sexual desire or potential. Sexual energy is way too out of control even for the most committed Christians (see the Holy Trinity of Bakker, Swaggart and Haggard).” As a final note, none of the book’s illustrations are discussed, perhaps forgivable in a review of another book, but not in one of a book about harems.

Ginia Bellafante’s review of the novel The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (our second and last full-length fiction review), starts off annoyingly enough with a paragraph devoted to gossiping about the million dollar advance paid to the author. But after that first graf the review is actually rather good. It seems that author Reif Larsen has written something like a cross between the pomo novel of information and What Maisie Knew. That Bellafante gives a sense of this without dull plot summary or a lapse of critical opinion is fine work. Her negative review feels merited and her observations feel precise: “Roland Barthes made distinctions between those texts so micromanaged that they ensured reader passivity and those texts, active texts, that invited a greater degree of participation. The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet merely creates the illusion of choice.”

However, I disagree with Bellafante that one of the plagues of MFA programs is that they produce writers who don’t “aim to mean much” with their books. I have no idea if MFA programs produce writers of this type or not, but if they do, that’s a good thing. I’ll take one writer who just cares about the craft of fiction over ten trying to make their novel “meaningful.” Good art creates its own meaning, by virtue of being good art.

Ross Douthat’s review of Digital Barbarism, a nonfiction work by the novelist Mark Helprin, is interesting, largely because Helprin is one of very few public intellectuals to try and argue that American copyright law doesn’t go far enough in protecting intellectual property. However, we cannot count on Douthat to present the other side of this issue; for instance, his statement that “a more latitudinarian copyright regime” as “a cause celebre for a certain class of Internetista” is a ridiculous mischaracterization of a widespread movement backed by far more than a few over-active bloggers and cranky professors.

Unfortunately it’s tough to find much of either side of the argument here. In his review, Douthat seems more interested in demeaning bloggers and commenters on websites than actually outlining what Helprin says or explaining exactly which people and ideas Helprin is arguing for or against (other than the obvious boogeyman, Lawrence Lessig). In other words, this is more like one of the op-eds that Douthat has been hired to write than a book review. The closest Douthat gets to giving us a flavor of Helprin’s argument is this sentence:

Helprin worries, plausibly, that the spirit of perpetual acceleration threatens to carry all before it, frenzying our politics, barbarizing our language and depriving us of the kind of artistic greatness that isn’t available on Twitter feeds.

Douthat is, of course, entitled to his beliefs (and he seems to believe that this sentence is largely accurate), but he does those beliefs no service by not even acknowledging the staleness of what Helprin says or the straw men that have been erected here. Much as I disagree with Douthat’s politics, though, at least his writing is far more engaging and professional than a lot of what Sam Tanenhaus seems –judging by this issue — to permit in his review of books.

Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow’s “Fiction Chronicle” (covering four new novels) reads roughly like publisher’s copy found on the back of new paperbacks. I understand that 300 words isn’t a whole lot of space to write about a book, but there’s a right way to do a 300-word review and a wrong way. These are wrong. For an idea of what can be accomplished in 300 words, see this review (among other successes) in the recent Review of Contemporary Fiction. But to return to the Times, the “Fiction Chronicle” does do me the service of presenting absolute worst book title I have read this week: “The Exchange Rate Between Love and Money.” And from the same book comes this quote-worthy line: “How do you make love to something that’s not even in the animal kingdom?”

Maurice Isserman’s short essay on Michael Harrington and his groundbreaking study of poverty in America, The Other America, is lucid, engaging, and appreciated. It’s a nice example of how a review of books can keep important works from the past in the conversation, and Isserman’s fine piece is only marred by the sentence that opens its final paragraph: “Today the poor are no longer invisible, thanks to writers like William Julius Wilson, Alex Kotlowitz and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, and to a popular culture that has young people in middle-class suburbs emulating the styles of the inner city.” I must disagree: of course America’s poor are still very much unnoticed today, and if they are more seen now than before that owes more to unmitigated disasters like Hurricane Katrina than the work of journalists or (quite condescendingly) the decision of the children of the well-off to wear overpriced simulacra of the clothes worn in certain inner-city neighborhoods.

Gary Rosen’s review of of The Age of the Unthinkable is a quick, clean, and successful deflating of a book that sounds pretentious, self-satisfied, and ultimately not even one-eighth as innovative as the author would hope (think of an aspiring Tom Friedman). It’s a lean, taut review, and the editors of the Review should aspire to cut down some of the more bloated pieces in their publication to resemble Rosen’s.

Megan Marshall’s review of We Two by Gillian Gill is perfectly adequate and more or less bored me. So are, and did, Liz Robbins’s review of A Terrible Splendor (which, in addition to having a dreadful title, sounds like a dreadful book) and Marilyn Stasio’s roundup of crime novels.

“Inside the List” informs me that something called the The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane debuted in the #2 spot for hardcover fiction, which does nothing to change my impression of the state of fiction in this country. The #1 spot is occupied by some Dean Koontz book about a novelist and a critic fighting to the death over a review. Does anyone honestly care?

“Paperback Row” seems to be mostly obsessed with memoirs with awful conceits (“Gilmour, a film critic, allowed his troubled 15-year-old son to drop out of school on the condition that he watch three movies a week of Gilmour’s choosing.”) and the kind of petit cultural crit that should have remained a feature article in some glossy magazine. The inclusion at the end of Paul Auster’s previous work of fiction reminds me that he’s been publishing a lot of books lately.

In the letters section it’s nice to see Ezra E. Fitz from Brentwood, Tennessee, sticking up for translators.

I don’t have much to say about the “Editors’ Choice” list, except to note its lack of diversity.

And rounding out this issue, the less that is said about the “Up Front: Dennis Lehane” by “The Editors,” the better.

Not counting the “Fiction Chronicle,” this week’s issue of the Review covered 2 works of literary fiction, an abysmal performance by virtually any standard. All in all, the fiction coverage in this issue has done nothing to sway me from my belief that the Review is virtually irrelevant for anyone who seriously cares about literature in this country.

Oddly enough, the nonfiction coverage in this issue of the Review gives me a renewed appreciation for Bookforum. True, that publication has seriously downgraded its fiction coverage over the past year, but at least the nonfiction coverage found therein is something that doesn’t consistently insult the intelligence of educated adults. And even the fiction coverage, in its weakened state, is infinitely preferable to what I read in this issue of the Review.

I suppose if I were to grade this issue I could give it a “C,” in the sense that this is probably not much better and not much worse than the reviews of books still extant in the nation’s newspapers. However, if I were to grade the issue based on the standard that the Review sets for itself as the nation’s pre-eminent and most important weekly review of books, then I’d have to say that it’s failing to meet its expectations.

2 Responses

  1. Scott:

    Your reading, or more

    Your reading, or more precisely what you’ve written, about the Digital Barbarism review doesn’t acknowledge that Douthat finds Helprin’s marshalled arguments against the great unwashed as largely misguided. In fact, the anti-blogger tone oft quoted seems to be much more Helprin, much less Douthat. Douthat argues convincingly that Lawrence Lessig, the Mad Hatter (Helprin’s characterization), “comes across as deeply sane, and it’s hard to imagine a reader new to this debate who wouldn’t find “Free Culture (Lessig’s book)” more convincing than “Digital Barbarism.”

    Honestly, it doesn’t seem fair to say Douthat isn’t “even acknowledging the staleness of what Helprin says or the straw men that have been erected here.”

    In my estimation, Douthat walked a narrow path between Helprin and Lessig (or perhaps it’s just another path in another county altogehter) and, to borrow his own characterization, it is hard to imagine either of them agreeing with Douthat’s own wonky, if idealistic, compromise proposal about copyright put forth in the final two graphs.

    Just some thoughts. Good overview of this week’s review. Thanks.


  2. My hero, Senor Esposito!
    My hero, Senor Esposito! What a surprise to find you here. Thanks for a perfect review of the review.

    Was anyone else infuriated by all those stupid, juvenile, lame-ass efforts at humor in Bentley’s review of the harem book? That review had so much potential — too bad they gave it to someone with the maturity of a teenager in a sex-ed class.

    Douthat did a just-okay job with his review, but I was surprised that he completely left out of the big factual errors in Helprin’s book. These mistakes were covered in detail here:

    I wonder if they teach how to research stuff on the Internet at that Harvard university.

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