From A Commonplace Blog, Mark Athitakis speaks of “The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time”:
Q: Who do you look toward for inspiration and models?
Mark: … I largely looked at [litblogs] as models for what not to do. Not because I disliked them, but because I figured that they had already claimed their particular patches of turf, forcing me to avoid their most common habits. (No knee-jerk whining about the contents of the New York Times Book Review, I told myself; no dutiful mentions of the death of a Syrian poet I’d never read and never heard of until the obit popped up in my RSS feed.)
(Later in the same article):
Mark: I appreciate that a lot of book blogs concentrate on areas the more established publications ignore — romance, small-press books, works in translation, etc. My only complaint is that I could do with less of the keening on those sites about how the NYT or whoever isn’t dedicating enough space and attention to your particular enthusiasm. If you know you’re doing a good thing, bellyaching about how other people aren’t doing it either just makes you look unconfident.
Jeez. Sometimes I wonder why I don’t just quit this gig.
I can take Mark Athitakis’s comment in good humor — he’s a Twitter buddy and a fine blogger and I’m sure he thinks I’m a swell fellow too, etc. etc. But whether or not I am one of the bloggers he is thinking of above, I know he must be loosely thinking of myself, Ed Champion, Michael Orthofer and maybe Scott Esposito and Chad Post, and I don’t think the observation of “whining” and “bellyaching” is accurate in any of these cases.
It is true that Michael, Scott and Chad have repeatedly pointed out that the NYTBR doesn’t do a good enough job covering international literature. But is this “bellyaching”? It seems the bloggers been heard at all levels of NYT and NYTBR management, and there’s halfway decent evidence that they’ve even made a positive difference in the coverage of international lit over the past four years.
It’s not called “whining” if it’s actually meant to make a difference and succeeds in making a difference. It’s called “speaking up and being heard”, and that’s what Michael Orthofer, Scott Esposito and Chad Post have done and will hopefully continue to do.
Then there’s the two wild cards, myself and Ed Champion, who admittedly sometimes do have too much fun at the Book Review’s expense. However, I don’t think we “whine” or “bellyache” either. Ed has a clear and distinct voice, and the only time he whines is when he’s doing his Peter Lorre impressions.
As for me, I rarely comment on what books the NYTBR does or doesn’t review, and instead I evaluate individual articles on aesthetic grounds. That is, I critique the writing, looking for outstanding artistry, integrity, intellectual authority. By this standard, I tend to praise the articles in the Book Review as often as not. I’ve been reading the Book Review since I was eight years old, it’s the only publication in the world I never miss, and the only reason I critique it is that I enjoy it and I care about it so much.
But if this weekly exercise is starting to come off as whining or harassing or haranguing, it’s time for me to hang it up. You all tell me — is this act getting old?
Anyway, I’m not beefing with Mark Athitakis (who runs an excellent blog called American Fiction Notes). In fact, I hate to prove him temporarily right, but I’ve got nothing at all good to say about this weekend’s issue of our favorite rag. At 20 pages, this is one of the least substantial Book Reviews I can remember. And I searched in vain for a surprising piece.
Robert Reich is given the chance to write a powerful cover article on The Heart of Power: Health and Politics in the Oval Office, a historical treatment of the USA national health care controversy by David Blumenthal and James A. Morone. Unfortunately, his piece is as exciting as a bowl of shredded wheat. If he made any points that will move our current critical health care debate one way or another, I missed them.
David Orr praises Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist but fails to achieve a level of cleverness commensurate with that of the book’s author. Finally, Ross Douthat’s triumphalist review of The Age of Reagan by Steven Hayward pushes the highly questionable notion that liberals have trouble deciding what to think of Ronald Reagan. Really? Not this liberal. I think Reagan’s financial deregulation policies caused the corruption that led to our current economic crash. His administration encouraged wild and irresponsible stock and bond market “innovations” that eventually led to the horrors of AIG, and to our current economic crisis. This is Ross Douthat’s hero? And why didn’t Douthat even mention this aspect of Ronald Reagan’s legacy in this article?