Harassing The Review: September 6 2009

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?

16 Responses

  1. Levi: With all due respect,
    Levi: With all due respect, fuck Mark Athitakis. Mark Athitakis is just one guy. Don’t hang up your hat just because one guy is carping on you. I think he’s a fine blogger too, but I could do without his sanctimonious bellyaching about bellyaching. The man could use more fire in his belly rather than sounding like a dry bottle of vanilla extract. If Mark Athitakis is kvetching about what other bloggers are or aren’t doing), then it’s very clear that he’s the unconfident one, not us. It takes a confident man to be true to his thoughts and feelings at a given moment (subject, of course, to change) rather than hold back in such patently square and falsely thoughtful manner.

  2. The reviews of the Book
    The reviews of the Book Review are great. They’re much too precise to be ‘whining’ and carry none of that kind of emotional baggage. I look forward to reading your blog, every week, along with the NYTBR. Thanks.

  3. Put it this way: Your NY
    Put it this way: Your NY Times critiques are far more useful than your ongoing personal history of the internet. Like the other commentator, I look forward to reading your take on the NYTBR each week.

  4. It’s just the opposite for
    It’s just the opposite for me. Your ongoing personal history of the Internet is interesting and perhaps the thing I most look forward to when I check in. That is because you are the only person in the world who could possibly write it.

    Over 30 years ago Richard Kostelanetz gave me what I think is a wonderful piece of advice, inadvertantly, because it was just a statement, not intended as advice. Kosti said that he never did something that he thought someone else could do better (or perhaps not precisely the same way).

    I skip over a lot of things in my now-infrequent readings of litblogs, and much of that is stuff I could be getting elsewhere.

  5. Levi, you’re right. Reich
    Levi, you’re right. Reich needed to deliver an impassioned review, and instead dished out pablum.

    And Ronald Reagan- he is still dead? Is the wooden stake still firmly in place?

  6. Levi,

    Ugh, this is what I

    Ugh, this is what I get for typing too much. Obviously, I should’ve gone the Terry Teachout route in responding to those symposium questions. But to be clear: I wasn’t thinking of your site or your regular critiques of the NYTBR when I was prattling on about whining and bellyaching. And I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that any blogger who criticizes the NYTBR, or any mainstream review outlet, is automatically a “whiner” or a “bellyacher.” I came out of the alt-weekly world, which prides itself on calling the mainstream daily on the carpet; that’s a fine tradition, and it’s a valuable role for bloggers to play as well (especially as those papers get thinner).

    So what *was* I thinking of? Don’t make hunt down links, but over the years I know I’ve seen plenty two-line posts of the “Here’s why [insert large publication/well-known reviewer] sucks” variety. And, much as I admire Michael and Scott’s work as bloggers and reviewers, I sometimes feel it’s futile when they occasionally note the dearth of, say, international fiction in the new Bookforum or NYTBR. Why? Because I’m pretty cynical about this stuff: I know that omnibus publications like those have many masters to serve, and they’re simply never going to have enough coverage of romance/science fiction/works in translation/etc to satisfy the people who care deeply about those areas. Why complain about it? So, yes, I find myself saying, “Let it go” when I see posts of that order.

    Is that an impolite, unfair response? Maybe. But I honestly figure you can’t do a whole lot to change those publications. Forget about what the large outlets are or aren’t doing and instead do the best work you can as a blogger and a critic to cover what you feel truly merits attention.

    There’s a difference between a tossed-off complaint and a considered take on something, and you’ve always done thoughtful work. I’d feel awful if something I wrote prompted you to consider throwing in the towel on reviewing the Review, even a little bit.

    Probably digging a deeper hole,


  7. Thanks for the very
    Thanks for the very considerate answer, Mark. You know (despite Ed’s reaction, which is very different from mine) I always make it a point to take criticism in a positive spirit, so even if your remarks had been directed at me I wouldn’t have intended you to feel uncomfortable about saying what you believe.

    It is funny that you and I seem to have opposite feelings on the fashion among some bloggers to push international lit here in the USA, in the NYTBR and elsewhere. I’m 100% for this trend. Even if I never read 9/10 of the international writers I read about, I’d so much rather hear about unknown writers who are important in other parts of the world than about the “usual suspects” I already know about here. But then, after all, your blog is dedicated to American fiction, and I guess in these fashionably international days it’s good that you’re speaking up for that great legacy. That’s a good territory to carve out in this blogosphere — anyway, I’m glad we hashed this one out.

    Oh, and the only reason I may seem pretty eager to quit this weekly NYTBR gig is that I’ve been doing it nearly five years now, and maybe I’m looking for an easy excuse out …

  8. nO one gets out
    nO one gets out alive…

    Levi, I think a good alternative to quitting is to continue having guest reviewers from time to time (not me). Take some of the load off.

  9. I do plan to do that, Bill,
    I do plan to do that, Bill, and in fact I do hope to hit you up again on some weekend soon. You did a fine job last time.

    I’m still not completely sure the whole “reviewing the review” concept remains as relevant today as it did four and a half years ago, but I will persevere for now.

  10. Well, rightly or wrongly, the
    Well, rightly or wrongly, the implication I derived, early on, from your “reviewing the review” was that bloggers such as you and Ed Champion were responding to accusations that mass blogging was inferior to the conventional press. It was like you were challenging the big dogs by pointing out that they often had their own weak moments. I am curious to hear what you would say to that.

  11. Yeah, Bill, that’s always
    Yeah, Bill, that’s always been part of the fun of it. But lately I’m not finding as much sport in that game as I used to.

  12. For the record, I have
    For the record, I have nothing against Tanenhaus, I was simply trying to be funny by referencing The Most Dangerous Game. So the Times should feel free to review Tamper.

  13. I’ll be happy to fill in as a
    I’ll be happy to fill in as a substitute Review-reviewer any time. What do I have to do to get the gig?

  14. One of my favorite forms of
    One of my favorite forms of literature is ‘the bellyache.’ What on earth could possibly be wrong with a good solid bellyache? What’s annoying is this ever-increasing attitude that things on the web must be civil, directed, sensible, and somehow useful. Well-known bloggers are out there giving lectures in which they suggest that a blogger ‘should never attack someone in his or her blog.’


    You do bellyache about the New York Times Book Review. I like reading it. So keep doing it.

    It’s hard to be a good bellyacher.

  15. Thanks, Alessandro — great
    Thanks, Alessandro — great answer.

    Muzzy, I will check out your blog a few times and keep you in mind!

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