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Peer Review: Running Toward the Truck

There have been recent hollers in the press about the grim fate of newspaper book reviews. the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Los Angeles Times, the Village Voice and others are phasing out their book sections by various methods, either integrating them with disparate subjects, running them on Saturday, or eliminating them altogether. The literary fraction of our nation has collectively sighed over the trouble. The trouble is real.
 
These pages are, of course, worth saving. They create a tangible connection between our literary and national cultures; local readers often get turned on to books they wouldn’t otherwise hear about; and there’s always something to read at the coffee shop on Sunday.But if we perform the simple experiment of picking one book (like the new Jonathan Lethem) and tracing its history through newspaper reviews around the country, an unexpected disappointment settles in. Newspaper book reviews are getting hit by a truck, all right; they’re getting hit by a big truck full of shallowness and clichéd ideas and received opinion and flash. And they’re leaning into it.
 

 
Let’s start with clichés from the headline writers. Lethem’s new novel, an artsy romp about a rock band, is “more bouncy single than ageless classic,” in which the “Dylan of his generation of novelists” “skips a beat” or “misses a beat,” depending on whether you read the Edmonton Journal or the Sunday Oregonian. Unlike those at the Providence Journal, which detects “some sour notes,” the puns at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel feel generous: “Lethem Plucks a New Chord with You Don’t Love Me Yet.”

In the New York Times, David Kamp, a music writer, finds the book’s tone light (“it’s not one of those ‘meditation on’ deals”), deciding it’s “worthwhile for the Lethem completist, but perhaps not for the first-time buyer.” Kamp’s review is notable mainly for its uniquely extended movie metaphors. “Cameron Crowe” is enlisted as an adjective to describe the book’s action. And since Lethem’s new novel is a comedy about plagiarism, Kamp reaches for analogies:

Like Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, in which John Cusack’s playwright is tied up in moral knots because he knows he’s getting his best material from Chazz Palminteri’s gangster character, You Don’t Love Me Yet takes a lighthearted approach to the potentially heavy subjects of appropriation and authorship…

Loose with Crowe and Palminteri analogies, Kamp is oddly cautious with his literary comparisons. Lethem picked a “tough genre,” we’re told, with the rock novel: “Even the most virtuosic novelists, like Salman Rushdie (The Ground Beneath Her Feet) and Don DeLillo (Great Jones Street) haven’t quite pulled it off.” Surely Kamp is aware that the two books he notes would have been embarrassing for anyone to have written, let alone two novelists.

That Lethem is himself a novelist of the first rank can be in little doubt. We are repeatedly, in every second review, reminded of his MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, or his National Book Critics Circle Award. Why so much enthusiasm about two books Lethem published three books ago? He’s published two short story collections, a collaborative fiction about baseball, and a substantial collection of essays since his last major novel. Most reviewers may as well not have heard of them.

With the exception of Zach Baron’s superlative Village Voice review (of which more later), Fortress of Solitude is described only generally when its award-winning name is invoked. Donna Bowman calls the book a “bestselling literary doorstop” in the Onion AV Club. When a critic calls a 500-page book a “doorstop,” it’s probably safe to assume that she doesn’t require much book to prop her door open—in the case of the book she’s referring to, its page count is half that of most Stephen King novels, and significantly shorter than Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

The enviably named Chauncey Mabe, writing in South Florida’s Sun-Sentinel, is one of the few writers to betray an awareness of Lethem’s “heady” short stories (note how he backs away from perceived pretentiousness with that “heady”). Clearly, short stories are considered a dead medium to most book reviewers, else why would they or their editors assume only bestsellers and award-winning novels merit ink? That this has long been the case is no point in its favor.

Chauncey Mabe, whose review is worthwhile in so many other respects (“You Don’t Love Me Yet, for all its discomfiting, sci-fi aesthetic, is a romantic farce at heart”), sabotages his credibility with a silly plaudit he could have easily done without: “Like no other literary writer save fellow Brooklynite Paul Auster, Lethem draws profitably on the popular masculine genres – sci-fi and detective fiction.” So much for Borges, Poe, Calvino, Lem, Highsmith, Burroughs, Carter, Doyle, Schulz, and Burgess, or did he mean living writers? So much, then, for Haruki Murakami, Thomas Pynchon, Joyce Carol Oats, William Kotzwinkle, Michael Chabon, Kelly Link, Thomas Berger, Doris Lessing, Hannah Tinti, P. D. James, Richard Powers, M. John Harrison, Julio Cortázar, Joseph McElroy, J. G. Ballard and Ursula Le Guin. Or did he mean only Brooklyn writers? And, incidentally, is “sci-fi” really the best term, even in conjunction with others, to describe Paul Auster?

One of the most thoughtful reviews You Don’t Love Me Yet received was from an alternative newspaper: Boston’s Weekly Dig.

Stewart Mason, in his Weekly Dig review, begins by describing the novel’s cover, a decades-old picture of Jonathan Lethem in Los Angeles, “staring into the camera with what he likely thinks is a deep soulfulness, which comes across like a pretentious English major’s version of a come-hither stare.” It’s best to avoid novels with author photos on the jackets anyway, Mason reasons, but he does point out that placing the picture there evinces a sense of irony that the book’s characters don’t always have. They’re naïve kids, flashy and shallow, depicted in an, “arch, mocking tone, as if Lethem is sniggering at his own creations.” Mason spends much of his relatively short review summarizing the plot, but he does so at a characterological and thematic level. The book is, he decides, finally “a treatise on artistic appropriation (its title, fittingly, is lifted from a song by psychedelic cult hero Roky Erickson) and the role of the cultural subconscious in art.” Mason’s prose has personality and his thinking isn’t lazy; in this he’s two up on most of the weekly book review sections of our nation’s major papers. For example, the Los Angeles Times.

Deborah Vankin begins her gossipy Los Angeles Times review with a real-life vignette: the setting is a coffee shop on Sunset Boulevard where she and a friend talk about this and that. For some reason this vignette is narrated in the third person: “despite the assaulting midafternoon heat they cradled steaming chai-soy something-or-others beneath a sunlit picture window, their foreheads slicked with condensation.” After a bit more place-setting, the subject of the new Jonathan Lethem emerges in conversation. “What’s it about?” her friend asks. “Um, music,” the befuddled Vankin replies, “And art. And love, I guess. Maybe the evolution or absence of those things. It’s kind of about nothing. ‘Nothing’ being a profound entity unto itself.” Her friend “looked perplexed. He had a headache.”

I believe it. What Vankin wants to tell us is that it’s tricky to describe the plot or theme of the new Jonathan Lethem (although she didn’t do so bad a job), and that this could be kind of a drawback. What she succeeds in doing, however, is typecasting herself as a puff-piece writer, rather than a serious thinker. The rest of the review follows this vein. Bowman, we realize, is not writing for a literate, ambitious audience, but for her friend at the coffee shop: someone who favors pith over substance, cherishes clichés, and responds to abstract ideas by faking a headache.

As we read the review, we begin to realize that Vankin’s friend must be at least as interested in Lethem’s persona as she is in his work. Lethem is contextualized, placed: “Young and handsome […] of that hip, New York writerly milieu, the sort that publishes in McSweeney’s, hangs out with Heidi Julavits, interviews Bob Dylan for Rolling Stone and waxes poetic in Harper’s. You get the drift.” Totally.

Lethem is “known for conjuring the nuances of neighborhoods (OK, Brooklyn).” The parenthetical “(OK, Brooklyn)” is a lot like that “you get the drift”: designed to lessen our fears that by reading a book review we’re engaged in pretentious activity. It’s a trope that’s sprung up in lots of fluff prose in the last few years, from light novels (OK, chick-lit) to light magazines (OK, US Weekly). That we can find such a condescending cliché in one of our country’s finest and most beleaguered book reviews speaks ill of the editor’s misguided efforts to keep their pages relevant and fresh.

There’s plenty more of this stuff in the review, but I’ll only point out a few landmarks. According to Vankin, Lethem’s often called “the new poet of Brooklyn.” She doesn’t say who calls him that. Probably, it’s promotional material sent along with her review book. In the plot summary portion, she notes a character in the book named Falmouth. Introducing him, she appends another parenthetical: “Falmouth (note the wordplay—though he hardly curses up a storm).” Noted. Later she describes Lethem as a writer who’ll “careen from one medium to another.” Among those media she includes “magazine interviews” and the “editing of collections.”

What’s most disappointing about all of this is that in every single line she writes, Vankin makes it clear that she’s both intelligent and talented. That’s why it’s so frustrating that she should choose to deliberately compromise her gifts for the sake of easy prose, scheming editors, or insecure readers. I would love to have the opportunity to read some of the thoughtful, enlightening reviews that Vankin obviously has it in her power to write. For example, riffing on one of the Lethem’s lines (“You can’t be deep without a surface”), Vankin manages what could serve as an excellent stand-alone capsule review:

Although it’s decidedly lighter in tone than Lethem’s more recent novels, with a spry, frolicking rhythm—breezy, even—it’s still smart and funny, providing a biting satirical take on the intersection of art and commerce, integrity and façade […] You Don’t Love Me Yet could be considered a surface of shorts to Lethem’s more weighty body of work. Not that a surface can’t be alluring in its own right. Just not deep.

Compared to the LA Times, Zach Baron’s Village Voice piece couldn’t be more refreshing. Baron remains the only reviewer to cop to his swag: “Reviewers’ galleys of his new novel arrived affixed with a letter, inscribed on Doubleday stationary and penned by Falmouth Strand, fictional conceptual artist and gallery owner.” The letter, we learn, reads, “Here, minor characters have been given undue prominence, while major characters have been relegated to the margins […] Real art has been willfully confused with fake art.”

Baron’s plot summary is tight and fast-moving. He delivers the gist of the thing in under a hundred words, then moves on to a larger discussion about what it all adds up to. He notes Lethem’s recent Harper’s essay about plagiarism and how it ties into the new novel.

Baron points out that the band in You Don’t Love Me Yet wins acclaim for songs they didn’t write (songs like “Monster Eyes”). Alone among reviewers, Baron wonders if the plagiarized songs were worth taking. This is tied up with the question of how well the experience of rock can be expressed in prose: “Call it bohemian demimonde by way of a high school talent show: ‘Monster Eyes,’ as Lethem writes it, is tough to imagine as a song written by adults, let alone enjoyed by hundreds of fans.”

Baron’s verdict is succinct and his language honed: “Surfaces, in the novel, always matter: the book’s big idea is that what’s out there is as valuable as anything intrinsically within.” Baron thinks the novel would have been stronger if the surfaces had been more dazzling, had swum more gracefully into the deep.

Like so many reviews of You Don’t Love Me Yet, Zach Baron begins by talking about music. Like so many, he praises Fortress of Solitude. Unlike others, he shows us why Lethem’s award-winning novel was so good on music, so worthy of a reader’s time. Explaining a final moment in Fortress of Solitude where the main character and his father “disappear […] into a Massachusetts blizzard,” to the sound of Brian Eno’s Another Green World, Baron quotes a beautiful stretch of prose. The passage he quotes and the way he presents it show us something about Lethem as a novelist, Lethem writing about the subject of music, and the ability of a book review to signal the power of a book under the light. It shows us how high the stakes can be and why it’s so important to get it right.

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John Cotter has published fiction, poetry, and criticism in journals such as Hanging Loose, Pebble Lake, Good Foot, Volt, Coconut Poetry, The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Cutbank Poetry, and 3rd Bed. In 2007 his work was anthologized in Oh One Arrow, the premier anthology from Flim Forum Press, and will be anthologized next year in Outside Voices’ 2008 Anthology of Younger Poets. He lives in Boston where he has just completed the manuscript of a novel, Under the Small Lights, excerpts of which can be read online at johncotter.net.