The recent squabbling about professional ‘courtesy’ in contemporary book reviews – are critics too nice? Are critics duty-bound to be diplomatic? – receives its zeitgeist polarizing in this week’s New York Times Book Review. In just one issue, we see what might be approximated as the two extremes of the question.
At one end, there’s the ludicrous display on the issue’s cover, two-thirds of which is taken up with a gorgeous, full-color come-hither glamor shot of author Marie NDiaye. The photo was taken specifically for the Times by Yann Rabanier, and it shows the author of the novel Three Strong Women standing in a sunlit field, posed to look both graceful and profound. The photo is flat-out enormous – it virtually squashes the little snippet of the accompanying article by Fernanda Eberstadt. To read more than a paragraph of that article, you have to flip to page 10 – where there’s another enormous graphic, this time a painting of NDiaye. In the article itself, Eberstadt writes, among other things: “It is, however, the book’s middle novella – a masterpiece of narrative ingenuity and emotional extremes – that proves NDiaye to be a writer of the highest caliber.” A little later: “NDiaye is a hypnotic storyteller with an unflinching understanding of the rock-bottom reality of most people’s lives.” And to wrap things up: “‘Three Strong Women’ is the poised creation of a novelist unafraid to explore the extremes of human suffering.”
Eberstadt is a fiercely intelligent writer, and she’s entitled to her opinions under Federal law, but this is hogwash. Three Strong Women is a wretchedly inept piece of maundering condescension. It isn’t just that the book doesn’t measure up to those ridiculous superlatives Eberstadt lays on it (no book could, not Henry James at his best), it’s that the book is virtually no good at all. And more importantly: its merits – or lack of them – are totally irrelevant to this NYTBR article. Front page placement? Gigantic glossy photo? Painting? This thing was never intended to be anything other than advertising. And as such, it holds down one end of the whole ‘courtesy in reviewing’ debate – in any indictment of the frauds and fallacies of current book-reviewing, a thing like this NDiaye piece would have to be Exhibit A: it hysterically over-praises a trifle, and it does so for explicitly editorial reasons that have nothing to do with the actual literary merits of the book in question. Any innocent reader misled by Eberstadt into buying Three Strong Women is going to finish the book (if they can) and think, “I shouldn’t have listened to that reviewer – she’s clearly personal friends with the book’s author.” This is ‘courteous’ reviewing run amok.
At the other end of the spectrum is Ron Powers’ hilarious, savage review of The Garden of Lost and Found by Dale Peck: here is a gigantically capable, powerhouse critic (and the author of the finest Mark Twain biography ever written) wading into a book purely for the joy of stomping all over it. He might say otherwise – certainly the NYTRB would say it – but please: The Garden of Lost and Found is a paperback published by Mischief and Mayhem Press … in other words, Powers had to go looking for it, and there’s only ever two reasons why a reviewer might do that. This is the other one of those reasons, and it’s a glorious performance: “In fact … I thought I could sense a malign counterforce at work: the book in my hands was actually growing new pages, and I would never, ever, ever reach the end of it.” Hee. Even better:
“The Garden of Lost and Found” is a garden of self-absorbed overreaching, a compost of glutted detail, absurd simile, strained and repetitive metaphor, forced aphorism; of dialogue that ricochets from the pulpy to the dead-on to the flagrantly author-imposed, disgorging exposition under the pretext of speech. Its characters are neither deeply drawn enough to be representational nor fabulous enough to sustain the fantasy genre.
Just as with the Eberstadt article, so too here: there’s something going on that has nothing to do with the book under review (which in this case isn’t nearly so bad as Powers makes it out to be – but then, what book could be? Maybe NDiaye’s? Did galley copies cross in the mail by mistake?). And in this case, that something isn’t hard to guess: Peck garnered infamy during his book review days at The New Republic specifically because his reviews weren’t courteous – he savaged writers and became known for it. Online commentary about Powers’ review was quick to characterize it as some kind of delayed payback, and although that, too, is a bit unfair (Powers is every bit as much of a sucker for a great punch-line as I am, but he’s a genuinely passionate, open-minded reader – he wouldn’t howitzer a book he liked just for what my sainted grandfather used to call shits and giggles), it was probably lurking somewhere in Powers’ mind while he was typing out his review, some unspoken conclusion that since Peck himself pierced the veil of courtly reviewer-behavior, he no longer hide behind that veil.
Either way, at either end of the spectrum, there’s undermining taking place – undermining of the Common Reader’s trust in the reviews being run in the most powerful review organ in the world. One is a press release, the other a hatchet-job; the first feels as impersonal as a TV commercial, the second as personal as a hate-letter. And regardless of what else these two extremes might be, they certainly act as cautionary tales – not for readers, who must flounder haplessly (or read Open Letters Monthly), but for budding reviewers: a middle road, just this once, might be wise.