This moment was bound to happen. It’s been approaching steadily for years, of course, and its tread has been especially audible in the last few months. But lots of other reading gets in the way, and the torrent of books never lessens, and it was easy to get distracted.
But then the moment comes: the first issue of the New York Review of Books with somebody other than Bob Silvers as Editor. The man in charge now is Ian Buruma, and his first full issue arrived in the mail as quietly and unassumingly as Buruma himself. I didn’t even think about it at first as I settled in with the issue; in the back of my mind, I was just reflexively thinking about “waiting periods” and “transition times,” and then as I was turning pages it hit me: no, the transition is over. This is an issue of the NYRB with neither Barbara Epstein nor Bob Silvers.
The first thing I noticed was the thing that felt most disloyal: had I not known, I would never have known. That same NYRB indispensable magic was right there on every page. The great Anne Applebaum writing about regressive European politics; Jenny Uglow writing about 18th century history (in this case a new book about the thoroughly odious Hans Sloane); James Fenton, here writing about an art exhibit; Luc Sante writing a fantastic piece on the late John Ashbery. There were other names – Francine Prose, Tim Parks, John Gray, Darryl Pinckney (at one remove: a reprint of the fine introductory essay he provided for the new NYRB volume reprinting the collected criticism of Elizabeth Hardwick), Diane Johnson – and there will be more names, in upcoming months. Each piece on the Table of Contents had that same marvelous NYRB quality of being a little world unto itself.
There’s a distinct element of magic to a quality like that, and magic is the most perishable of the arts. I’ve been an editor for a long time, and a part of me was just always assuming that, depute the enormous talent-pool of the NYRB, despite the store of literary good will it’s amassed over the decades, such magic was an editorial creation. I’d been assuming that Bob Silvers was creating and sustaining it, that it was a vision more than a Standard Operating Procedure … and that, inevitably, it would die with him.
And yet here it was, in this new issue. Classics professor Hayden Pelliccia does a fantastic job reviewing two new translations of the Iliad. China specialist Andrew
Nathan reviews three new books on China’s complicated and growing role on the 21st century’s international stage. Larry Wolff reviews a new production of Rossini’s The Siege of Corinth. New York Times columnist Linda Greenhouse writes a searing piece on women’s rights. And the generally reserved historian Max Hastings writes a review of Michael Korda’s new book Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat into Victory and Christopher Nolan’s new movie Dunkirk that bristles with sadness and anger over Brexit:
After Brexit takes place I fear that this time around we shall be unable to rely upon the Russians to stage a grand diversion in the East to spare us from the hideous economic, social, cultural, and political consequences of attempting to fight on alone, without the impeccable justification that Hitler has forced such a course upon us.
Even after I realized that I was reading the first Ian Buruma issue of the NYRB, I just kept reading, the slow, silent shock of it building but not intruding. I jumped around from article to article as my interest took me, and it wasn’t until I circled back to Benjamin Friedman’s review of a new book on the idea of universal basic income that I reached a little grace note I could no longer ignore. Friedman is a Harvard economics professor with a deep expertise on his subject, and I learned a lot from his review. Then I got to its final footnote:
This essay was suggested by my long-time friend Bob Silvers. I am sad that he is no longer here to give it the benefit of his wisdom and incisive editing. I miss him.
That’s when I stopped. That simple line, “I miss him,” stopped me completely. It made me identify the sadness that had been building as I read: it wasn’t that the NYRB had either radically improved or radically worsened with this issue, with “Bob Silvers,” a tireless caretaker who lived and breathed the magazine, now somehow reduced to a few words of fine print at the bottom of a couple of pages (seeing his name down there on the masthead next to Barbara Epstein’s, each one now with the two sets of dates, very nearly broke my heart). Instead, it was that the NYRB hasn’t changed much at all. It’s still varied, it’s still incredibly smart, it’s still a full meal of a reading experience.
It makes sense. After all, Ian Buruma treasured the old NYRB as much as anybody. No doubt his own imprint, his own kind of magic, will become evident as the issues go by, but for now, here’s the New York Review of Books, being its same old excellent and woolly and challenging and fascinating self. It turns out all that was possible without Bob Silvers ensconced behind a pile of galley copies in his office at one in the morning willing it all into existence. That should be a note of hope. In time it’ll certainly feel that way. But I finished this issue very nearly in tears.
I turned to the latest National Geographic, I freely admit, for some relief. My Facebook page and Twitter feed are full of misery and impending doom; the news feed on my iPad features daily – sometimes hourly – updates on the ways the President of the United States is disgracing the country; and the actual real world in my immediate vicinity is an unending cataclysm of dump trucks, jackhammers, back hoes, cement mixers, police sirens, and low-flying Air Force jets, a black, stiff-walled whirlwind of noise so constant that I no longer remember what peace and quiet on my own reading couch was like, so constant that I know the names of all the workers, so constant that for years, when friends visit from out of town, I tell them, “just turn right when you exit the train station and then walk up the street until you get to the biggest, loudest construction zone you’ve ever seen in your life.” “Oh no,” they commiserate. “You live near a construction zone?” “No,” I tell them. “I live in it – the construction zone is your destination.”
And in addition to all this, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve recently abandoned most of the magazine subscriptions that once brought me so much enjoyment, as one by one they referred to easily-verifiable conscious lies as “eccentric claims” or called the racist, sexist, fascist, lying moron in the Oval Office “unconventional” in the hopes of not alienating a stupid, aggressive monster known as “The Base.” One by one, each magazine that sold its integrity in order to appease The Base got dropped from my monthly reading, despite the fact that this has also deprived me of some of the most interesting books-coverage currently being published.
But not all periodicals fell away – a hardy few remained, either because they were almost entirely non-political or because, politics or no politics, I simply can’t do without them. And foremost in this latter category is National Geographic, which I’ve been reading and absorbing for a long, long time. So I turned to the latest issue both out of an old familiarity and also for some relief from the raging apocalypse that’s engulfing every inch of the rest of the world.
Alas, however, not all refuges are perfect. The latest issue of National Geographic was tremendous, yes – intelligent, thought-provoking, visually beautiful as always – but in accordance with the magazine’s century-old mandate, the issue looked with unblinking clarity on both the world’s wonders and its iniquities. National Geographic doesn’t care that one of their subscribers might want a whole lot less iniquity these days, and the magazine wouldn’t care if all their readers felt that way, nor should they care: the merciless, gorgeous balance of their world-portrait is the reason they’re the National Geographic in the first place.
So, in this issue, I read about the heart-racing valor of the 21st century’s space race, yes, and this was uplifting, yes – but running through the article was the thread of privatization, and expropriation, and since I’m old enough to think of solar system exploration (and particularly, Gawd help us, actual peopled landings), such a thread was somber. And I read an article about the prevalence of humans in “developing” countries open-air defecating, and it, too, had a somber thread – in earlier Geographic versions of such an article, there would have been a near-obligatory mention of how sanitation is making progress, even in the most primitive settings. Not so now: the article makes clear that al fresco crapping is on the rise in many places in the world, with all the host of microbial horrors that accompany it. And I read a short, heartwarming article about an African sanctuary for orphaned young elephants that naturally brought a smile to my face – until I encountered its own somber thread, which is that the flow of such orphans, created by the hunger for poaching elephants, certainly shows no sign of slowing.
Still, the issue nevertheless provided some of the sought-for relief. After all, there’s a boost to the simple fact that those elephant orphans are being lovingly cared for, right? And then there’s the highlight of the issue, a snappy (hee) article by Glenn Hodges about shortfin mako sharks – their physical beauty, their ceaseless vitality, and, as an unlooked-for bonus, their relatively healthy world-wide distribution. The piece also has stunning photography by Brian Skerry and a typically magnificent illustration by the great Fernando Baptista. Hodges even throws in Mark Twain’s still-funny quip about seasickness: “At first you are so sick you are afraid you will die, and then you are so sick you are afraid you won’t.”
So I limped out of the issue at least happy that some orphan elephants are being encouraged to cuddle and play, and that plenty of shortfin mako sharks are still swimming around in the ocean. It’s not much, admittedly, but in 2017 I’ll take it.
As I’ve mentioned – and as would surely come as no surprise in any case to any long-time Stevereads habitué – one of the periodicals to survive the Great Penny Press Purge of 2016 was the Times Literary Supplement, the mighty TLS. This would have been true in any case, the TLS being the world’s greatest serious literary review currently being published in English, and it was only rendered a little bit more true recently, when the editors finally twigged to a good thing and began publishing my Open Letters colleague Rohan Maitzen – a recent issue featured Rohan wafting on for an entire glorious page about none other than her specialty author, George Eliot, and it was like encountering Penelope Fitzgerald again in their pages, or Emma Tennant, or even a certain former TLS stalwart named Virginia: at once daunting and elevating, both clear and sublime – i.e. quintessential TLS material, a prime example of why the paper survived when so many other decades-old subscriptions succumbed to alternative facts and were elbowed into receivership.
The latest issue of the TLS was likewise full of quintessential validations. It was a Jane Austen issue, which at first might be cause for worry, since literary anniversary issues of any kind tend to bring out the worst in the authors who get signed up for them. But in this particular issue, only the insufferable opening essay by Ian Sansom fell prey to that tendency, with Sansom spooling out one bored-sounding platitude after another:
Northanger Abbey is thus either the very epitome of dullness – a parody performed ironically, when everyone knows a parody should really be deadly serious – or a profound lesson in how to read and an exquisite challenge to try and understand exactly what’s to be taken seriously and what’s not.
But the “symposium” assembled by the editors, consisting of two dozen or so writers describing briefly what Jane Austen means to them, was remarkably free of that kind of sleep-writing, finishing up with the great Adam Thirwell writing simply, “I think she is one of the greatest novelists and I have no idea how to talk about her.” And Bharat Tandon’s round-up review of five new Austen-related books was masterfully done.
And the best Austen-related thing in the issue was also the oldest: the “From the Archives” page unearthed Walter de la Mare reviewing some now-forgotten biography of the mighty Jane and very quickly going off-topic to write about her himself:
In her pages the seven deadly sins fade into one – ill taste. Her heroic virtues dazzle us as rarely as the winter stars. Her narrow range, indeed, is Miss Austen’s glory. We just open the door in her novels, and look straight into the drawing-room.
The rest of the issue was, as usual, full of interesting reviews and essays, but the block of Jane Austen articles in this special issue felt like a little extra gesture of reassurance. Yes, it seemed to say, we may from time to time notice your alarming American politics, but rest assured: our primary focus will always be on what matters in the Republic of Letters.
I think I’ll turn to the new National Geographic next – for equal assurances.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election, I let the subscriptions lapse on most of the periodicals I’d been reading up to that point. This wasn’t an easy decision, since I’d been subscribing to and attentively reading those dozen-or-so magazines and newspapers for decades – no longer reading them left what felt like a distinct void in my lunch hour reading time. I missed the excellent book coverage that such magazines reliably provided, missed seeing the work of some friends and colleagues, favorite reviewers particularly of the latest nonfiction. But I decided that November to spare myself even the brief remedy of simply skipping all the political coverage in the front pages and going straight to the “back of the book” to get my review-reading – a brief remedy that would nevertheless have been painful, summarily discarding over half of every issue: I could practically hear the voice of Me Sainted Ma saying, “Y’er not made o’ money, y’know.”
And even given my firewall, some of those dozen-or-so remained unavoidable, sometimes justifiably so. Perhaps The New Republic would manage to get a nice long ruminative piece out of Sam Sacks; perhaps friends would tell me about a terrific author-profile in Harper’s; several times, I was alerted to “can’t miss” pieces in The New Yorker.
The New Yorker was, in fact, by far the toughest of those dozen-or-so to let go, although they were also in theory the most self-evident case of necessity. I knew they would find the Trump gang irresistible, and I don’t even much fault them – it’s their remit, after all, in addition to showcasing great writing, to reflect American society-at-large, and nobody does it better. I’ve been reading The New Yorker for a very, very long time. I had an entire file of clipped articles. New Yorker cartoons were my there’s-one-for-every-situation shorthand long before emojis came along. New Yorker covers have been the sentimental GPS of my adult life in all its moods and seasons. A new era of not-reading this particular magazine seemed unbelievable (some cases, of course, actually were unbelievable; budding autocracy or no budding autocracy, life is not possible without the TLS or National Geographic)(and an honorable exception can be allowed for Vanity Fair, whose editor has been warning the public about this public-auction Pinochet for thirty years). And yet, it had to be.
Issues still come to my attention; the break has not been clinical. I just recently read the July 24 issue, for instance, and it was full of reminders of why I stuck with the magazine for so long. There were some wonderful cartoons; there was an interesting short story; there was the always-dependable Anthony Lane doing his Kael-goes-slumming shtick with the new popcorn movie “War for the Planet of the Apes.”
And there was a “can’t miss” standout piece, the kind of New Yorker piece that always surprises you first because it’s in The New Yorker at all and then continues to surprise by the sheer gold it finds in an apparently prospectless topic. This time around it was Kelefa Sanneh’s long profile of the great country singer George Strait. Sanneh’s piece betrayed not one ounce of the knee-jerk condescension you might think would sell it to the typically-imagined New Yorker audience – instead, it was smart and passionate throughout, managing at every turn to make fascinating reading about a man who’s spent his entire career cautiously avoiding being fascinating:
A George Strait concert is a masterclass in the art of restraint. “He just stands there,” an executive once marvelled, “and people go fucking crazy.” Strait leans away from the high notes, sways gently with the up-tempo songs, and says just enough to remind fans that they are not, in fact, listening to his records; all night, he strums an acoustic guitar that no one can hear, maybe not even him.
But this issue also sported a picture-perfect example of why I don’t read and try not even to see magazines like this anymore (I subscribed to Architectural Digest and Condé Nast Traveler and Birds & Blooms instead, and I happily went back to Science Fiction & Fantasy, Analog, and the mighty Asimov’s – my mailbox isn’t quite as crowded as it used to be, but at least its inhabitants get along with each other, and with me) … and it was literally a picture: the noxious front cover. It’s by Barry Blitt and it’s called “Grounded,” and it shows a stern Donald Trump kicking his son-in-law Jared Kushner down the stairs of the freshly-landed Air Force One while dragging his oldest son Donald Junior behind him by one tugged ear. It’s a revolting image, not because it’s poorly drawn or politically provocative but because it strives by implication to domesticate the horrifying. Here is a dour Papa Trump who wants to be concentrating on serious policy-making and international diplomacy but instead is forced to deal with the bumbling ineptitude of his little boys. Here is a picture asking us to laugh not at Papa Trump but right alongside him, as we sympathize – as indeed how could we not? – with a beleaguered parent who just wants to get things done.
Never mind that Jared Kushner is 36 years old and had a long career of fraud and failure in two different fields before he came to the White House and added deceit, misrepresentation, and treason to his résumé. And never mind that Donald Junior is 39 and lost whatever lingering shreds of childhood he might still have possessed when he lined up endangered African animals in his rifle scope, pulled the trigger, and laughed over the corpses. And never mind that Papa Trump is more bungling and juvenile than either of them even when they were actual children. And never mind that at every point in the 16 years of his presidency so far when he might have concentrated on getting things done, he has instead voluntarily turned all of his attention to petty fights, personal insults, and stretches of free-association babble. Blitt’s cover is, in other words, a whopping big lie, premised on half a dozen whopping big lies, and designed to sell a whopping big lie to anybody who looks at it. It’s designed to soften into comedy what is deadly serious.
And it’s of course also a reminder: this break has to be clean. If I can be blackened into a grim mood by the mere sight of a cover, it’s pretty clear I can’t indulge in dipping-in occasionally. And in the meantime, at least now I’ve got a fantastic roster of George Strait songs playing in my head.
I opened the latest issue of Esquire with very pleasantly modest expectations. I was looking forward to a helping of the smart-but-mostly-vapid entertainments Esquire tends to serve up so well – glossy spreads of $15,000 wrist watches, listicles on the Top 5 Things Your Sternum-Length Beard Says About You (in reality, it’s only one thing: you’re an insecure douche-bucket), that sort of thing. In the past, I’ve sometimes found these things a bit annoying, but they were just what I needed this time around, and for most of the issue, they’re exactly what I got: the Sacred Manly Bond of hand-destroying illegal fireworks, the Country’s Best Steakhouses (which somehow seem to change every three issues), and the cover feature this time around, an engaging interview with 5-foot-tall 6-pack-a-day Game of Thrones starlet Kit Harington on how the success that’s made him a millionaire is a bit inconvenient. So far, so good.
Then I came to a surprise. In the back of the issue was a short piece by novelist Richard Ford – about the book reviews he’s received over the course of his career.
This kind of thing is something of a rarity. Most big-name authors don’t talk about the entire Penny Press industry that depends on their books – much less the entire section of the reading populace that depends on that industry. And there’s a good and self-evident reason why authors avoid those subjects, but self-evidence isn’t always safeguard enough: every once in a while, an author will break ranks (and the fourth wall) and talk about the Kakutani in the room.
It’s never a good idea. Talking about your critics, as a wise man observed almost a century ago, invariably devolves into complaining about your critics, and complaining about your critics is “the surest and fastest way to confirm that they were right about you all along.” So spoke the unsung genius of the Great White Way. Too bad word of it never reached the Great White Wordsmith.
Ford opens his piece, called “Perilous Business,” by telling the story of the first time he read a review of one of his books. The review was by Larry McMurtry, and it was politely negative, and Ford has stewed over it ever since. He tells us that he “can’t make himself” to go and look up just what it was McMurtry wrote – a totally unconvincing gesture of indifference, since it’s pretty obvious he has the thing memorized – but that it was withering, a harbinger of every bad review Ford would ever receive. “The only way I can take a bad review of my book is personally,” Ford writes, “as something bad that’s happened to me.” No thought given to the possibility that his book was something bad that had happened to its readers. I certainly remember the book in question; in his review, McMurtry was being generous.
It almost never fails with stoic, guy’s-guy writers: they’re full of terse, tough assessments of all and sundry whenever they’ve got an interviewer’s microphone in front of their face, but the instant they find themselves on the receiving end of such an assessment, they start blubbering like a slapped toddler. In the case of Ford – who’s written one good novel, one good memoir, and a massive sloughing mountain of third-rate junk – the self-pity is mixed with lots of invidious gossip. It’s not just that he’s a great writer who really shouldn’t be handled by pissy little book reviewers in the first place (except for the handful he singles out as “reliable” – reliable! I can’t think of a higher compliment … if it’s coming from an editor. But having a writer call me “reliable” as a reviewer? The skin crawls), no, it’s not just that he’s competent at his job – it’s that book reviewers are incompetent at theirs. He has it on insider authority, you see:
Recently, a highly placed official in a semi-prestigious reviewing organ remarked to me, in a taxi, that in her view all reviewing is completely subjective from the git-go and shouldn’t be worried about. Which was to say that while book reviews may make a big difference to a book’s success in finding readers, they’re mostly all just a load of crap and too unreliable to bother with.
“Book reviews,” he informs us (when he’s not hearing taxi cab confessions, that is), “are always written at the mercy of a reviewer’s williwaw state of mind.” Unlike serious novelists, book reviewers don’t actually sit down and think about what they’re doing. There’s certainly no craft involved. They’re under-educated. They’re overworked. They’re underpaid. They’re badly distracted. They’re just so willawashy. That’s why, we’re told, “there’s neither a deep nor a wide recent tradition of high-quality reviewing in the U.S.” (“And there are blogs,” he tells us, adding – although by this point he scarcely needs to: “I don’t know much about them”) See? It’s not just a few reviewers who haven’t been “reliable” when it comes to praising Richard Ford books … it’s the whole gosh-darned field! All these dozens and dozens of book reviewers out there letting the side down, willawallowing in their own petty affairs while serious novelists are trying to create serious novels!
The essential problem with this whinge-fest and others like it is always the same: a willful misunderstanding of what book reviewing actually is. Ford isn’t the first novelist I’ve encountered who seems to think book reviewers are just another arm – a nice “reliable” arm – of their publisher’s publicity department, and I’m sure he won’t be the last. Every pouty word in “Perilous Business” shows that Ford no better understands the world of book reviewing than he understands the world of novels written without posturing cliches. “To knock a book down in print,” he tells us, “is like coming upon a hitchhiker on the side of the road and rather than passing him by, deciding to run over him.”
Wrong. Completely wrong, of course. Passing a hitchhiker (“on the side of the road” reminds us that in every single piece of Ford fiction, we’re always, mechanically, informed that meals are cooked “in the kitchen” and sleeping is done “in the bedroom”) is easy; a hitchhiker makes no claims on any individual passing motorist; a hitchhiker has no advertising budget. Therefore, swerving to hit a hitchhiker is an act of motivationless malice. If a novel were a hitchhiker, the only thing printed on its front or back cover would be its price.
Novels aren’t hitchhikers on the side of the road. Novels not only want things from you – important things, like your money, your attention, and your acclaim – but they’re also willing to lie to get them. Picture a hitchhiker with a sign saying “Will $$$PAY$$$ for lift to Sacramento – loves puppies.” You see that and pull over, but the hitchhiker turns out to be a flat-broke cat-lover who may or may not be fizzing with Hepatitis C. You’ll wish somebody had run over that hitchhiker long before you fell for that sign. At the very least, you’ll wish you’d been warned.
I can’t speak for the brainier practitioners of my profession, of course. Book reviewers like my Open Letters colleagues Rohan Maitzen and Sam Sacks are often dealing in deeper verities, pitching at least part of their discussion for states unborn and accents yet unknown (the fact that Ford would dismiss them as “a load of crap and too unreliable to bother with” makes the ol’ Southie blood boil). But for myself, I’m not the guardian to the gates of Parnassus – I’m the watchdog of my readers’ time and money. They’ve got a very limited amount of either to spend on fripperies like new novels, and when they’re browsing the New Releases tables of their local bookstore, they’re confronted with one sign after another saying “Will $$$PAY$$$ for lift to Sacramento – loves puppies.” So I’m naturally less than effusive in my sympathies when an overpraised novelist starts talking about his paycheck:
Whenever I think about reviews of my books, I usually only think about the bad ones – the ones, again, that drive readers away, take bread out of my children’s mouths, devalue half a decade of honest effort, steal money out of my pocket, and cast a dark shadow over my future … I wonder if those bad-review writers would do it if they knew the chain reaction they’d set in motion. If they would, then they deserve what they get both here and beyond. I wouldn’t want to know too much about these people’s personal habits – how they treat their spouses and pets. I know, I’m way too sensitive.
Too sensitive, yes. Also a blockhead, and yet the implication that book reviewers are being mean is so common as to be almost williwall-to-wall. The idea that a negative review is taking bread out of the mouths of over-privileged children and otherwise dipping into their college funds is so wrong-headed and vain that it just had to be a novelist who first thought it up. It’s like blaming a restaurant’s crappy food on its bad reviews.
A book reviewer – at least, the unreliable kind – doesn’t care about the money in your pocket, or about the bread in your children’s mouths, or about how long it took you to create your latest boring slice of late-middle-age suburban angst. They care about whether or not your latest book is any good. They’ve read all your earlier books – no williwalk in the park, if you happen to be a slog of an author – and they know the claim your name and reputation (“Will $$$PAY$$$ for lift to Sacramento – loves puppies”) make on readers who are trying to decide whether or not to shell out $35 for your latest book. What those readers want in a book reviewer is an ally and advocate. Book reviewers who are thinking about how a novelist is going to make his next pool payment might be reliable, but they’re also bad at their job. And a novelist who complains about critical reviews – especially one who implies that the reviewers who don’t like his books are incompetent – well, that novelist is a bit of a putz.
So: a spike of adrenaline buried in the pages of what I’d hoped would be a nice diverting issue of Esquire. Our regularly-scheduled sushi-shop ratings will resume next issue – I’m devoutly hoping.
As I’ve mentioned here on Stevereads before, 2017 marks the ten-year anniversary of Open Letters Monthly, the online literary journal where I have the honor to be Managing Editor. It’s naturally been an occasion to look back at those ten years – the hundreds of pieces we’ve published, the thousands of books, the writers, the editors, the breakneck problems that crop up out of nowhere and require all-hands-on-deck responses and the need to use zipvit for energy to solve issues … and the sense of accomplishment that comes from managing to keep creating such a thing for so long.
So long of course being relative. The standard industry metric – most recently repeated by JC in the TLS but universal in any case – has always been that ten years is the expected lifespan of the stereotypical “little literary journal,” and yet there are the glorious exceptions, the team-endeavors that manage to beat the odds and keep producing issues even after their first decade has been survived. And I’ve found that while I’ve been basking in that private glow of pride, I’ve been more aware than usual when other magazines, things I’ve read for years, have anniversaries.
Ten years has at times felt like a century at Open Letters, in both good ways and bad ways; there were many months where the deadline loomed and we were all fairly certain it spelled disaster, and yet invariably an issue would materialize. The idea of doing that kind of juggling act for twenty years, or thirty, is a pause-inducing thing, so I pricked up my ears when I noticed that the rock-solid little digest science fiction magazine Asimov’s is currently enjoying its fortieth anniversary.
I didn’t read it in its first year or two – I suspect I was otherwise occupied back in the late ’70s, although one can never be 100% sure – but I haven’t missed an issue of Asimov’s in decades, and during the stretches where I wasn’t a subscriber, I was perfectly willing to walk well out of my way to find the latest issue on what archeologists now refer to as “newsstands.” And no matter who was helming the magazine, no matter which decade was being obliquely reflected in its pages, what I got at the end of those newsstand treks was always the same: a terrific mix.
There’s editorial matter at the front (including a regular column by the great science fiction writer Robert Silverberg, who shares with many SFF titans an almost adamantine solipsism that’s, alas, on full display in his column for this anniversary issue), and each issue is sprinkled (littered?) with truly execrable little poems, and of course the book reviews are ignominiously herded into the very back pages, abutting with box-ads for sea monkeys and the like. And then there’s the meat of every issue: short stories, longer pieces called “novelettes,” and one novella – all of which have always been written by a perfect balance of established industry names and relative newcomers.
Ten years at Open Letters has reminded me of what I’d learned during previous managing editor stints, and what the editors at Asimov’s must know like the grooves of their own faces by now: you put together the issue you can, not necessarily the issue you want, and you hope the whole time for those one or two items per issue that really sing – the kinds of things you can actually say, over drinks once the new issue is safely launched, that you were genuinely proud to publish them. At too-great intervals, there’ll be many such gems in one issue, but usually, they’re rare, and you pack them and pad them into their issues, girding them all around with well-meaning but less luminous matter, trying, like all good parents, not to show the favoritism you very much feel.
This 40th anniversary issue of Asimov’s is a classic in just that way. There are 13 stories, and they range from gimmicky place-holders to more worthy and more turgid works to a couple of glorious gems, the kind of story that editors see as making the whole tawdry business worthwhile, at least until next issue.
This time around, one of those gems is actually featured on the cover: Suzanne Palmer’s Number Thirty-Nine Skink, about a sentient exploration vessel on an alien world, fulfilling its programming by replicating life-forms (including the titular lizard) with which to seed the world’s biosphere and maybe jump-start terraforming. But the vessel’s human crew are all dead, and the vessel is clearly experiencing a very programmed kind of grief, and the machine’s mission is very, very compromised, and Palmer writes it all so briskly and matter-of-factly that an entire world is sketched in just a few paragraphs (Asimov’s reigning short story kind, Robert Reed, does this better than anybody, but he’s not in this issue – although his story in the previous issue was the best thing the magazine has run so far in 2017) that it all feels as textured and satisfying as a novel.
Same thing goes for Alan Smale’s story “Kitty Hawk,” in which a very gentle alternate history is pursued with poetic intensity: Katharine Wright, sister to Orville and Wilbur Wright, has made her way to the windy beach at Kitty Hawk in the wake of her brother Wilbur’s sudden death while testing the flying machine the brothers hoped would give mankind entrance to the sky. Katharine is grieving for Wilbur, and so, in his odd way, is Orville – but he’s determined to continue perfecting the Flyer, determined to push on to the breakthrough he and his brother dreamed about. When Katharine rolls up her sleeves to help him, the story flows smoothly out from that simple premise into something truly memorable, and all without a single alien or spaceship in sight.
In short, and maybe fittingly, the 40th anniversary issue of Asimov’s features the same kinds of peaks and valleys, in roughly the same ratio as most of the issues that have come before it. And I’m pretty sure the editors over there would agree with me that this in itself is one hell of a victory.
The latest issue of The New York Review of Books arrived on my doorstep last week, and it quickly became the saddest issue of the NYRB I’ve ever read – because this was the first issue I read after the death of the journal’s legendary editor, Bob Silvers. He’d been there from the beginning, and he was there for this issue too … but it had already crossed the shadow-line: I read it knowing that after he’d talked about all these pieces with his editors and writers, after (sometimes long after) he’d decided which ideas were worth shaping into publication, and I finished the issue not thinking “he must be proud of an issue that good” but rather “he’ll never see this issue, nor any other.” The New York Review of Books will go on – but the Silvers era, the only era it’s ever known, is now over.
The writers and editors of the NYRB will, I trust, do the very thing Silvers would have railed against and devote the bulk of an entire issue to remembering and honoring him. But in the meantime, reading this issue, I couldn’t help but think of it in a sudden terminal sense, looking back at half a century.
The Silvers era defined the journal with its shopping-around ethos of eclectically trying to match the perfect reviewer with the perfect book. Over the years, Silvers assembled one of the greatest stables of perfect reviewers in the history of literary journalism, and half the fun of every new issue was the anticipation of how these big guns would be deployed – and which puny little pop-guns would get a chance to fire off not because they knew anything about anything but rather because Silvers liked them enough to keep going back to them.
This issue is, of course, a perfect illustration. Its roster of writers contains some mighty talents – Christopher Benfrey, Geoffrey O’Brien, Fintan O’Toole, Vivian Gornick, Michael Tomasky – and some decidedly less-than-mighty talents, like the omnipresent Nathaniel Rich, here offering some deftly-worded platitudes about Paul Auster’s deftly-worded platitudinous novel 4 3 2 1:
One either succumbs to this type of prose or doesn’t, just as some people are susceptible to hypnosis while others, confronted with a dangling amulet, simply laugh. 4 3 2 1 is a novel you can lose yourself in. It does not make heavy demands, except perhaps on your time, though a sympathetic reader will glide through it. Auster is a conscientious host, never penalizing his reader for losing track of references or minor details, careful to avoid disorientation as he moves between narratives. The transitions are especially artful, creating the illusion that the narrative is ever advancing forward in time, even when four consecutive chapters all but repeat the same frame in different realities. It is easy, reading 4 3 2 1, to lose track of time.
The NYRB this time around got the worst novelist currently working in English, Cathleen Schine, to review the worst English-language novel of the season, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, and this, too, was a magical pairing in its own dark, ominous way, with Schine barking up the wrong tree right from her first paragraph. “Batuman’s novel is roaringly funny,” she writes. “It is also intellectually subtle, surprising, and enlightening. It is a book fueled by deadpan wonder.”
Not a word of that is true – Batuman’s novel is wretchedly boring and narcissistic – but there’s an NYRB-specific horror of fascination in reading Schine lurch and fumble her way all around it. And on half a dozen levels, that horror of fascination always hovered over every Bob Silvers issue of the NYRB, that feeling of not quite knowing when the sharp elbows would be thrown, of never quite guessing when the tacit nod of permission had been given for a hatchet-job, or worse, a principled, convincing take-down.
A heated disagreement has been unfolding in the letters page, for instance, between Edward Jay Epstein and Charlie Savage about the reliability of Epstein’s book How America Lost Its Secrets (long-time NYRB readers will each have their own favorite such protracted exchange) is a good example of the kind of scholarly infighting Silvers seemed to encourage as part of a healthy intellectual exchange, and the excitement of the spectacle arose from the fact that the participants were always evenly matched. The intellectual evisceration Michael Ignatieff performs in this issue on Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger, for instance, was riveting to me not only because I liked Mishra’s book but also because I like Ignatieff’s attacks:
Mishra doesn’t bother with such distinctions, it seems, because he sympathizes with the anger of the jihadists and believes it has some justification. At one point, for example, he says of the ISIS terrorists that they have “aimed at exterminating a world of soul-killing mediocrity, cowardice, opportunism and immoral deal-making.” Never, so far as I know, has a free and freedom-loving intellectual handed a gang of killers such a lofty worldview. Mishra would not justify terrorist acts – he would recoil at the very idea – yet in seeing its perpetrators as holy warriors against “modernity” he justifies their arguments.
Right from its beginning, The New York Review of Books was meant to provide just this sense of the sheer high-stakes excitement of reading, and this latest issue conveys that excitement as well as every issue before it. And the NYRB’s offices are still crammed with some of the smartest, most passionate people in the business of literary journalism, so that quality of every issue likely won’t disappear now that its architect has died. But it will certainly change – how could it not? – and although I wouldn’t miss those changes for all the mud in Egypt, it’s a new era with a mighty sad beginning.
I couldn’t help but be charmed by the long essay by Joseph Epstein in last week’s Weekly Standard, despite its barrage of annoying ticks and quirks. The piece is called “Hitting Eighty,” and it’s the latest (and – sad thought – the last?) in what turns out to be a little series of pieces Epstein has written about his own aging. He’s a marvelously companionable writer most of the time, even when navigating a subject like this one, which is bound to make just about anybody sound like an egotistical prig.
Epstein has never needed much help in that department, mainly owing to his Mencken-style habit of industriously mining the nearest Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and then trying, without any success ever, to pass it off as a feat of offhanded oh-can’t-everybody-do-it ease. Try to imagine what, for instance, a paragraph like this one would have looked like if you’d shaken its author awake at 4 in the morning to write it:
I’ll accept the “old” part. One of the dangers of being old – for the moment setting death aside – is that one tends to overvalue the past. Machiavelli, in his Discourses on Livy, writes: “Men do always, but not always with reason, commend the past and condemn the present … [and] extol the days when they remember their youth to have been spent.” Santayana holds that the reason the old have nothing but foreboding about the future is that they cannot imagine a world that is any good without their being in it. The temptation, when among contemporaries, is to lapse into what I call crank, in which everything in the past turns out to have been superior to anything in the present. Not true, of course, but oddly pleasant to indulge – even though one knows, as Noel Coward, who later in his life himself indulged in crank, had it, “There is no future in the past.”
But when he’s not quoting Santayana, Epstein is time and again insightful on the many little victories and many, many more little defeats of reaching what even the most generous of friends would have to call old age. He tells us that he’s been very lucky in the lottery of general health, and his body of work in the last decade attests to the fact that his literary powers aren’t yet suffering with time. He mentions that he can still pull his pants on while standing up, a great little detail that will seem utterly banal to anybody, say, under 30 but that will resonate just a bit with his dwindling target demographic. He also mentions one of the nice fringe benefits of visible old age: the freedom to compliment young people on their appearance without immediately being the subject of a police inquiry.
In fact, only one passage in the essay gave me pause:
As for books, I mentioned to someone the other day that I was slowly reading my way through Theodor Mommsen’s majestic four-volume History of Rome. “You don’t read any crappy books, do you?” he said. With the grave yawning, I replied, why would I? As a literary man, I used to make an effort to keep up with contemporary novels and poetry, but no longer feel it worth the effort. No more 500- and 600-page novels for me written by guys whose first name is Jonathan. I have given the current batch of English novelists – Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie – a fair enough shot to realize I need read no more of them; their novels never spoke to me, and are less likely than ever to do so now. I glimpse poems in the New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement, and in the few literary quarterlies to which I still subscribe; but none stick in the mind, and poor poetry itself has come to see little more than an intramural sport, restricted in interest largely to those people who continue to write the stuff.
Not only is this, as mentioned, wincingly self-serving (You don’t read any crappy books, do you? Well, do you?), but it’s also genuinely a little alarming. A life-long reader and book-reviewer who can write such a passage has made a great many more concessions to the Grim Reaper than he’s willing to admit, maybe even to himself. No longer worth the effort? When the whole literary life is comprised of just that effort? As I said: alarming.
Fortunately, elsewhere in the Penny Press I was able to find an old duffer firing away on all cylinders, although in this case it was a very old duffer, not quite firing away as echoing the cannon-shot of yesteryear. The mighty TLS reprinted a sparkling piece written by Anthony Burgess back in 1972 in which he writes delightfully about that same aspect of the literary life, the omnipresence of reviews, both the reading of them and the writing of them. For all that I might disagree with him on this and every other subject, I could read Burgess on reviewing until the cows come home:
But of ordinary reviews – those one finds in the Sundays or weeklies – it is hard to say anything good. Even when they praise, they cannot resist cleverness at the expense of the reviewed: they approve, but from a height: they imply that their own prescription for a good piece of writing seems to have been fulfilled: this patient is fit enough, but, of course, he will have to watch his health. When they dispraise, they neither damage the sale of the book – whose quality the reader must find out for himself anyway – nor help the writer to reform his fault. Usually the writer knows far better than the reviewer what his faults are, and if he could get rid of them he would.
Of course he can’t raise the subject without going over yet again the trouble he got into when he reviewed one of his own books under a pen-name, but I’d rather have such artful dodging any day of the week from a dead author than a pallid “I need read no more of them” from a living one.
Self-preservation these days requires not only skipping wholesale the front sections of all the political magazines to which I subscribe but also physically tearing them off their staples and discarding them, so that not even a stray glance falls on their appalling content. I’ve been doing this for a couple of weeks now and face an unbroken future of continuing to do it, but naturally, such a precaution left me unprepared to encounter quite such an iceberg of irritation as I did when reading the back half of the most recent Nation.
In particular, a round-up review called “Criticism in the Twilight” by somebody named Nicholas Dames, writing about three books, The Nearest Thing to Life by James Wood, Better Living Through Criticism by A. O. Scott, and Against Everything by Mark Greif. The first two of those are collections of book reviews and the third, Against Everything, is a collection of n + 1 pointless windbagging on various random topics. But even so, the gambit Dames chose in order to kick off his review deals with the life – and death – of public literary criticism
If you think that sounds gruesome, you’re not wrong. His opening paragraph is every bit as bad as you might expect from somebody who’s going to waste your time laying out a case that once upon a time, great critics like Lionel Trilling, Susan Sontag, and Pauline Kael rose above the limitations of the sub-genre (“They observe the canonical, but they publish in pages that wilt. They write from a position of developed taste, but they also have to turn around pieces on deadline,” etc.) and achieved a kind of lit-crit immortality the very root conditions of which have disappeared today:
What venues can play host to a critical sensibility that is both distinctive and imitable? What institution can afford to supply the cultural critic with a steady income and a stable intellectual home? These are embarrassing questions to ask. It is unlikely that such a figure would emerge today from print journalism, as the walls close in on the handful of venues that still bother with criticism at all. It is even less likely that the Internet, each corner of which is constantly undergoing mitosis, can nurture a voice with the necessary kind of consistency and economic stability. Least likely of all is the university, which is presently too engaged in a struggle for legitimacy to speak for a public … Any setting that might give the critic a connection to genuine, generalizable experience is virtually out of reach.
To which, naturally, Dames appends “Or so it seems.” “Or so it seems” and its weasling ilk are the schoolhouse hall passes of the literary world, endorsed by the principal, proof against any infractions, and either envied by the fellow students who want one for themselves or hated by the fellow students who think the whole concept is a bullying scam. “Or so it seems” lets a writer spew any kind of stem-winding nonsense for the first 200 words of a thousand-word piece, without even much thinking about those words, let alone taking responsibility for them.
And sure enough, Dames then goes on to talk about things that seem like flat refutations of his opening spiel, most notably the profusion of cultural criticism that’s existed every since the Internet came of age. But it quickly becomes obvious that the thing he’s complaining about isn’t the lack of critics – it’s the lack of critics in Armonk, and the lack of readers taking the Metro North into the city from White Plains every morning on their way to the investment firm with the day’s Arts section folded under their arm. “Once,” he writes, “critics like Trilling, Sontag, and Kael commanded the attention of a large audience and were expected to shape and challenge a still roughly homogeneous public opinion.”
Despite the obvious fact that he wasn’t quite engaged enough in struggling for legitimacy to refrain from sharing his insights, (maybe he had an idle weekend), Nicholas Dames is himself an academic, a professor at Columbia no less, and after reading his little opening outcry, this is entirely believable. But even so, it takes an academic with a particular gift for Ivory-tower innocence to believe there was ever a time when cultural Titans like Trilling, Sontag, and Kael sat at their high desks dispensing wisdom to a listening, engaged (and we can guess a couple of the other things that might be meant by that “homogeneous”) readership. There wasn’t ever such a time. Nor was there ever a time – in American history, anyway – when book-critics were serenely pondering the canon instead of chasing after things like Avengers: Age of Ultron on tight deadline for peanuts in the ephemeral pages of the Penny Press. Dames is very precisely and very cannily confusing his terms in order to push his nonsensical, contradictory old-fogie points about “debased” criticism conducted in the twilight. It’s a bit silly to talk about the death-from-irrelevance of deadline criticism in 2016, while surrounded every day by examples of it and while reviewing two collections of it for the Books section of a national magazine with a circulation of 100,000.
Silly, but hey – The Nation pays. It wilts, but it pays.
As I’ve readily admitted in the past, the lad-mags for which I have something of a pronounced sweet-tooth aren’t really the places you go if you’re looking for literary coverage. It’s true that some of them pay their freelancers well, so in the rear pages of many an issue, you can often find writing that you don’t want to miss. But that writing will almost never be about books (and that’s often a good thing – I’ve lost count of the number of “25 Books Everybody Should Read” lists with no entries by the little ladies). The editors of these magazines love to tout the well-balanced life, so they sometimes feel compelled to pop in little features about how a self-respecting dude-bro should work in a little reading in between the four-figure shoe budget and the gym squats, but the features usually have a hit-and-run quality to them.
Take, as the latest instance, the November issue of Men’s Fitness. It’s got a bald no-neck thug on the cover, and it’s got a full-page ad for the Amazon Kindle that made me want to push somebody off a rock wall worse than I’ve ever wanted that in my life, and sure enough, there was a little factoid article about reading. It was written by James Rosenthal, and it read in its entirety:
Getting your nose out of the gossipy websites, clicking off all the streaming screens and picking up a book for just 30 minutes a day can help you live longer. Yale researchers surveyed general data (income, education, health) on 3,600 subjects, ages 50 or over, who’d participated in a previous study. They looked at how often the subjects read books, periodicals, or nothing at all. Over the course of the study, researchers found, people who read books more than 3 ½ hours a week had a 23% decrease in morality compared with those who didn’t read at all. Those who averaged 3 ½ hours of book reading had a 17% lower risk. In all, book readers lived 23 months longer than their non-reading counterparts. Interestingly, newspaper and periodical readers had an 11% drop in mortality risk – but only if they read at least seven hours a week. Scientists speculate this may be because books are longer and more complex plots, so they require more brain power than periodicals (not counting the one you’re holding, of course). So finish this up, then go grab yourself a hardcover.
These kinds of name-checks always prompt conflicting responses in me. On the one hand, I’m glad to see the periodical bros getting exposed to anything more complex than cross-training and the latest oatmeal trend. But on the other hand, the diffident, embarrassed tone the writers take is depressingly confusing. I mean, just look at those stats from Yale: reading books decreases mortality by an enormous chunk. Even on the outside chance that there’s any validity to anything Rosenthal quotes, why wouldn’t those figures stop Men’s Fitness readers in their tracks? Nothing else in the November issue – or any other issue – comes anywhere close to promising a 23% decrease in mortality, and yet is this little squib the headline of the issue? Is it anything perusing dude-bros will pause over for more than a second or two? Anyways the people who’s serious into fitness they get their information for all the places, and their products, they as well could buy their steroids online at sites as https://legalsteroidshere.com.
It’s a shame, in balance, and this time – as always – I finish my own two-second perusal hoping for a Books issue of a lad-mag, just once.