Posts from June 2017
June 6th, 2017
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.
April 19th, 2017
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 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.
March 27th, 2017
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.
January 12th, 2017
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.
November 29th, 2016
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.
October 19th, 2016
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?
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.
September 23rd, 2016
Like plenty of other people (perhaps particularly other beagle-fanciers), I loved Andrew Sullivan’s blog The Dish in most of its various incarnations over the years, and I read it eagerly even when, as was very often the case, I disagreed with the author. I was disappointed when he rather ostentatiously announced his retirement from blogging last year, so I was naturally interested when I saw that he commanded the cover article spot of the September 19 issue of New York magazine, a piece called “I Used to Be a Human Being.” It went into the piece eagerly.
And almost instantly regretted it, and then kept on regretting it throughout the length of the piece. Instead of reading the piece I’d hoped for, in which Sullivan looked back on his whirlwind years masterminding The Dish, I realized pretty quickly I was reading a piece in which Sullivan recounts his struggles with the Devil.
He’s visiting a religious retreat that’s geared to wean people from their dependence on electronic stimulation. Postulants surrender their cellphones and meditate their way through the cold turkey withdrawal symptoms to a state of inner peace. They’re slowly, patiently desensitized until they reach the point where they can ignore all the “distractions” of modern technology and concentrate again on not concentrating, on simply breathing, on simply being.
Those distractions were stronger for Sullivan than for most people, as he writes in typically vivid prose:
But the rewards were many: an audience of up to 100,000 people a day; a new-media business that was actually profitable; a constant stream of things to annoy, enlighten, or infuriate me; a niche in the nerve center of the exploding global conversation; and a way to measure success – in big and beautiful data – that was a constant dopamine bath for the writerly ego. If you had to reinvent yourself as a writer in the internet age. I reassured myself, then I was ahead of the curve. The problem was that I hadn’t been able to reinvent myself as a human being.
And he claims that all of this extracted a heavy cost: lethargy, atrophied muscles, “four bronchial infections in 12 months” and a general feeling of disconnection from the world. Sullivan lists all the usual suspects: Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, Tinder (that one crops up regularly), combines them with the round-the-clock needs of running The Dish, and paints a dire picture of the results:
Every hour I spent online was not spent in the physical world. Every minute I was engrossed in a virtual interaction I was not involved in a human encounter. Every second absorbed in some trivia was a second less for any form of reflection, or calm, or spirituality. I either lived as a voice online or I lived as human being in the world that humans had lived in since the beginning of time.
Like all people who convince themselves they’re addicts, Sullivan promptly does two things: he declares that he had no control over his addiction – and that none of us do: “When provided a constant source of information and news and gossip about each other – routed through our social networks – we are close to helpless” – and he turns around and heaps scorn on the Promised Land now that he’s sure he himself doesn’t want to live there anymore. He describes a great, frantic blight ruled by shadowy overlords:
We absorb this “content” (as writing or video or photography is now called) no longer primarily by buying a magazine or paper, by bookmarking our favorite website, or by actively choosing to read or watch. We are instead guided to these info-nuggets by myriad little interruptions on social media, all cascading at us with individually tailored relevance and accuracy. Do not flatter yourself in thinking that you have much control over which temptations you click on. Silicon Valley’s technologists and their ever-perfecting algorithms have discovered the form of bait that will have you jumping like a witless minnow.
It’s preposterous, of course, but the whole thing is preposterous. Phony screeds like this one are zero-sum games that practically write themselves, and it’s disappointing that Sullivan doesn’t bother to rise above the formula (there are potted blocks of exposition about Internet growth, the religious life, and, Gawd help us, the invention of the printing press). He makes mechanical references to Thoreau and to comedian Louis C.K.’s idiotic rant on a late-night TV show, talks about how when you take a subway ride these days, everybody’s attention is glued to their glowing little screens, gets in some references to the pretty blue sky … all of it so by-the-numbers that I found myself just waiting for the tell-tale signs of outright hypocrisy. Those signs are always the same: the writer elevates the tedium and waste of the Good Olde Days into some kind of Golden Age when people really did things and really paid attention. “Yes, online and automated life is more efficient, it makes more economic sense, it ends monotony and ‘wasted’ time in the achievement of practical goals,” he writes. “But it denies us the deep satisfaction and pride of workmanship that comes from accomplishing daily tasks well …” And so on.
There was no satisfaction in wasting an hour trying to find that particular used bookshop in a city where you’ve never been. There was no satisfaction in being completely stranded if your car has a flat tired on a side road at night. There was no pride of workmanship in crawl-typing through carbon papers in order to get four pages of clean copy. All of that is nonsense, and Sullivan knows it’s nonsense (the piece ends as they all do, with him inching back, with hand-waving reluctance, to the world of electronic ‘distractions’). He can go to as many ostentatious yuppie “retreats” as he wants, but he wouldn’t go back again to missing important phone calls or being out of touch with his loved ones – or getting lost, ever – if his life depended on it. He’s cashing a New York paycheck by decrying something he never stopped using and praising things that did nothing but irritate him when they were the only games in town. All of it is just the click-bait harrumphing of a middle-aged man aping an old man.
Witless minnows? Nobody made Sullivan click on anything. Nobody made him abandon his self-control in such a ridiculous, adolescent way. Nobody made him hunch over his computer without taking breaks to walk, or talk, or fight off bronchitis. And likewise nobody made him walk away from it all, as mystifying as that decision was. Through talent and skill and a great deal of hard work, he built The Dish into something truly remarkable; if he needed time off from it in order to unwind, he should have booked a cruise or hiked the Appalachian Trail or showed a little more creative commitment to to Tinder. He’d have come back refreshed to the job he rightly celebrates as having been thrilling and satisfying … and the rest of us would have been spared Pollyanna bull crap like “I Used To Be a Human Being.”
August 10th, 2016
I clearly wasn’t the only reader of the mighty TLS who was disappointed by Julian Baggini’s cover article about the ethics of eating animals! I went into the piece with high hopes, which in retrospect I see now was a bit foolish, and Ingrid Newkirk of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals felt the same way, writing a letter of objection with a rousing finish:
It is invariably our own often embarrassingly supremacist species that is unaware of what goes on in other animals’ minds. While we send probes into space to search for intelligent forms of life, we are oblivious to the ones all around us, right here on Earth and in Earth’s oceans. Far from making it “difficult” to grapple with the “complex” issue of not eating the other bright sparks in our sphere of interaction, as Baggini posits, it’s actually not only an obligation but also terribly easy to to learn to relate to those whose misfortune it was to end up on humans’ plates; to recognize that when wearing fur or leather, one is in another’s skin; and to stop pretending that mice and monkeys are test tubes with whiskers. The complexity, as amply demonstrated in the books Baggini reviewed, lies in having to craft arguments to avoid the inconvenience of taking that simple decision to stop eating animals. To say that taking animals’ lives is not problematic because once they are dead they feel neither suffering nor loss, as easily applies to snuffing out people you might run into on the street. The adage “No harm, no foul” is shown to be phoney baloney.
And that was just to start things off – the rest of the issue was typically fantastic. Thomas Meaney turned in a tough but ultimately favorable review of Thomas Laqueur’s richly rewarding The Work of the Dead; Timothy Tackett approved of John Hardman’s excellent The Life of Louis XVI, an although the requisite Victorian-themed review wasn’t written by Rohan Maitzen (as all TLS Victorian-themed reviews rightfully should be), it was nevertheless passably readable.
But the highlight of the issue was a blast from the past: a 1982 Kingsley Amis review of John Gardner’s James Bond pastiche novel For Special Services. Amis had a long association with the Bond industry, and he confesses that history right up front – and then beautifully brings the hammer down on the poor book under review:
Quite likely it ill becomes a man placed as I am to say that, whereas its predecessor was bad enough ty any reasonable standard, the present offering is an unrelieved disaster all the way from the aptly forgettable title to the photograph of the author – surely an unflattering likeness – on the back of the jacket. If so that is just my bad luck. On the other hand, perhaps I can claim the privilege of at least a momentary venting of indignation at the disrepute into which this publication brings the name and works of Ian Fleming. Let me get something like that said before I have to start being funny and clever and risk letting the thing escape through underkill.
He goes on to roast the book over an open fire in paragraph after delightful paragraph, often with hilariously-done asides like when he mentions the fate of one of the book’s villains:
Nobody really cares when she gets thrown among the pythons on the bayou. Well, there are pythons on this bayou.
It’s an acid-etched performance, one that left me desperately wishing for a thousand-page collection of the Kingsley Amis deadline-prose and book reviews. Maybe someday …
May 20th, 2016
I’ve come to expect jaw-dropping moments in paleo-conservative magazines like The Weekly Standard, magazines that mistake blind cultural atavism for actual conservatism and end up actively praising a wide array of things any 1960 conservative would have considered appalling. But every so often, I stumble across a true whopper neatly folded into something as seemingly innocuous as a book review, and that happened this week.
I was reading the book reviews in the May 23rd issue when I came to one written by a reviewer with the Dickensian name of Barton Swaim. The piece was a review of The Crucifixion by Fleming Rutledge, a study of the theology and literary history of the central event in Christian religion. I raised an eyebrow when Swaim referred to Rutledge’s prose as “winsome” – I’d bet a whole bunch of bananas that Swaim would never use such a word to describe the prose of a man, but I’ve been reading this kind of magazine for a long time … their casual institutional racism and sexism doesn’t really slow me down much anymore. I had no idea the main show was coming up.
Swaim goes on to characterize the nature of modern academic Biblical exegesis in fairly accurate terms, recounting how that exegesis studies the history and provenance of documents and literary traditions and tends to do so in non-theological terms. That is, miracle stories about cured lepers and wrestling angels are to be studied as cultural artifacts rather than eyewitness accounts – and that eyewitness accounts purporting to see such things are, in the mildest reading, simply incorrect.
But then, astonishingly, Swaim indulges in a digression that makes it clear he’s tired of such scholarly pussy-footing:
On may approve or disapprove of that premise, and critical scholars themselves have found ways to treat texts as in some sense “sacred” without treating them as inerrant or even as divine revelation. But that has long been the de facto governing assumption behind critical exegesis of biblical texts. The trouble is that, from any point of view, it’s boring. The biblical writings purport to tell us what God is like and how man can know him. All critical scholars are ever going to tell us is who wrote (or didn’t write) which books and what sort of half-baked primitive ideas underlay their composition. That may be fine for desiccated scholarly monographs, but it will not sustain anyone’s faith or motivate anyone to works of mercy.
He makes it clear that he’s very grateful for the “growing number of liberal scholars” who are insisting on “interpreting biblical texts on those texts’ own terms” – meaning, on the terms of those texts being true and divinely-inspired dictations from a supernatural being. He’s happy for the growing number of scholars who are dispensing with the writing of “desiccated scholarly monographs” that merely chase down trivia about textual composition and literary influence and instead getting down to the real business of writing about just exactly how the demigod son of Yahweh took on mortal flesh and was crucified in accordance with ancient prophecy. Because come on – deep down, we all KNOW it really happened, right? Interpreting the these 2000-year-old Middle Eastern texts any other way would be boring, right?
Jaw-dropping, as I mentioned. Barton Swaim (and maybe the winsome Fleming Rutledge? The review doesn’t make it completely clear, and alas, I haven’t read the book) would really appreciate it if Biblical scholars would stop messing around writing “desiccated” studies that treat the Bible as just another ancient text – after all, the purpose of such scholarship isn’t to inquire into the past, it’s to sustain everybody’s religious faith.
It took me a while to realize I’d really read this kind of 15th-century stupid dogmatism in a 21st century publication, and then I was mainly just embarrassed for Fleming Rutledge. For myself, I have no desire whatsoever to go back to the ages when you could only write about the Bible by first fearfully professing your personal belief in the truth of all its fairy tales. Give me boring old responsible scholarship any day.
April 28th, 2016
As I’ve noted in the past here at Stevereads, I take a peculiar interest in the slight but often fascinating book-coverage you can find in the “lad mags” like Esquire or Men’s Journal or GQ. It’s always strange to me, the efforts the editors of these magazines (arrogant SOBs almost to a man) to find some way, any way, to make books feel interesting or relevant to their target demographic of swaggering, over-monied, pea-brained 20-something business drones. Magazines like Esquire and GQ know that demographic’s stupidity and biddability to the last decimal place, which is why these are some of the only major magazines still in circulation in the West that feature both embarrassing objectification of women and page after page of adds for cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco.
Books are always going to be a strange element to add to such a brainless bro-centric mess, so I girded myself when I recently encountered a short feature in Esquire called “The New Books for Men” by Benjamin Percy, an egregiously overpraised young writer who here comes up with a list of books that have spoken to him in various ways as he’s ripened into the wise old guy he is today (according to Wikipedia, Percy is well shy of his 40th birthday). I went in hoping for one person’s account of what reading has meant to him, but Percy takes hardly any time before he’s made things a good deal more ponderous than that:
The older I get, the more I read to upset and challenge the man I’ve actually become. Reading is now less aspirational and more instructional. I cracked open Cormac McCarthy’s The Road at eactly the right time: the year my son almost died … The Road may take place in a postapocalyptic wasteland, but ultimately it’s a story about fathers and sons, about the terror of keeping your children safe from harm and teaching them to protect themselves in a world that sometimes seems bent on ruining them. The book helped me better understand and manage my own fears and sense of responsibility.
It should almost be needless to say that going to novels for “instructional” reasons is fundamentally wrong-headed. It reduces not only the novel but the novel’s readers. What, after all, according to Percy’s view here, happens to the readers who come to (sorry, “crack open,” like a brewski) The Road without having their young sons in the hospital? (Not even delving into the fact that The Road can somehow be enjoyed on a visceral level even by women – in the view Percy puts forward in this piece, women not only don’t read but can’t read) Percy goes through a list of books in a similar vein, each one named in conjunction with some nuts-and-bolts life lesson to which it can give operating instructions. Every work named (all popularly well-regarded; the list of titles alone pretty clearly hints that Percy doesn’t himself read books, ever, if he can help it) is given a narrow, one-topic point, a precise life-problem it can solve once its bro-reader picks it up, gropes it open, and begins mouthing its words to himself. And all of it is designed not as an end in itself but rather as one more notch on the money-clip of the World’s Most Interesting Man:
You look back on your life and the books you’ve read and you know you’re better off for having a large and varied and sometimes uncomfortable appetite for experience, for having lived widely, strenuously. Getting upset, leaving behind what’s familiar: That’s the point. The most interesting guy at the party isn’t the one who only surrounds himself with friends.
Whenever I come across a short piece like this in a lad-mag, I always feel a split reaction: on the one hand, I’m happy to see any mention of books in pages full of ads for $85,000 wrist watches and “recreational” products with a hundred-year record of causing lung cancer. But on the other hand, it’s irritating to see books and reading so smugly simplified – here’s how this Tolstoy guy helped me to play some catch with my dad – it’s the intellectual equivalent of strip-mining, and it’s depressing to think of all the young money-bros out there who’ll encounter Percy’s article and think reading William Styron or T. H. White is some kind of highbrow close equivalent to figuring out a sheet of IKEA instructions; “I’ve got a boss who’s absolutely obsessed with our quarterly reports … I better crack open this “Moby-Dick” book …”
But I’ll hold out a bit of stubborn hope anyway. Maybe next month’s issue of Outside …