Posts from October 2013

October 2nd, 2013

Frustrated Urges in the Penny Press!


There’s a certain frustration that can’t be avoided when you read as much book-coverage in the Penny Press as I do. You become familiar with all the regular players in the game (indeed, you sometimes perforce become a minor such player yourself), you learn their quirks and strengths and weaknesses, and you also become familiar with the rules of the game itself. There are as many reason why a new book gets reviewed in a major venue (or gets studiously ignored in those venues) as there are books; only the powerhouse industry watchdogs like Kirkus Reviews or Publishers Weekly or Booklist can claim anything approaching disinterest – everybody else, all the publications through which I comb every week, don’t even make pretense of disinterest. Instead, they pursue agendas. Is this book ‘hot’? Does this commissioning editor dislike that author? Is a certain book nice and short? Does it have a big, convenient ‘hook’ or does it require careful reading? Are there grudges, rivalries, buried agendas? There are times – weeks, whole months – when it seems like the actual worth of the books being considered is either the last thing considered or isn’t considered at all, and that can get a bit depressing if any part of your mind clings to the idea that worth should be the only criteria to warrant a review.

This game imposes some irritating behaviors on anybody who decides to read as many book reviews as I do. I need to sift. I need to weigh the nature, philosophy, and slant of every publication where I find book reviews, then weigh the philosophies and slants of the reviewers themselves, then weigh all of it against the book under review.

lrbcoverTake the latest London Review of Books. The draws are obvious and enormous: the issue boasts a lineup of great writers, but the game is in full force. There’s James Davidson, for instance, who’s brilliant and a joy to read in any circumstance. In this issue he purports to be reviewing Lucy Moore’s biography of Nijinksy although he spends 90% of his piece simply writing about Nijinksy. James Davidson can write about anything he wants and I’ll read it happily, but there’s the conflicting urge of want also to watch him actually review this book. Instead, he talks at length about Nijinksy himself, including some wonderful devil’s advocacy:

From all I have read and seen of Nijinksy’s choreographies, descriptions, stills and reconstructions, nothing convinces me that he was a great choreographer. Even L’Apres-midi d’un faune, which is the most reliably reconstituted of his ballets, comes across as silly, cheesy and slight without Nijinksy in the title role.

I’ve often reflected that I wouldn’t mind simply outright getting this kind of thing. Just a whole issue of The London Review of Books full of for-the-hell-of-it essays – so-and-so on his passion for gardening rather than so-and-so on his passion for gardening very lightly disguised as a review of such-and-such’s new book on gardening. It never happens, though, so instead we get a long piece about Nijinksy that has this as its review of the actual book:

It’s true that when you look at the original versions of the passages she paraphrases they are usually much more vivid, but when the events are so brilliant, tragic and poignant, and when what is written about them is so often overwrought, then a proficient and professional guide is just what is needed.

So: congratulations Lucy Moore! Sometimes, we all just need a book as boring as yours!

But in the same issue we have the great Charles Nicholl actually reviewing Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s new biography of the scandalous Gabriele D’Annunzio, and the great Eamon Duffy writing so sanely about Pope Pius XII that you almost lose sight of the fact that he almost forgets to mention the three books he’s allegedly supposed to be reviewing. These are perfect illustrations of the kind of frustrated urges I’m talking about – reading Nicholl or Duffy is always a joy, but it’s got to be a bit frustrating for the authors involved, who didn’t work on their books for years only to have them become footnotes in somebody else’s floor-show.

Sometimes the floor-show itself can be frustrating, of course. The Nijinksy book is a meaty, readable biography unfairly, offhandedly slighted; the Pope Pius XII books are worthy (well, two of them) inquiries that get too little specific attention. But sometimes the books themselves aren’t worthy of the floor-show regardless of how much attention they get. Perfect case in point would be the review of Ma Jian’s The Dark Road by The Wall Street Journal’s Sam Sacks (making his LRB debut). Sacks is one of the best fiction critics working in English – he respects the living literature of his day so much that he can’t usually bring himself to stray from it for more than a paragraph or two (his WSJ columns are ongoing marvels of unremitting concentration). He’s rumored in real life to lead a slightly furtive, ascetic existence, slinking from one poorly-lit Chelsea café to the next hunched under a Santa’s sack of advance copies, but in this case you almost wish he had it in him to bloviate! True, we get virtuoso little paragraphs like this one:

The Dark Road is evidence that the censored writer, even if he finds a new audience and a free press, never entirely emerges from the shadow of his censorship. ‘I write about sensitive topics,’ he has said, ‘precisely because I have the freedom to, and therefore the obligation.’ Subtlety and subtext would be forms of collusion. China’s propaganda juggernaut must be met with equally extreme propaganda.

This is good, sharp stuff (although I can think of two German expats, three Russian ones, and especially four Czech ones who managed to emerge quite handily from their censorships – in the latter case into what one of them rather piggishly referred to as “amber waves of coeds”), but the length of the attention itself – however exquisitely equivocal – mightily distracts the reader from the fact that Ma Jian’s book is crushingly boring and wouldn’t have had a single chance of getting reviewed in The London Review of Books if the author didn’t have a picturesque backstory.

Then again, sometimes the frustration is just about as straightforward as it can be: sometimes the reviewer is conscientiously doing their job, concentrating wonderfully on the book in the spotlight, but the reviewer doesn’t agree with me. That also happened in this latest LRB, when the always-delightful Tessa Hadley drizzled dislike all over Belinda Jack’s very worthy The Woman Reader. I read the book and loved it; Hadley read the same book and hated it. She’s not dodging her task, she’s not putting on a floor-show, and she’s not pursuing any codified agenda – she’s an open-minded, flexible reader of all things. She gave The Woman Reader a fair shot and ended up disliking it. Now that’s frustrating.

But just to the right of the LRB – OK, maybe far to the right of the LRB – there’s this week’s Weekly Standard, in which John Podhoretz reviews the wstandard coverlate Peter Evans’ book about the late Ava Gardner, called Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations. The frustration I’ve been talking about flickers around the edges of even this piece, since the Podhoretz finds it strange and depressing and I chuckled often while reading it. But Podhoretz writes a wonderful consideration of the book just the same, especially when he talks about scarcity and abundance in star-culture:

If you were knocked out by Ava Gardner in a movie in 1946, the only way you would get to see her again was to wait. Wait until the next one. She was, by definition, a scarce commodity, made all the more valuable by that fact.

Now, if you develop a thing for Jennifer Lawrence, who is all of 23, you can watch YouTube clips of her all night. You can download her movies and have them on your hard drive. You can put a Google Alert on her name so that every mention of her anywhere in the media comes right into your email. This makes Lawrence more accessible, and also means her fans are going to get sick of her. Stardom, like sexuality itself, needs a little mystery. Ava Gardner always had it. No one can have it today.

That’s damn good, and the same issue has a splendid, excellent review by Edward Short of The Men Who Lost America. So it’s not all frustration, even on a bad day.

September 24th, 2011

Desolation (and small consolation) in the Penny Press!

I made my faithful way through the main attractions of the latest Harper’s in order to reach the end. I read about evil Mormons, and I read some bombastic editorializing, and I read an entertaining little squib of a story by Justin Torres (clearly a young author to watch – still prone to gimmicks, still not quite seeing that they are gimmicks, but with a very alluring confidence in his own prose), but the whole time I was holding my mental breath, waiting to get to Zadie Smith’s “New Books” column.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I consider (somewhat to my surprise, having been underwhelmed by her fiction) Smith one of the best fiction reviewers working today (my Open Letters Monthly colleague Sam Sacks would also be on that short list), and it was an amazing, unlooked-for little gift when she suddenly started writing her detailed, lively pieces regularly for Harper’s. She’s one of the only literary journalists who can so naturally meld the personal with the professional that her pieces always feel like sparkling, invigorating talk about books, rather than the considered and reworked essays they are. She differs from Sacks in this way; his own reviews are almost awe-inspiringly removed from the purely personal – they read like scripture: “And Jereboam begat Gath, and Gath begat Askelon, and Askelon thought the metaphorical underpinning of the latest Julian Barnes was splenetic at best,” etc. Smith will sometimes swoop in mid-review from a stunning textual survey to a childhood vignette on her mother’s porch, then back again, whereas watching Sacks attempt such a thing would be as painful as watching William James try out his signature fox-trot on “America’s Got Talent!” … each to their own strengths: neither can Smith match Sacks’ gravitas. An author reading a pan of his work by Smith can put the magazine down and say, “Well, that’s just your opinion.” The same author reading a pan of his work by Sacks (at a surgical 200 words, in the Wall Street Journal) is likely to say, “Well, I think they’re still hiring down at the sawmill.”

I celebrate all these first-rate critics for their differences (except when they differ from ME, as each and every one of the scamps has been known to do at one time or another), and I eagerly look forward to reading their latest thoughts in the venues lucky enough to have them. Sometimes, this can be distressing – in the latest Harper’s, Smith begins by singing the praises of the great science fiction author Ursula Le Guin, and that immediately set off alarm bells. First-rate critics of science fiction are extremely rare, and Smith certainly doesn’t qualify (nor does Sacks – “Due to the number of moons in the night sky, the reader must surmise that Equinox of the Lobster-Men does not, in fact, take place on Earth at all …”). But all begins well enough – she heaps much-deserved superlatives on Le Guin’s two masterpieces, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, and only occasionally does she inadvertently reveal her underlying discomfort with the genre. Whenever her snobbish instincts begin to bubble too near the surface, she taps them off by tossing in a term in German – we get Verfremdungseffekt and Jus for no conceivable reason other than Smith wanting to avoid having her fellow Po-Mo lit-snobs pull her hair in the hallway after class. What remains is a solid, inviting appreciation of Le Guin’s work and attitude, which is always welcome.

Smith follows the Le Guin foray up with something in many ways even less comfortable: the latest book by the fantastic Magnus Mills. An author (and, one suspects, a reader) like Smith has absolutely zero chance of ever fully getting an author like Mills, but she’s game to try. It isn’t a pretty attempt – at one point she starts just jerkily reciting the names of Shakespeare plays in order to regain her balance (call it the book-nerd’s “Serenity Now!”), and it’s clear the whole encounter has shaken her a bit. She finishes up by wholesale retreating – she runs to the comforting arms of Rimbaud.

And then she drops her bombshell!

I have to fess up to my own irrational fantasy – the one where it’s possible to write a novel, teach class, bring up a kid, and produce a regular column: at the moment a speculative fiction for me. With regret I must say good-bye to New Books – at least for a while – and welcome my brilliant successor, Larry McMurtry.

I moaned aloud over my zuurkoolstamppot: No! Perhaps the most important thing Smith shares in common with Sacks – and Clive James, and Ferdinand Mount, and Michael Dirda, and Sam Anderson, and Anthony Lane, and even Christopher Hitchens – is perhaps the one essential trait all first-rate literary journalists must have: humility in the presence of the written word. The author under review might screw up, he might misfire, he might be an idiot – but he’s engaged in a holy task, and it trails a holy solemnity behind it. The author might make the biggest mess since God created basset hounds, but the best literary critics take that mess seriously because the act of creation is holy to them (which is why they can get so all-fired angry when a thing is done poorly, or lazily, or insultingly).

Larry McMurtry is 80 years old. He’s the author of two very, very good novels (The Last Picture Show and Buffalo Girls) and two great ones (Lonesome Dove and Moving On) – think about that for a minute: two very, very good novels, and two great ones – that’s more than almost all authors can do, or even approach. This is not a man who can be humble in the presence of the written word, and with good reason: this is a man in whose presence the written word is humble. Which makes him a great choice to write book-commentary for Harper’s or anybody else on Earth – wherever it happens, I’ll buy it. But it makes him a lousy choice to write a regular column dutifully reviewing new books. What’s he supposed to say, about any of them? Larry McMurtry is supposed to set aside time to make notes on a jaggedly-written coming-of-age story set in contemporary Iceland? Larry McMurtry is supposed to patiently deconstruct the way a precocious author’s circus-metaphor goes astray? Larry McMurtry is supposed to be doing this? What’s next, making Herman Melville clerk in a customs house?

It won’t work. McMurtry will stay on-target for one paragraph, perhaps two, and then the book will be forgotten and the rest of the column will be “and then Renny Price and Wally Stegner and I – all three of us drunk as newts – snuck into Katy Anne Porter’s kitchen late at night and commenced a grand attempt to bake her a cake. She flicked the light on and covered us all with a sawed-off shotgun, and it was only a call from Bunny Wilson that saved our hides …” And that will be undeniable fun to read, but the world of serious fiction-criticism will lose a very high-profile venue until such time as McMurtry sees fit to vacate it.

Don’t mistake me: it’ll be great to have more McMurtry prose in the world, in any venue, at any time. But I’m nevertheless wondering if Zadie Smith might respond to a good old-fashioned letter-writing campaign …

August 31st, 2010

Rome indeed and room enough in the Penny Press!

It’s been a bad week for good faith in the Penny Press. Bad enough Us Weekly ran a picture of Joe Jonas apparently preparing to kiss a girl (even the National Enquirer would’ve scrupled at that), worse still that National Geographic should so conspicuously lend its imprimatur to a glorified tomb-raider, but worst of all – at least from our bookish point of view here at Stevereads – is the full-blown orb-and-scepter coronation Sam Tanenhaus bestows on Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom in The New York Times Book Review.

The iniquity isn’t that Tanenhaus liked the book – because despite appearances, he keeps his personal reactions entirely to himself in the course of a very long, glowing review. No, if he liked the book and wrote it a love-letter this long and gushing, I could live with that. I’d be disgusted, but I wouldn’t be nearly as disgusted as I am by what Tanenhaus decided to do instead.

This huge encomium (titled “Peace and War,” as if there weren’t already enough travesties going out to Westchester County this week) isn’t the result of Tanenhaus really liking Freedom – it’s the result of Tanenhaus’ entirely political decision that The New York Times Book Review (of which he’s the editor) should really like Jonathan Franzen. This isn’t high-minded literary debate; it’s the cat-fighting that precedes a small-town high school class president election. Oprah Winfrey started things by stepping waaaay outside her comfort zone to nominate Franzen’s last unreadably awful doorstop, The Corrections, for her happy, embracing Book Club. Franzen played the ‘inchoate integrity’ card for all it was worth, and the American public gobbled it up (The Corrections surely contends with Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore and Robert Caro’s The Power Broker as the most-bought unread book of the last fifty years). Just last week, Time magazine nominated Franzen as the best novelist since Jesus Christ. Tanenhaus spotted a wave and hopped on his board.

The man’s an excellent writer (those of you who haven’t read his biography of Whittaker Chambers are urged in all sincerity to drop everything and do so), and that makes it all the more sadly easy to tell when he’s not even present for his own review. Pretty much as soon as his first sentence, “Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, ‘Freedom,’ like his previous one, ‘The Corrections,’ is a masterpiece of American fiction,” it’s obvious this is going to be one of those times. All the hallmarks of boilerplate are here, and good boilerplate it is, too – but it bears almost no relation to what Tanenhaus says (or how he says it) when he’s genuinely saying what he thought about a book. Instead, it’s virtually bent double under the anxiety of the Reviewer’s Remorse.

The Reviewer’s Remorse goes something like this: I like to think of myself as an independent thinker, and I like to think I run my blog/literary review/library desk/major publishing industry taste-maker with the same amount of independent thinking. But I don’t want to be one of those critics who hated Book X when it first came out and now looks like a jackass because it’s gone on to become an enshrined piece of the canon. I’ll do anything, literally anything, to avoid that.

Even a casual glance at history should amply demonstrate the absolute futility of the Reviewer’s Remorse. Names that were venerated a hundred, fifty, or even twenty-five years ago are today nearly-forgotten footnotes. Yes, quickie laugh-getters of the “Rotten Reviews” variety routinely collect all the initial negative notices of now-respected novels like Pride & Prejudice (dissed by a Bronte sister, no less!) or Joyce’s Ulysses (famously panned by Virginia Woolf). And yes, such reviews spark a certain frisson – but it’s a fraudulent one: it stems from the vague idea that in literature there’s a presiding true genius that will out.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The howling irony of Reviewer’s Remorse is that it directly inverts the power-structure: critics don’t just stand around taking guesses (some lucky, some not) at what the true greats of the literary canon are going to be in twenty-five, fifty, and a hundred years – they determine it. They always have, and they should.

But only the honest critics, and this review of Freedom is deeply, blandly dishonest. An honest critic couldn’t write “Assaultive sex reverberates through ‘Freedom,’ and why not? Sex is the most insistent of the ‘personal liberties,’ and for Franzen the most equalizing. One is at a loss to think of another male American writer so at ease with – that is, so genuinely curious about – the economy of female desire: the pull and tug of attraction and revulsion, the self-canceling wants.”

Do you know what Tanenhaus means by insistent personal liberties? Why he creates the odious euphemism “assaultive sex” when he’s talking about rape? What he means when he calls sex the “most equalizing” personal liberty, when that very notion flies in the face of 17,000 years of human experience? Why he equates comfort with curiosity? Why he uses the synonyms ‘pull’ and ‘tug’ in parallel with the antonyms ‘attraction’ and ‘revulsion’? What on Earth a ‘self-canceling want’ is? No? Neither do I. And neither does he. The point of this kind of prose isn’t to say anything – it’s to sound like you’re saying something. It’s the smart kid in the back of the class using lazy-clever short cuts to get his homework done. And the assignment here is to make sure The New York Times Book Review experiences no Reviewer Remorse when it comes to Jonathan Franzen.

Fundamentally, this is the way a reviewer writes when he doesn’t believe what he’s writing. And in this case it’s appropriate enough, because in Freedom Franzen has written a nearly 600-page novel in which he doesn’t believe a single godforsaken word. Every particle of the book’s grotesquely self-indulgent length is pure artifice, pure hypocrisy, pure lie. Franzen started out with the idea of mocking certain things – most especially the specific kind of mindlessly opinionated and entitled suburbanites with whom he spends his every waking minute and whose ranks he himself long ago joined, if indeed he was ever outside them to begin with – but he found he actually liked them instead, viewed them as genuine civilizing forces (just for clarification: you and I, no matter who we are? We’re the ones who need civilizing). But rather than abandon the envisioned evisceration, he thought to turn it elaborately, I’m-smarter-than-you-can-even-see faux-satirical, pretending to hate the thing he loves in order to torture it a little. Call it assaultive fiction. And even that quasi-plan fell apart completely, probably after endless nights spent drinking and endless mid-mornings spent speed-writing to make page counts. What’s left – what gets published to unprecedented fanfare this week and collects a National Book Award (at least) in a few months – is nothing at all, a rote exercise in verbiage.

It might be fitting that a book whose own author doesn’t care about it at all would generate essays from reviewers who don’t care about their own verdicts at all, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. When Sam Tanenhaus isn’t resorting to Reviewer Remorse hedge-betting blather, he’s a first-rate writer, and I prize first-rate writers: I’ve always wished I were one, and I consider them incredibly thin on the ground. So naturally, after trudging through Tanenhaus lines like “Franzen’s world-historical preoccupations also shape, though less delicately, his big account of the home front – the seething national peace that counterpoises the foreign war,” I went in search of some sort of corrective, somebody actually talking about Freedom.

In addition to Tanenhaus, the field of American literary reviews also sports two other first-rate critics of the current fictive zeitgeist, both also named Sam: there’s Sam Anderson, who writes for New York magazine, and there’s Sam Sacks, who’s the editor of Open Letters Monthly and yet reviewed the new Franzen for The Wall Street Journal (one can only assume they pay better, although it’s hard to believe they could match the droit de siegneur). These two never let me down; Anderson is funnier than Sacks (this isn’t difficult – the spinning ceiling-fan above my head is also funnier than Sacks), but Sacks has an oddly magisterial probity that no critic currently writing can quite match. Between them, they almost always manage to say everything that needs saying about any present-day male novelist (needless to say, they’re both flailingly helpless when reviewing women – but then, I don’t notice Jill Lepore or Nancy Franklin stepping forward to review Franzen either).

Except this time, alas. Like Tanenhaus, like most of the best critics, Anderson and Sacks are also afflicted with Reviewer Remorse – Franzen must bring it out in reviewers, what with his ostentatiously domestic purview and the odd, Howard Hughesian stretch of time between The Corrections and this new book (a stretch of time Trollope and Dickens would have disdained; a stretch of time not warranted by anything at all actually in the novel; a stretch of time that is almost always, in my experience with writers, caused by alcohol). Like Tanenhaus, neither of these other Sams wants to believe that Freedom could simply be bad, even though, like Tanenhaus, they experienced not one moment of personal pleasure while reading it (hugely significant that both Anderson and Sacks call the book addictive, with all the word connotes of involuntary and even degrading participation). In this context Anderson’s rather reaching invocation of David Foster Wallace can be seen as the desperate hail-mary side-step of somebody who knows he’s backing the wrong horse and is too invested (or under orders) to admit it. And that’s nothing compared to what Sacks does in the Journal – for a writer as reverential of his sources as Sacks is to drag Milton into a review of Jonathan effing Franzen (Sacks also quotes William Blake, gawd help us all, just to make sure nobody gets out alive) … well, no matter what else it is, it’s certainly a cry for help.

And this is just the beginning, of course. If The New York Times Book Review is comparing Franzen to Tolstoy this week, next week The Sacramento Bee will be comparing him to the author of the Book of Genesis. It’s depressing, not only because the book itself is such a completely cynical waste of time but also because of what the coronation says about the American literary landscape. Franzen costs Farrar, Straus & Giroux the rough equivalent of twenty-five talented authors who’ve never feuded with Oprah, and this makes two novels in a row in which he’s done absolutely nothing to compensate for that loss. Is the republic of letters really so hard up for good writers that it needs to go down on its knees to this lazy charlatan? On what meat doth this Franzen feed, that he hath grown so great?

May 30th, 2010

A Tale of Two Echoes in the Penny Press!

It’s become entirely natural to bump into correspondences between Open Letters and the rest of the book-review world. After all, publicists want every critic to read their pet books and rave about them (they want it so badly they’re willing to risk the alternative, when a book hits a critic on the wrong day and gets savaged about the head and neck for 700 words). They send advance copies of those pet works to as many critical journals as possible, hoping for a bite – or, if Santa’s been very good to them this year, a cascade-effect.

Consequently, a week doesn’t go by when I don’t see a long review in The American Scholar or The New Republic or the London Review of Books and think, “Hey, I know that book! Almost had a reviewer for it, but …” and then, usually, one of the following conclusions: a) the freelancer talked the talk but ended up declining to walk the walk, b) the ‘review’ turned out to be written by the book’s author’s pining (or furious) ex-lover – or worse, by one of those ever-hopeful publicists, or c) the editor in question reads the book first and decides against running a review of it before it ever gets considered for a freelancer (if, say, the book is the tenth in a murder-mystery series, or about post-Industrial Revolution finial design, or just plain bad).

If Option C ever applied to the author Andre Aciman, it certainly doesn’t anymore: he proved himself to be noticeably, memorably talented with his previous novel, Call Me By Your Name, and his new novel, Eight White Nights, is a stylistic tour de force plopped right onto the same bookshelves as Vince Flynn and Nora Roberts. It was just barely possible to think of Call Me By Your Name as something of a ‘hidden’ classic, a slim, unhyped novel flying below the radar and yet accomplishing things fiction critics wish a lot more writers would try. That’s not possible with Eight White Nights – this novel clearly marks Aciman’s entrance into the Big Leagues.

I thought it was poetic, irritating, almost disturbingly insightful, and wildly, extravagantly good. Naturally, I kept an eye out for what kind of critical reception it got.

So my proverbial heart was in my proverbial throat when Open Letters’ own Sam Sacks decided to review it. There’s a reason Sacks’ fiction reviews are starting to appear everywhere: he misses nothing that an author does on the page – which is good news because he’s sure to see all the work the author put in, all the subtlety perhaps missed by other critics, but it’s also bad news, because their failures and shortcomings and deceptions will likewise come under that same level of invasive scrutiny. And to make things even worse (or better?), Sacks virtually never simply eviscerates a bad author – instead, he wraps the anvil in layer upon layer of gorgeous, velvety prose before he drops it on their head. They still end up crushed, but they almost feel like thanking him.

So when I read the latest New York Review of Books and saw that Michael Dirda, their foremost critic of contemporary fiction, had a review of Eight White Nights, I was doubly curious. Not only was Dirda reviewing the same book Sacks reviewed back in April, but Dirda himself had been reviewed by Sacks way back in 2007, and not entirely favorably (“Far too often, Dirda writes with propitiating caution, as though he thinks that a single lapse into complexity and his entire audience will start playing cell-phone Tetris,” etc.).

But Dirda’s piece is as safely anodyne as everything else the man writes – and for what it’s worth (at least something, to me: it’s a frustrating thing to like a book nobody else likes), he likes Eight White Nights a great deal. In fact, much of what he wrote about it struck familiar chords. In his initial notes of praise, he of course catches the requisite Russian echoes:

Eight White Nights is a bravura recreation of all the feints and counter-feints, yearnings and frustrations, of modern courtship. It possesses the psychological acuity and intensity one associates not just with Proust but also with Dostoevsky (its title and serial structure pay homage to “White Nights,” his story of overly tentative love).

Back in April, Sacks caught those same notes, in just a slightly different register:

the narrator leaves the Christmas Eve party in the small hours and sits in a nearby park experiencing a euphoria so strong it could melt the snow around him. The novel’s title and premise is evidently borrowed from an early Dostoyevsky story called “White Nights”; but here I thought of Tolstoy. After Levin learns in Anna Karenina that Kitty loves him, he wanders Moscow in dizzy ecstasy, transfiguring all the mundane, even grubby, sights with supernatural radiance: “Two children going to school, some pigeons that flew down from the roof, and a few loaves put outside a baker’s window by an invisible hand touched him particularly. These loaves, the pigeons, and the two boys seemed creatures not of this earth.”

(In fairness to Aciman’s literary acumen, it should be pointed out that almost no effort is required to prompt Sacks to say, “I thought of Tolstoy” … an average trip through the supermarket aisles will elicit it at least once)(writers and their go-to favorite writers! Feh! Glad I don’t do that!)

Dirda paints a picture of a critic trying to resist the intoxicating, saturating enchantment Aciman is trying to weave from his novel’s first paragraph:

By the second or third of the white nights, I could still see all the things that bothered me about Aciman’s writing, but they began to seem increasingly unimportant. I was caught up by the unfolding story.

Back in April, Sacks also found himself falling under that spell:

It seems a bit much. And in truth, in the cold light of day about 95 percent of Eight White Nights seems a bit much. But Aciman’s refusal to allow in any of the emotional ambivalence that is the modern-day hallmark of realism is crucial to the spell he’s trying to cast.

I couldn’t agree more, with both of these critics (although as usual, Sacks’ piece is itself beautifully written, whereas most of Dirda’s reads like deadline prose), and I was hugely relieved at that. No feeling quite as rotten as loving a book and then having heavyweight critics cudgel it into the mud.

On a much lesser note of coincidence, this same issue of the NYRB has an ad for the latest title in their stellar reprint series – none other than The Murderess, byAlexandros Papadiamantis! So for once, when I praise an obscure title here at Stevereads, you’ll have easy, push-button access to it!

April 28th, 2010

Relativism Run Rampant in the Penny Press!

Keith Miller wrote a review last week in the TLS that was, as far as I can recall, utterly unique in the annals of that venerable publication. It was a review of David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, but that’s not the unique part; Shields’ idiotic little collage was reviewed everywhere. No, the unique part was that Miller’s review was utterly free of actual aesthetic judgement. Right there in the TLS, in precincts long known for their fiercely opinionated pronouncements on all things literary, Miller turned in a piece that was to book reviewing what abstract painting is to photography. A lazy, sniveling cop-out, in other words.

Shields, as some of you will know, composed his little book of bits and pieces from the works of other people, and he shaped it all for the purpose of making the latest point that’s obsessed his sadly deteriorated mind: that literary ownership is a bogeyman of the 20th (or even – shudder – the 19th) century, that dutiful attribution is for sissies, and that only a mix-tape of memoir and meta-fiction mini-bursts has any chance of coping with The World 2.0. I’ve come across this mulish laziness before, many times (people sententiously proclaiming that the only literature they need to know is that written by their personal friends, etc.), and it never fails to both sadden me (because such morons literally have no idea what they’re missing) and enrage me (because if you’re lazy you should just admit it and slink away, not take pride in it –or worse, try to argue that it’s not actually laziness). And I guess I just count on the TLS being saddened and enraged by pretty much the same things that sadden and enrage me. It’s a deal we’ve mostly observed for half a century, and I’ve grown quite comfortable with it.

Not this time, however. Keith Miller – a TLS regular and a very intelligent writer, regardless – starts off his piece promisingly enough, referring to Shields as “involved with the McSweeney’s axis,”  but the glimmers of hope fade pretty quickly after that. Bad enough he calls Shields’ vile,  racist book Black Planet “engaging, and, in some ways, brave” – I could swallow such a mischaracterization if it were just a small detour on the road to roasting Reality Hunger, but what follows is as mysterious as anything I’ve read in the TLS. Miller puts the pieces of a review in place, but he refuses to assemble them.

“You may or may not share Shields’s skepticism about the possibilities of the novel,” he writes.

“You may agree that we live in unprecedentedly complicated times,” he writes.

“You may accept the hip hop/collage model,” he writes, “or you may find it constraining in its own way.”

“You may feel that the issues of authorship and collaboration which Reality Hunger both debates and embodies are by no means settled,” he writes.

And there’s the concluding line of his piece:

“But Reality Hunger has little to say about style except to repeat the old macho-modernist canard that it’s something you must get beyond before you can say what you’ve got to say. You might feel you have to disagree with that, too.”

In professional circles, this is known as giving a book a pass, and I can scarcely recall a time when it was last done in the TLS. It’s not that Miller’s piece is bad – it isn’t, I doubt it could be. Like I said, he’s a reliably talented writer who always has thought-provoking things to say, as in this essay when he digresses briefly about David Foster Wallace:

This sense of basic things overlooked in the scrabble to explore elaborate ones is to be found even in the prodigiously clever and tirelessly humane Foster Wallace, whose endless, and rigorous, wrangling with himself and his characters’ selves yields, at times, an unexpected, slightly creepy flavour, a ghostly aftertaste of a judgemental, impatient, reactionary man.

That’s good, but it says very little about David Shields except obliquely. Nothing in this piece speaks directly to the two central rotten tenets of Reality Hunger: its inherent contention that you can’t find ‘reality’ in novels, and its equally obnoxious implication that if you did find it, plagiarizing it wouldn’t constitute a moral wrong. Nothing Miller writes addresses the core boring reality behind Reality Hunger, which is that Shields’ powers of concentration have addled (Beer? Pot? Video games? Middle age?) to the point where he won’t make himself pay attention to anything. Not to anything long and complicated, but to anything at all. The book is a hummingbird’s manifesto, a cretin’s credo of codified sloth, and dammit, I expect the TLS to say that, not dance around the issue with ‘you mays’ and ‘you mights.’

Fortunately, we have recourse to life-saving alternatives. When the subject is contemporary American fiction (and for all the ostentatious breadth of his plagiarized sources, Shields is basically writing about contemporary American fiction; given how deeply a pantywaist like Jonathan Franzen bores him, it’s extremely unlikely Shields has ever even heard of Anthony Trollope, and he’d probably besoil his britches if he so much as caught sight of Clarissa), especially contemporary American fiction, we can always turn to the two best critics of that genre working today, New York magazine’s Sam Anderson, and Open Letters Monthly’s own Sam Sacks. These two can be relied upon, not only to invariably find the important things to write about, but to write about the important parts of those things (and it doesn’t hurt that they’ve both got what John Adams referred to as a “remarkable felicity of expression”). Anderson is the more ruthless of the two, almost always eviscerating his subject instead of merely killing it. His take on Shields:

The book’s supposed profundities – that the line between fiction and reality is unclear, that genres an be more powerful when mixed, that narrative often imposes a simplistic order on the chaos of actual life – are, to anyone who’s ever thought seriously about any of these issues, a bunch of remedial Grade-A head-slappers. And yet Shields intones them with the air of a holy man whispering the final secret of the universe from his mountaintop.

Sacks is usually more magisterial, but that can make the final summation, when it comes, all the more damning:

Obviously Mr. Shields is perfectly capable of exercising the atrophied part of his mind that shuts down when confronted by traditional books; it takes a curious self-absorption to assume that the burden of change rests with everybody else. And ultimately, despite the interesting provocations in “Reality Hunger,” that’s the impression it leaves: Mr. Shields is espousing a movement that would valorize his own laziness. He’d like literature, and its millions of faithful followers, to conform to his own private version of reality.

Good stuff. Glad I can read it somewhere.

April 2nd, 2010

April 2010 in Open Letters!

It’s a new month, the sun is shining (for now), and a brand new issue of Open Letters Monthly is on display for all the world to see! As usual, we have a huge variety of stuff for you to read – and a huge amount of it too, enough to last you the entire month. Highlights this month include Ingrid Norton’s continuing look at short novels (this time it’s George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil), Krista Ingebretson’s look at the complex issues involved in translating literature, Megan Kearns’ contentious look at the ‘riot grrrl’ bands of the late 1990s, and Sam Sacks’ review of Andre Aciman’s Eight White Nights (Sam approves of the book but seems almost appalled to do so – it’s an illuminating, hilarious piece). We have Kristin Walker covering the Young Adult fiction beat, Phillip Lobo reporting from the front lines of the video gaming world, and Irma Heldmann’s latest “It’s a Mystery” column, plus original interviews, poetry, artwork, and much more.

So click on over and give it a read! And as always, feel free to leave comments on what pleases or irritates you (even card-carrying members of the Silent Majority are encouraged to pipe up)!

February 1st, 2010

February in Open Letters!

Ah, February! Despite its winds and snows, it holds the first faint hints of Spring – the touch of its breezes feels ever so slightly softer on the cheek, the blue of its sky suggests deeper, warmer blues to come. Is it any wonder that even a middle-aged bureaucrat could be moved to song when contemplating the holiday dedicated to love, plopped right in the middle of this most hopeful month?

Blyssed be Seynt Valentyn!
For on his day I ches yow to be myn,
Withoute repentynge, myn herte swete!

As you dare to let your hearts unbend from the cringe of midwinter, why not ches the latest Open Letters to be yow’s? We’ve stocked an exceptionally full issue with goodies for your enjoyment, a regular Valentine’s assortment of treats in all shapes and sizes: reviews, essays, contemplations, translations, celebrations! We’ve got world-famous translator David Slavitt doing a bit of very early Milton; we’ve got Manhattan-famous (or is it infamous?) Irma Heldman writing up the latest Elmore Leonard; we’ve got Sam Sacks weighing the worth of two novels set in the rich-are-different world of high finance; we’ve got video game savant Phillip Lobo writing about programs meant to instruct in the classroom, and lots more! Poetry reviews, political reviews, geopolitical reviews, and historical reviews – plus two new feature to fascinate you: “A Year with Short Novels” takes a look at novellas (but dislikes calling them that), and “Good Hooks/Bad Books” highlights an assortment of those particular novels that stink but nevertheless stick with us, always promising more than they deliver.

Which certainly can’t be said of Open Letters! We promise you the best, most interesting, most challenging, and most entertaining basket of belle lettres you’ll find anywhere, and every single month we deliver! Straight to your computer’s inbox, which is where you’ll find our February issue – so click on over and enjoy yourselves withoute repentynge!

January 26th, 2010

Frustration, consternation, and irritation in the Penny Press!

When I started this week’s New York Times Book Review, I was certain my main frustrations with it would come from some of the main pieces. The lead piece, by Walter Isaacson, reviews two books on American presidential power – one by the insufferably pompous Garry Wills and the other by the nation’s foremost unindicted co-conspirator, the fascist lapdog John Yoo. A certain recipe for agitation, yes? But no: Isaacson is such a fair reviewer, and here (as in his books) he employs such a calming tone that I ended his review feeling not agitated but only pleasantly informed as to his opinions (although he’s dead wrong to be so even-keeled about Yoo’s book Crisis and Command, as damning and dangerous a book as has ever been produced in America).

(The whole piece was helped considerably by the stark and effective cover illustration by Viktor Koen)

But I was right: after that, the going got distinctly rough. Hilary Mantel, author of the fantastic novel Wolf Hall, reviews Alison Weir’s new book about Anne Boleyn, The Lady in the Tower – and is bafflingly forgiving of Weir’s notorious failings in her chosen profession, as when Mantel allows:

Doubts have already been cast on Weir’s assumptions; the historian John Guy has recently suggested that two sources she took to be mutually corroborating are in fact one and the same person. This doesn’t invalidate her brave effort to lay bare, for the Tudor fan, the bones of the controversy and evaluate the range of opinion about Anne’s fall.

Except that’s exactly what it does: it invalidates her efforts. Guy didn’t just suggest that Weir had ineptly handled her research (a charge I and many others have been laying against her since the start of her career), he proved it, and it wasn’t hard to prove. Certainly it fits with every other history I’ve ever read by Weir; her book on the Princes in the Tower has more angry marginalia by me than it does actual typed words by her. (Of course, Mantel might have mounted a better defense of the book if one-goddam-HALF of her allotted space hadn’t been given to a pointless, juvenile picture of Anne Boleyn, as if the people who don’t know what she looked like care what she looked like, and as if the people who do know what she looked like need reminding of what she looked like)

Things got no better when I read the ridiculously tossed-off half-page review Steve Coates gave of David Malouf’s Trojan War novel Ransom – in fact, they got much worse, since I had some skin in that particular game: not only had Sam Sacks, my colleague at Open Letters, recently reviewed the book with greater length and far, far greater acumen, but I’d reviewed it myself, here at Stevereads. I liked it a lot less than Sam did, but even so, it deserved better than a tired old tag like “the endless power of myth,” which is about the best Coates can give it. When I read an almost-weightless little half-page like this, I always wonder who exactly considers it better than not mentioning the book at all.

The answer to ‘when it almost nothing better than nothing’ is much clearer when the writer of the almost-nothing is famous in his own right, as is the case with Jay McInerney’s blinking, ridiculous piece on Joshua Ferris’ new novel The Unnamed, which gets summarized thusly:

Tim Farnsworth literally walks out of his office one cold winter day, the victim of an uncontrollable locomotive impulse. It has happened before. He can’t stop walking. Really.

In case that ‘literally’ and that ‘really’ weren’t sufficient, it should be pointed out that the protagonist of Ferris’ new book suffers a compulsion that makes him walk until he can’t walk anymore. God is my witness.

I’m starting to wonder if the inordinate fixation virtually all the reviewers of this book have exhibited upon the raw mechanics of its plot (Wyatt Mason being a distinct but lamentable exception!) isn’t a sure sign that Ferris is playing a deeper game than any of them realize. I read The Unnamed and certainly believe this is the case, but readers of the Book Review will amble through McInerney’s summary gathering a vaguely negative impression of the book, so a sad majority of them will never bother to find out for themselves.

But as frustrating as that is (and one can only guess how frustrating it must be for Ferris himself – The Unnamed bears distinct signs of having been a fairly brutal book to conceive and write), none of it held a candle to the issue’s towering inferno of imbecility – located, as it almost always is, in the concluding Essay.

This one is by Jennifer Schuessler, and it’s about boredom in the book world:

If you read a lot of book reviews, there are certain words that tend to crop up with comforting, or maybe it’s dismaying, regularlity. Lyrical. Compelling. Moving. Intriguing. Absorbing. Frustrating. Uneven. Disappointing. But there is one word you seldom encounter: boring. It occurred a mere 19 times in the Book Review in 2009, and rarely as a direct description of the book under review.

“This isn’t because books sent out to reviewers never turn out to be boring (Trust me on this one),” Schuessler informs us. “Rather boredom – unlike its equally bland smiley-faced twin, interest – is something professional  readers, who are expected to keep things lively, would rather not admit to, for fear of being scolded and sent back to the Weekly Reader.”

Schuessler then goes on to play a quick little game with the word ‘bore’ in the Oxford English Dictionary, to haul in Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift narrator (who’s writing a book on boredom), and to drop the term thaasophobia (fear of, you guessed it, boredom), all pit-stops on her way to wondering if maybe boredom isn’t actually (thwack palm on forehead) good for us.

In other words, she writes a very boring essay.

And I wouldn’t have minded this so much (the NYTimes Book Review Essay is often, almost contractually, boring), were it not for the fact that the piece is not only derivative but, literarily speaking, dumb. The reason you don’t often read the word ‘boring’ in a book review isn’t because ‘professional’ readers don’t want to be psychoanalyzed; it’s because they’ve realized that a boring book usually isn’t worth reviewing. Something irritating? Sure. Something sublime? Certainly. But something just plain lifeless? Schuessler might not have the common editorial sense to pass over such things in telling silence, but most of the rest of us ‘professional’ readers sure as Hell do. And then there’s the myopia of the thing! To put it mildly, boredom has been a much-mined subject in literature in the last fifteen hundred years – a writer who can only bestir themselves as far as Saul Bellow deserves to be stripped of their epaulets. And the reason why the piece is so shallow (assuming here that this Schuessler person is, in fact, capable of much deeper work  – always my madcap assumption until proven wrong) – why an essay on boredom in literature in the country’s most influential book review doesn’t even mention, say, the Russians and the rather prominent Russian novel that’s entirely about the subject? Well, that reason is the least-common-denominator mind frame of the Book Review these days. And that’s in a whole ‘nother dimension of frustration.