One of the little joys of book-reviewing is finding “echoes” of your own reviews in somebody else’s Table of Contents. My beloved Open Letters Monthly, though well-respected in the industry, is virtually unknown outside it (except perhaps for those curious browsers who find one of our blurbs on some new paperback), so it’s extra-pleasing for me to open a journal like the New York Review of Books or the London Review of Books and discover that their editors have run a review of something I myself have already reviewed. I like the no-doubt-fraudulent way it creates the illusion that we’re all in this together, encountering the same onrushing tide of new books and making roughly some of the same decisions as to what warrents coverage and what doesn’t.
The latest TLS to hit my mailbox was a perfect case-in-point. Not only was there an Adam Kirsch review of A Voice Still Heard, a collection of Irving Howe essays recently reviewed by my esteemed colleague Robert Minto, and not only was there a very good Kate Webb review of The Paying Guests, the new Sarah Waters novel recently reviewed by my esteemed colleague Rohan Maitzen, but there was a veritable cacophony of further reviews! Seamus Perry writes at very satisfying length about The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke, which I reviewed here; Norma Clarke turns in a superb review of Reynolds: Portraiture in Action (which I reviewedhere), even going so far as to point out some of the book’s shortcomings:
[The author’s] admiration for Reynolds can sometimes sound like endorsement of the values espoused by his elite subjects. The knowledgeable reader can fill in some gaps and guess how far Reynolds was painting to order or shared those values, but in this respect [the author] doesn’t help. There is almost no information here about how Reynolds reached his decisions – did Frances Crewe ask to be painted with sheep, for example? When he painted Lady Worsley en militaire was that his sensitivity to fashion or was it her choice? How far was he countering satirical cartoonists, such as Gillray, when he presented Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire playing at home with her baby? And did she suggest it? How much did he charge? What did he do if the clients didn’t pay?
There’s also a review by Theodore Rabb of R. J. B. Bosworth’s Italian Venice (which I reviewed here) in which the reviewer praises Bosworth for an excellent job all the while hinting that it might also be a bit of a boring job – although it isn’t, as I can attest.
But then, two critics disagreeing about a book is the kind of disagreements that only strengthen the Republic of Letters, yes? I almost prefer it, whenever I encounter one of these echoes in the Penny Press.
Of course the dance of disagreement is the primary three-step when readers encounter reviewers in the Penny Press – we all know that going in. But some weeks are more trying – and more exhilarating – than others. Take my most recent batch, for example: on virtually every other page, there was something I either whole-heartedly agreed with in spirit but disliked in execution or something I loved in prose but hated in principle, and all the shadings in between.
In the mighty TLS, Nicholas Kenyon spends a lovely amount of space praising a truly great book, Paul Elie’s Reinventing Bach, but then he ends his review with a piece of asinine silliness:
Elie believes that technology and recording are the dominating forces in our culture, and they have indeed been a major influence now for more than a century – yet without live performance, constantly renewing, reimagining and indeed reinventing our understanding of Bach’s genius, they would be nothing.
You tell ‘em, gramps! Kids these days and their portable gramophones! They have no respect! If those row-house kids in Laoyatai or Falkirk or Lawrence can’t be bothered to spend three days on a bus to the nearest symphony hall and then a month’s pay on tickets and then three days back home to parents who’ve in the meantime disowned them for their absence, they shouldn’t bother listening to ANY classical music at all! After all, those endless free streams of Bach and Beethoven and Liszt they can get at any time the cellphones that are their sole possessions? They’re nothing, because they’re not live performances. Yeesh.
Likewise the review of Norman Rush’s Subtle Bodies by Ruth Franklin over in The New Republic. Franklin is great, and the review is one of the year’s best extended pieces of critical prose, sporting passage after passage of exquisite cold outrage:
Were it the work of anyone else, Subtle Bodies (even the title is beneath him) would simply be a failure: a novel that never quite gets moving and still feels incomplete, with an unsubstantial plot and characters who are either too weird or too banal to merit the time spent contemplating them. But the fact that it is a novel by Norman Rush makes it an interesting failure, not only because it shows how even a great writer can take a terrible misstep, but because it reveals the problems inherent in his fictional method.
It’s a joy to read such book-reviewing prose, but the joy in this case is decidedly mixed, since Franklin couldn’t be more wrong about Subtle Bodies, and who knows how many unwary readers, esteeming her as I do, will read this review and never even bother to try the book?
Likewise over in The New York Review of Books, where Wilton Barnhardt’s absolutely crackerjack new novel Lookaway, Lookaway gets a long, glowing review, just as it should – but the review is by Cathleen Schine, author of the single worst novel in the history of the world (that would be 1995’s The Love Letter), and any reader who knows that will be strongly tempted to associate awful with awful and drop any idea of reading Barnhardt’s book. All the way through the piece, I wanted to yell to those readers: “Pay no attention to her praise! The book is actually good!”
Or back to the TLS, where a reviewer named Daisy Hay writes at quite satisfying length about Robert O’Kell’s enormously stimulating book Disraeli: The Romance of Politics and generally praises it – except for saying that “at times his thesis feels dogmatic,” which is one of those classic book-reviewer no-win traps, akin to “So Mr. Williams, when did you stop beating your wife?” O’Kell has some central, guiding ideas about strands that link Disraeli’s novels with his public life, and he pursues those ideas, and if he didn’t, Hay would have snapped the trap shut from the other end, sniffing about how the author’s ideas don’t ever cohere into anything resembling a central dogma. Disraeli got nailed by that same reviewer’s trick in his own day, and it’s alive and well all these years later.
Naturally, though, even in this welter of ambivalent responses, there are some clear clarion calls. One of them – the most baleful – is sounded elsewhere in the New York Review in just such tones as I feared: the ordinarily wonderful Tim Parks decides to exercise some pure malice upon his readers by not only reviewing but recommending the new English-language translation of Giacomo Leopardi’s 7000-page notebook Zibaldone. In an excess of gleeful hatred, he calls it “one of the key documents in the history of European thought,” and since he’s usually one of our best essayists, it stands to reason some readers will believe him and perhaps give this new edition of the Zibaldone a try. But they shouldn’t, and the piece should have FDA warning labels all over it. The book isn’t a book – it’s a nightmare of fragments and ramblings. It’s a sacrilege to the writing profession. Far from being a key document in the history of European thought, it’s not even a key document in the intellectual life of Giacomo Leopardi. Readers should avoid it (or better yet, buy copies and burn them), and Parks should confine his vicious pranks to bachelor parties where they belong.
Fortunately, some clarion calls are of the positive variety, as is the case over in Time, where the great Lev Grossman turns in an extremely sensitive and knowing short review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s calmly magnificent new novel The Lowland. Grossman is one of the three best fiction critics regularly working today, and in the pages of Time he’s in a perfect missionary perch to reach the demm’d elusive common reader and maybe get him to read this lovely book.
And likewise back in the London Review, where Edmund Gordon delivers a smart, glassy demolition of Colum McCann’s new piece-of-crap novel Transatlantic, pausing first to go for blood when dealing with the author’s penchant for churning out brainless adulatory book-blurbs: “I had read dozens of McCann’s blurbs before I’d read any of his novels: I doubted his ability to compose a meaningful sentence.” Hee.
The oscillation represented here – good reviewers panning good books, horrible writers praising good writers, good books that can’t be good enough, bad books destroyed beautifully, etc. – can be confusing; it can leave the poor storm-tossed reader not knowing where to turn for rock-solid definitive book-judgements. Those readers are advised to add a daily dose of all things Open Letters Monthly to their intellectual diet, stat.
Just the other day, at the bookstore, a sane-and-normal-seeming customer asked me for a “fair” biography of Hitler. When I stared at her, she elaborated: a biography that wasn’t “slanted,” that had no “axe to grind,” that reflected the fact that although Hitler might have been an evil man, he was also indisputably a great one.
I wanted to say, “He brutalized his own people, he tried to exterminate another people, and he almost wrecked the entire world. By no metric imaginable was Hitler a great man.” I wanted to say, “There has never been a morally-neutral biography of Hitler, nor should there ever be one.” All I actually did say was “We’ll just have to agree to disagree about everything you’ve just said.” This was wrong of me, of course – customer or no customer, I should have mocked and scorned her – but it was prompted at least in part because I know I’ll live to see just such a book, written by an accredited historian, published by a reputable house, and reviewed in respected journals on its merits. David Irving and A. N. Wilson have already made tentative steps in that direction, and as the World War II generation continues to die off, that process will accelerate.
Even so, I’d like to think there are historically-informed bastions that will resist the tide of idiotic moral relativism, and I’d like to think the mighty TLS will be one of those bastions. But my faith in that was shaken rather badly last week when I read a review they ran: John Cornwell writing about two new biographies of Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII.
Cornwell is a natural choice to write such a piece, since his 1999 book on Pius XII, Hitler’s Pope, became a best-seller mainly on the strength of its iconoclastic argument that Pius XII did a lot more to help Hitler and Nazism than he did to hinder it. That book was fiery and fearless in denouncing a man who’s on track to sainthood, so the last thing I expected from this review was yet more moral relativism. And yet:
“Studies of Pius XII tend to focus on the war years, as if he had no life before the start of his reign.”
“Pacelli was not anti-Semitic in the Nazi sense.”
“It is clear from these new biographies that the Holy See’s concordat with Germany gave unintentional impetus to Hitler’s plans. By the same token, Pacelli gave unintentional comfort to the Nazi cause during the war, because he clothed his statements in anodyne ambiguities that could be interpreted as moral indifference.”
And by far the worst of all:
“If the papacy was found wanting, the faults were collective and historic as much as personal. Both authors believe that Pius did the best that he could after he became Pope.”
Every one of these monstrous lines had to get past at least one TLS editor. Somewhere along the life-cycle of this piece, at least one editor had to read that Pius XII wasn’t anti-Semitic in the Nazi sense and refrain from demanding a re-write.
So that morally-neutral biography of Hitler might be closer than I thought. Now I just hope the TLS doesn’t call it “balanced, but a bit troubling.”
My usual one-two combination of The London Review of Books and the TLS always has a huge amount of long, meaty, scholarly piece of literary journalism – that’s why I’ve been coming back to them every week since before most of you were born. And this last week was no exception, with plenty of great, long pieces on books both obscure and well-known.
But sometimes, in amongst the dinosaur-march of all those long pieces, there are scurrying little moments that really brighten the whole lunch, and they don’t often get the credit they deserve. It’s no easy thing to work a winning side-note or a funny bit into a piece that has to pass through the remorselessly humorless hands of an editor; writers who can manage it should get a bit of credit before their work is ground under in the constantly-turning wheel of the Penny Press.
Take the LRB, for example: in the middle of a very tough but very fair piece on Thomas Nagel’s skimpy new booklet-essay “Mind and Cosmos” (about as long as this Stevereads post), reviewer Peter Godfrey-Smith takes a second to mention Reginald Punnett’s 1915 book Mimicry in Butterflies – and call it “beautiful”! Anybody who’s read the book (and I now know there are at least two of us) would be momentarily ecstatic, and I was.
Or elsewhere in the same issue, when Adam Phillips is reviewing Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense and quips, “Spufford is preaching to the unconverted” – hee.
J.C., the mastermind behind the “NB” column in the TLS, can almost always be relied upon for such smile-inducing moments, and this last issue was no exception, talking about special Days commemorating famous people: “Usually, on a Day set aside for an important personage, something happens. People have a holiday or eat haggis.”
But to my mind, the best little moment of them all this time around came in that same issue of the TLS, in a brief review by Houman Barekat of The Notorious Sir John Hill … a review in which the burst of joy derives from one perfectly-chosen word. See if you can spot it:
It would do no great disservice to John Hill’s twenty-six-volume opus, The Vegetable System, to observe that its author was one of those unusual men whose greatest achievements make for the least interesting part of their story. Published in instalments between 1759 and 1775, the leguminous tome helped seal his reputation as a natural historian …
Hee. I’m not sure I’d have seen that particular opportunity, but I’m sure glad Barekat did!
As we’ve so often noted about the Penny Press, the Lord giveth, and the Lord talketh out His ass. Such was certainly the case with last week’s TLS, in which the ‘debit’ column had an item that nearly made me spit up my Tatws Pum Munud in outrage. The offending piece was by Jonathan Benthall, a reviewer with whom I’m unfamiliar – and with whom I’m bloody well going to stay unfamiliar after the halting, hiccupy stupidity of this latest offering.
It’s a review of The Arab Awakening by the reprehensible Tariq Ramadan, and that’s plenty bad – that this intellectual charlatan’s latest scraps could pull down an entire-page review in the English-speaking world’s greatest literary review bespeaks an almost morbidly misguided yearning for topicality. But the review’s offenses went far beyond its mere existence, especially the paragraph that made me see red:
[Ramadan’s] criticism of the American authorities for burying Osama bin Laden at sea, in defiance of all Islamic teaching, will seem sentimental to many readers, but spiritual leaders in other religions would agree that the bodies of even the most culpable human beings should be treated with traditional respect after death, and in common with Ramadan they would deplore the barbaric killings of Saddam Hussein and Muammer Gaddafi
‘Spiritual leaders’ might agree to such nonsense, but then, spiritual leaders are usually the type who would. That doesn’t excuse Ramadan – or Benthall – from agreeing with it. Beside the fact that bin Laden deserved not one iota of respectful treatment before or after his death (my decision would have been to leave the corpse naked in the road for a month), there’s also the fact that Saddam Hussein received his death sentence in a court of law, a place none of his half-million victims ever saw, and Muammer Gaddafi was savagely, mockingly murdered by his own people after years of treating them like playthings. Slathering this kind of revolting relativism over crimes and tyrannies is how Ramadan earns a living – but his literary critics ought to have other obligations.
Fortunately, the same TLS also contained, in the ‘credit’ column, that most illicit of treats: a first-rate author reviewing the work of a third-rate author in the same genre. Specifically, the mighty M. John Harrison reviewsStore of Worlds, the collected-stories volume of Robert Sheckely, inexplicably brought out by New York Review Books. Sheckley, he tells us,
seems to have arrived too late for the 1940s, too soon for the 1960s. Trapped like his audience between cultural periods, he signalled his anger and confusion by writing characters whose only major characteristic was that they couldn’t win. The fun of this was not shared with the butt of the joke – unless, of course, the reader can be said to be the butt of the joke.
Some of these lifeless stories are recounted, but the heat is never lessened:
In the hands of Sheckley’s contemporary, Alfred Bester, they [the stories] would have pulsed with linguistic energy, Freudian imagery, a kind of generous rage; Robert Silverberg would have told them with desiccated existential precision, against densely metaphorical landscapes. There would have been meat on the bone.
That makes up for any number of ‘spiritual leaders.’ And so the lunch was saved.
My Open Letters Monthly colleague Rohan Maitzen recently alerted me to a brou-ha-ha boiling in the Canadian lit-scene, sparked by a well-written and near-disastrously wrong-headed article on the CWiL (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) website called “The Ethics of Negative Reviewing.” The piece is by Jan Zwicky, and in it, she covers a whole gamut of possible arguments for and against the writing of negative reviews. I get the impression she’s talking mostly about the world of poetry (and in that context, I’ve heard the case against writing negative reviews before, from many quarters), but I think Rohan was irritated because most of the attitudes Zwicky invokes apply equally well when our author brings up fiction books. I myself have certainly dealt with (and continue to deal with) editors who adhere to a strict “no negative reviews” policy, and when I was still foolish enough to question them on the point, they always said the same thing Zwicky does: that it’s far more effective to simply throw a “deathly critical silence” over bad books and instead spend our critical time and energy praising good ones.
Rohan sent me the links, accompanied by some eye-rolling about the extreme, almost morbid politeness of Canadians (a quality for which we’ve all had cause to be grateful, at one point or another!), and then we went back to our more customary email topics, like rating the new crop of boy-bands (iconoclast that she can be, she prefers The Wanted; I remain a One Direction die-hard).
But I wasn’t destined to get away from the ‘negative reviewing’ subject: it cropped up this week In the Penny Press, in no less a ground-zero publication than my beloved TLS. In J.C.’s “NB” column, one of my favorite contemporary novelists, Lionel Shriver, is taken to task for a comment she made recently in the Guardian: “American papers now pay so appallingly that some reviewers no longer feel it behoves them to actually read the book.” Reading the rest of her article, JC pounds away: “For any amateur critic hoping to turn professional, Ms. Shriver’s style presents a casebook of what not to do: stay on the safe side of vagueness; let hackneyed metaphors soak up the oxygen needed for original thinking.”
In fairness (and whether she had a lazy writing day or not), Shriver has a point – not about how poorly American newspapers pay for reviews (those that pay at all are often fairly generous, as I’ve had occasion to contend more than once this week), but about how strongly some reviewers can give the impression they haven’t read the book under their consideration. If that impression has irritated me as a reader, I can just imagine how much it must irritate the actual author of such a book. JC hectors that Shriver doesn’t provide concrete specifics, but how could she, absent spy-camera footage in some critic’s study? She’s writing about an impression, after all.
JC then quickly pivots to the acceptance speech given by Ruth Franklin for the 2012 Roger Shattuck Prize in literary criticism: “If we speak only to praise, then praise itself becomes cheapened, and ultimately meaningless.”
This is very much true, and some of the biggest names in contemporary book reviewing have gradually
become exactly that meaningless. Rohan was right to roll her eyes; Franklin was right to call attention to the point; and Jan Zwicky, bless her kind, kind heart, was wrong, wrong, wrong. Confronting bad books with “deathly critical silence” is not only hypocritical in the extreme (“silence gives consent” has been a binding legal and social dogma for ten thousand years, and rightly so) but nonsensical. It’s like praising the passing fox but using “deadly critical silence” on the ones who have the bad manners to dash inside the chicken coop.
The simile implies a duty, and that word comes up in Zwicky’s essay, only to be dismissed with some of the most wishy-washy prose I’ve read since breakfast. This is, indeed, politeness run amok:
Am I suggesting we’re supposed to lie about them [bad books, that is]? Disown our considered judgements? Indeed not. I am suggesting simply that, in public, we keep our mouths shut. “But isn’t that hypocritical?” the critic will ask. “Isn’t it dishonest?” —It’s dishonest only if one has been asked a direct question and knows silence is likely to be taken for praise. But, of course, neither of these conditions usually obtains.
This is lunacy, of course. It might apply to an anonymous gathering of your wife’s friends for a cocktail party, but it can’t possibly apply professionally. Professions by their very nature carry around with them a small set of constantly-implied direct questions. Those questions need not be asked outright in order to be real. For the professional book-critic, the loudest of those implied questions is: “Is this book any good?” In public, we keep our mouths shut? That’s exactly the kind of abrogation of responsibility that allows writing careers like those of Alice Munro and John Updike flourish under the porch, like deadly nightshade. Zwicky seems completely unwilling to face the reality that the book-buying public is under siege in a decidedly losing fight.
Upwards of 200,000 new titles are published in the U.S. every year. Roughly the same number (but different books) are published in the U.K. every year. The number of new e-books published on top of all that is quickly moving to double those totals. Those e-books are lost to the wilds of unfindable cyberspace the instant they’re created; the physical books (the ones lucky enough to have promotion budgets) get blink-and-you-miss-it display-intervals at the front of the few (and dwindling) retail bookstores left in the Western world, then they’re returned to their publishers and pulped. It’s a wall-blasting torrent, and it’s endless.
A great many of those books are very prettily designed (you self-published folks can skip ahead – this part most certainly doesn’t apply to you), aimed at catching the eye and coercing the wallet. and thanks to the profusion of spurious awards out there in the world, many of them come festooned with little gold seals of approval – and every last one of them comes with at least one blurb from somebody.
Readers – your average, delightful, utterly earnest ‘common reader’ – face this onslaught almost entirely unarmed. Many of them don’t have much time to read for pleasure, and most of them not only don’t read critically but don’t know how to read critically. That’s an indelicate point, perhaps, and one not gauged to please pinky-polite cheerleaders like Zwicky, but it’s nonetheless true. Reading is a skill like anything else – the more you do it (especially competitively, as it were, for an audience), the better you get at it. Reading critically involves holding a book up in the air and slowly turning the whole thing around and around, examining every facet, comprehensively comparing its every aspect to all the books you’ve similarly held up in the air. It involves seeing the whole performance, keeping the more biddable parts of yourself in suspension so that you can assess every way in which this particular book works and doesn’t work. And none of this is done to show off (although some of us can’t help it!); it’s done for two reasons: 1) the paltry paycheck Lionel Shriver is so sour about, and 2) the very duty Zwicky would abandon.
That duty comes from one simple fact (not to incense JC with yet more hackneyed turns of phrase!): you can’t judge a book by its cover. Critics form a line of helmeted, baton-wielding guards between the common reader (and his overstrained book-buying budget) and the cresting tsunami of books that want to be bought. Critics help those common readers make crucial decisions not just about how to spend their money but how to spend their time – indeed, for those readers, utterly swamped by their choices and wanting somehow to find good stuff, critics are the ONLY help. And those critics are absolutely no help at all if they only do half their job.
Had Rohan wanted to wade in and start schooling her fellow Canadians, she’d have been eminently capable. All of us would, at Open Letters, although in hilariously different ways. We have an editor who so rarely attacks a book that when he does, the sidereal drift of his disapproval is almost gentle – the book is damned to hell without even being singed. Another editor, when he dislikes a book (also exceedingly rare – because in the real world, despite Zwicky’s stressed admonitions, most critics prefer to praise), often does the literary equivalent of giving it a firm but friendly talking-to across the street at the hotel bar, until the book is shamed and slightly blubbering, promising to do better next time. Yet another editor will go into Holly Hunter mode from the sublime movie Broadcast News, inexorably crushing the life out of a book not with barbed rhetoric (well, maybe a little) but with nineteen million, eight hundred and fifty seven thousand, four hundred and eleven facts, placed on the scale one after another so gradually that the poor victim often doesn’t know it’s been crushed until it tries to defend itself. I myself am a sweet little kitty-cat, opting as often as possible to offer words of criticism in direct proportion to words of praise (although if a book goes out of its way to displease me, its experience will be much the same as LBJ used to describe a Texas thunderstorm: you can’t hide, you can’t outrun it, and you can’t make it stop). Rohan’s favored method resembles a dissertation defense from Hell: careful, almost polite (!) questions and clarifications come at the hapless offender from all sides with increasing speed until finally the only alternative is community college.
And the reason it’s important to hone such skills is self-evident: because some books deserve to be mocked and shamed in the public square. Writers and publishers aren’t sharing photo albums from their hospice internship in Soweto, dammit – the ones who don’t primarily want money primarily want respect, and vice versa. Both money and respect should be earned, as I’m sure Zwicky would agree. If a biography of George Eliot contends that she wrote one of the greatest novels in the English language because she was compensating for not being pretty, that biography deserves to be pilloried, not smothered in deadly critical silence. Readers who pick it up wondering if it’s worth their money can’t hear deadly critical silence – because it’s silent! And they can’t do the pillorying, because they haven’t read all the previous Eliot biographies, or know beans about Eliot herself. Likewise with a bad translation, or a sloppy history, or an opportunistic novel – books aren’t like supermarket fruit: you can’t tell if they’re rotten just by looking at them. Faced with a mountain of possible choices, readers can use all the help they can get, and that most certainly includes a seasoned professional sidling up to them and saying, “That one may look enticing, but you should skip it – it’s not good enough to warrant your time.”
But saying nothing? Praising the stuff you like but just standing there in author-respecting silence while the reader contemplates something boring, misguided, or outright fraudulent? What the hell kind of critic is that?
The dark days of the Penny Press appear to be over, but that might be connected to the fact that my reading today was from three of the most reliable sources of periodical enjoyment currently on the market. First up was my Bible, the mighty TLS, which featured a very peppy review by Alex De Waal of Andrew Feinstein’s The Shadow World (which yours truly reviewed here), and a wonderful short review by Patrick Evans of Donkey by Jill Bough, among the usual bounty of other good things. And the latest issue of New York magazine, like every full-color glossy in the country this week, features a full-page ad for a new TV show called Magic City which premieres tomorrow and stars Steven Strait (that’s him on the left) in a delectably juicy role with exactly the kind of sharp writing he, like any smart actor, prefers.
And then there’s the new New Yorker, which features a great essay on cowboys and Indians by Rivka Galchen, a great essay on procreation by Elizabeth Kolbert, and an absolutely hilarious “Shouts & Murmurs” by Paul Rudnick, who reminds us that at every Passover Seder, the youngest child asks the Four Questions – Rudnick then imagines follow-up questions of a more modern bent, like: “In a Jewish family, isn’t ‘tiger mother’ just a term for ‘amateur’?” “When Elena Kagan was sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice, did her mother murmur, ‘Maybe she’ll meet someone’?” and “If a Jewish astronaut had been the first man on the moon, would he have said, ‘That’s one small step for a man, and there’s parking?'” Hee.
And – amazingly – Jonathan Lethem’s short story “The Porn Critic” was actually very good. And there was a sweet little poem by Rachel Hadas:
My visiting tall son
is sleepy. His sweet gape
brings back his father’s yawn.
Seeing our lost husband and lost father
suddenly conjured up, I laugh. My son
frowns. Does he think
it’s at him I’m laughing?
The cat opens her mouth to mew.
The orphaned piano: it yawns, too.
A thoroughly enjoyable quick turn through the latest Penny Press, with the Dark Times hardly recalled at all!
My last few scrapes with the Penny Press left me thinking things might not be able to get any worse, but I was wrong: things hit rock bottom when I read this sentence in a review by Guy Dammann in the 2 March TLS: “In Don Giovanni, the general consensus was that the opera ended – as it is thought to have done in the revised Vienna version – with the hero’s descent into the flames.” That such an abomination could happen at all is bad enough – that it could happen in the TLS is surely a sign of the End of Times.
So I resigned myself to my new reality, in which my beloved Penny Press, the boon and solace of my idle hours, had now become a garden of weeds, a briar-patch of bitter disappointment. And yet, even so, an article in the latest New Yorker so thoroughly appalled me that half-way through it I was just angrily reading, my bacalhau with piri piri quite forgotten.
The article is by Michael Specter, and it’s about H5N1, otherwise known as “bird flu” – but it’s not about the bird flu that made the news back in 2003 by killing nearly sixty percent of the 587 reported infected people (previous estimated kill-ratios for pandemic viruses peaked at around two or three percent) before it was contained. No, that bird flu just wasn’t bad enough, and Specter’s article is about Ron Fouchier, a virologist at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam … Fouchier, and his dream of making H5N1 even worse. Specter sums things up succinctly:
To ignite a pandemic, even them most lethal virus would need to meet three conditions: it would have to be one that humans hadn’t confronted before, so that they lacked antibodies; it would have to kill them; and it would have to spread easily – through a cough, for instance, or a handshake. Bird flu meets the first two criteria but not the third.
Fouchier, in his lab in Rotterdam, tried to achieve that third criteria, but the virus wouldn’t cooperate. He and his colleagues “mutated the hell out of it,” but H5N1 stubbornly remained hard to catch. Finally, according to Specter, “he spread the virus the old-fashioned way, by squirting the mutated H5N1 into the nose of a ferret and then implanting nasal fluid from that ferret into the nose of another. After ten such manipulations, the virus began to spread around the ferret cages in his lab.”
In case you didn’t catch that, notice: after ten tries in which the deadly virus he was dealing with refused to become even deadlier, Fouchier at last achieved his goal of creating a version of bird flu that passed easily from one host to another – the first two times it failed to do that, the first four, the first eight times, another man might have stopped, might even have said, “Good God, what am I doing?” – but Fouchier kept going, and eventually his ferrets started being really miserable:
When Fouchier examined the flu cells, he became alarmed. There were only five genetic changes in two of the viruses’ eight genes. But each mutation had already been found circulating naturally in influenza viruses. Fouchier’s achievement was to place all five mutations together in one virus, which meant that nature could do precisely what he had done in the lab.
Except that in uncounted thousands or millions of years, nature hadn’t done that. One man did that, apparently for shits and giggles. And then once he’d done it, he refused to undo it – so that mutated H5N1 virus, an unbeatable mutated bird flu that kills sixty percent of its hosts and can be communicated through aspiration, still sits in a storage lab in Rotterdam. As one scientist Specter interviewed put it:
We have no room to be wrong about this. None. We can be wrong about other things. If smallpox got out, it would be unfortunate, but it has a fourteen-day incubation period, it’s easy to recognize, and we would stop it. Much the same is true with SARS. But with flu you are infectious before you even know you are sick. And when it gets out it is gone. Those researchers have all our lives at the end of their fingers.
And this is true for ‘those researchers’ entirely because of Fouchier, who decided to create this mutated virus but is grousing about it when Specter interviews him. “People are acting like I am some mad scientist,” he says, and who knows if Specter wasn’t at that moment thinking the obvious: you’re an accredited scientist who did something palpably, dangerously insane – in purely technical terms, you are a mad scientist. In any case, it’s frightfully clear from the article that Fouchier is a walking, talking disassociative episode, utterly incapable of connecting himself to, well, evil. “There has been a lot of speculation that this virus cannot be transmitted easily or through the air,” he says at one point. “That speculation has been wrong.” No, that speculation was entirely right until you tried eleven times to MAKE the virus easily transmittable. You want to say. Or words to that effect.
Specter’s article conveys a disturbing naivete in the scientific community (a naivete I’m assuming Specter doesn’t share – he’s just being a good reporter) about the worst possible outcome of what Fouchier has done – terrorism. Specter mentions at one point that most of Fouchier’s colleagues discount the possibility because “flu is so hard to control.” One scientist says, “Nobody’s going to make this in his garage. There are so many better ways to create terror.” You almost want to throttle him – it’s such quintessentially stupid scientific thinking: X wouldn’t be efficient, so nobody would do X. As if the most efficient way to knock down two skyscrapers was to hijack two commercial airliners, fly them hundreds of miles, and slam them into the buildings hoping for a nice solid hit. The terror threat here (aside from Fouchier’s ludicrous comment that “this institution has paid millions of dollars to insure that this research was carried out in the safest possible manner” – translation: some samples are already missing) comes specifically from the disposition of so many terrorists not to care about controlling the damage they do – or suffering from that damage themselves. A lunatic infecting himself with this mutated bird flu and then zealously meeting as many people as he can in, say, downtown Mumbai or London or New York – a lunatic like that isn’t hard to imagine. Unless, apparently, you’re a scientist.
And that’s where the Penny Press has driven things: sitting there staring at this article, feeling more certain than ever before that the end of mankind is nigh, and that arrogant little men in lab coats are the ones who’ll bring it about. As part of this doomsday scenario – and as an attempted defense against this rock-bottoming of the Penny Press, I’m contemplating a subscription to Entertainment Weekly, which is light and bouncy – or at least that’s the general consensus.
Jumping (somewhat belatedly) into the fray of 2012’s Penny Press, we find the party in full swing, which is always inviting. In the 6 January TLS, for instance, Mary Kenny writes a letter whose simple honesty about the late Christopher Hitchens will be cried down instantly by the millions of arrested adolescents who jumped on the bandwagon of his tardily-adopted religion-bashing:
Christopher Hitchens, whom I knew in the 1970s (and who was much encouraged by my husband, Richard West, as well as by Anthony Howard), was often brilliant and beguiling, and he was also brave. But he would not have become a world-famous celebrity if God Is Not Great had been a more conscientious book; and that’s the pity of it. It was because his message could be reduced to a simple, tabloid black-and-white picture that Hitchens became more famous than Vaclav Havel.
Of course, during the week-long obsequies in the wake of Hitchens’ death, no such clarifications were possible, but it’s nevertheless true: if Hitchens had written a book praising disco (Recatching the Fever, or some such), passionately calling for its return, and that book had somehow struck up an international response, it would have been in the cause of disco that Hitchens would have hit the lecture circuit, and he’d have been every bit as eloquent and biting and funny and crowd-pleasing on that subject as he was on how shitty your parents were for making you go to church when you were a kid. And more importantly (and this is also more than Mary Kenny is willing to say, bless her), before, during, and after those disco-lectures, there would have been not one word about the tyranny of organized religion – because there would have been no money in such words. When fans would approach the touring Hitchens and tell him he was their intellectual hero, he invariably responded by saying something like, “Don’t make me a hero – just buy my book.” When serious young idealists approached him on tour and told him how much his ideas meant to them, he invariably responded by saying something like, “Don’t tell me your beliefs – just buy my book.” I give the man all the credit in the world for a freelancer’s naked opportunism, but I got a little weary, at the end of 2011, hearing how the world had lost a great philosopher (or worse, in the case of Salman Rushdie, a great philosophe).
That same issue of the TLS had a wonderfully controlled review by Andrew Scull of Raymond Tallis’ latest screed, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, which Scull summarizes quite succinctly:
As an atheist and a materialist, Tallis cannot appeal to a soul, a ghost in the machine that can operate and somehow direct the actions of the body. But he is fiercely dismissive of those who contend that we are nothing more than complicated organic machines, fated to live fully determined lives along lines programmed into our bodies and brains. Humankind’s place in nature is, he insists, unique. We are nothing but our bodies and our brains, and yet we are somehow able to move beyond our biology. Our self-conscious, self-reflective capacities allow us to transcend the limits of our bodies, to create an ever-richer and more complex mental life and culture, and to make choices, to act freely on the world.
Scull maintains more control in the face of this nonsense than I would have, certainly, but then, Tallis and his like have always irritating, since this outlook justifies every kind of cruelty mankind has ever perpetrated on the rest of the animal world. It takes a signature ability of the human brain – self-reflection – and elevates it to the sine qua non of the Chosen, and the people who do that elevating never seem to stop and reflect on the rigged game they’re playing.
There is a symphony in the way scents layer down on top of each other out in the natural world, for instance – the older ones yielding their strongest flavors over time, merging those flavors with both the surface (plant, wood, rock) and the surface-trails insect and bird-life has tracked through them, the less-old ones merging with the older ones and creating (both immediately and over time) new dimensions, and of course the newest coats charging the whole lattice with new meaning, filling it with both data-heavy short-term information (“This is me,” “this is what I ate an hour ago,” “this is my sexual receptivity, and for whom,” etc) and data-heavy longer-term information (“this is where I live, and I generally like/don’t like visitors,” for instance, and all the scent-graffiti that accumulates from others, both short and long-term). All of that – the whole totality of it – blends together into an incredibly detailed, incredibly vital tapestry – something that can be either intensely interactive or solitarily absorbing. Simply reading it can induce a zen-state of pure reception that’s often more compelling than hunger, thirst, or need for shelter.
Humans are physically incapable of experiencing that symphony. They lack the physical senses even to know it’s there, much less to read it. If an alien species came to Earth with force-fields and laser-guns to compel mankind’s submission and, far more importantly, a centuries-old philosophical framework built on asserting the moral, intellectual, and ethical superiority of beings who could experience that scent-symphony, mankind would find itself in cages, or in funny costumes, or experimented upon – at the very least, mankind would find itself relegated to a secondary caste of beings. And mankind’s protest would be: “But this is inherently unfair! You’ve arbitrarily set the criteria for superiority based on a physical capability you just happened to evolve, and that we just happened not to evolve – you’ve taken the random chance that you have such an ability and made it the basis for everything!” And then mankind would be prodded back into its lab cages, or its circus shows, or its meat-processing plants – not by argument, but by those force-fields and laser guns.
Tallis makes much of his atheism, but he’s unwilling to face some of its most embarrassing consequences. I suspect that in this he’s no different from the late Hitchens, who makes yet another hagiographic appearance, this time in Graydon Carter’s “Editor’s Letter” at the front of the February Vanity Fair. Carter is wonderfully opinionated on just about everything, so of course he wasn’t going to let the death of his long-time correspondent Hitchens pass in seemly silence. Instead, he’s got a classic anecdote to tell, about a typically epic lunch he attended with Hitchens – a lunch at which enormous amounts of alcohol were imbibed by all, despite looming deadlines. The sequel will be familiar to Hitchens fans: “After stumbling back to the office, we set him up at a rickety table with an old Olivetti, and in a symphony of clacking he produced a 1,000-word column of near perfection in under half an hour.”
Saint’s lives must have their miracle-stories, I know, but Carter is old enough to realize this was no unique talent in Hitchens. In the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s – hell, in any decade he cares to name – there have been word-hacks over-fond of wine would could bang out 1000 words of clean copy on an Olivetti even three sheets to the wind. Some of those hacks could even do 2000 words, or 3000. I suspect that Carter himself has known more than just one such seedy paragon.
Fortunately, as always, he introduces an absolutely great periodical. There’s a stand-out, horrifying profile of Mitt Romney by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, retailing all the usual ghastly stories about how brusque and inhuman the presumptive Republican front-runner is. The piece (cunningly called “The Meaning of Mitt”) also relates sobering anecdotes from people who encountered Romney in his capacity as poo-bah of the Mormon faith. These new anecdotes are uniformly damning, and one of them, told by Suffolk University’s Judy Dushku, is all the more so because she’s a kind and very mentally flexible person – if she came away from Romney with a bad impression, you can take that bad impression to the bank.
But the issue’s highlight was so sparkling as to wipe away all such tawdry worries. The always-reliable Bob Colacello turned in a piece called “Here’s to the Ladies Who Lunched!” – a wonderful, fittingly gossipy, absolutely glowing portrait of an effervescent phenomenon that’s now almost vanished: the so-called ‘ladies how lunch,’ the battalion of wealthy society matrons (and the men they sometimes brought along) who made a long, leisurely ritual out of highly visible lunches at some of New York’s most glamorous venues, places like the Colony Club, Le Pavillion,Orsini’s and of course Le Cirque. These women – everybody from the Duchess of Windsor to Jackie Onassis to society bluebloods like Pat Buckley and Nan Kempner – ruled New York’s glittering apartments for decades (from the real kick-off during the Kennedy years to the Reagan ’80s), and Colacello’s piece captures that lost world perfectly – it’s one of those VF articles I read and then instantly hope to see as a full-length book sometime soon.
“Here’s to the Ladies Who Lunched!” was so enchanting it distracted me from the annoying fact that neither Daniel Craig nor Matt Damon mentions smoking during their Proust Questionnaires, even though they’re being asked about the things that matter most to them in the world – and it distracted me from the Burberry ad at the front of the magazine, in which talented stage and screen actor (and ten-pack-a-day tobacco addict) Eddie Redmayne is so dedicated to his addiction that he has to hide his cigarette behind his leg even during the one photo of him that made it into the shoot. Hell, the piece even distracted me from the fact that Mitt Romney might by some fluke end up as President of the United States. That’s some writing! (And of course I liked the fact that the greatest beauty among the “ladies who lunched” actually made it into one of the photos, there on the left-hand side)
We’ve had a typically tumultuous year with the Penny Press in 2011, as you might expect. After all, the world of periodicals and the world of blogging share in common a certain element of headlong momentum that dissipates during the gestation of boring old books. In the world of deadline prose, outrageous positions aren’t properly vetted, half-baked contentions are floated, and tempers flare! It will come as no surprise that I treasure this element of the enterprise – the pitch and tumble of cut, thrust, and parry is exhilarating. And if I loved it back in the old days when an irritating line in a magazine article would send me rushing home to my manual typewriter in order to bang out a testy rejoinder and put it in the mail, imagine how much I prefer today’s Internet world of instantaneous commentary … what a miracle the blogosphere would have seemed to me, back in the 1970s!
It’s particularly fitting that the year of In the Penny Press should conclude with my two favorite periodicals – and that I should have bones to pick with both of them! Up first is my literary Bible, the venerable TLS, the double Christmas issue, in which Michael Dirda turns in an appreciation of Christopher Hitchens under the heading of a review of Hitchens’ last anthology, Arguably. Dirda’s biggest weakness as a critic is that he’s easily impressed, so a piece on Arguably was bound to be gushing. But now that Hitchens is dead, the spigots are opened wide. Dirda hails the late author for his wit and stylistic brilliance (but summons excerpts that display neither) and eventually just subsides into admiration:
After a while, one just shrugs and accepts the fact: Hitchens possessed a kind of Whitmanian prodigality and these essays are, ultimately, instalments in a long-sustained Song of Myself. The man was simply sui generis, and he wouldn’t have been the writer we admired, envied, argued with, sometimes loathe and often feared, had he suddenly adopted the unruffled equipoise of a kindly British John Updike, amiably pointing out the virtues of everything he read.
Maybe you just shrug and accept that fact, Michael, but some of us aren’t quite so easily exhausted. Hitchens was hardly sui generis – book critics (even ones as opinionated and sometimes eloquent as Hitchens) abound… hell, you yourself are one! And it bears pointing out that your own breadth of coverage is not a bit narrower than Hitchens – just a good deal more temperate. Also worth pointing out: the word is ‘Whitmanesque.’ And also: Updike may have been amiable (bit of the pot calling the kettle black there, by the way), but he pointed out just as much that he didn’t like as that he did, even late in his life.
And speaking of sui generis: in the same issue, the great A. N. Wilson opens a review of the new P.G. Wodehouse biography by disparaging every other author of Wodehouse’s generation. It’s an opening gambit so audacious as to be daffy: “J. B. Priestly, Angela Thirkell, Warwick Deeping, Dorothy L. Sayers,” Wilson writes, “It is hard to think of anyone reading them now, except for curiosity value.” Leaving aside the fact that if today’s readers aren’t familiar with the divine Angela Thirkell it’s their own loss, there’s the chief sputter here: Dorothy Sayers? Forgotten except as a curiosity?
But while the reader is still gasping from that opening, the really audacious part of the review hovers into view: when talking about Wodehouse’s confinement by the Nazis in Tost in Upper Silesia after the conquest of France, Wilson takes the apologetic view that poor Plummie just didn’t understand why those horribly boring Nazis wanted him to broadcast funny little sketches of internment camp life on their radio networks. According to Wilson (echoing the line taken for sixty years by lovers of Wodehouse everywhere – I’m definitely one of those fans, although I’ve never taken this line), Wodehouse made the broadcasts to reassure his many American fans that he was OK, that they were “an enormous and tragic misunderstanding.” Wilson flatly rejects the possibility that Wodehouse made the broadcasts as payment for his release from Yost, and he calls them ‘harmless.’ I’m not sure all the people who had to continue in Nazi internment camps because they weren’t P. G. Wodehouse would agree, and if Wilson thinks somebody as clear-eyed as Wodehouse could really be so Gussie Fink-Nottle oblivious, he’s swallowed rather more propaganda than is good for him.
The review is still intensely interesting, of course – Wilson is incapable of being boring on any subject (one might even call him sui generis) – and the rest of the issue is equally so. There’s yet another fascinating review of the new Steve Jobs biography, and there’s a long and engrossing piece by Frederic Raphael on Josephus, plus the Christmas Quiz, which proved a bit easier this year than last (although this year’s revealed my rather shocking lack of readiness when it comes to Finnish)
Of course the second periodical in question today would have to be National Geographic, that endless hall of wonders, that greatest of all magazines. This issue’s cover article is about twins, which might have snagged my main interest under normal circumstances (two of my siblings are twins), but it turns out there’s another theme running through this issue – a decidedly less savory one. The first note is struck in the Letters column, when Troy Carlson of Houston, Texas writes:
The author’s description of Amundsen’s tactic of eating his own sledge dogs while en route to the South Pole as “troubling” reeks of bias. Everything about Amundsen’s use of dogs was prudent and wise. He first ate dogs that were struggling to keep up or that had already died. Scott’s expedition refused to kill and eat dogs. They were starving when they died 11 miles from One Ton Depot. We should celebrate Amundsen for completing one of the great feats in exploration while suffering no loss of human life instead of viewing his tactics in the light of the 21st-century devotion to our pets (read dogs) and dietary taboos.
Something reeks here, most certainly. What the letter-writer fails to see is that while Amundsen was guilty of murdering his sled dogs, he was even more bitterly guilty of self-serving hypocrisy. He was the first to correct others when they referred to his expedition’s dogs as pack animals and horsepower. Like poor dumb Scott who exhausts the letter-writer’s patience, Amundsen was fond of calling his sled-dogs teammates, fully equal expedition members. That hypocrisy was laid bare when his expedition ran into hardship, and our letter-writer shares it: through a reek of bias, he makes it OK for Amundsen to kill and eat these loyal beings who’d given more effort to securing his immortality than anybody – but unthinkable that Amundsen should kill and eat the struggling human members of his team, several of whom were in far worse shape than even the worst dog. Unlike Scott, in Amundsen’s case everything came down to who had a working knowledge of how to pull a trigger – very heroic.
At least, readers might console themselves, such attitudes have now been relegated to the Victorian past. Until such readers reached the article in this issue about Denmark’s Sirius dog patrol. The piece is written by Michael Finkel and has several gorgeous photos by Fritz Hoffmann, and it’s about a two-man patrol taking a team of sled-dogs on operations along the northern coast of Greenland up above the Arctic Circle. I myself have travelled in northern Greenland (both along the coast where this patrol goes and further north and west, in endless reaches far, far from the haunts of man), and I can attest that unlike Boston, the area there gets cold – fifty below zero is common, and the dark of winter is absolute. It’s some of the most beautiful, inhospitable acreage on Earth, and Finkel’s article follows two patrolmen and their team of dogs as they grapple with it (frostbite is a real concern – as are polar bears! I can vouch for the fact that they don’t in any way require sunlight to hunt). The patrolmen are extremely solicitous of their dogs, naturally – fuel freezes solid at these kinds of temperatures, after all, and polar bears can easily sneak up on puny human senses, so the dogs more than earn their keep. Until, that is, they don’t:
Rasmus knew that Armstrong was nearing the end of his career. There’s no room at the Sirius base for retired dogs. And the dogs – as much wolf as pet – cannot be adopted. They must be euthanized, an act the patrollers do themselves with a pistol. Both Rasmus and Jesper say it’s the most difficult part of the job.
[That’s Armstrong in the upper right, in case you’d like to pay your respects]
This is disingenuous, to put it mildly. “As much wolf as pet”? One of Hoffmann’s photos shows a crew member sitting on the floor of a very cramped plane cabin surrounded by sled dogs; the caption says he’s there as ‘alpha dog’ in order to maintain order – which gives the lie to the patrol’s hypocrisy. There’s only one two-legged creature on Earth who could sit in the middle of a wolf-pack and ‘maintain order’ – and that patrolman isn’t him. So these dogs are, in fact, at least somewhat amenable to human company – the ones who’ve served and struggled and saved their human companions’ lives for ten years could certainly be given a friendlier retirement package than a bullet between the eyes. I guess I should be grateful the Sirius patrol doesn’t cook and eat the retirees afterward.
But as with the TLS, so too here: the issue is fantastic even despite the scurrilous behavior it describes! Reading these two periodicals together brought back an entire year’s worth of memories of all the magazines, journals, and newspapers I’ve read since last winter (when there was cold and snow – there’s a warm tropical rain falling as I type these words tonight in Boston). It’s been, as always, an amazing variety, and who knows what 2012 will bring?