Impossible for me to pass over Michael Dirda’s “Freelance” column from last week’s TLS, and likewise impossible for me not to respond. Dirda uses the little space this time to reflect on his long stint as an editor at the legendary Washington Post Book World, and in his typical fashion, he manages to build enormous amounts of depth and complexity into a very small space. This “Freelance” piece not only reads like an autobiography but very much makes this reader want to read such a book.
Dirda briefly looks at the omnivorous nature of his tenure’s outlook on the Republic of Letters:
I believed, too, that that literature included much of what was then dismissed as “genre” trash … Did anyone write better dialogue than George V. Higgins and Elmore Leonard? Weren’t Charles Portis’s True Grit, James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss, and John Crowley’s Little Big among the best American novels of our time? J. G. Ballard and Angela Carter were arguably Britain’s most remarkable short-story writers; Ursula Le Guin was surely at least as important as Susan Sontag.
And he gives a look into the parameters of his actual job:
Still, I was mainly an editor, responsible for assigning half-a-dozen new titles each week, as well as monthly columns devoted to science fiction, mysteries and children’s books. Here, I wanted what all editors want – lively copy. Bernard Shaw once said that he could make even the most tired businessman read his music reviews. Over time, Book World published many really terrific pieces, often by superstars away from their usual playing field.
This is characteristically but inaccurately humble, and you can see it in the invisible bridge from the penultimate line to the last line. Shaw was indeed fond of making that quip about tired businessmen, but we go straight from that to what Book World, as some sort of Borg-like collective, published – the missing thing is Dirda himself. Shaw might have bragged about entertaining tired businessmen by main force, but the original drafts of many of his music reviews – the pages he submitted to The Star in the first place – were often unbearably tail-chasing and almost invariably too long. They wouldn’t have reached those tired businessmen if they hadn’t been helped into better shape by Shaw’s tough-minded Irish editor, a better critic than Shaw could ever dream of being but without his gift for self-promotion. The point being: those really terrific pieces Book World ran during Dirda’s tenure didn’t simply appear out of thin air. He set the tone, and, as hifalutin’ as it might sound, he provided the vision. And that’s no easy thing to do issue after issue for years on end. As a smart historian wrote almost a century ago, “It is astonishing how easily an otherwise respectable editor or biographer can get himself into a state of complete intellectual dishonesty.” The way is inviting, and Dirda never took it.
His short “Freelance” piece shades into somewhat melancholy tones, which surprised me even for this mostly-melancholy writer. And of course I pricked up my ears when he got to the nub of it:
Not that I’d recommend freelance writing about books as a sensible career path. In many ways, it’s a boring life. You read, scribble, turn away in disgust from what you’ve written, scribble again, send in your review or essay, wait, revise the edited copy, wait some more. When the piece finally appears, no one notices unless you’ve made a mistake. You really have to love books to keep on with this, week after week.
This puzzled me, and I have to think Dirda wrote it on a glum day. He alludes to the entire print Book World run under his tenure being trundled to storage facility somewhere, to molder in the darkness unconsulted, and he reflects that at least he has his memories to console him. But he can lay claim to a good deal more than happy memories and an old archive mothballed somewhere. I know for a fact that his Book World brought readers like me a great deal of pleasure throughout its entire run, and that’s no small accomplishment. It’s not true at all that “no one notices unless you’ve made a mistake” – readers noticed the great lineup of reviews Dirda orchestrated so often and so well. Those review-reading pleasures might be evanescent, but they were no less real for being so.
And that’s the rightful motivation for doing it, as Dirda must know (I, for one, don’t believe for a second his implication that his main motivation for writing his book reviews these days is a steady paycheck). A well-done book review can challenge complacency, fill in gaps of learning, broaden associations, and most of all, entertain. Who cares if those reviews aren’t carved in marble? Who cares if they end up moldering in a dark, forgotten archive somewhere in Plattsburgh? The sheer fun of the conversation, of both entertaining and being entertained, is plenty justification for taking up the practice of book reviewing, surely? Boring? Not a minute of it!
Ah, the joy of returning to the mighty TLS – or rather, in this instance, of it returning to me! There was a dark interval there where, as many of you will no doubt have noticed, the TLS vanished from local newsstands here in Boston – an annoying interruption in my enjoyment of the single greatest review organ in the known world. But I took the interruption as another reminder of something I’d tried to do several dozen times in the previous year: subscribe, so that these issues would be delivered to my door and I’d no longer need to trek out in snow and ice to find some ragged copy on some distant newsstand somewhere.
A simple enough procedure, you’d think, subscribing to a periodical. It is, after all, their lifeline, the bedrock of their finances – you’d infer, therefore, that they’d make it easy and attractive to do.
In reality, I’ve long since given up on the “attractive” part. As a perk for subscribing to the New York Review of Books, for instance, I get two things: issues that reach me a week after they reach newsstands, and a little red address/appointment book like people used in the Ye Olden Times before cellphones made such things painfully obsolete. As a perk for subscribing to the New Yorker, I get issues that reach me a week after they reach newsstands, and they keep the tchotchkes to themselves. As a perk for subscribing to The New Republic, I get the issues two full weeks after they reach newsstands – I get, in other words, old issues, in exchange for paying them money for things that aren’t written yet.
But even though I’ve given up on the “attractive” part, I still rather naively expect the “easy” part. Which has been a big mistake when it comes to the TLS. Time after time, their “help center” has baffled any attempt on my part to pay them money. I think I submitted this latest subscription-attempt more as a doomed gesture of defiance than anything else.
But it worked! The 9 October issue arrived on my doorstep (on 15 October, but still – nobody’s expecting miracles at this point), and even if it’s the only issue ever to arrive there again, I gathered it to my bosom with a sigh of gratitude, and the very next day, I took it to my hole-in-the-wall lunchtime restaurant and consumed it with abashed humility of a lover when the spat is over.
I found everything right where I’d left it: the donnish sniper-fire of the Letters page (“Can Professor Featherstone be unaware of the seminal work of Prussian monographist Karl Himmelfarb?”), the choice wit of J. C.’s “NB” page, and some fantastic, brainy book reviews by great writers – in this issue, for instance, both John Kerrigan and the mighty Katherine Duncan-Jones on Shakespeare and John Ure on Waterloo, plus a wonderfully intense little piece by Jonathan Dore on John McPhee’s Coming into the Country. There were also “echoes,” which always please me to read – “echoes” in this case being reviews of books I’ve reviewed myself, as in the aforementioned Kerrigan review of James Shapiro’s The Year of Lear, or Gavin Jacobson’s review of Robert Zaretsky’s Boswell’s Enlightenment, or Jenny Williams’ review of the new version of Alfred Doblin’sThe Three Leaps of Wang Lun, from the New York Review of Books, or Kate McLoughlin’s review of Hazel Huchison’s The War That Used Up Words.
In all, it was like easing into a nice hot bath after a too-long interval of desolate showers. I’ll hope for such an immersion every week, cockeyed optimist that I am.
Any given issue of the mighty TLSwill be an intellectual and even emotional journey, and the 1 May issue was no exception. The showpiece of the issue was the great conductor Leon Botstein reviewing two new books about the composer Franz Schubert, one of which was Ian Bostridge’s Schubert’s Winter Journey, so ably reviewed by our Open Letters Editor-in-Chief Greg Waldmann in our current issue. Like Waldmann, Botstein is actually a fan of this composer’s wretchedly lachrymose song-cycles, although unlike Waldmann, Botstein panics and falls back on quasi-reviewspeak gibberish:
Schubert’s music transfigured the particular without falsifying suffering through cheap sentimentality. His was not confessional music. Rather, he used the vantage point of the deeply personal, to reach beyond his particular historical context and communicated both an uncanny emotional and philosophical intensity and a resistant realism about the human existential predicament.
That was disappointing, granted, but the same issue had plenty of compensations, from a review of Pat Shipman’s prehistoric-dog book The Invadersby the great Ian Tattersall, in which he dissents from the book’s main thesis but agrees with its rueful inspiration:
Still, few if any readers of this lucid and compelling exposition will come away believing that the early modern Europeans were not deeply implicated in the Neanderthals’ disappearance. Clearly, our guilt complex about these unfortunate hominids is entirely warranted.
British readers may be exasperated by some of the Americanisms. The First Lord of the Admiralty is not ‘Britain’s top naval official’ but the minister responsible for the navy in the government; and the use of the word ‘rug’ rather than ‘blanket’ (on a deck chair) may not strike readers as a peculiar case of ‘the ship’s vernacular’. But these are minor quibbles.
And speaking of Open Letters (as, indeed, when am I not?), how could a passage in David McKitterick’s review of Lotte Hellinga’s Texts in Transit fail to bring to mind many a hectic late-night deadline session:
At the centre was not so much the press as the compositor, the man who set the type. Whatever his copy might offer, whether direct from an author, from an old manuscript, from a new one, or even from a mixture, he had somehow to fit words into the given space available on the press.
There’s not one of us associated with Open Letters who hasn’t breathed a silent prayer of thanks for our own compositor, Kennen McCarthy, on those hectic nights when the monthly issue is springing into being, and there’s not one of us who hasn’t at least once received one of his politely pointed (or is it pointedly polite?) emails asking where X is when X is something we thought we’d sent him days ago. McKitteridge is right to point out the vital nature of such people in actually getting a publication to its intended recipients.
If only the whole of this issue of the TLS could have been so congenial! But no: instead, on the letters pages a note was struck that was so sour, so bitter, so selfish that it effectively soiled the entire issue.
Historian and biographer Fred Kaplan, writing about the documentary remains of the great Gore Vidal, sends a letter about ‘four substantial loose-leaf volumes of chronologically arranged typescripts of Vidal’s letters that have an honoured place on my basement storage shelves.’ The context is the open question of a “Collected Correspondence” volume of Vidal’s letters, and the more you read Kaplan on the subject, the more your jaw drops in astonishment:
Vidal is a magnificent letter-writer. The letters ought to be published. Perhaps I could be persuaded to edit them for publication under the right circumstances. No one else, I suspect, will ever collect them or be able to collect them from their owners. But it would take a lot of persuasion. And there is the question of who controls the estate (contested, I think) and probably issues of control and costs. Why don’t I simply turn over all my transcriptions to the Vidal archive at Harvard and let someone else edit them for publication? Perhaps I will, at my death. In the meantime, I suppose, I’m getting a small bit of revenge, which perhaps doesn’t speak well of me, But I trust that some of your readers will not be entirely unsympathetic.
Revenge – on a man who’s been dead for years. At the expense of all that man’s fans and the entire scholarly community. But Kaplan has the nerve to say that PERHAPS this doesn’t speak well of him, and he says this in the middle of a thinly-veiled and incredibly petulant demand that the Republic of Letters court him – perhaps with flowers and chocolates (but really with a pile of money) – to calm down and stop holding a grudge against Vidal. We understand you’ve been hurt, we’re supposed to say, those of us who’d like to read the letters Kaplan is hoarding, but if you’ll just accept our groveling apologies for how he treated you, maybe …
It’s nauseating, and Kaplan follows it up with a steaming pile of bile:
Vidal had a self-destructive or at least a self-defeating streak. I suspect that he believed he was punishing me for disloyalty or non-obedience when he ended our relationship. The result, though, is that there is no edition of his letters. There may never be one. This short-sightedness was part of a lifelong pattern. He was a witty but not a wise man. He alienated or expelled almost every friend, family member, editor, publisher and literary peer, with the exceptions of Howard Austen and Jay Parini, both of whom put up with abusive treatment in order to stay close to him; he made decision after decision, including his residence in Italy, that limited or damaged his American career and presence; and he allowed a desire for celebrity and celebrity-mongering to dominate his life. Indeed, he accomplished much as a novelist, essayist and political polemicist. But his arrogance, manipulativeness, cruelty, alcoholism, and self-deception were always all too evident and limiting … Towards the end his dementia added a sad coda. It was a great talent heavily burdened. I wish it could have been otherwise.
The classic bent reasoning of an abusive bully: the attempt to characterize his own boorish actions as mere reactions, the disgusting “I’m sorry you made me do this” line of every two-bit extortioner in history. “The result, though, is that there is no edition of his letters. There may never be one.” And why? Because Gore Vidal, who’s now, it bears repeating, dead, was mean to Fred Kaplan. That’s why Kaplan will neither produce a “Collected Letters” volume nor allow anybody else access to his unique materials. That’s why – the threat is plainly implied – he may destroy those materials rather than allow them to fall into some scholar’s hands after his death.
Like I said, reading his letter, seeing that such despicable self-absorbed censorship exists even at the heart of the writing world, soiled the rest of the issue for me. If there’s any justice in the world, Kaplan will be raked over the coals in subsequent letters pages for his abominable behavior, but I won’t hold my breath.
I’ve had occasion to comment many times here at Stevereads about some of the contradictions that seem hard-wired into the particular magazine sub-genre of the lad-mag “men’s” titles. They routinely feature ‘back to basics’ articles teaching their audience of over-salaried douche-dudes how to strip away the clutter from their lives and live simply and organically, but they also feature glossy product-endorsements for $25,000 bicycles and $70,000 wristwatches. They line up the most enticing recipes for healthy salads and smoothies, but their pages are loaded with color ads for cigars and chewing tobacco. And as a persistent curiosity, although they notify their readers of all the various health problems they’ll face once they’re their editors’ ages, they also feel the need to have an in-house doctor to answer emailed questions. And the doctors are always, always quacks.
Probably this is because real doctors, responsible ones, are both too busy and too smart to try trash-compacting meaningful scientific answers into bite-sized ‘Hey Bro’ two-sentence answers, but that just makes the whole phenomenon more troubling, since it means the quacks who end up taking the job – who’ll very likely be the only medical authority these young readers consult until their prostates drop through the kitchen floor – pretty much have the field to themselves. The resultant reading can be entertaining, as long as you don’t take any of it too seriously.
A perfect case in point would be the – and I’m not making this up – “Ask Dr. Bob” feature of my beloved Men’s Journal. The feature promises: “Our in-house doc answers your questions about health, fitness, and living adventurously,” and this latest issue starts off with a pretty simple question: “Every spring, my asthma gets worse. What can I do?”
Dr. Bob always has an answer at the ready, and his first lines are usually geared along the Superfreakonomics line of “What? But I thought – I mean, I always assumed … wow! tell me more!” And this is no exception: he fires back, “Get some sunshine.”
Sunshine? But I thought we were talking about asthma? Huh? Dr. Bob explains:
A recent study from Tel Aviv University of more than 20,000 asthmatics found that those with a vitamin D deficiency were 25 percent more likely to have flare-ups. Asthma causes inflammation in, and narrowing of, the airways; vitamin D may counter these ill effects by bolstering the immune system and reducing inflammation. Natural light is the best way for your body to synthesize the vitamin, and you should aim for 15 minutes of rays – or about half the time it takes for your skin to turn pink – two or three times a week (you can find out exactly how much sun you need for your skin type and location with the app Dminder). And if you can’t get outside, take a vitamin D supplement of at least 2,000 IU daily.
Sunshine! What? But I thought – I mean, I always assumed …
The Tel Aviv study Dr. Bob mentions of course turns out to be less than useless, except for its counter-intuitive value. It involved hundreds of thousands, even millions, of patient records … but no living patients, and certainly no actual testing: in other words, it was just an extended exercise in computer algorithms. And computer algorithms from only one study. Given the base numbers, the same ‘study’ could also have found a correlation between asthma flare-up and being left-handed. Want to help your asthma? Try switching your writing hand! A recent study shows … What? My writing hand? But I thought – I mean, I always assumed … So what’s the point of the blithe reply? My guess would be to root around in that Dminder app (who helped develop it, who has financial stakes in Dr. Bob recommending it, who’s helping its developer – RobCo., Inc, to publicize it, etc.), but it hardly matters – Dr. Bob has plenty more advice to dispense. Like to this poor sufferer:
I recently broke my arm skiing. Is there anything I can do to stay in decent shape while I recover?
And Dr. Bob’s answer?
First, keep exercising your good arm. Doing shoulder presses and raises, triceps extensions, and biceps curls with your non-injured arm will actually prevent your bad arm from getting weaker. That’s thanks to a process called the contralateral strength training effect – when one side gets stronger, it helps the other side retain strength, too. (A recent study found this can actually help you gain 8 percent of strength in your injured limb.)
What? A kind of exercise that strengthens muscles you aren’t working? But I thought … I mean, I always assumed …
Fortunately, there’s always the mighty TLS as a respite from quackery … to ping-backery! In online parlance, a ‘pingback’ happens when something you wrote is linked-to from somewhere out there in cyberspace. I don’t have any use for that definition here, since Stevereads is still, after all these years, the best-kept secret in the book-circles of the Internet, but in lieu of actual, you know, popularity, I’ve devised a different definition: for me, a ‘pingback’ happens when a literary journal to which I subscribe publishes a review of a book I myself have likewise reviewed.
That happened not once, not twice, but three times in the 6 March issue of the TLS. Gerald Butt took care of two of those three times all by himself, reviewing in one piece both Ataturk in the Nazi Imagination by Stefan Ihrig and Islam and Nazi Germany’s War by David Motadel. He found both books very worthy, as did I, reviewing the Ihrig here and the Motadel here. And Sumita Mukherjee turned in a shorter but very tight review of Anita Anand’s delightful Sophia, about the Sikh princess Sophia Duleep Singh, who became a suffragette during the reign of her godmother Queen Victoria. I reviewed the book for a newspaper onthe other side of the worldand had a grand time doing it, so I was pleased that Mukherjee categorizes it as “necessary” – grudging though such a term tends to sound.
And when I was done enjoying those pingbacks, I cut them out of the issue, crumpled them up, and ate them with a chaser of prune juice. I read a Yelp review that mentioned somebody mentioning a study somewhere that said crumpled-up book reviews help you re-grow your baby teeth, you see, and I really miss those little guys.
Re-grow baby teeth!!! But I thought … I mean, I always assumed …
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?