Posts from January 2010

January 26th, 2010

Frustration, consternation, and irritation in the Penny Press!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words, she writes a very boring essay.

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

January 22nd, 2010

The Little Old Lady from Connecticut in the Penny Press!

I should state up front that I readily admit to the regular high quality of Harper’s. I’ve been a subscriber for years on and off, and I’ve been a front-to-back reader of every issue longer than most of you have been alive. It must be doing something right, to keep me coming back so long after I’ve abandoned so many other periodicals (and once I leave ‘em, they tend to fold – sorry Omni, nothing personal). They do many things right.

My problem with Harper’s is a certain little old lady from Connecticut. I’m sure you know her: she’s outlived her war hero husband and still lives in their dignified home; she always dresses properly and always counts her change. She utterly dominates the rest of her family, and if she were to admit this uncomfortable fact, she’d chalk it up to wisdom and life experience rather than money and the careful way she doles it out and withholds it.

She doesn’t have to be from Connecticut, of course – I’ve met her in dozens of cities in virtually every state in the Union. But wherever she calls home, she exercises an enormous sway over the editorial policy and content of Harper’s, and it gets wearisome.

You know what this lady likes to read. She watches Fox New religiously, not because it reflects her own beliefs but because it forms her own beliefs – Fox tells her not only what to care about but how to care about it, and as some of you will already know, that particular world-view is as rigid, as reflexive, and as hate-filled as the worst fanatical religious sect in the world. In fact, given that the Fox News ideology has spawned two enormous ongoing wars with hundreds of thousands of casualties, it has a fair claim to being the worst fanatical religious sect in the world.

The tenets of that sect are easy to learn. Just think of the schoolyard, and you’ll have it. Conformity is mandated, bullies rule, and the only form of speech is the taunt.

That lady from Connecticut believes in America, but at the same time she believes America is feckless, stupid, and helplessly at the mercy of ‘them.’ ‘They’ want to cut our military funding and fill the ranks with gays (who will be allowed to marry)(base commanders and ship captains will be forced to perform the ceremonies). ‘They’ want to raise our taxes and spend the money on frilly programs designed to help illegal immigrants. ‘They’ want to outlaw guns and mollycoddle criminals. ‘They’ have all sorts of far-out ideas about the world (and about respecting other cultures, for Heaven’s sake), ideas that just aren’t sensible. If America could just get rid of ‘them,’ it could go back to being the great country it was in 1955.

The lady from Connecticut won’t ever tell you who ‘they’ are – she’s never heard it explicitly from Fox News, and besides, she doesn’t need to tell you – you know. We all know. The gays. The Hispanics. The blacks. The intellectuals. The liberals. The J-e-w-s. She just wishes they’d all go back where they came from, instead of ruining everything for everybody else.

For reasons that surpass my understanding, Harper’s tailors a large percentage of its contents toward pleasing that lady from Connecticut, and it bugs the hell out of me every issue.

Take the latest issue, February 2010.

It goes without saying that the lady from Connecticut hates President Obama. After all, he’s black, liberal, and intellectual (and he might be gay – it’s a mess). And Harper’s chose to open this issue with a screed whose only purpose is to fan that hatred.

I don’t know Roger Hodge, but his ‘Notebook’ piece here, “The Mendacity of Hope,” is the most vile piece of I.Q.-lowering crapola I’ve read in a long time. The opening salvo is all I have the stomach to quote, but it gives you all the tone-setting you need:

A year has passed, and yet we have not been delivered. Some believed that Barack Obama had come to restore the Republic, to return our nation to the righteous path. A new, glorious era in American politics was at hand.
If only that were true. We all can taste the bitterness now.

Obama promised to end the war in Iraq, end torture, close Guantanamo, restore the constitution, heal our wounds, wash our feet. None of these things has come to pass.

This is pure Fox News. This is yelling. And it has the same weird, sick effect all schoolyard taunting does: it makes you want to yell back. No matter how earnest or intelligent you are, it makes you want to yell at Roger Hodge “Shut up! Shut up!” But you know such a response is no more helpful than the original incitement, so you end up saying nothing – but that’s frustrating too, since it gives taunting the field.

As those of you who are old enough to remember Spy magazine will recall, the famous Harper’s Index has always specialized in taunting innuendo. ‘They’ rule here entirely – Harper’s Index is pretty much exclusively an ongoing rap-sheet for ‘them.’ Under the guise of bare-bones factual graphing (which Spy used to gleefully expose as one cooked quasi-statistic after another), the Index pushes the Fox mentality more strongly than any other part of the magazine. And the dark genius of it is that it prompts the reader to join in the math:

Chance that a would-be enlistee in the U.S. military aged 17 to 24 is rejected because of a criminal record: 1 in 20.

Chance that he or she is rejected because of physical unfitness: 1 in 3.

Conclusion: They’re filling our army with criminals! And repeat.

But as maddening as such tactics are, they aren’t as bad as the magazine’s ‘Readings’ feature, because that feature can often contain gems, short pieces that really are worth your attention. But those gems are invariably lodged cheek-to-cheek with xenophobic race-baiting out-of-context snippets designed to make the lady’s Connecticut beach house seem to her like the only sane place left on Earth.

This issue’s ‘Readings’ starts off with an excerpt from Jaron Lanier’s fantastic, heartfelt book You Are Not A Gadget, and that’s good. But such things are always counterbalanced by excerpts that reinforce the lady’s belief that the rest of the world is populated by silly little foreigners.

The piece titled “POTUS Blossom” is a perfect example. It’s setup is allegedly this:

From 3,290 questions submitted last fall by readers of the Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua for President Barack Obama in advance of his November 16 town-hall meeting in Shanghai. Translated from the Chinese by Colin Jones.

Of those 3,290 questions, the Harper’s editors chose the ones most likely to please the lady’s preconceptions, with predictable results:

Tell me, how do you like Eastern beauties?

Can you tell us if UFOs exist? What is really going on at Area 51? I think Americans need to explain this to the rest of the world.

Can I discuss with you China’s purchasing Hawaii with U.S. dollars?

If you had to choose three flowers to describe your wife and daughters, what would they be?

Nowhere does Harper’s come out and say ‘See how funny and odd those little Chinese are?’ But what other purpose can there possibly be in translating one ‘clueless foreign’ question after another, especially if you know your readers will have no access to the remaining 3,240 questions? The purpose couldn’t be clearer: it’s to reassure that lady in Connecticut that she’s right to think foreigners are weird, childlike, and none too bright.

Constantly issuing those coded reassurances is demeaning to Harper’s reputation as one of the greatest magazines in history, and reading them every single month – knowing exactly what they’re for and seeing exactly how effectively they’re made – is demeaning for any reader who’s ever had an honest, non-fearful thought about the world.

The rest of these ‘Readings’ are no better. A long excerpt in which poet Derek Walcott windily muses back and forth over his word-choice in one of his poems isn’t designed to give that lady from Connecticut a glimpse inside the creative process: it’s designed to reinforce her belief that all modern poetry is bunk. The excerpt relaying a Denver ballot-initiative calling for an Extraterrestrial Affairs Commission is designed to reinforce her worry that there are loonies out there who not only believe in UFOs but want to force her to believe in them too (the fact that it’s a ballot initiative and not just a pamphlet is crucial here). The deconstructed radical-form short story by Aura Estrada is meant to reinforce her belief that all ‘modern’ fiction makes no sense. This stuff is assembled here to give wry, knowing documentation to that lady’s belief that the world is one crazy, incomprehensible place.

The main meat of the issue starts on page 31, and things immediately improve. For all its shameful pandering, Harper’s has a core of actual literary excellence – there is a reason why readers like me keep coming back. Mark Schapiro’s report on ‘the carbon-trading shell game’ exposes some corporate ‘green’ practices that deserve exposing and only dances to the line of calling all ‘green’ procedures a fraud but doesn’t actually cross that line. Shahan Mufti’s account of an unlikely real estate boom in Pakistan is wonderfully written:

Baluchistan, like the rest of Pakistan, was slowly being chewed away by wars, big and small, internal and international. I had flown to this town on the Persian Gulf with a dream of making my home. There, on top of Koh-e-Batil, it dawned on me that, like Major –General MacGregor before me, I had become tangled in a Great Game. Nothing will induce me to come again.

Rivka Galchen’s short story “Once an Empire” is dumb but not offensively so, and Darryl Pinckney’s piece on becoming addicted to As the World Turns, though cowardly (you have to read the piece to find out that it’s a gay love story plot line that primarily intrigues Pinckney; that fact isn’t mentioned in the table of contents or the piece’s teaser-line), is entertaining. The photo portfolio on the Afghani sport of quail-fighting is beautiful and only mildly fraudulent (it flatly states “the birds do not fight to the death” and this is flatly untrue – it’s only there to calm the nerves of the lady from Connecticut), and there is the oddly comforting presence of that same old two-tone box ad for Walter Karp’s The Politics of War. The ad has been right there, advertising the same book, in every issue of Harper’s for the last ten years. The sheer inexplicable strangeness of that fact has long since passed the point of no return.

There are book reviews in the back, some of them good, some very frustrating – and one that’s both.

You get this dual reaction – thrilled and frustrated at once – when a really talented book reviewer trashes something you liked (this happens to me on an almost monthly basis over at Open Letters). I got that this time around with Wyatt Mason’s fantastic hatchet-job of Joshua Ferris’ new novel The Unnamed, which I thought was terrific. Mason clearly disagrees:

Whatever the underlying cause, the routine inconsistency and incompetence of the novel’s most basic feature – its prose – undermines the reader’s ability to take the book seriously, as seriously as it must be for its premise to take imaginative hold.

It’s brutal, honest, entirely misguided brilliance from start to finish – it made me want to call Josh and make sure he’s holding up OK under the barrage, and it simultaneously made me want to call Wyatt and get him to write something for Open Letters. It’s a thrilling little demonstration that probing, non-cheerleading literary criticism still has its place in the sun.

And every issue of Harper’s can be relied upon to do this one better, to serve up something truly magnificent. In this issue it’s the short essay called “The Company of Drawings” by John Berger. At first it reads like a pompous makeweight phoned in by a giant:

We who draw do so not only to make something visible to others but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.

But gradually, in layered vignettes, always returning to that ‘we who draw’ koan, Berger shapes a piece about the valiant indeterminacy of art that is deeply, richly rewarding.

The regularity of that euphoric little moment in Harper’s keeps me coming back – and every time I do, my patience is tested that much further by the magazine’s idiotic final goodbye-wave to that lady in Connecticut.

Of course I refer to the moronic ‘Findings’ feature on every issue’s last page. Unlike the Harper’s Index, these allegedly scientific little summaries are offered without any verification, even fraudulent verification. Instead, we get one lie after another stacked like cordwood:

NFL quarterbacks play better if they are better looking

In China (them again!)’s Hubei province, a gang of macaques trained in kung fu turned on their human master.

Studies of birds and mammals showed that males have more consistent personalities.

Researchers discovered four new species of king crab, concluded that female leatherback turtles are right-flippered, and revealed that the pitch of blue whale songs was getting lower.

Gerbils in Israel are more cautious than those in Jordan.

Needless to say, all these things are plucked so far out of their original context as to constitute simple falsehoods, as are the rest of this and every issue’s ‘Findings’ – not only are they designed to make that lady in Connecticut giggle a little (not an unworthy goal in itself – lord knows, it’s good for her), they’re designed to make her distrust not just fringe science but all science. It’s the George W. Bush years, caught in amber, on display every issue.

It’s hard to feel unmixed delight about a magazine that leaves such a rancid taste in your mouth at the end of every issue. No doubt it makes the lady from Connecticut smile her little self-satisfied smile, content for one more month in knowing that as crazy and deplorable as the world might be, at least the right kind of people are taunting the right targets, that there’s nothing so “smart” it can’t be reduced to an excerpt or a statistic.

But I, for one, wish Harper’s would cancel her damn subscription and give the rest of us more attention. Some of the greatest poetry and prose in the world was written by those funny little Chinese, after all, and we already know that only crackpots believe in UFOs. The editorial voices that routinely find brilliance like that John Berger piece should be given free rein over every issue. She’ll find something else to read.