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Burying the Leaders in the Penny Press!

By (November 6, 2013) No Comment


One of the signature ironies of modern-day print book reviewing is on full display in the November 21st New York Review of Books, and since this particular irony irritates me, I was on edge all during my krocan peceny na slanine lunch. The irony in question here will be familiar to every owner of a small movie theater: your sidewalk display cases have room for posters from two of the ten movies you’re showing, and you want to fill your seats. So you use posters from the latest predictable-but-popular Hollywood crap (perhaps Lindsey Lohan playing a pretty young girl who descends into drug addiction, or Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing a young guy who learns he has lung cancer), not the black-and-white Soviet-style advertisements for that latest searing genocide documentary from Niger.

Book review journals are little different – they’ve all got to lead with something, and the better-known that something is, the more seats you’re likely to fill

So the latest NYRB leads off with a review by Margaret Atwood of the new novel by Dave Eggers.

This multi-layeredly angering. First, it’s the lead spot in one of the foremost literary reviews in the world, and there are conservatively fifty books currently in hardcover that deserve such a spotlight. Eggers’ book, to put it mildly, isn’t one of them. Second, this issue of the NYRB only has 21 essay-slots, and six of those are either explicitly political (hence, reviewing nothing except the stupidity of politicians) or implicitly political (hence, the writer spares one sentence for some luckless new book about, say, the current state of India or the Federal Reserve and then spends the remaining 5000 words writing about the current state of India or the Federal Reserve), so giving one of those slots to a long piece about a Dave Eggers novel is extra galling. Third, Margaret Atwood isn’t a book critic, she’s an inexorably dull and grossly overrated novelist. And fourth, Dave Eggers isn’t really a novelist, he’s an odious opportunist who’d be working for a car company today if the auto industry had been the first venue to make him a million dollars.

And the piece itself certainly doesn’t redeem anything. It starts with grade school space-filling (“The Circle is Dave Eggers’s tenth work of fiction, and a fascinating item it is”), moves on to halting plot summary, and at every stage ludicrously over-estimates the book’s author. The book, we’re told, “traces the rise and rise within [the eponymous company] of its female protagonist, Maebelline, a name that closely resembles that of a brand of mascara, thus hinting at masks and acting.” (About a character named Annie, we’re told “Annie too is significantly named: Annies get their guns, being competitive, perky, sharp-shooting tomboys” – an allusion that surely caused Eggers himself to mumble “WTF?”). We’re told that George Orwell’s 1984 is echoed in The Circle, even though Eggers has never read 1984 and wouldn’t if you paid him, or rather would only if you paid him; we get outlandishly outdated parsings on the names of other characters – this etymology, not reading, and it’s all larded with so many unseemly fangirl asides (“[Eggers]‘s entitled to speak about good intentions, having manifested so many of them himself, in his various other lives” Gush!).

This is what the late, lamented Spy magazine used to refer to as “logrolling in our time,” and although that magazine managed to make a little of it funny every month, this much of it is only sickening. Margaret Atwood has not read The Circle, and given the fact that virtually all of Dave Eggers’ time can be accounted for in the last two years, it’s possible to believe he didn’t write The Circle either, and neither of those things matter to the powers that be at the NYRB – Eggers is a celebrity, so they got another celebrity to write something about his book, period. Whether or not that book deserves to have anything written about it simply never entered the equation at any point

nyrbLikewise the issue’s other low point, an equally hysterical ‘review’ of David and Goliath, the new book by professional idiot Malcolm Gladwell. The book is more inane than anything Gladwell has ever written; it windily theorizes on the fact that sometimes life’s underprivileged, the ones who are forced by circumstances beyond their control to go to Brown instead of Harvard, can still scramble their way to the top – a completely cynical ‘thesis’ designed for only one thing: to sell stacks of books to business executives whose sons and daughters are going to Brown because Harvard is full of Korean and Chinese students who actually worked hard in high school instead of taking “YouTube electives” like little Gunner and Magica. The entire book, with its ridiculous pretenses of research and data, is an object reverse-engineered from the corporate speaking fees backwards – the correct thing for any serious reader to do is completely ignore it. But Gladwell is a celebrity, so the powers that be at the NYRB got a celebrity to ineptly summarize it – and in this case, that celebrity is another interloper: Freeman Dyson, who’s a physicist.

The reader doesn’t know how many novels Margaret Atwood reads in a given year (my guess would be ten, max), and the reader likewise doesn’t know whether or not Freeman Dyson reads any books in a given year – articles and abstracts, yes, almost certainly, but quasi-sociological horse-crap like the kind that’s made Gladwell a wealthy man? We don’t know, and we’re not encouraged to ask. They’re both celebrities, the reasoning surely goes, and that ought to be good enough.

Fortunately, there’s more going on in this movie theater than just the dumb Hollywood blockbusters offered in the window. In fact, way at the back of the issue, past all the political and quasi-political pieces, past all the headlines, there’s a block of great stuff that can’t be guaranteed to fill seats (although it kept me in mine and restored the harmony of my messy restaurant table). There’s the wise and witty Julian Bell writing about the legendary art critic Jed Perl; there’s David Gilmour turning in a wonderful piece on William Dalrymple’s fantastic Return of a King; there’s the capaciously experienced Walter Kaiser reviewing a new book on that perennially fascinating figure, Bernard Berenson; and there’s G. W. Bowersock, one of our greatest living classical historians, writing about Byzantium.

In a perfect world, those four pieces would have led off this issue, the stuff on Berlusconi and China would have followed, and then maybe, tucked shame-facedly at the end, would have come the celebrity-on-celebrity fan-dancing and log-rolling. Or maybe – in this highly imperfect world! – I should start reading my NYRB from the back-end first. I could start with the always hilariously preposterous Personals: “DWF, vibrant, witty, sensual, 65 but told she looks 45, loves sunsets in Zurich, breakfast in bed in Venice (owns a little pied-a-terre there, nothing special, mind the original Corot on the kitchen wall!), beach-combing in North Korea, discovering new species in the Andes…”