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Saturday, April 9, 2005
    Surveying the Surveillance Surveyors

    When the editors of the NYTBR celebrate the "long overdue return" of William Safire in the introduction to this weekend's edition, they aren't kidding: The two books he writes about in his front-page review have both been out for months. (In fact, one of my earliest installments dealt with the initial reviews for No Place to Hide, including a consideration of the book's allegedly "Orwellian" implications.) To play fair by Safire, however, he does one of the most effective jobs I've seen in the new NYTBR of pegging a book review to "news about the culture," roping in a March 5 WaPo cover story about ChoicePoint, one of the information brokers prominently featured in Robert O'Harrow's book. That contextualizing provides special dispensation, I think, but unfortunately not every late review benefits from this sort of hook. (Yet, in the further interest of fairness, it's also worth pointing out that as late as some of the nonfiction reviews are coming in, the literary fiction reviews seem to be much timelier.)

    If Safire had wanted to be extra nice, he could have mentioned that O'Harrow wrote that recent article and a follow-up piece he also mentions to demonstrate the story's legs. But he's kind enough to give a boost to the future writing career of Patrick Radden Keefe with his mostly positive take on Keefe's initial reviews for Chatter. Mostly: He does take Keefe to task a bit for not figuring out the whole story, or expressing a passionate opinion about it, but those are relatively minor quibbles compared to the praise for Keefe's research. William Grimes wasn't quite as effusive when he reviewed the book for the Times back on March 10, though he was generally upbeat. One quirk worth noting: Grimes describes Keefe as "a privacy agnostic," to which Safire offers a covert response: "This is no time for agnostics."

    posted by ron @ Saturday, April 9, 2005 | Permanent link

Sunday, April 3, 2005
    NYTBR Against the World

    The first editorial matter of substance in this week's NYTBR (after the front-page opening to the review of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, about which more to follow) is a letter from a disgruntled subscription canceller, accusing the Review of becoming "flashier, more superficial, and less respectful of its audience." The subject matter's certainly getting flashier--this week's issue features full-page reviews of dating manuals and poker guides--but with rare exceptions like Roy Blount, Jr., the reviews themselves are hardly what I'd call flashy. A certain combativeness has crept into the reviews--for example, it's worth noting that three separate reviewers nitpick at weak sentences in books they liked overall, a critical strategy that has its uses but can become tiresome when seen too often. Equally common is the idea that it's time to knock a literary star down a few pegs; thus Walter Kirn accuses Jonathan Safran Foer of writing a novel "not necessarily better suited to get inside, or around, today's realities than your average Hardy Boys mystery," while Neil Gordon calls A. L. Kennedy's fiction "unnecessary...collections of novelistic devices." (That's a rather severe conflation on my part, by the way, so certainly follow the link and gain the full context.)

    Gordon's literary assault is rather mystifying, however, as Ed Champion has noted. As near as I can make out, Gordon's upset that Paradise, Kennedy's latest "collection of novelistic devices," doesn't depict alcoholism in "the high poetry of self-destruction," the way Brideshead Revisited and Under the Volcano did, branding the book's narrator "[not] truly self-destructive, just self-indulgent and self-obsessed." At which point I snidely commented to my Significant Other that Gordon must not know many alcoholics if he found one who "consistently justifies her horridness with a kind of philsophizing that leaves the reader trapped in her own crippling self-justification" unrealistic. By contrast, Richard Wallace (Seattle Times) calls Paradise "a stunning depiction of alcoholism" and advises, "If you have been wounded by the disease, you will flinch at its honesty." (I assume that Wallace intends that to apply not only to alcoholics but to those who live intimately with them as well.) He adds:

    "You won't ever read a book that describes alcohol so lovingly, that treats each level of intoxication with the respect due an old friend. Nor will you ever encounter more terrifying passages of alcohol withdrawal. You also won't find finer prose than this anywhere in English."

    Obviously, he and Neil Gordon have a difference of opinion. Sam McManis (Tacoma News Tribune) is on Wallace's side, calling the novel "depressingly realistic" and "a chilling story of a life wasted." He also points out that "the problem with having an alcoholic as a first-person narrator is that you can never be sure they are recounting facts and events reliably," something which seemed to escape Gordon when he found fault with Paradise for articulating a philosophical position he found "just not true." Robin Vidimos (Denver Post) similarly picked up on the realistic handling of the unreliable narrator's "verve masquerading as truth," and found the book "a personal and crushing pathology of the disease."

    All of which slashes away at Gordon's expressed preference for stories that romanticize alcoholism by linking it to "the most fundamental human concerns: beauty, loss, love, fidelity." (And I haven't even begun to address his calling Kennedy's work "unnecessary," which makes me wonder what fiction he finds necessary.) It's interesting to see how his review stands in such stark opposition to the other takes on Kennedy; Kirn's putdown of Foer is equally harsh, but he's not the only one saying these things. Together, though, they demonstrate the willingness of the Review to challenge the established view on literary fiction. As I noted over a year ago, this may stem in part from a Times self-evaluation that led the daily arts editor to observe, "Most of the things we praise aren't very good." Is the tougher approach better? It's not an easy call--but ultimately, better reviews are going to come not by playing hardball with the books, but by hiring better reviewers. Whether they've done that is perhaps up to the individual reader. Mr. Povirk's thrown in the towel; I'm still not done yet.

    posted by ron @ Sunday, April 3, 2005 | Permanent link

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About RON HOGAN
Ron Hogan is a freelance writer who reviews books and interviews writers for publications such as Publishers Weekly. He is also the author of an illustrated overview of American films from the 1970s called The Stewardess Is Flying the Plane, due out from Bulfinch Press in November 2005.


About BEATRIX
How did this season's hot books generate their heat? And why do other novels surrounded by buzz turn into duds? Beatrix, a subset of my longrunning literary blog Beatrice.com, openly speculated about these questions in the form of "book review reviews" from January to August of 2005.


Beatrice; or, Where It All Began
I first launched Beatrice.com in 1995 as a venue for author interviews. In late 2003, I switched over to a daily blog of news and commentary about books and authors. What you see here now is essentially one side of that blog's original makeup, the side that dealt with how books were received by the literary culture. The full blog contains not only these "book review reviews," but news items about various writers and original insights from the authors themselves in the form of interviews, blog excerpts, and guest articles.

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RON'S REVIEWS

I'll Show You Mine
One of my regular gigs is as a freelance reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Although some people have a problem with anonymous reviews in PW, I'm all for them in general principle (though I think embargoes are a crock, but that's a different story)...anyway, I'd like to give any reveiwers who might be reading this the same opportunity to critique me, so I'll look into whether it's kosher for me to pull back the curtain. And I'll try to land some assignments with bylines, too. (In fact, if you're reading this, and you can assign book reviews...)

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