As the entire book-reviewing world knows by now, Michiko Kakutani’s evisceration of Bill Clinton’s My Life in the daily New York Times has been followed by Larry McMurtry’s canonization of same in the Times Book Review.
Perhaps not surprisingly, some politically oriented folks who don’t seem to understand the mechanics of the book-review biz have jumped to the conclusion
that Review B was in some way intended as penance for Review A. “About Last Night” has and will have no official opinion on the literary merits of My Life, or of the two reviews published in the Times–we don’t do politics here–but speaking as an old book-reviewing hand, I can assure you from a safe distance that it couldn’t possibly have happened that way. Both reviews would have been assigned separately and before the fact, and their dates of publication were clearly determined by the date of publication of My Life, not by any corporate desire on the part of the Times to kiss up to said book’s author. (As for the early posting of McMurtry’s review on the Times‘s Web site, I’d have done exactly the same thing if I’d been in charge. The Clinton book is news, and news is a dish that tastes best when served piping hot.)
Regarding the mutually contradictory contents of the two reviews, I’d say they bespeak a pretty impressive degree of book-related vitality on the part of the New York Times. Most American newspapers, after all, don’t review books even once, much less twice. Like it or not, My Life is by definition an important book, and the Times has pitched two critical change-ups on it in the course of a single week. First came a savage pan by one of the paper’s in-house critics, followed by a fellatial rave from an outsider writing in its weekly book-review supplement–a publication run, I might add, by an editor
whose alleged right-wing sympathies have been the subject of considerable discussion in the literary sector of the blogosphere. Whatever else those reviews were, they definitely weren’t predictable.
All in all, I’d say the Times just had itself a pretty good week, bookwise.
UPDATE: The third link above is to Jonah Goldberg’s comments at “The Corner,” National Review‘s on-line site. Jonah responds
Terry knows more — much more — about such things than I do and I defer to him for the most part. That said, it doesn’t quite wash that the reviews are unrelated in anyway since McMurtry makes pretty much a direct reference to the first Times review in his attempt to debunk the notion that Clinton’s book isn’t better than Grant’s autobiography. Maybe the Times Sunday Book Review supplement editor, Sam Tanenhaus, is off the hook on the conspiracy charge, but McMurtry’s review still seems like a rushed rescue mission for a doomed book than an intellectually honest or even serious effort….
Quite so–McMurtry’s review does make “blind” reference to Kakutani’s mention of Grant’s Personal Memoirs–but given the short time frame, I assume the reference was either inserted in the course of editing in order to make the review more timely, or the whole review was delivered by McMurtry at the last possible minute. The latter wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest. I suppose I shouldn’t admit this in public, but it’s not my habit to write most of my reviews more than a day or so prior to their deadlines, if that much!
MORE: A reader writes:
I liked your analysis of the independence of McMurtry’s review. I’m not sure if McMurtry was referring exclusively to the original Times review by referencing comparisons to Grant’s memoirs, however. A Google news search shows many many hits for articles containing both Clinton and Ulysses. This one yields over 500 hits. The original Times review may have provoked all that came afterwards, but does it look to you as if there was a subsequent tsunami which was worth addressing?
A good question, to which I have no answer. Still, it provides additional circumstantial evidence that McMurtry was writing off his own bat, not somebody else’s.