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A Book Review Review

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

    At the End of the Tour...

    Thanks so much to ArtsJournal for giving me this space to experiment with "book review reviewing" over the last few months. As you've no doubt noticed, the experimentation has become increasingly erratic, and now it's time to officially bring this blog to a close in order to focus on other writing projects. You'll be able to keep abreast of those at my main site, Beatrice, but I hope you'll continue to enjoy thoughtful writing about the publishing scene here as well! Terry and OGIC, for example, frequently write about literature at About Last Night....
    posted by ron @ 7:11 pm | Permanent link

Friday, August 19, 2005

    Not to Mention the Dogpile on John Irving

    AP book reporter Hillel Italie considers "the lack of great fiction" this year, with soundbites from industry insiders like HarperCollins' Jonathan Burnham:

    "Looking across the landscape, there were supposed to be some literary novels that blew everybody away. But for various reasons they didn't quite perform."

    Can we really assume a lack of aesthetic success from a lack of financial success? Or when Burnham says "they didn't quite perform," does he mean something closer to what Italie gets at by observing that even "anticipated novels such as Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days and Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close received mixed reviews at best and the fall doesn't look a lot better"?

    "I think a lot of editors will tell you that 2004 and 2005 haven't been very good for fiction acquisitions. There weren't a lot of huge auctions or books that publishers got really excited about," says Geoff Shandler, editor in chief of Little, Brown and Co. "I'm afraid I must agree with that," says HarperCollins' Burnham, who adds that the number of "standout literary debuts have been disappointing." Notes [John] Sterling [of Henry Holt]: "There were no dazzling debuts."

    From this,we can infer that Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep wasn't literary and all that hoopla didn't translate into a "dazzling debut." Now, I'm not buying that premise any more than you are--and before you naysayers point out that Sittenfeld got her share of pans, let's remember that no book gets universal acclaim; even critical darlings like The Plot Against America got dissed in certain circles. So this idea that books that get bad reviews "didn't quite perform" strikes me as somewhat odd.

    posted by ron @ 1:01 am | Permanent link

Monday, August 8, 2005
    Note: Apology, Not Retraction...

    John Irving's been getting his share of negative reviews for his "half good" new novel, Until I Find You, described by turns as "sloppy and long" (Slate), "a bloated, tedious bore" (Detroit Free Press) and "a pretty good 300-page novel hiding inside a not-very-good 800-plus page one" (Austin American-Statesman). So when Marianne Wiggins told WaPo readers last month the book "reads as if Irving woke from a recurring nightmare and started dictating compulsively," there was no particular cause for surprise. In fact, despite calling him out on "lazy, unrefined writing," Wiggins went out of her way to observe that Irving was capable of much better.

    Turns out she's been close enough, as far as the Post is concerned, to really know what she's talking about. As the AP reports, Book World apologizes, at Irving's prompting, for assigning the review to Wiggins without knowing that "Irving had dedicated one of his earlier novels to [her] ex-husband, Salman Rushdie," or that "Irving and Wiggins had socialized with each other in the past." Personally, I think the detail of the dedication is a bit of misdirection--A Son of the Circus came out years after Rushdie and Wiggins divorced, which makes me suspect that it's been at least twelve years since Irving "socialized" with Wiggins.

    posted by ron @ 1:29 am | Permanent link

Friday, August 5, 2005
    History Never Repeats, But Cultural Punditry?

    NYT critic Caryn James considers "the intertwining legacy of terror attacks and fiction" and determines that "some of the most ambitious novelists in London and New York are not addressing the 9/11 attacks themselves but their intangible legacy." If that sounds familiar, well, that's because it's not much different than what Edward Wyatt was reporting in the Times way back in March, when "the literary world [began] to grapple with the meanings and consequences of the worst terrorist attack ever to happen on American soil." Just swap Chris Cleave for Jonathan Safran Foer, Michael Cunningham for Reynolds Price, and Patrick McGrath for Lynne Sharon Schwartz--you can even keep Ian McEwan right where he was. Any predictions on which authors will be included when Janet Maslin or Laura Miller revisits this theme again at the end of the year? (OK, that was a bit mean, I admit.)
    posted by ron @ 12:10 pm | Permanent link

Thursday, July 21, 2005
    They Know We Exist!

    Just the other day I was saying on Beatrice that the literary skirmishes in the war between old media and the blogosphere were more genteel than the other debates. The Reading Experience offers a stellar example, as James Wood drops by to take issue with Dan Green's criticisms of his take on Cormac McCarthy, and though the debate itself gets caustic as Green digs in his heels, the overall tone leans towards the respectful. Even the chiding turns complimentary: "Your blog is not as obscure as you imagine; and I read you because I take seriously your articulate defence of the postmodern position."
    posted by ron @ 10:16 am | Permanent link

Monday, July 18, 2005
    Irving Envy

    What's behind the contrast in this week's NYTBR between the fawning cover placement (not to mention what may be the only flattering André Carrilho caricature in Review history) of John Irving's latest, which even Paul Gray tacitly admits after several long paragraphs of plot summary isn't very good, with the half-page or so, whittling away the ad and the headshot, of commentary on Kathryn Harrison's Envy?

    While Emily Nussbaum isn't completely won over by Envy, it's clear that she considers it a substantial book and Harrison a significant contemporary writer. So why is Harrison's effort given short shrift in comparison to Irving's, when the paper's own critics seem to believe she's better at handling psychological and sexual themes than he is? I'd like to be charitable and think it's because Harrison's book is just one-third as long as Irving's, or that somebody thought it might be unseemly to lavish too much attention on a writer who's also a regular (and regularly good) NYTBR contributor. Likewise, I can recognize Nussbaum's admirable concision as opposed to Gray's rambling. But maybe it's that being an eminence grise still trumps being a "wonderful writer," enabling a male author to be considered endearing when his protagonist goes through round after round of pre-adolescent sexual activity, while a woman author spends a decade contending with opprobrium for dealing with "narcissism, family violation, sexual taboo and physical suffering" in her fiction and nonfiction. That's Nussbaum's catalog of Harrison's themes, anyway, but it's kinda surprising how well it holds up when juxtaposed with many of Irving's novels, no?

    posted by ron @ 10:17 am | Permanent link

Thursday, July 7, 2005
    Let's Hear It For Our Guests...

    You can tell when a litblog (yes, I know, but we appear to be stuck with it) has really made the scene these days: "Real writers" are dropping by more and more frequently to offer their own thoughts on literature and life. In some recent examples:

    • The Mumpsimus breaks from its science-fiction roots to host Paul Jessup's thoughts on A Complicated Kindness and Torger Vedeler's review of the erotic novella collection Three Kinds of Asking For It.

    • Daniel Olivas, a regular contributor to The Elegant Variation, dropped in to review Salvador Plascencia's The People of Paper, a McSweeney's book I've been meaning to read myself lately--and one NYTBR will be getting around to this weekend.

    • Kay Sexton is the latest guest reviewer at MoorishGirl, weighing in on Jonathan Coe's prize-winning biography of experimental writer B. S. Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant.
    posted by ron @ 2:18 am | Permanent link

Monday, July 4, 2005
    Talk About Your Lucky Breaks

    The NYTBR may have just used up its good luck quota for July by scheduling its review of Richard Davis' Electing Justice on the weekend Sandra Day O'Connor happened to announce her retirement. Blogger Ann Althouse politely but firmly rips Davis a new one, suggesting not only that there is no problem with how the Supreme Court justices get picked, but that he "only dimly envisions" an alternative without thinking through the ramifications.

    It's a nice bit of timeliness that practically makes up for taking three months to review The Disappointment Artist and then taking three full paragraphs before mentioning the author...and even then, Brent Staples is reluctant to give up the spotlight: "I have walked these same sidewalks for 20 years and never encountered Jonathan Lethem on the street." The review ends with this supposition: "Perhaps he intends to use the vibrant Brooklyn village where he came of age in the next phase of his work." This after Staples quotes from The Fortress of Solitude and expresses some familiarity with the plot of Motherless Brooklyn...

    NOTE: This entry inaugurates a new policy, in which Beatrix will continue to feature "book review reviews," but they will also appear on Beatrice.com with additional material. For example, to see what I had to say about the Times review of Christine Schutt's short stories, follow this link. Posts won't be quite daily, but as I find my rhythm, there should be more than one a week; if you're reading Beatrice, though, you'll see them all there anyway.

    posted by ron @ 6:39 pm | Permanent link

Friday, June 10, 2005
    Dipping My Toes Back in the Water...

    I'll be back for real next week, but in the meantime, I couldn't let last weekend's NYTBR "nonfiction chronicle" pass without notice, because for Neil Genzlinger--any Times editor, that is to say--to lead off a review by declaring "Here's hoping that [Rodney] Rothman has overcome his nasty fabrication habit" is, frankly, to just hand me a riftle and walk me over to the duck barrel. I mean, really.
    posted by ron @ 7:57 pm | Permanent link

Thursday, April 21, 2005
    Did You Miss Me?

    Sorry I haven't been here in over a week; I've been doing a lot of book reviewing, plus I got married, so you can imagine I haven't been reading other people's book reviews all that closely lately. I have, however, been bookmarking them, especially the ones about Jonathan Safran Foer, since Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the book that seems to work everybody into the biggest tizzy lately. I'll start with Steve Almond's essay in MobyLives (following his Boston Globe review), because the prominence of its author raises the stakes to the literary equivalent of an East Coast/West Coast gang rivalry. "I can think of no recent book that has served as such a pure litmus test of literary sensibility," Almond observes, and "hat really troubled me about the book was not that I found it disappointing, but my sense that a great many people would read ELIC and--like the flak who first hipped me to the book--be genuinely moved."

    Almond's use of the condescending term "flak" in describing the publicist at Houghton Mifflin isn't accidental, since his attack on the novel is all about its manipulation of the reader's responses, i.e. "how can you tell someone that their emotional reaction to something is fundamentally bogus, that they got played?" In opposition to "narratives of false actualization" like ELIC, Almond holds up downbeat tales like The Tin Drum and The Plot Against America which "confront the heartbreak of this world without the reassuring promise of repair" as (so he says) real art does, as opposed to "well-meaning dreck" like Foer's novel. The idea that art is meant to irritate the consciousness is, of course, hardly a new one, nor is the rebuttal that the "emotional reactions" Grass and Roth generate in their readers are just as "fundamentally bogus," since they're merely pulling on different heartstrings. Of course, Globe readers who stumble onto the MobyLives piece might wish he'd gone into this kind of detail the first time around, instead of complaining about how good novels don't need photographs and typographical legerdemain. They might also have been curious about the critical statements superficially referring to Oskar, ELIC's protagonist, that come off like backhanded slaps at the author:

    "Jonathan Safran Foer's new novel is the mirror image of its young protagonist. The book is energetic, inventive, and ambitious, while also, at times, indulgent, contrived, and crushingly desperate for attention."

    "[The narrator of The Tin Drum] tells us his story not for narcissistic gain, not to dazzle or soothe an audience, but to reveal the world in its full, tragic measure."

    Of course, Almond might seem mild-mannered when one turns to Harry Siegel's New York Press screed, in which he declares "Foer isn't just a bad author, he's a vile one." Then compares him unfavorably to " the masturbating uncle in Mr. Sammler's Planet," just for good measure. Other writers have been considerably kinder; Beth Kephart (Baltimore Sun) gushes, "I don't mind if you quit this review right now and get in your hybrid car and drive to an independent bookstore and buy yourself a copy. There, I've said it: I love this book. And I will love the readers who embrace it." The thing is, I think she means it. Well, maybe not the part about the hybrid cars, but I wouldn't want to be in the same room with her and Steve Almond anytime soon.

    Unless maybe Richard Eder (LAT) were there to keep the two apart. Because while he likes Foer's novel well enough, he's not about to place young Oskar into the pantheon with Holden Caulfield and Huck Finn, because "Oskar's precocious piping over the abyss is ultimately a sentimental, not a transfiguring, irony." But Almond and Siegel might get some backup from Roger Gathman (Chicago Sun-Times), who goes back to Everything Is Illuminated to suggest "how close Foer came to playing a cheap moral trick, the easy juxtaposition of humor and horror that made the reader feel vaguely guilty for laughing, which is an unpleasant and unworthy form of authorial point-making." (Unworthy?) "This time," though, "the hawking of poignancy and tears is less successful, the authorial manipulation more unpleasant." Gathman does conclude with an interesting proposition:

    "Perhaps we need to process 9/11 first through writers more like the World War II generation of novelists, writers who might provide something meaty, stolid, novelistically dense, true to social fact, and above all, unflinching before they get cute with it."

    I'm not sure "stolid" is quite the right word to describe From Here to Eternity, the example Gathman gives of a great WWII novel, nor am I convinced (based on my partial reading) that ELIC falls short of being "novelistically dense" or "true to social fact," whatever the latter precisely means. But it's an interesting proposition nonetheless.

    As previously noted, though, the Mr. Big of the Foerbashers is probably Walter Kirn, who showed up on the cover of NYTBR and damned ELIC as "not necessarily better suited to get inside, or around, today's realities than your average Hardy Boys mystery," taking a swipe at most of contemporary postmodernism along the way. All this naysaying has led my friend Pauline Millard (The Simon) to wag a finger at the critics, observing that "trashing Foer is an exercise in futility." She points out that no matter what people don't like about how he displays his talent--or about his public image--the guy's got the talent and the drive, and he's out there writing and getting published.

    posted by ron @ 11:01 pm | Permanent link


BEATRIX archives

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.

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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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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