Saturday, September 13, 2003

Fall books preview
The hot new titles to look for in the coming months, from fiction to biography to politics.

- - - - - - - - - - - -
By Laura Miller

Sept. 11, 2003 | Over the next three months, the publishing industry floods bookstores with the best -- and sometimes just the flashiest -- books of the year. It can be hard to keep up even when it's your job, so for the average overwhelmed reader out there, we offer this highly selective list of titles to watch out for.


With the 2004 campaign season heating up, expect the usual rash of snoozy trail tracts by the likes of John Kerry ("A Call to Service," from Viking in October) and John Edwards ("My Trials," from Simon & Schuster in January), plus "Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism and the American Empire" by Wesley Clark, coming from Princeton next month. Walter Shapiro kills, er, covers several birds with one stone in "One-Car Caravan: On the Road With the 2004 Democratic Hopefuls" (Public Affairs, November). Bush haters will lap up "Bushwhacked" by Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose (Random House), also set to arrive in September, Michael Moore's "Dude, Where's My Country?" (Warner, October) and "The Lies of George W. Bush" by David Corn (Crown, September). TV commentator Alan Colmes offers the undoubtedly more tepid "Red, White and Liberal: Why the Left is Right and the Right is Wrong" (ReganBooks, October).

On the other side, Bill O'Reilly (yes, again) asks "Who's Looking Out For You?" (Broadway Books, September) and Bernard Goldberg deplores "Arrogance: Rescuing America From the Media Elite" (Warner, November). What Greta Van Susteren will have to say in "My Turn at the Bully Pulpit" (Crown, September) is anyone's guess. Meanwhile, Pulitzer-winning playwright Tony Kushner will seek to rally the nation's youth with "Save Your Democratic Citizen Soul!" (New Press, November). And for those craving dish from deep inside the Beltway, there's "The Georgetown Ladies Social Club" by C. David Heymann (Atria, October) about the klatch of five women who ran D.C. over the past half-century.


It's shaping up to be a terrific season for narrative histories in the spirit of Laura Hillenbrand's "Seabiscuit." We're particularly looking forward to: "The Bounty," an account of the notorious mutiny by "Endurance" author Caroline Alexander (Viking, September); "Fallingwater Rising," a "biography" of Frank Lloyd Wright's famous house by Franklin Toker (Knopf, September); "A Venetian Affair," based on some long-lost 18th century love letters written by the ancestor of author Andrea di Robilant (Knopf, September); David Foster Wallace's history of the concept of infinity, "Everything and More" (W.W. Norton, October); "The Perfect Prince," the true story of a Renaissance-era imposter by Ann Wroe (Random, October); David Maraniss' innovative dual-track look at the Vietnam War at home and in Southeast Asia, "They Marched Into Sunlight" (Simon & Schuster, October); and two new histories by bestselling authors Nathaniel Philbrick ("Sea of Glory," about a 1838 exploring expedition, Viking, November) and Mark Kurlansky ("1968: The Year That Rocked the World," Ballantine, December).

Traditional history looks good, too. Paul Fussell takes issue with romanticized portraits of World War II in "The Boy's Crusade" (Modern Library, September). "Refuge in Hell: How Berlin's Jewish Hospital Outlasted the Nazis" by Daniel Silver illuminates how that institution miraculously survived (Houghton Mifflin, September). Edwin Black exposes the American roots of the Nazis' nightmarish racial attitudes in "War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race" (Four Walls Eight Windows, September). Military history buffs will snap up Victor Davis Hanson's latest, "Ripples of Battle: How Wars Fought Long Ago Determine How We Fight, How We Live, How We Think" (Doubleday, September).

Early word on "Love and Hate in Jamestown" by David A. Price (Knopf, October) says this view of Colonial America is a page-turner. You can go even further back into the past with the purportedly definitive "One Vast Winter Count: The Native-American West Before Lewis and Clark" by Colin G. Calloway (Univ. of Nebraska Press, October) or to recent times with Joseph E. Stiglitz's "The Roaring Nineties: A New History of the World's Most Prosperous Decade" (W.W. Norton, October). One of the few Founding Fathers who hasn't been exhaustively reexamined recently is our first president; now Henry Wiencek weighs in with "An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, November). Garry Wills, meanwhile, offers a controversial look at the role of slave states in the election of Thomas Jefferson in "Negro President" (Houghton Mifflin, November).

An infamous episode in American history is revisited by Steve Oney in "And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank" (Pantheon, October). Michael McGerr traces the evolution of a political movement in "A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920" (Free Press, September). After the release from prison of Kathy Boudin, Knopf is pushing up the publication date of Susan Braudy's "Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left" to later this month.

If your historical interests are more international, Thomas Cahill continues his bestselling series with "Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter" (Doubleday, October). A rare cache of photographs taken during China's Cultural Revolution will be published as "Red-Color News Soldier" by Li Zhensheng (Phaidon, September). Peter Balakian indicts U.S. inaction in "The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response" (HarperCollins, October).


Only time will tell if the season's bumper crop of first novels will yield any choice specimens, but readers can also take their pick from books by more familiar talents. In September, the 50th anniversary of "The Adventures of Augie March" makes a fine occasion to revisit Saul Bellow's masterwork, and Viking is putting out a special edition of it. The fall's hottest new literary novel is Jonathan Lethem's "Fortress of Solitude" (Doubleday), like "Motherless Brooklyn" a paean to his hometown. Pulitzer-winner Jhumpa Lahiri comes out with her first novel, "The Namesake" (Houghton Mifflin), and Neal Stephenson follows up his bestselling "Cryptonomicon" with "Quicksilver" (William Morrow), the first of a three-book series set among the scientific geniuses of the 1600s, sure to set geekish hearts aflutter. "Paris Trout" author Pete Dexter will tell further tales of working-class heroes in "Train" (Doubleday), and fans of the Melvillian herstory of "Ahab's Wife" should look out for Sena Jeter Naslund's new Civil Rights-era novel, "Four Spirits" (Morrow). "Outlanders" creator Diana Gabaldon starts a new trilogy with "Lord John and the Private Matter" (Bantam).

In October, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison's "Love" (Knopf), reputed to be her best book in years, hits the stores. Look for new novels from Steve Martin ("The Pleasure of My Company," Hyperion), David Guterson ("Our Lady of the Forest," Knopf), and "Gap Creek" author Robert Morgan ("Brave Enemies," Algonquin). Edmund White has based his latest work of fiction, "Fanny" (Ecco) on the life of Anthony Trollope's mother, an ardent abolitionist. Booker-winner J.M. Coetzee will publish a novel with an animal rights theme, "Elizabeth Costello" (Viking). Writers' writer Shirley Hazzard has a new novel, too, "The Great Fire" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), set in Asia and Europe in the aftermath of World War II. Peter Straub returns to his trademark spooky stuff in "Lost Boy, Lost Girl" (Random), and literary writer Stewart O'Nan also tries his hand at a ghost story with "The Night Country" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Two giants of the mystery genre will bring out new books: Patricia Cornwell ("Blow Fly," Putnam) and Sara Paretsky ("Blacklist," Putnam). Cornelia Funke's children's novel "The Thief Lord," was a surprise crossover hit a year or two ago; her latest, "Inkheart," will be brought to us by the Potter-pushers at Scholastic. And last but not least, the University of California Press will publish a posthumously recovered play by Mark Twain, "Is He Dead?"

Popular favorites add to their ongoing series in November, notably Anne Rice giving her fans more Lestat in "Blood Canticle" (Knopf), and Elizabeth Peters offering a guide to "Amelia Peabody's Egypt: A Compendium" (Morrow). Stephen King begins the beginning of the end of his Dark Tower series with "Wolves of the Calla" (Scribner). Terry McMillan will further chronicle the lives of her African-American women characters in "The Interruption of Everything" (Viking). On the literary side, there are new novels from Booker-winners Pat Barker ("Double Vision," Farrar, Strauss & Giroux) and Peter Carey ("My Life as a Fake," Knopf). Jim Crace, author of "Being Dead," tells the story of a man who keeps fathering children in "Genesis" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), and Tobias Wolff's "Old School" (Knopf) describes a schoolboy's experience meeting his literary idol. Those whose readerly appetites are whetted by literary feuds will want to see if Martin Amis' "Yellow Dog," (Miramax), his first novel in seven years, lives up (or down) to the drubbing it received from fellow writer Tibor Fischer in the Daily Telegraph.

Business and Money

On pocketbook issues, Pulitzer-winning New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston exposes the way the tax system benefits the rich in "Perfectly Legal" (Portfolio, Dec.). Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi look at "The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Their Families Are Going Broke" (Basic, September). Doug Henwood presents a left-of-center take on the recent bubble and its bursting in "After the New Economy" (New Press, October).

In the realm of corporate misadventures, the reporters who helped expose Enron tell its story in "The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Rise and Fall of Enron" by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind (Viking, October). Kara Swisher offers her take on some bad business decisions in "There Must Be a Pony in Here Somewhere: The AOL Time Warner Debacle" (Crown, October). A controversial tycoon gets the once-over from Karen Southwick in "Everyone Else Must Fail: The Unvarnished Truth About Oracle and Larry Ellison" (Crown, November)

The Way We Live Now

Not surprisingly, this fall is packed with new books about the ongoing encroachments on Americans' civil liberties. To list a few, all appearing this month: "Lost Liberties: Ashcroft and the Assault on Personal Freedom" by Cynthia Brown (New Press); "Enemy Aliens: Double Standards and Constitutional Freedom in the War on Terrorism" by David Cole (New Press); "Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice and Peace to Rid the World of Evil" by James Bovard (Palgrave); "The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance" by Nat Hentoff (Seven Stories); "Why Societies Need Dissent by law professor Cass Sunstein (Harvard).

The state of the war on terrorism also gets several long, hard looks. Gerald Posner explains the lapses that permitted the attacks of September 11 "Why America Slept" (Random, September). Ronald Kessler examines "The CIA at War: Inside the Secret Campaign on Terror" (St. Martin's, October). Benjamin Barber, author of the prescient "Jihad vs. McWorld," looks at U.S. policy mistakes that breed terrorism in "Fear's Empire" (W.W. Norton, September). Michael Ignatieff parses some painful moral dilemmas in "Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror" (Princeton, Dec.), and two neocon players lay out their agenda in "An End to Evil: What's Next in the War on Terror" by David Frum and Richard Perle (Random, Dec.).

Curtis White expands a Harper's essay attacking NPR's Terry Gross into "The Middle Mind: Why American's Don't Think For Themselves" (HarperSanFrancisco, September). Linda Perlstein spent many hours among her subjects to write "Not Much Just Chillin: The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, September). Brooke Kroeger delves into a shadowy topic with "Passing: When People Can't Be Who They Are" (Public Affairs, September). John McWhorter complains of everyone "Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care" (Gotham, October). Todd Oppenheimer denounces "The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved" (Random, October).

Cele C. Otnes and Elizabeth H. Pleck find grist for their mill in "Cinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding" (Univ. of California Press, October), while Ethan Watters explains why a generation of city-dwellers is shunning marriage entirely in "Urban Tribes" (Bloomsbury, October). Joanna Lipper takes a close-up look at the lives of six teenage mothers in "Growing Up Fast" (Picador, November). Stephen Prothero describes the "Elvisification" of Christ in "American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Dec.).

Finally, Studs Terkel proffers sustaining thoughts in "Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times" (New Press, November) and Gregg Easterbrook explains that it's precisely when people think things are at their worst that they are actually improving in "The Progress Paradox" (Random House, November).


Nigel Hamiliton's unauthorized biography of Bill Clinton arrives late this month from Random House, around the same time that Clinton's secretary of state (the first woman to hold that position), Madeleine Albright, will publish her own memoir, "Madam Secretary" (Miramax). Clinton's secretary of the treasury, Robert Rubin will come out with "Dealing With an Uncertain World" (Random) in November. Barbara Bush will offer her "Reflections: Life After the White House" (Scribner) in October. Police Chief Charles Moose describes his hunt for the D.C-area sniper in "Three Weeks in October" (Dutton, September), and Scribner will posthumously release the autobiography of '60s radical Stokely Carmichael, "Ready for the Revolution," in November.

Pop culture autobiographers in September include Tammy Faye Messner ("I Will Survive and You Can, Too!", Tarcher), Judy Collins ("Sanity and Grace," Putnam) and fashion photographer Helmut Newton ("The Autobiography," Doubleday). In October, it's David Beckham ("Beckham," HarperCollins), Donna Summer ("Ordinary Girl," Villard), Lance Armstong ("Every Second Counts" (Broadway), and the Pythons (as in Monty, in "The Pythons," from St. Martin's Press). In November, Suge Knight tells his side of his story in "American Nightmare/American Dream" (Riverhead). Rolling Stone contributor Anthony Bozza describes the life and times of Eminem in "Whatever You Say I Am" (Crown, October), and Pulitzer-winning author Robert Coles offers his tribute to "Bruce Springsteen's America" (Random, October), while Sophia Dembling and Lisa Gutierrez put the TV shrink on the couch in "The Making of Dr. Phil" (Wiley, October).

Literary types will be confiding in their readers, as well: Gabriel Garcia Marquez tells the first half of his own story in "Living to Tell the Tale" (Knopf, November); Maxine Hong Kingston continues her sui generis work with "The Fifth Book of Peace" (Knopf, September); Joan Didion dissects her California childhood in "Were I Was From" (Knopf, September); Joyce Carol Oates offers insight into her formidable output in "The Faith of a Writer" (HarperCollins, September); Dale Peck delves into his family's past with "What We Lost" (Houghton Mifflin, November); and Amy Tan gets metaphysical in "The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings" (Putnam, October).

If you're dead, someone else gets to set the record straight, as Geoffrey Wolff is currently doing for the late novelist John O'Hara ("The Art of Burning Bridges," Knopf). Nathaniel Hawthrone gets a major bio from Brenda Wineapple ("Hawthorne," Knopf, September), Mariane Pearl (with help from Sarah Crichton) writes of her murdered husband in "A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of My Husband, Danny Pearl" (Scribner, September). Another legendary journalist, Martha Gellhorn, is the subject of Caroline Moorehead's "Gellhorn: A 20th Century Life" (Holt, October). A biographer who's a bit of a legend herself, Diane Middlebrook, tackles the marriage of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in "Her Husband" (Viking, October), and the author of "1984" gets another biography in Gordon Bowker's "Inside George Orwell" (Palgrave, September). A very famous family gets a major multigeneration history in "The Kennedys: America's Emerald Kings" by Thomas Maier (Basic, October). And no art lover will want to miss a great critic's book on a great painter, Robert Hughes' "Goya" (Knopf, November)

Away From Home

Two writers put forward their arguments on the conflicts in the Middle East in "The Case for Israel" by Alan Dershowitz (Wiley, September) and "Right To Exist: A Moral Defense of Israel's Wars" by Yaacov Lozowick, a former peace activist turned reluctant Sharon supporter (Doubleday, September). Barbara Victor investigates a relatively new phenomenon in "Army of Roses: Inside the World of Palestinian Women Suicide Bombers" (Rodale, October).

Central Asia is a region that's fascinating many writers these days: Tom Bissell's "Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia" (Pantheon, September) and "The Storyteller's Daughter" by "Beyond the Veil" director Saira Shah (Knopf, September) are two notable examples. Lutz Kleveman writes of the area's geopolitical significance in "The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia" (Atlantic Monthly Press, September).

Dispatches from other trouble spots include a new book from bestselling author Tracy Kidder about a selfless doctor working under dire conditions in Haiti, "Mountains Beyond Mountains" (Random House, September). Janine Di Giovanni describes her experiences as a journalist in the Balkans in "Madness Visible: A Memoir of War" (Knopf, November). Bruce Cumings offers a rare glimpse of a sequestered realm in "North Korea: The Hermit Kingdom" (New Press, November).

- - - - - - - - - - - -

About the writer
Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon.

Book Report
How four magazines you've probably never read help determine what books you buy
By Adelle Waldman
Posted Friday, September 12, 2003, at 12:28 PM PT

Look up a book on, and the first media review you see isn't from a well-known book review outlet such as the New York Times or Washington Post but from Publishers Weekly. Scroll down, and chances are you'll also find an opinion from Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, or Booklist.

You've probably never read these magazines, even if you've seen their names on book jackets. But they're helping determine what you read. Together, they make up the big four of book industry trade journals, aimed at publishing insiders: newspaper and magazine editors, bookstore and library book-buyers, literary agents, and film industry types scanning them for movie rights. Long important as behind-the-scenes power brokers, they became even more powerful in the 1990s, when online booksellers signed deals with them. (Barnes &, like Amazon, has a deal with Publishers Weekly.) Their reviews—300 or so words of plot summary, context, and a quick verdict—influence which books get noticed, bought, and promoted in the media. What might you want to know about these magazines, then?

Publishers Weekly, or PW, is the biggie—it plays Coke to Kirkus' Pepsi. Sold on newsstands in New York as well as by subscription, PW packs a couple hundred reviews into each issue, covering everything from literary fiction and nonfiction to self-help, mystery, and children's books. It's also the place to go for industry news and gossip. PW's reviews are anonymous and are largely written by freelancers; over the course of a year, in the magazine and on its Web site, PW covers about 10,000 books. (The Washington Post, by contrast, weighs in on 1,000 to 1,500 books.) Although PW has only 40,000 subscribers, compared to a million-plus people who get the New York Times Book Review every Sunday, it's read by everyone in publishing. Subscribers shell out about $214 a year for the privilege.

Kirkus is all reviews, no gossip. It's published biweekly on non-glossy paper with no photos or illustrations. The cover is adorned only with teasers for reviews inside. Approximately 5,000 people subscribe; the rate is about $450 a year. (For this fee, you can also access Kirkus' review archive, which dates back to 1933.) Like PW, Kirkus' reviews are anonymous and freelance-written, but the reviewers' identities are not as shrouded in secrecy: Each issue includes a list of contributors. As the scrappy runner-up to PW, Kirkus has long had a reputation for lively, unpredictable reviews that are sometimes outlandishly harsh. For example, take its assessment of Dave Eggers' stunningly successful novel A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: "It isn't," Kirkus said. Though the review allowed that the book "is better than most novel-like objects created by our younger writers," it nevertheless concluded: "Few readers will be satisfied … for their investment of time and good will."

Battered authors can still count on Booklist, which adheres to the golden rule of every creative-writing workshop: Find something positive to say, and proceed gently from there. "Satisfyingly dishy," it wrote of Candace Bushnell's Trading Up, which was savaged by Kirkus. Like Library Journal, Booklist is aimed at librarians. Published by the American Library Association, it's distributed biweekly during the school year and monthly over the summer. Though a glossy, a typical article is "Top 10 Biographies (Adult)." Its reviews are signed, and some 30 percent to 40 percent are written in-house, according to its editor. A subscription costs $79.95 a year.

Library Journal is a sister publication of PW. (Both are published by Reed Business Information, which puts out more than 100 trade magazines, from Variety to Broadband Week). Like PW, Library Journal is a glossy, with a section given to industry news and gossip. Its reviews, which are written by librarians, are signed, and the name of the library with which each reviewer is affiliated is listed. Annual subscriptions are $134.

While disgruntled authors may like to suggest that callow recent graduates make up the bulk of reviewers, trade editors insist otherwise. Mostly, editors say, reviewers are a mix of published authors, academics, schoolteachers, librarians (in the case of Library Journal, exclusively so), and recent grads. Most reviewers have gotten the gig by proving their knowledge of a subject area, like military history. Recent college graduates are actually a minority of reviewers—not because they're deemed too green to pass judgment on the brainchildren of their elders, but because ambitious twentysomethings tend to tire quickly of anonymity. The steady reviewers tend to be schoolteachers or retired schoolteachers, who churn out as many as 12 a month. (Surely none do it for the money, since the pay is typically $45 to $60 per review.)

But the four magazines' influence may finally be waning. While the Internet has increased the visibility of trade reviews, it has also made for easier communication among booksellers, and the journals' position as gatekeepers on advance buzz is not as secure. Today there are competing sources of early information, notably Book Sense 76, a monthly list of books recommended by independent book stores that is gaining influence among magazine editors, bookstore buyers, and film agents. (You can find it online here.)

Perhaps that's why PW's reviews have changed noticeably over the past few years. For most of its history, its "forecasts," as it terms them, tended to have more plot summary than bite. Now, under a new forecast editor and with its reviews reaching a wider audience through its licensing agreements with the online booksellers, they've generally become more spirited. (Some longtime reviewers have described them less charitably as sophomoric.) At the same time, Kirkus' have grown less acerbic. You can see why: Trade magazines aim to predict a book's fate in the real world. While they play a role in shaping that fate, a trade's plaudits can only influence, not determine, a book's reception—much as a movie can't be made into a hit with a marketing blitz. If a magazine were regularly to pan books that go on to sell well, as Kirkus did with Eggers' book, it would become far less useful to those who rely on them to spot winners. (A former trade editor said when such errors are made the magazine assigns that author's next book to a reviewer with a good track record of calling books right.)

The old regime isn't likely to be toppled any time soon; a "starred" review in PW still increases a book's chance of getting media coverage and showing up in your neighborhood bookstore. One author recently suggested that PW's negative review of her book had caused O magazine to pull an article about her. Worse, the author can't take the review off the book's page on Amazon, no matter how much she'd like to.

One thing the trades maintain—and an informal survey of freelancers bears out—is that reviewers are not directed to take a position on the books they're writing about; instances in which a reviewer's judgments are overwritten by editors are rare. Which means this: For better or worse, a motley assortment of underpaid and often anonymous reviewers using their own unfettered judgment have a great deal of influence over the books you are most likely to come across in your neighborhood bookstore and, if you are shopping online, buy.

Adelle Waldman is a freelance writer in New York.

Article URL:

Monday, September 08, 2003

The Librarian Action Figure is modeled after real-life librarian Nancy Pearl, author of the upcoming book "Book Lust."

Librarian Action Figure
Name: Nancy Pearl Occupation: Librarian

Weapon of Choice: The Dewey Decimal System

Accomplishments: Director of Library Programming and the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library. Nancy is best known for the, “If All Seattle Read The Same Book” project. This idea of one city reading the same book at the same time has been imitated in cities around the world. She is a book reviewer for the Seattle Times, Booklist, Library Journal, KUOW-FM Seattle, and KWGS-FM Tulsa.

Awards: 2003 Washington Humanities Award, 2001 Allie Beth Martin Award from the American Library Association, 1998 Library Journal’s Fiction Reviewer of the Year.

Education: Masters Degree in Library Sciences from the University of Michigan.

Interesting Fact: Decided to become a librarian at the age of 10.

Books Written: Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason; Now Read This: A Guide to Mainstream Fiction, 1978–1998; and Now Read This II: A Guide to Mainstream Fiction, 1990–2001.

Favorite Books: Fiction—The Brothers K, The Prince of Tides, Searching for Caleb, The Eyre Affair, A Gay and Melancholy Sound. Non-Fiction—The Best and the Brightest, Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War, Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World, The Liars’ Club, Into Thin Air.

Available: Fall 2003

Sunday, September 07, 2003

September 7, 2003
The Good of a Bad Review

LONDON — For the last year, the literary world has been in a mild uproar over the supposedly vexed question of harsh reviewing. The ruckus started when the novelist Dale Peck tried to bury his fellow novelist Rick Moody's memoir, "The Black Veil," under an avalanche of abuse in The New Republic. ("Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation," the review began; after that it got rough.) The ensuing kerfuffle culminated in a long essay by Heidi Julavits arguing that the killingly negative review had become epidemic and was in need of its own monosyllabic name, like plague. "I call it snark," she wrote in The Believer, apparently unaware that Lewis Carroll had used the same word for something far harder to find.

Hers is a rather understated label (derived from the colloquial "snarky") for an attack whose intent is often not merely snide but outright murderous. Better acquainted with the concept of gangsterism in public life, the Germans call a killer review a "rip up" and the Italians a "tear to pieces." But this new, English word — English tempered by an American determination to believe that serious people can lapse from high standards only in a temporary fit of civic irresponsibility — is probably violent enough, and it certainly captures the essential element of personally cherished malice. The desire to do someone down, or indeed in, is the defining feature.

Adverse book reviews there have always been, and always should be, lest a tide of good intentions rise to drown us all in worthy sludge. At their best, they are written in defense of a value, and in the tacit hope that the author, having had his transgressions pointed out, might secretly agree that his book is indeed lousy. All they attack, or seem to attack, is the book. But a snark blatantly attacks the author — not simply to retard his career but to advance the reviewer's, either by proving how clever he is or simply by injuring a competitor. Since a good book can certainly be injured by a bad review, especially if the critic is in a position of influence, the distinction between the snark and the legitimately destructive review is well worth having.

In my own experience, dishing out grief has been a lot more fun than taking it. As a trainee critic, I was sometimes careless of the personal feelings of authors whose books I reviewed, and I simultaneously found, when I myself published a book, that my adverse reviewers were invariably careless of mine. Though I never grew thick skin (thin skin, after all, is what a writer is in business to have), I gradually got better at taking punishment. By no coincidence, I also grew more reluctant to inflict it. Anyway, personal attacks rarely work. They tend to arouse sympathy for the victim, and might even help sell the book. Legitimately destructive reviews, however, I both continued to write and grew resigned to receiving. They are part of the game.

But there's a catch. Over the course of literary history some legitimately destructive reviews have been altogether too enjoyable for both writer and reader. Attacking bad books, these reviews were useful acts in defense of civilization. They also left the authors of the books in the position of prisoners buried to the neck in a Roman arena as the champion charioteer, with swords mounted on his hubcaps, demonstrated his mastery of the giant slalom. How civilized is it to tee off on the exposed ineptitude of the helpless?

Back in the early 19th century, the dim but industrious poet Robert Montgomery had grown dangerously used to extravagant praise, until a new book of his poems was given to the great historian and mighty reviewer Lord Macaulay. The results set all England laughing and Montgomery on the road to oblivion, where he still is, his fate at Macaulay's hands being his only remaining claim to fame. Montgomery's high style was asking to be brought low and Macaulay no doubt told himself that he was only doing his duty by putting in the boot. Montgomery had a line about a river meandering level with its fount. Macaulay pointed out that a river level with its fount wouldn't even flow, let alone meander. Macaulay made it funny; he had exposed Montgomery as a writer who couldn't see what was in front of him.

Across the pond, Mark Twain later did the same to James Fenimore Cooper. Making hilarious game of the improbabilities in Cooper's tales of arcane woodcraft, Twain's essays about Cooper have been American classics ever since. So have Cooper's tales, but only in the category of enjoyable hokum. After Twain got through with him, Cooper's prestige was gone. Reading the reviews that did him in, one cannot avoid the impression that Twain would have enjoyed himself less if Cooper had been less of a klutz. Like Macaulay, Twain used someone else's mediocrity as an opportunity to be outstanding. This is getting pretty close to malice, for all its glittering disguise as selfless duty.

The same applied to Dwight Macdonald's attack on "By Love Possessed," a novel by James Gould Cozzens that was a best seller and a huge critical success in the late 1950's. Cozzens had his face on the cover of Time magazine. Macdonald thought the face needed a custard pie, and wrote a review that convincingly exposed Cozzens's masterpiece as portentously arranged junk. Macdonald usefully did the same for the clumsy prose style of the New English Bible, but there he was attacking a committee. In the case of "By Love Possessed" he was attacking a man.

When you say a man writes badly, you are trying to hurt him. When you say it in words better than his, you have succeeded. It would be better to admit this fact, and admit that all adverse reviews are snarks to some degree, than to indulge the sentimental wish that malice might be debarred from the literary world. The literary world is where it belongs. When Dr. Johnson longed for his enemy to publish a book, it was because he wasn't allowed to hit him with an ax. Civilization tames human passions, but it can't eliminate them. Hunt the snark and you will find it everywhere.

Clive James is author, most recently, of ``As of This Writing: The Essential Essays, 1968-2002.''

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

Search This Blog