Reviewing the Review: September 23 2006

Ron Powers' review of E. L. Doctorow's new collection of literary essays, Creationists, in today's New York Times Book Review is, in my opinion, a hilarious disaster. The pretentious article is riddled (and I do mean riddled) with sentences like this:

Reinforcing that approach -- visible in Doctorow's meticulously inductive construction, and in his affable indifference to polemic -- is an even earlier influence, the Bronx High School of Science, which Doctorow attended in the 1940's.

It reads like a parody of hallucinatory academic writing, and it really doesn't make much sense. Here's the opening paragraph (this is where, I believe, the author is supposed to grab the reader's attention):

In this luminous, slyly titled collection of literary musings, E. L. Doctorow gives us compacted worlds, fissioning into ever larger worlds, of imaginative possibility. This should hardly surprise anyone who knows Doctorow's own literature. Those who regard him more selectively -- as leftist beau saboteur in political debate, as scourge of patriotic moms 'n' dads at suburban commencement podiums -- may be more astonished: Doctorow treats the dozen-odd authors under his scrutiny with unwavering respect. Not a single "worst writer of his generation" meets his comeuppance here. And yet (oh, let's be frank: and therefore) "Creationists" sustains a pitch of fascination, borne on a cascade of glittering aphorism, rarely encountered in the unforgiving genre of literary criticism.

Ron Powers seems to be arguing with himself over something here; I'm not sure what it is, but it doesn't have much to do with E. L. Doctorow or his new book.

I didn't find much too get excited about anywhere in this week's Book Review. Michael Gorra's description of Ward Just's new novel, Forgetfulness, is a snore-fest, and I could barely make it to the last paragraph. I enjoyed Alexandra Jacobs' spin on Tina Cassidy's Birth: the Surprising History of How We Are Born, which sounds like a valuable non-fiction book. I also enjoyed Dana Goodyear's introduction to Blue Front, a new collection of poems by Martha Collins.

But, while I normally like most anything Joyce Johnson writes (especially since she writes most often about an interesting subject, her once-boyfriend Jack Kerouac), I think she's an overly predictable choice to review another tell-all from a writer's rejected lover, Maryann Burk Carver's What It Used To Be Like: A Portrait of my Marriage to Raymond Carver. A writer or critic with expert knowledge of Raymond Carver would have been a better (if less cute) choice, and I'm sure the resulting article would have been better than this tepid summary.

Ron Rosenbaum's cover article about another new Holocaust book, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn, is similarly predictable. And, I hate it when the New York Times Book Review misses its chance at a good punchline. This book focuses on the fate of six individual Jews killed in the European-Jewish genocide of World War II, and the missed punchline is that six is what President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran thinks was the total toll. (I'll be here all week!)
This article is part of the series Reviewing the New York Times Book Review. The next post in the series is Reviewing the Review: October 1 2006. The previous post in the series is Reviewing the Review: September 17 2006.
1 Response to "Reviewing the Review: September 23 2006"

by danjazz on

The Doctorow reviewThanks for your take on the Doctorow review. I thought it was me. (It's still difficult for me to accept that finished writing in a major literary publication can be so bad.)