Reviewing the Review: January 11 2009

Lit-Crit
You all know I care a lot about the future of the New York Times Book Review. That's why it's time for some tough love today.

One of the NYTBR's best fiction critics, the brainy and erudite Stacey D'Erasmo, has written a novel called The Sky Below, prominently featured on the cover of today's publication. There is an obvious ethical concern in giving a cover rave to an insider, though the Book Review can easily deflect this concern by presenting a convincing piece to justify the favored placement. Instead, Susann Cokal's review could not be more vapid, more transparently sympathetic. Reading this extravagant piece, a reader can only conclude that Cokal knew a positive appraisal was required but could not come up with the goods. Like a student on deadline, she tried to fake it. The evidence begins with the opening lines:

The box, the simple box, may be the art form of the 21st century. With or without its sixth wall, it promises a mystery; when its contents (or lack thereof) are displayed, some deeper mystery often remains. Past masters like Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp have inspired new generations of artists to fill rectangular solids with an assortment of found objects. Depending on your taste and perspective, this is either a form of sculpture or a short step up from the elementary-school diorama. The box is thus the darling of both the Tate Modern and the community amateur show: the bricolage celebrates vision rather than craft, suggesting to some that art is effortless, to others that it’s inscrutable. Meaning seems either elusive or all too obvious.

This is called "filling space". How on earth is the box the art form of the 21st Century based on the work of Joseph Cornell, who died in 1972, and Marcel Duchamp, who died in 1968? Am I missing something here? Shouldn't a writer who wishes to establish the point that the box is the art form of the 21st century name an artist who lived anywhere near the 21st century? Furthermore, Cokal has now thrown a lot of big words into the air (and thoroughly confused us) but has still not mentioned the novel she is supposedly enraptured by.

The Sky Below is about the troubled life of a modern artist named Gabriel Collins. But Cokal, who is clearly more comfortable writing about art than writing about this novel, has more to say, and the inanity continues:

Such assemblages of oddments have, of course, a long history. Beginning in the late 16th century, collectors demonstrated their command over the natural and artistic worlds in the cabinet of curiosities -- a room, a set of shelves or even (yes) a box displaying whatever caught the collector’s fancy. Such are the roots of the modern museum. But as museums began to compartmentalize, then specialize, that sense of dizzying abundance was lost, and with it some of the pleasures of the unexpected discovery, the incongruous grouping or juxtaposition that might open up a new dimension of thought or experience.

Yes, such are the roots of the compartmentalized modern museum, which thoroughly lack that sense of dizzying abundance. New York's Metropolitan Museum? You'll be in and out in an hour and a half. The Art Institute of Chicago? One-dimensional. Washington DC's National Gallery? Better bring a book to read, there's nothing there. What could Susann Cokal possibly be talking about? And why isn't she talking about the novel?

She gets around to it. The paragraph about today's disappointing museums concludes here:

D’Erasmo recovers that pleasure in narrative form, presenting Gabriel’s life as if it were a series of cabinets of curiosities -- of moments distilled into sets of objects that highlight but don’t define them.

Yawn. I have no reason to think that Stacey D'Erasmo's novel might not be great (based on her own excellent work as a fiction critic). But Susann Cokal, when she isn't staring off into space, is only able to justify the claim that the novel deserves the honor of a NYTBR cover rave by prattling in generalities and trying to cover up the emptiness with precious, delicate observations that connect to nothing:

But literature, like art, displays unsuspected facets of the everyday, revealing how extraordinary it can turn out to be.

Sometimes it's quite pretty, as when young Gabriel's mother tents his bed with raspberry red silk and reads him stories from Ovid.

Raspberry red silk? Whatever. Here's how this dispiriting mess concludes:

As in the best books (more rectangular solids), the meaning of these images seems to evolve as they repeat, bumping up against one another, altering slightly, until new combinations and minute adjustments lay bare the complex emotions within.

The rave review could not be more unconvincing. This would be annoying but harmless if the novel in question had not been written by a NYTBR insider. But when ethical questions may be asked, more stringent quality control is an absolute necessity. If the NYTBR had assigned this review to a more hard-boiled critic (say, Walter Kirn or Laura Miller or Francine Prose) and received a rave in response, no eyebrows would be raised. Susann Cokal was a poor choice to write this review, and the fact that the New York Times Book Review went the full distance of placing the limp results on their highly coveted front cover will shock anyone who is paying attention.

Of course, the narcotic effect of Susann Cokal's thesis on modern art is to inspire readers to hurry their attention elsewhere, and that's this article's only hope of passing muster. It didn't work with this reader.

I'm so disgusted by this that I'm not going to talk much about the rest of today's Book Review, though it contains decent coverage by the knowledgeable James Campbell on The Letters of Allen Ginsberg and The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, both edited by expert Beat Generation archivist Bill Morgan, a passable review by Caryn James of Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London's Jazz Age by D. J. Taylor and a good Caleb Crain endpaper about a new book called Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children's Literature by Julia L. Mickenberg and Philip Nel, which tells of the Communist partisanship of some of our beloved past children's authors, including Crockett Johnson (Harold and the Purple Crayon) and Syd Hoff (Danny and the Dinosaur).

This Book Review is another slim one, 24 pages yet again, which indicates that publishers are still not buying ads at their usual rate. The sad truth is, I can't tie the NYTBR's quality problems to its ad sales problem: the economy will take its toll whether or not the Book Review editors do a great job every week. However, if this publication will successfully weather the tough financial environment, it will need the goodwill and enthusiasm of readers like myself. That's where Sam Tanenhaus and his top staffers really need to start doing a better job. The Book Review won't be able to sleepwalk through 2009, though cover articles like Susann Cokal's indicate that they would like to try.
This article is part of the series Reviewing the New York Times Book Review. The next post in the series is Auditing the Review: January 18 2009. The previous post in the series is Reviewing the Review: January 4 2009.
11 Responses to "Reviewing the Review: January 11 2009"

by Carolyn on

A convincing and thorough thrashing, sir. Well done.

by Pete on

If the NYTBR reviews a book written by one of its regular contributors (and especially if that book gets the Page One treatment), shouldn't they clearly disclose that relationship? (Casual readers of the NYTBR such as myself aren't necessarily aware of who the publications's regulars are.) I see no such disclaimer in the online version of this review, which makes the review seem like blatant nepotism or, at best, of very questionable objectivity.

by Don on

Levi:

Thanks again for an excellent take on NYTBR, especially for those of us who didn't see the insider connections. I read half that review and skipped right on, thinking huh?

The Ginsberg and Snyder/Ginsberg review was quite good, all the more so since everybody and his brother-in-law has already reviewed it. Having read most of those reviews (full disclosure: librarian here), it was nice to see Campbell tease out more than the usual pull quotes (I swear I saw the same letters quoted in at least 4 reviews - and they talk about bloggers cutting and pasting) and set it all against the proper background.

Keep up the great work - if there isn't some tough love, we may not lose NYBTR physically, but philosophically is another story.

best,
Don

by TKG on

Those quotes you pulled out sure were gibberish. Perhaps they make some sense to a subset of readers who were subjected to a certain coterie of Professors in their University days...

I think that as long as a publication makes clear that the review is of one their own and there may be or actuslly is a positive bias, then that's OK and not unethical. The transparency and upfrontness is key to that.

Last night I was at the children's book section with my six year old and saw a book with a distinct illustrator -- it was Crockett Johnson and I knew I knew that illustrator, but didn't place the name. Coincidentally you mention him today and -- a ha!! -- yes, Harold.

PD Eastman has produced wonderful classic illustrations and literature. Go Dog Go is one of the great love stories of the second half of the 20th century.

Are You My Mother? with the SNORT is a classic adventure story.

I'm not sure if Eastman is included in that book, but I looked up some stuff on him after getting the deep appreciation of his oeuvre and he was a big lefty as well.

UPA from where Magoo came was made up of a bunch of lefties.

etc...

On a side note -- in how many reviews has the reviewer actually read all or most of the book?

The box, the simple box. Remove the bottom and the mime falls out.

by Tim Barrus on

The insider schmoozing at this pathetic rag called the New York Times Book Review bleeds over into the paper itself. Today Motoko Rich, the same "reporter" who recently claims I have disappeared from the face of the earth, also claims that zillions of people are now reading fiction and everything in publishing is just fine, fine, fine. Where do these people LIVE. Oh, Manhattan, I forgot. Their "take" is decidedly skewed. Actually, this goes way beyond skewed. This is no different from insider trading. This paper claims (loudly) a journalistic mantra. Yet it covets relationships where there is a quid pro quo. Publishing itself nervously claims nothing is wrong. Rich simply echos the party rhetoric. Because she's a gatekeeper. As are the other editors who instead of reporting are INSTRUMENTAL in deciding what gets published from what does not. Thusly they are reporting on a business they affect. There is a lot that is wrong. Beginning with cozy relationships with the people you are supposedly covering. Where do you think quotes like "publishing insiders are saying" come from. They come from a so-called reporter who is a publishing insider herself. This is not reporting. It's gossip. It has the value of gossip. Hedda Hopper didn't die. She just moved to the New York Times Book Review. If zillions of people are now reading fiction (and book sales are up) then why is it that writers such as myself are forced, after thirty years of being treated like dirt, to sell fiction as nonfiction and not regretting it AT ALL -- after we have been told over and over and over and over by Manhattan publishing insiders that no one is buying fiction and please go away we're important people and we're busy. Not busy enough. To claim that publishing, of all businesses, has ETHICS is patently absurd. The New York Times Book Review is written by insiders for insiders using insiders as sources and one can only wonder if insiders are the only people reading this obvious, obsequious, incestuous drivel. Tim Barrus, Paris

In defense of the NYTBR, if they had given the book a rave review, people would have accused them of showing favoritism to one of their own. They could have chosen not to review it at all, but that would be unfair if they really believed it was a good book. So, they opted for bringing attention to the book by just talking about it, and let others be the judge.

by Levi Asher on

Since we're talking ethics, it's worth being very exact here. No, there is absolutely no ethical violation in the NYTBR giving a favorable review to a book written by a regular contributor, and no disclaimer is needed. The NYTBR, unlike the daily Times book section, is a forum for peer review, a place where novelists review novelists, poets review poets, historians review historians, etc. A few articles are written by Book Review staffers, but most are not -- they are written on a freelance basis by well-known writers around the world. Therefore, it would be extremely impractical for the publication to print a disclaimer every time a book's author had been a contributor to the NYTBR. I am certainly not asking for that.

I am commenting, though, on the quality of the work done by this reviewer. In this case, the work is so shabby as to raise the appearance of favored placement. Whether this violation actually occurred or not doesn't really concern me -- I am not looking to police the NYTBR. I would like them to exercise better quality control, though. The offense here is not an ethical one but a literary one.

by Duncan Brown on

A book, is a book, is a book.
The rest is show business.

by Warren Weappa on

I had already thrown out Sunday's NYTBR by the time this was posted but I was looking for titles that I wanted to check out in the future and came up with zero.
I have been reading Heaney's Beowulf and just started The Gambler and two graphic novels are in the mail. Graphic novels have really grabbed my attention lately and I don't remember a single review of one in yesterday's NYTBR.
I like to read but didn't finish one of the reviews, not even the one on Ginsberg.

Interesting take on the S. Cokal piece. However, it seems clear to me that your distaste for it is based on the fact that this reviewer isn't "tough-minded," whatever that means. If you mean the Susann Cokal is interested in the ideas presented by the book, then OK, fine; and what's wrong with that? If you think she was too in tune with the book's themes and style, though, that's just silly -- reviewers are selected for their interest in and understanding of a book, not for their antipathy or sympathy to it.

Regarding your comment about museums, it's clear you've missed the point entirely. Cokal is describing the way museums have developed from almost-random assortments of items to the highly curated and sensibly organized guided tours they are today -- obviously, they've gained a great deal in doing so (coherence, for one), but they've lost something, too: the ability to force the viewer's mind into new connections.

I do hope you've noticed that NYTBR is one of the last book-review sections in the country now that the Washingon Post has folded its review. What will you complain about when it's gone, I wonder?

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