Reviewing the Review: December 13 2009

History Latin Lit-Crit Poetry

It's a funny thing about book reviews. It's been documented by publishing industry researchers that a negative book review can sometimes bump sales as well as a positive one, and good writers have bemoaned the fact that a great review, even a great front cover review in the New York Times Book Review, might not help sales at all. Of course, publisher incompetence can help cause the latter situation, as was recently revealed in a rather shocking New York Magazine interview:

So the book got on the cover of The New York Times Book Review and I called my editor and told him and he said, "Well, you know it will be a critical darling, but it won’t sell." And he had been saying all along that it won’t sell and I thought, what in the fuck is the matter with you? Are you kidding me? If it’s gonna sell, it’s gonna sell. Every newspaper in the country has reviewed it. Then it was sold out on Amazon for six weeks, and the reason is they refused to print books. I kept saying to him, "You could be selling so many books in Des Moines, Iowa, in Lincoln, Nebraska in Denver, Colorado, all these places, where people read, where there are great independent bookstores," and they kept saying, "No, mostly I think we’re going to push this in L.A. and New York." I thought, you dumb fuckers. Meth is not a problem in New York except for in the gay community, but it’s a problem everywhere else. But there was this feeling: "Well, yeah, but people out there don’t really read."
-- Nick Reding, author of Methland (reviewed in NYTBR July 5 2009)

I enjoy reading both positive and negative reviews -- both are more interesting than bland ones -- and slam-jobs really don't get much more fun than Tom Bissell's sly demolition of an apparently Roberto Bolano-esque "big theme" novel by Jorge Volpi, Season of Ash in today's New York Times Book Review. This is just hysterical:

... equally significant events make their way into the narrative as well. Hello, Challenger explosion. Greetings, AIDS. Salaam, Soviet war in Afghanistan. Wassup, W.T.O. riots. Volpi is a leading member of the so-called Crack group, an upstart literary movement of Mexican writers understandably bored by the devices and expectations of magical realism. Until one actually reads it, "Season of Ash" looks poised to become a foundational repudiation of everything one has come to expect from the literature of the Spanish-speaking Americas. From his novel’s first sentence (“Enough rot, howled Anatoly Diatlov”), Volpi attempts to be the first great Russian novelist who is not actually Russian. Instead, he has written “Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’: A Novel.”

And this got a laugh from me:

The themes of “Season of Ash” can fairly be summarized as follows: Businessmen? Hubristic. Scientists? Arrogant. Communism? Bummer. Things? Fall apart.

But here's the funny thing: I enjoy Bissell's wit here, but the bad review doesn't dent my own level of interest in this book one bit. Which is not to say I'll actually read Season of Ash anytime soon -- first I've got to get through some more of the lately fashionable novels by Roberto Bolano himself, and then maybe I'll get to Bolano's followers. There's maybe a 20% chance that I'll ever read a page of Season of Ash. But it was a 20% chance before I read this negative review, and it remains a 20% chance now that I've read it. The only percentage this review increases is the odds that I'll read another article by Tom Bissell, because I like his style.

Likewise, there's maybe a 0.05% chance that I'll ever read Planisphere, a new book of poetry by the esteemed John Ashbery, who has at times been just as fashionable and influential as Roberto Bolano, and who really doesn't float my boat at all. Helen Vendler's wonderfully vivid appreciation of this late-career book today is a textbook example of how to write well about poetry. I enjoyed reading this very much, and I'm glad Vendler likes Ashbery's book so much. But ... there's still only a 0.05% chance that I'll ever read Planisphere.

Today's Book Review is an above-average production, with three solid articles on history books I'd like to read (Beverly Gage on John Milton Cooper's bio of Woodrow Wilson, Virginia DeJohn Anderson on Woody Holton's bio of Abigail Adams, Ruth Scurr on Louis Begley's Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters). Regarding this last review, I still don't understand why historical awareness of the terrible conflagration known as the Franco-Prussian War is completely nonexistent in our cultural consciousness. This war -- a crushing disaster for France, and an emboldening victory for Germany -- provided the entire context for the accusations against Alfred Dreyfus, and along with the equally unknown Russo-Japanese War it provided much of the context for both World War I and World War II. And yet neither war is ever written about for popular American audiences, and Ruth Scurr's otherwise interesting discussion of Begley's book about the Dreyfus affair does not mention the influence of the Franco-Prussian War at all.

Regardless, all three of these books appeal to me, and I'm always happy when our timid American history publishing industry manages to move beyond its two favorite subjects, Pearl Harbor and the Civil War.

There are other excellent and brainy articles in today's Book Review -- pop art, language, mathematics -- that I'll leave it to you to click through and enjoy.

This article is part of the series Reviewing the New York Times Book Review. The next post in the series is Reviewing the Review: December 20 2009. The previous post in the series is Regifting the Review: December 6 2009.
1 Response to "Reviewing the Review: December 13 2009"

by Steve Plonk on

I love that coinage: "...I'm always happy when our timid American history publishing industry manages to move beyond its two favorite subjects, Pearl Harbor and the Civil War." Yesss!

History is a multifaceted subject that I really think needs fresh views on a myriad of topics besides the old "super selling" sensations of those two wars. One topic might be "The History of the Counter Culture in America". There have been books that just scrape the surface. But none have bookmarked the "loyal opposition" in various sundry times in history. There were plenty of folks who had foresight which is only now being seen in our generation. I think people, like Al Gore, and others recently may be really appreciated in our future. Eugene Debs was really underappreciated in the 1920s. He had plenty of good ideas about labor and health care which our country could have used earlier. For instance, it wasn't until FDR that the social security laws were passed. Debs was twenty years ahead of his time in his social services ideas.

I really liked the new books about Columbus and his misgotten ideas and so on about the "New World" which he really had misguided views of.

Columbus thought he had come to the East Indies and never realized he'd dicovered islands off a new couple of continents. Columbus was a product of his times like I guess we all are. Columbus exploited the Amerindians to the nth degree.

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