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August 09, 2004

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» This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours from low culture
Last week the literary-minded blog world (the mind reels) got bent out of shape by Leon Weiseltier’s review of Checkpoint in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. This week, however, those same watchdogs seem to have missed a more... [Read More]

» This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours from low culture
Last week the literary-minded blog world (the mind reels) got bent out of shape by Leon Weiseltier’s review of Checkpoint in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. This week, however, those same watchdogs seem to have missed a more... [Read More]

» This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours from low culture
Last week the literary-minded blog world (the mind reels) got bent out of shape by Leon Weiseltier’s review of Checkpoint in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. This week, however, those same watchdogs seem to have missed a more... [Read More]

» This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours from low culture
Last week the literary-minded blog world (the mind reels) got bent out of shape by Leon Weiseltier’s review of Checkpoint in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. This week, however, those same watchdogs seem to have missed a more... [Read More]

» This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours from low culture
Last week the literary-minded blog world (the mind reels) got bent out of shape by Leon Wieseltier’s review of Checkpoint in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. This week, however, those same watchdogs seem to have missed a more... [Read More]

Comments

Ed

Right on the money, Mark. One other thing: why couldn't a newspaper with the Times' resources have given Wieseltier two extra weeks to make it more book-centric or to fit in with the tone of the NYTBR? An editor's job is to step in and tell someone else that their wares can be better. It would have been better for Wieseltier, better for Tanenhaus, and better for the NYTBR.

I submit that Tanenhaus may have failed to step in and help Wieseltier shape his piece (or there exists the more sordid possibility that this is the best he could GET out of Wieseltier, in which case Tanenhaus was screwed from the get-go). My point here: It's the New York Times, fer crying out loud, not some country bumpkin mid-sized metro. You can demand anything you want. John Leonard did. And that's why the NYTBR kicked ass back then.

Factor in the hollow promises Tanenhaus has made on these pages to cover more fiction, and you begin to see the problem in a nutshell.

Sarah

Well I never met a bandwagon I couldn't jump on: I read CHECKPOINT today and will have more to say about that, and Terry's post, tomorrow.

CAAF

Yes, I've read Terry's thoughts and, as always, value his perspective. Though I am aghast if he thinks me, for one, such a ninny that I would quash a timely piece b/c I didn't agree with its politics. That would be a vast misunderstanding of my objections, which remain -- and are ably summated here by Mark & Ed.

I was teed off for the novel's sake. I think Baker and Checkpoint merit serious treatment, even if it were to end up unfavorable -- and this review was shabby & flagrantly disrespectful.

But I will add, what Ed alludes to here, that I wouldn't have been nearly as teed off if I felt this was an isolated incident. A one off. But in context the review seems evidence that Tanenhaus' promises of taking fiction seriously are empty. And while Wieseltier may run a great ship that includes Vendler, Wood, and Ozick, among others, his use of "This scummy little novel...", etc., reminded me that he was also the editor responsible for some of Peck's most flagrant stunts — while, in this outing, evincing none of Peck's passion for books.

Ron

The problem with Terry's position is that it risks reducing the editor of a publication to a content procrurer, someone who simply invites people to produce material and then ships it off to the printer when it arrives, as long as it's spelled and punctuated properly. When in reality it's an editor's job to edit--and that includes killing a piece for failing to live up to whatever critical standard the editor establishes for his publication.

And a professional writer, even a bigshot like Leon Wieseltier, has an obligation to either rewrite his material upon request or accept that it's been evaluated as unsuitable for publication.

Dan Green

I'm late in commenting on this, but for what it's worth: I think Ron is correct in principle, but the problem is that I don't think Tanenhaus objected to what Wiseltier wrote. The review is very much like what you see in the New York Review of Books--the book as excuse for the reviewer's cogitations--and I still maintain this is the direction in which Tanenhaus wants to take NYTBR.

Ron

Dan is, of course, right--while I've been talking about how an editor shouldn't have to run a bad review, and others have been saying an editor just plain shouldn't run a bad review, there's no reason to assume that Tanenhaus thinks it's a bad review. And that offers pessimists more evidence as to where the NYTBR may be headed in the long run.

But I have to disagree with Dan on one point: most of the NYRB stuff I've read is better written than Wieseltier's scummy little review and genuinely uses its chosen texts as a prism through which to view the larger issues. Of course, I don't read it cover to cover, so I may be missing the bad stuff.

Dan Green

I'll agree that many of the reviews in NYRB are more thoughtful than this one was--but the approach is the same: discuss the issues at hand with only the occasional nod toward the book ostensibly under review.

Ron

I think the better pieces give their subjects more than the occasional nod, but as I say, I'm not a consistent reader of the NYRB, so I could be wrong. In principle, though, I don't think that discussing the issues through the book is a less valid approach for thoughtful criticism than discussing the book's success or failure to live up to the critic's ideal of what a book should be. Generally, of course, the former is a less USEFUL approach for considering fiction, but Checkpoint is something of a special case, not only explicitly aiming for relevance but quite possibly for didacticism.

Dan Green

If a publication wants to devote its book pages to "discussing the issues through the book" that's fine, but does every publication have to do this? If NYTBR goes this route, who's left to instead focus on "discussing the book's success or failure"? At least among nationally prominent publications? And the consequence of NYRB taking this route is that they don't really discuss fiction much at all. Indeed, this seems to me almost the necessary consequence of taking this route. Again, who's going to discuss books as books?

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TEV DEFINED


  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."

SECOND LOOK

  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

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    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
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    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."