October 08, 2008



I read the Simic review as well (after having read yours and, cautiously, a few others, as I haven't yet read the novel itself), and found the tedious plot summary strikingly unexpected, to say the least.

I don't at first thought have much to offer, though, other than this: this is a great post, but it would serve well, in some incarnation, as a letter to the editors of the NYRoB as well.

Rachael King

I haven't read the review in question, but I just want to say that I find book reviews that are largely plot summary extremely irritating.


Yup, right on. It was poor by any standard. Had he been restricted to 600 words, maybe he could have said somethng of value. I remember reading Joyce Carol's Oates' review of Rushdie's Enchantress in NYRB and was struck dumb by how, despite a massive word count, she had nothing illuminating to add at all. Just needless quotes and summaries sprinkled throughout.

Kit Stolz

Is "music" really the right word to use to describe Roth's work? "Strong," sure. "Lean," absolutely. "Sound," okay.

But music? He's anything but lyrical, I think, and the tightness of his focus has a clinical, almost scientific aspect.

Maybe it's because I'm not a fan, but to me he seems among the least musical of writers.


You said, "In a 4,000 word review, Simic spends nearly 2,900 of them offering nothing more than tedious plot summary. He simply retells the entire story of Indignation - and within that summary offers only a single extended quotation from the work."

Sounds like a NYTROB review to me. They're often interesting, but almost never acknowledge the work they're reviewing (I'm generalizing, but not by much.) My impression is usually that the reviewer has retold the story as if he had conceived of the idea himself. Think of that publication's works not as critical reviews, but as stand-alone essays that only use the original book as a reference.

The comments to this entry are closed.


  • 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."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    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.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    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."