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March 24, 2004

Comments

Ed

Number one: Given that he was in Peck's crosshairs at the end, he was more personally invested in this debate -- hardly an objective position to be in to write about the state of book reviews. This makes him just as culpable to rage, as the climate he rails against.

Number two: What's wrong with a little bit of snark? Seriously. While Birkets does cite some solid examples of digression (which seems to me decidedly different from snark), the idea of a book review being transformed into a sweltering and humorless essay appalls me. Snark or sarcasm, so long as a review isn't entirely composed of it, isn't necessarily bad. It's more of a texture than anything else.

Number three: Almost any person interested in books is bound to go a little crazy. It's a natural reaction -- much like a baseball fan fomenting at a ballpark. The very important question here is how far a reviewer should go in expressing this. Dale Peck has, to my taste, represented something just beyond the threshold. On one hand, his Moody piece was motivated by emotion. But he did at least try to justify how he felt. Not successfully enough, but it was a step in the right direction.

Do I want to see a review climate that capitulates completely to this? No. But I'm bothered by the idea that reviewing is an either/or climate.

My feeling is that direct examples and context is the best policy for any argument. But I'd also like to see book reviews that are more playful and inviting. A little bit of reductio ad absurdum never hurt anyone. :)

sjtennent

I think Birkerts issues with Peck--spelled out quite plainly in the article--were far from the sum total of what he was talking. It's quite a leap to say that Peck's nasty comments put Birkerts in "hardly an objective position [...] to write about the state of book reviews." It only makes him hardly objective about Peck, and Birkerts has a lot to say about much more than Peck.

Although ultimately my reaction to Birkert's column was a shrug of the shoulders--nothing new under the sun here--I do agree with him. We could stand to tone down all the figurative quotation marks around our opinions--call it snark, irony, cynicism, what have you.

Criticism went from being too theoretical to too gossipy. Why not call for what is needed? In short, plainspeak. "This book works for this reason." "This book is flawed for this reason." For critics to expect more from the authors, I think the rest of us might expect more from the critics.

Related, I find it frustrating that critics and journalists waste column inches lamenting the publicity-driven machine (so-and-so made this advance, these authors spat at each other, this author wrote a bitchy article). Take this article, Monday's Salon turd, Last month's "Perpetual Debut Novelist" article in the Believer, and many more, for example. If these critics and journalists are allowed the ink to say "I hate that the 'bottom line' figures drive the publicity," then why don't the critics ignore it and do what they're supposed to: critique the book, not the industry.

Daniel Green

He stole my title! (See most recent issue of Context.)

TEV

Thieving SOB! (Actually, the post reminded me a lot of your work, Dan.)

Dan Green

Actually, I'm only just now getting around to reading the essay, so I'll see what else he stole. (Probably my innocence.)

Dan Green

And it was in fact Context No. 12 (a year ago).

sir wankalot

Ed's right. Birkerts is in no position to point fingers. He got Pecked and cannot be objective, his stentorian tone notwithstanding. Also, is what he does any more noble than what Peck does? Check out Sven's review of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. "Science fiction is not literature." Shut the fuck up.

Dan Green

Alas. I've now read Birkerts's essay, and he only appropriated the title. The rest of it is his. There is some overlap between his concerns and mine, but certainly not enough to call in the lawyers.

As a matter of fact, I agree with you,Mark. The essay is really pretty good, and it does go well beyond the unpleasantness with Peck. I may have more to say about this in a future posting of my owm.

By the way, it looks like this whole issue of Bookforum has lots of good stuff in it.

Ed

Here's the review that Sir Wankalot (who must have an interesting royal lineage) refers to:

http://query.nytimes.com/search/full-page?res=9F04EEDA163FF93BA25756C0A9659C8B63

Birkets writes, "I am going to stick my neck out and just say it: science fiction will never be Literature with a capital ''L,'' and this is because it inevitably proceeds from premise rather than character. It sacrifices moral and psychological nuance in favor of more conceptual matters, and elevates scenario over sensibility. Some will ask, of course, whether there still is such a thing as ''Literature with a capital 'L.' '' I proceed on the faith that there is. Are there exceptions to my categorical pronouncement? Probably, but I don't think enough of them to overturn it."

This is probably one of the most ignorant assessments of speculative fiction I've ever read. The moral dilemma of the protagonist in "The Demolished Man," the Dickensian world of "Perdido Street Station" or the Mervyn Peake novels, or the human dilemma extant in almost anything written by Theodore Sturgeon (to name books that popped into my head in just three seconds) all demonstrate to even a dunderhead lacking nuance that science fiction is as much of a character-based medium as anything else. I've grown increasingly weary of genre ghettoization. And in light of Chabon's recent essay, this comes across as pure poppycock.

However, this still has absolutely nothing to do with Birkets' stance on book coverage. I suggest he's culpable, but that doesn't mean that the essay here lacks interest. Despite its flaws, it does raise some points that should be addressed -- though perhaps not quite like this.

birnbaum

Okay,

I tried to restrain myself getting into this poylogue but by some perverse character flaw I could not resist (maybe perversity is the flaw?). Anyway, any derision or lack of manners, implicit or obvious, is as much directed at myself.

I thought Clive James had capped off the last outbreak of metacritical hand wringing with his Sept 2003 NYT Op-Ed piece
http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/07/opinion/07JAME.html?pagewanted=print&position=


There is an irony tied to this story, by the way, as Dale Peck says he was originally tapped to write the above cited James OP Ed but Adam Moss, late of the NYT Co, threatened to pull his Magazine profile if he (DP) did…

Anyway, It strikes me that Sven's piece is a preemptive strike against Dale Peck's announced last hatchet job(who believes him?) in some forthcoming issue of Maisonneuve— with guess who has the big target painted on him? Now all this ad hominem huffing and puffing, does it have a purpose?


I think it probably keeps some sociopaths off the streets and away from the polite society of cocktail parties (except maybe the Poets & Writers gatherings) and otherwise engages some smart people in procrastinatory & masturbatory web log effusions. But what great(er) good is served by this rehashing of rehash?

Okay then.

The comments to this entry are closed.

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

    Bs

    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

    Rider_4

    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."