Archive for January, 2011

What’s the Matter with Book Critics Today?

Saturday, January 8th, 2011


Over a decade ago the distinguished critic Jonathan Yardley, whose book reviews appear in the Washington Post, observed, “There is no such thing as a powerful book critic.”

That remains true today.

Though there is reason to lament this state of affairs, it is not the diminished cultural impact of book reviewers that worries me. Rather, what concerns me is an overall decline in the quality of book criticism appearing in mainstream media publications. There is still a sizable number of people who read book reviews, and we deserve better.

I’ve been monitoring newspaper and magazine critics’ reactions to “Bird Cloud,” Annie Proulx’s non-fiction book released earlier this week. I’m finding that a diseased strain of “reviewing” — a strain that first came to my attention last year around the time of the publication of Jonathan Franzen’s novel, “Freedom” — appears to be spreading.

I’m speaking of a mode of critical attack that exposes not so much the flaws of the book under review as the deficiencies of the book reviewer who indulges in its practice. This baleful approach is characterized by ad hominem attacks delivered in a voice that blends self-absorbed gusto with made-up grievance.

If this virus has a ground zero it might be an execrable “Freedom” review/profile from the pen of Jennie Yabroff, an article that Newsweek editors unwisely chose to publish last August as another marker in the decline and fall of that once vital periodical.

A month later the self-absorbed component of the style was placed center-stage in a review of Philip Roth’s latest novel, “Nemesis,” in The New York Times. In the piece, Leah Hager Cohen spends the first five paragraphs, a sizable chunk of the entire piece, talking about herself, her history, her touch points with Roth’s oeuvre, her moods, her equivocations, her journey. Yes, it’s all about me-me-me, before I go head-to-head with the author. This diversion into the self is “relevant,” she says. To her credit, she then goes on to say intelligent things about the book, judging it fairly on its merits.

Most of us who’ve reached middle age can sense when someone else has pre-judged a matter. I am especially concerned about reviews that signal the presence of prejudice.

One such stink bomb, a book review that adds to the mix an aggrieved whine and some tired preppy insults, landed in December. In an online review posted by The New Republic, Andrew Butterfield does a hatchet job on Steve (“lazy”) Martin’s novel, “An Object of Beauty.” Typical of Mr. Butterfield’s approach is the bloodless delivery of this calumny: “All [Martin] makes you feel is that your ignorance should arouse your envy—that you, poor thing, are less fortunate than he and the fancy people in his book.”

Now, personal rants of this sort, especially those that rise to histrionic pitch, are usually full of howlers, and Butterfield does not disappoint. For example, his command of the book is so slipshod that he is unable ever to get the book title correct, not even once. Three times he refers to it as “The Object of Beauty.” (But wait, you say — is it possible a gremlin slipped Butterfield a rogue, evil version of the good book I had the pleasure to read?) His paragraph assuring us there has never been an art collector who ever wore an Armani suit is a real hoot.

The decline continues to manifest itself in 2011.

Early in his review of “Bird Cloud” published in the New York Times this week, Dwight Garner lays down a marker, dubbing the book “shelter porn.” It can be viewed, he says, as a product of “a wealthy and imperious writer who . . . believes people will sympathize with her about the bummers involved in getting her Japanese soaking tub, tatami-mat exercise area, Mexican talavera sink and Brazilian floor tiles installed just so.” In truth, the tub installation problem that needed correcting (described on page 118) involved a clogged outflow drain which caused water to leak to the downstairs library, threatening Proulx’s research files and vital book collection. I wonder how Garner would react if his auto mechanic were to chide him for selfishly wanting his oil-leaking car engine tweaked “just so.” Oh, never mind.

Then there are the words “tatami mats.” These four syllables have an exotic sound that attracts easy mockery, but does Garner really want to throw his lot in with the class warriors who made hay of Obama’s expression of arugula-love, back in 2008? And what’s with Garner’s prissy “just so” fillip, anyhow? I defy any reader to come away from “Bird Cloud” with the impression of Annie Proulx as a prissy lady (although I have to admit that taunt — Prissy Annie Proulx! Prissy Annie Proulx! — feels kinda good tripping off the tongue). I also defy anyone to come away from “Bird Cloud” with the feeling that Proulx wants us to “sympathize with her” for any of her travails, large or small.

While others (in Slate and in The New Yorker, before which I normally bow down in awe) are saying sweet things about how clever Garner’s review of “Bird Cloud” is (I agree Garner can be witty, and he delivers verdicts with a good comic’s sense of timing), I have a sneaking suspicion neither of the encomium-givers (Timothy Noah and Ian Crouch) has read “Bird Cloud” in full.

One thing I know for sure: no one’s interested in my reviewing their reviews of a review of a book. To get caught up in the vagaries of a posse of literary critics — a dysfunctional family if ever there was one — is not conducive to anyone’s mental or moral health. So, returning to the merits of Proulx’s “Bird Cloud,” I simply will say as a reader I disagree with Garner. With him you get a twofer: a misunderstanding of the book and a misreading of the author.

There has always been a moral component to the best literary criticism. That tradition, when examining “Bird Cloud,” would call on the critic to examine the environmental ethic so important to Proulx’s experience on her 640 acres of raw Wyoming rangeland. Keep in mind this is land the author decided to purchase by trading in her fair-gotten gains from her writings. The seller was The Nature Conservancy, and it is under the constraints of rigorous covenants that Proulx enjoys the property.

Few if any reviewers appear interested in this aspect of the book. Instead, critics stir up (or, in my opinion, make up) grievances. Garner, for example, finds it “deplorable” that Proulx writes so freely about “the perks of [her] success.” Joining Garner in his descent into status resentment is Michael Upchurch, who, in his review of the book in the Seattle Times, gives Proulx the raspberry for overreaching. He sums up his disdain for the 75-year-old author with this barb: “You wonder if Proulx has a single ounce of common sense.”

A notable element in these complaints is the loopy premise that the status of America’s economic health at the moment of a book’s publication could justify placing cautions, if not actual fetters, on free expression. Can that really be what these scolds advocate? Consider how Upchurch upbraids Proulx: “Her decision to publish this account of her extravagance when so many Americans are losing their homes seems in dubious taste.”

All too often nowadays the cultural impotence of book critics’ messages is matched by the imbecility of their content.

I wonder if it’s time to spin a variation on the Catskills resort joke (the food is terrible . . . and such small portions!).

How about this:  What book critics write is terrible . . . and it has no impact!


“Bird Cloud: A Memoir” by Annie Proulx

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011



It is common for a reader proceeding through an Annie Proulx novel or short story to find that it is growing on you page by page, layer by layer, as her sure carpentry builds a fine and strong effect. That was my experience while reading the non-fiction “Bird Cloud.” If in her best fiction Proulx carpenters untold stories into life, this new work finds Proulx retelling old stories, resurfacing tales of history, geology, geography, climate, biology. Her evident pleasure in doing so means that many readers will be pleased with the telling.

Take note of the book’s cover: a photograph, well-selected, mostly likely a Proulx choice. It is a harbinger of what the 234 pages inside are really about. It is not by mistake that you cannot see the author’s new home whose three-year construction (2004-2006) some publicity material and reviews mistakenly suggest is the main subject of the book. You are right to sense that the vast sky and rangeland extending to the horizon hold multitudes. “Bird Cloud” is not a Wyoming version of “House,” Tracy Kidder’s meticulous recounting of the planning, design and construction of a New England custom home. Proulx offers us no schematics, no blueprints, no floor plans, no budget details. While she does parcel out a handful of practical homebuilding “how-to’s” and a selection of anecdotes (dominated by snafus and disappointments), the house-related material in fact occupies less than half of the book’s content.

The building is not where Proulx fixes her emotional energy. Her heart lies elsewhere: in side-tales of her family’s genealogy; in stories of the “rapacity and venal grasping” of all too many of Wyoming’s founders; in the terrible legacy of insults to the land, its game animals, its Indian inhabitants; in a child-like delight she takes in the “archeological possibilities” of her 640 acres; and in her experience of the raw power of nature at 7000 feet above sea level, where hurricane-force winds and isolation-inducing snowdrifts are routine. The book’s emotional apogee is the final, and longest, chapter — a narrative that tracks through the 12 months of 2007 as Proulx watches the lives of the site’s abundant bird life unfold. In these pages Proulx, amateur as a birder but first-rate as a raconteur, unleashes a warm observational humor.

The book is vulnerable to two criticisms. One is that “Bird Cloud” lacks an overarching theme. It hosts lots of little stories but does not have a big story, and readers who demand an entirely consistent narrative experience may be disappointed. Another criticism is that the book’s subtitle — “a Memoir” — is misleading. This is not a memoir as that label is understood in our era of no-holds-barred confessional outpourings. Anyone expecting this author, now in her eighth decade, to lay bare the intimacies of her personal diary, to expose her emotional core, or to explain, for example, how her three divorces have shaped the woman she is today, will come away empty-handed. Proulx is one author unlikely to appear on Oprah’s couch.

If you see yourself as a potential reader of “Bird Cloud,” consider first reading a rare and revealing interview conducted at her Bird Cloud Ranch, published in the Spring 2009 issue of Paris Review. Another useful prelude to immersion in the book is the free audio excerpt of its second chapter. Entitled “A Yard of Cloth,” it is a stand-alone story of how an eerie intervention of fate saved Proulx and her sister from a fatal accident. The audio clip is available at the website of the publisher, Simon & Shuster. Finally, readers who complete the meandering but engrossing experience of this book and who may, at that point, wonder about the current status of the site, will find the answer in the new property listing, here. Yes, Proulx has placed Bird Cloud Ranch up for sale for $3.7 million.

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Odds and Ends – No. 3

Saturday, January 1st, 2011


American (Ah-MAIR-eh-ken) Dialects

In what can best be described as a labor of love, Rick Aschmann has been building a website documenting “North American English Dialects, Based on Pronunciation Patterns.” It’s available here. Reading Aschmann’s exhaustive, discerning, explanatory texts, one theme emerges: most of us are blissfully unaware of the confusing peculiarities of our own dialects, and somehow we manage to understand each other.

On Planes and Trains, Scanning the Books of Others

I’m not alone in being curious about what others are reading, and I freely indulge my curiosity when walking down the aisle of a train or plane, standing on the subway, or sitting with strangers in a waiting room. Yet I wonder, is it rude to look over someone’s shoulder at what they’re reading? Is it wrong to exceed the limit of a quick glance, to surreptitiously read someone else’s book for as many seconds as your position allows? I have a feeling this is wrong — maybe because the action parallels the offense of cheating on a schoolroom test, looking at your neighbor’s paper. Still, it is at worst a quick and victimless theft.

What’s of interest to me is that during the swipe, the thief’s eye and mind is sometimes able to capture enough information to render a judgment on the quality (high or low) of the spied-upon book. Case in point: on a plane last year, as I sat in an aisle seat, I had the opportunity, lasting several seconds, to read half a page of a paperback novel held open by a passenger sitting across the aisle, one row forward. I never learned the title of the book or the name of its author, yet I still remember these phrases gracing the page: “I said stiffly,” “It rang a faint bell,” “The bodies festered,” and, “It was all but intolerable.”

Disrespecting our Flowing Waters

Why does Google Maps not routinely tell us the names of rivers and streams in the areas we are researching?  When you zoom in on the location you’re interest in, using the map or hybrid map/satellite option, and you notice a nearby river or stream or creek, there is no indication of its name. Also, plugging into the search box the names of river and streams usually provides disappointing (or no) results. Suppose you wanted to quickly locate where the North Platte River meets its sister, the South Platte River. Good luck. Am I alone, or part of too small an audience, wanting, and finding value in, that information?

The Value of Elementary School Teachers

I’m one of those people who, half a century later, can rattle off the names of their Kindergarten and elementary school teachers: seven women who are responsible in no small measure for the person I am today. Over the last five decades, ball players’ salaries have risen to a level hundreds of times the average salary of other skilled workers and craftsman. Salaries of CEOs have lofted to ever higher multiples of their company’s typical employee’s salary. Public school teachers’ salaries? Shamefully, teachers have not shared in the economic rewards they deserve.

What do teachers deserve? According to emerging empirical evidence, the answer is a hell of a lot more than their current compensation.  See, for example, the working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, entitled, “The Economic Value of Higher Teacher Quality”.  Adam Ozimek’s thoughts on where this leads, are here. Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist who is also investigating this subject, estimates that an excellent kindergarten teacher is worth a salary of $320,000 a year.

An article in the NY Times explained it this way: “Students who had learned much more in kindergarten were more likely to go to college than students with otherwise similar backgrounds. Students who learned more were also less likely to become single parents. As adults, they were more likely to be saving for retirement. Perhaps most striking, they were earning more. All else equal, they were making about an extra $100 a year at age 27 for every percentile they had moved up the test-score distribution over the course of kindergarten. A student who went from average to the 60th percentile — a typical jump for a 5-year-old with a good teacher — could expect to make about $1,000 more a year at age 27 than a student who remained at the average. Over time, the effect seems to grow, too. The economists don’t pretend to know the exact causes. But it’s not hard to come up with plausible guesses. Good early education can impart skills that last a lifetime — patience, discipline, manners, perseverance.”

A Convergence of Look

The faces of Senator Susan Collins of Maine and John Lennon made frequent appearances in the news in recent weeks — hers, because of  her key role in passing legislation during the Senate’s lame duck session; and his, accompanying stories on the 30th anniversary of his death. See if you agree that something in the photographs suggests a blood relationship: