Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers
by Tom on January 04, 2011
- Sunday Book Review cover: A feature on "Why Criticism Matters," featuring six critics justifying their jobs in the age of, among other things, the Amazon customer review. In part, it's a reminder to me that critics are often better when they have a specific object to write about, rather than a general topic like this. But unsurprisingly I found the most to like in Sam Anderson's piece, especially this bit, which helps explain both the fiction and the criticism that I too am drawn to: "My favorite work is always that which allows itself to imaginatively intermingle with its source text — to somehow match or channel or negate the energy of the text that inspired it. It can be imitative, competitive or collaborative; it can mimic or mock or scramble or counterbalance the tone of the source. It can be subtle or overt. But it will always have this doubled-over, creative quality: one memorable writer responding, in memorable writing, to another.... Balzac’s 'Sarrasine' is a new book, or set of books, now that Barthes has written 'S/Z.' 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man' is radically redefined by Hugh Kenner’s 'Dublin’s Joyce.' Updike’s career is a different thing in the wake of Nicholson Baker’s 'U and I.' Catullus is a different poet after Anne Carson’s 'Nox.' In the grand game of intertextuality — which is, after all, the dominant and defining game of the Internet era — critics are not just referees: they’re equal players."
- I also liked this from Elif Batuman: "Negative criticism is particularly exciting, not only because of schadenfreude, but because once limitations are identified, we glimpse how to transcend them. Learning the shortcomings of today’s neuronovel, we catch sight of the psychological novel of the future: a novel expressive of the problems we have now, including the encroachment of cognitive science into the concept of the self. When this novel appears, it will be because some people wrote neuronovels and books like 'Proust Was a Neuroscientist' and others identified the ways in which these works captivated us but failed to describe human existence."
- There were also regular old book reviews, like Geoff Dyer on The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt: "With its vivid haze of detail, 'The Memory Chalet' is the work of a historian forced to do without many of the tools on which he had placed the greatest reliance. It used to be said — maybe still is — that in the instant of death, your life flashes before your eyes. By prolonging Judt’s life the miracles of medical technology effectively extended the process of his dying over several grueling years. So what we have is that instant of compressed recollection expanded and expounded upon. It is the furthest cry imaginable — not a cry at all — from 'The Death of Ivan Ilyich.' You can almost sense the soul of the historian leaving his body, leaving the still-living body of work behind."
- Matthew Sharpe on The Radleys by Matt Haig: "The vampire novel is a crowded genre these days. To distinguish itself, a book will need inventiveness, wit, beauty, truth and a narrative within which these attributes can flourish. 'The Radleys,' by Matt Haig, has got them, if sometimes in alloyed form.... With its striking visuals, snappy dialogue and high-energy plot, the story should make an appealing movie. But while the plot propels us forward, the novel’s big themes tend to get repeated rather than developed."
- Wendy Smith on The Lake of Dreams by Kim Edwards: "Edwards aspires to delineate the complex bonds of family and the tangled web of history in her tale of 'beauty and loss surfacing in every generation,' but her insights aren't always up to the level of her ambitions.... But some lovely descriptive passages display a more deft touch, prompting the hope that this talented writer will try to do less and execute more thoughtfully next time around."
Los Angeles Times:
- Judith Lewis Mernit on Poser by Claire Dederer: "[G]oodness as it turns out is elusive and not terribly interesting for the same reason most books about yoga are unreadable: No one wants to hear about how good you are. We want to hear about how you tried to be good and fell short. And by doing just that, 'Poser' achieves something rare: It's a contemporary book about yoga that doesn't leave you squirming, suspect or bored."
- Wendy Smith (again) on American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee by Karen Abbott: "Abbott ... needn't have bothered with these sensationally dubious tidbits; they don't add anything essential to the riveting narrative she's fashioned from more reliable material to tell an all-American story of triumphant self-invention shadowed by an inescapable past.... Abbott's empathetic understanding of a stripper whose greatest gift was concealment is her biography's principal strength.... At its core, 'American Rose' is a haunting portrait of a woman 'giving what she has to, keeping all she can,' offering her audiences a sassy, confident self while making sure they would never know the damaged soul who created her."
Wall Street Journal:
- Eric Ormsby on All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age by Herbert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly: "What makes their case finally compelling is their insistence on the importance of openness, on attentiveness to the given moment, on what they call 'a fully embodied, this-worldly kind of sacred.' If, as they claim, 'the story of how we lost touch with these sacred practices is the hidden history of the West,' they have offered some small but shining hints on how we might hope to recover them."
- Andrew Stuttaford on When Money Dies: The Nightmare of Deficit Spending, Devaluation and Hyperinflation in Weimar Germany by Adam Fergusson: "Now back in print, this once obscure book from 1975 has been selling briskly. Just another manifestation of the financial millenarianism now sweeping the land? Perhaps, but 'When Money Dies' remains a fascinating and disturbing book.... His examination of both the seductions of inflation and its devastatingly corrosive effect is merciless and horrifying. Most haunting are the depictions of those broken on inflation's wheel, the workers without a union to protect them, the retired trying to live on pensions that had lost all meaning, the once-proud bourgeois after the annihilation of their savings. A nation can recover from hyperinflation, but for these people time had run out. Every body ought to read this book. But baby boomers must."
- Tim Adams on Pulse by Julian Barnes (available on Amazon.co.uk): "Barnes is as concerned with fidelity as betrayal, though, and with fulfilment as well as singularity.... Barnes is a master at establishing the intimacies of mortality in this kind of relationship, forever testing the limits to which our faith in human connection might stretch. He demonstrated that ability most memorably in the final half-chapter of his A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, the one devoted to the possibilities of love, which made all the rest worthwhile. He seems to be examining those possibilities again in the second half of this poignant collection, though the implication, the hope, is perhaps more fragile than ever."
- Andrew Motion on Working the Room by Geoff Dyer (avail. in UK): "Reading Working the Room doesn't seem like work at all. It does, however, leave questions about what he might do next. Can so affably demotic a manner rise to the mood of high seriousness that seems to press on him increasingly often? Will he make the digressive, riffing style – in novels and nonfiction – do more than he has used it to do already? Can his strategies for surprise continue to seem surprising – and throw up more profound insights? It's not really a part of Dyer's character to set out such challenges in such serious terms (it would look too try-hard). But they haunt Working the Room nevertheless."
The New Yorker:
- Joan Acocella on The Millennium Trilogy Boxed Set by Stieg Larsson: "However much the book was revised, it should have been revised more.... [T]here are blatant violations of logic and consistency. Loose ends dangle. There are vast dumps of unnecessary detail. When Lisbeth goes to IKEA, we get a list of every single thing she buys. ('Two Karlanda sofas with sand-colored upholstery, five Poäng armchairs, two round side tables of clear-lacquered birch, a Svansbo coffee table, and several Lack occasional tables,' and that’s just for the living room.) The jokes aren’t funny. The dialogue could not be worse. The phrasing and the vocabulary are consistently banal.... I am basing these judgments on the English edition, but, if this text was the product of extensive editing, what must the unedited version have looked like? Maybe somebody will franchise this popular series—hire other writers to produce further volumes. This is not a bad idea. We’re not looking at Tolstoy here. The loss of Larsson’s style would not be a sacrifice."