Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Blurbings and Bitchslappings in the Book Review

Usually the hubby and I spend Sunday morning working our way through the weekend editions of the Washington Post and the New York Times. It’s all grotesquely domestic—coffee, spooning, occasional sharing of good bits from the pages we’re reading, occasional shared explosions of snot-flying, wheezing, heaving allergies caused by the massive hair expulsions of our beagle, Coltrane.

This weekend, though, we were away celebrating Tim’s birthday and so didn’t get to our usual ritual. We spent Sunday morning waking up pleasantly below the deck of the Schooner Woodwind, a sailboat that does tours out of Annapolis and serves, on Saturday evenings, as a “boat and breakfast” for those who want a whisper of piracy and wave-rocked relaxation without the tedious traditional accompaniments of scurvy and Dramamine. We had to get up early for breakfast, so we missed our usual newsprint canoodle. Besides, the stateroom was the size of a large shoebox. If we’d tried to fit the two massive Sunday editions into the sleep-drawer with us, one of us would have ended up in the water, dodging ducklings and the occasional drifting raft of beer barf.

To make an already tedious story short, I missed two worthwhile pieces about writing in the Times’ Book Review—one, Rachel Donadio’s funny piece about the inside business of blurbing, and two, Walter Kirn’s excoriation of James Wood’s new book, How Fiction Works. The two pieces are a matched set bookending the section: the politics of “to blurb or not to blurb” and a review that can only be described as “The Anti-Blurb.”

I’ve always thought that a review in the Times could only be good for a book’s sales, even if the review was mostly negative. Having witnessed plenty of rubbernecking on the actual highway, I can’t help but think some readers will get on the virtual one and buy the book just to see the smoke and the blood and judge for themselves how bad it is. Kirn’s takedown of the book is so vicious and personal (and funny) it made me cringe—and wonder if Wood had once seduced his wife or killed his dog.

Remember the dust-up over Heidi Julavits' piece on nasty criticism? In her piece for The Believer in 2003, Julavits wrote:

... I don’t know what many critics believe when it comes to literature; at worst, I fear that book reviews are just an opportunity for a critic to strive for humor, and to appear funny and smart and a little bit bitchy, without attempting to espouse any higher ideals—or even to try to understand, on a very localized level, what a certain book is trying to do, even if it does it badly. This is wit for wit’s sake—or, hostility for hostility’s sake. ... I call it Snark, and it has crept with alarming speed into the reviewing community ...

Kirn's piece reminded me of the tussle over the Julavits piece. But I wondered whether this a different breed of nasty? If so, why? Is it because it’s a critic taking down a critique—what sounds, from the sample grabs in the review, like a particularly pompous critique? Kirn reaches, in the final crescendo of his essay, the classic rhythms of a preacher's rant:

“How Fiction Works” is a definitive title, promising much and presuming even more: that anyone, in the age of made-up memoirs and so-called novels whose protagonists share their authors’ biographies and names, still knows what fiction is; that those who do know agree that it resembles a machine or a device, not a mess, a mystery or a miracle; and that once we know how fiction works, we’ll still care about it as an art form rather than merely admire it as an exercise. But there is one question this volume answers conclusively: Why Readers Nap.


I think Kirn nails it in that last graf: can anyone, anymore, say what fiction is, much less how it works? But while I’m grateful to him for the caveat (I’ve been considering reading Wood’s book), if I were at a cocktail party with the two writers, I’m not sure which I’d be more eager to avoid. Bumpy night, indeed. Hope Kirn has his next set of blurbers lined up solidly—and that none of them drink beers with Wood.


Maggie May said...

ouch indeed!!

a lot of authors are highly critical of book reviewers. john irving famously says most book reviewers haven't even read the entire book they are reviewing.

Anonymous said...


Kirn's piece reminded me of your "takedown" of my blogger name:

"Hey, do me a favor and pick a handle: Anon 3 seems so ... blank! It can be Donald, it can be Daffy -- heck, it can be Al L'orange if you like. Tx!"

[Anon 3, a.k.a. Duck Soup]

M. C. Allan said...

MM: I got the distinct impression that Wood might have come off better if Kirn HADN'T read the whole book!

Bloggergenghis? Awesome. I'm so using that whenever I wanna go Kirn on somebody.

Wasn't meant as a takedown, Ducky, just an attempt to put a face (a billed one) on your amusing postings. When comments come anonymously, I'm more inclined to treat them as ... ahem ... canards. :)

Angela said...

Hilarious piece on blurbing. I got a say I'm a sucker for a great blurb -- especially from a reputable source like Sedaris. Tony Bourdain's blurbs are great too. His blurb about Steven Shaw's "Turning the Tables" made me peel open my wallet and pay full price for the book at Borders. It read:

"Pure crack for foodies looking for more 'inside' information on the restaurant world."


BTW, that boat ride sounds awesome! Can't wait to hear all about it.

YogaforCynics said...

I spent Sunday morning (or, as most people call it, Sunday afternoon) with coffee and Coltrane (in disembodied mp3 form--not quite the same as a beagle), though, sadly, nobody in the coffee shop with whom to spoon--and had maybe a similar experience with Kirn's review of Wood--I enjoyed it, because Wood sounds like the kind of literary critic I love to see excoriated (probably because I had way too many of them as profs in grad school) and because I have similar disagreements in terms of literary taste--and yet, is preferring Henry James over Walt Whitman really such a crime? Then, in my experience, it's generally the stuffy Woodses with their imperious aesthetics who throw the first pompous punches in such scuffles...and, more obnoxiously, pretend they're not throwing punches at all...and, anyway, it was one of the more entertaining reviews in many a Sunday...in fact, considerably more entertaining than any of the fiction I've read by Walter Kirn....

M. C. Allan said...

YogaFC: That's the problem with those reviews; they're so much fun to read! I snorted all the way through it but then felt like I'd been cheering at the Coliseum and should do penance for it. Really good point about critics throwing punches without acknowledging it; reminds me of that old saying about diplomacy: the art of saying what you mean and leaving the room before it is fully understood. thanks for dropping by!

M. C. Allan said...

Ang, I thought the Donadio piece was really funny, too! I've assumed that sort of behind-the-scenes fnagling for years, but it was nice to read a confirmation.

Lately, it's less the blurbs that amuse me than the other jacket copy. On books of poetry, I feel like half the descriptions I read end with the phrase, "A major new vision from a poet at the height of her powers." "At the height of his/her powers" is really big right now :)

Anonymous said...

I am at the height of my powers.

-Duck Soup

Anonymous said...

Duck Soup is "at the height of [his] powers."

M. C. Allan said...

Maybe so, but is he "the voice of his generation"?

sam of the ten thousand things said...

Interesting read here, MC. Thanks for the links.