by Pat Holt
Friday, July 26, 2002
BOOK REVIEWERS WHO EXPLODE IN PRINT
BOOK REVIEWERS WHO EXPLODE IN PRINT
Recently, two book reviewers have appeared in the news whose comments make people like me all a'flutter with concern.
First is novelist Dale Peck, who began his blistering review of Rick Moody's "The Black Veil" with the kindest words in his entire 6000-word piece - "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation" - and goes downhill from there.
All of Moody's books, he says, are "pretentious, muddled, derivative, bathetic." Worse, they reflect "the wrong turn in our culture" that began with James Joyce and "echoes all the way through Don DeLillo's ponderously self-important" novel, "Underworld."
This "bankrupt tradition" finds its heirs in such contemporary writers as Richard Powers, Dave Eggers, Donald Antrim, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Lethem, John Fowles, John Hawkes, William Gaddis and others. These are not "uniformly talentless or misguided" writers, Peck adds, but they are not, either, what many critics have described as "the highest of the high conanical postmodernism" writers.
They are rather, according to Peck - a gay man who mentions no women writers, one black writer and no gay writers - "the white man's ivory tower" that has controlled much of the direction and review of literature since "the diarrheic flow of words that is 'Ulysses'." Goodness.
Peck's Bad-Boy Indulgences
Dale Peck takes several long paragraphs at the beginning of his review to tell us of his frustrations writing the review. Gad, what a no-no this is in book reviewing. One "false start" after another is shown to the reader as Peck gets madder. It's not as amusing as he clearly wants it to be. It's more of an indulgence, a lot of wheel-spinning as we wait for Peck to get going.
Once he does, the dismantling of Moody's book becomes personal - another no-no: Just because Peck finds Moody's first paragraph some kind of "pissing contest, particularly if the reader happens to be a man," doesn't mean others will see it that way. Then there's this:
"For me, the beginning of a Rick Moody book is a bit like having a stranger walk up and smack me in the face, and then stand there waiting to see if I am man enough to separate him from his balls."
Oh, no. No, no, no, no, no. The idea is that Moody's use of a long "incantatory declaration" is nothing more than a grocery list of sorts, yet he gets away with it because people call it art and put him on bestseller lists.
This "smack in the face" insults a serious writer like Peck, who is talking here as a serious reader. And don't think the rest of us get out from under his radar. Readers, too, "bear some responsibility for the condition of fiction," which is to say, we are buying and reading the wrong stuff, according to Peck.
So to the third no-no: Why English literature took that "wrong turn" from James Joyce to Don DeLillo is never explored or explained. It hangs out there like its own smack in the face as Peck appears to wait and see if we are "man enough" to unhinge him with denials. How perfectly we have responded - the current "buzz" doesn't argue with him exactly; it asks him for more.
Two fun things do happen: When Peck quotes Moody's first paragraph, some readers may find it intriguing - if this is a grocery list, it's adventurous and well declared, and we might like to see where Moody goes with it. But Peck's outrage is *equally* intriguing, and though he would be less irksome if he'd stop ranting, what he's trying to get at about "the condition of fiction" is fascinating.
Second, when Peck quotes another paragraph deeper into the book - and this one is truly dreadful - we get closer to what he means about the "bankrupt tradition" of English literature that has led to Moody's writing. In this case, Moody's attempt at a "free-associative mind" sounds like an entry in a Bad Faulkner or Bad Joyce Contest.
Yet it is here that Peck relents a little, referring to "a true empathetic undercurrent in Moody's work" that makes his "hysterical desire to be heard" both forgivable and important. Of course this is not argued very well either - it's hard to know what in fact he's talking about when, by the end, he calls Moody both a "terrible" writer and "the genuine article."
See Peck's complete review at http://www.tnr.com/docprint.mhtml?i=20020701&s=peck070102.
The other book reviewer is Wanda Coleman, who wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Maya Angelou's latest book, "A Song Flung Up to Heaven" is a "sloppily written fake," full of "titillating confessions and coquettish allusions [that] come off as redundant and hollow old tricks."
A finalist for the 2001 National Book Award for Poetry and a long-time reviewer for the LA Times, Coleman says that despite her "bias against celebrity autobiographies," she wrote a favorable review of Maya Angelou's "All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes."
But, she says now: "No can do with 'Song.' "
Accusing the author of "artfully play[ing] the race card," Coleman says that Angelou "skips her days as a dancer and restyles herself as a militant, fostering the illusion that she was at the core of the civil rights and black power movements."
In so doing, Angelou, spending most of her life with whites, was "living above the concerns of a new generation of angry young blacks."
Coleman identifies herself as a member of the Organization of African-American Unity and privy to "the 1960s underground grapevine." She says that if Angelou had been as active as she describes herself, "it would have been news coast to coast."
Instead, "shamelessly, [Angelou] cannibalizes the reputations of three major black figures: Malcolm X (al-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz), James Baldwin and King Jr., using them as linchpins on which to promote her specious prose as an activist."
The book, says Coleman, is full of "dead metaphors ('sobbing embrace,' 'my heart fell in my chest') and clumsy similes ('like the sound of buffaloes running into each other at rutting time')."
Angelou could have made the decision to "make a graceful bow and retire from the literary round table," but no, Coleman says. "Alas, a dignified departure is not the trait of the greedy."
Not only has Angelou written a bad book, she has also had the audacity to launch a Hallmark Card line and is now writing "greeting card verse, a pursuit for which she is superbly suited."
At the end of the review, Coleman concludes: "Unfortunately the Maya Angelou of 'A Song Flung Up to Heaven' seems small and inauthentic, without ideas, wisdom or vision. Something is being flung up to heaven all right, but it isn't a song."
Shortly after the review was published (on April 14), Coleman was to appear at the African American Bookstore, Esowon Bookstore as part of a panel of 14 authors - all contributors to an anthology of short stories called "Griots Beneath the Baobab," published by the Los Angeles chapter of International Black Writers Association.
When Esowon's co-owner James Fugate requested that Randy Ross of IBWA "uninvite" Coleman because of her negative review of Maya Angelou, Ross polled the 14 contributors to "Griots."
Without naming Coleman, he said that one of them was not welcome at Esowon and asked: "Should we: (1) ask the writer if he/she would be willing to opt out of the reading? (2) cancel the event? or (3) other?" The majority voted to cancel the signing at Esowon.
Coleman, who voted with the majority, later insisted Ross name the writer in question. Learning that she was the one, "I was shocked and repulsed," she wrote in a later article for the Los Angeles Sentinel. "That I should be banned from any bookstore in support of Angelou's book seemed ludicrous and twisted."
Coleman and Her Readers
A fundamental lesson about book reviewing: Newspapers and magazines run book reviews as a service to the reader. There is no other reason.
When we blow up in print or savage an author or write funny-but-vicious reviews, we shift the reader's attention from the book in question to ourselves, and most of the time, that ain't good.
I call this the John Simon School of Nasty Career-Making after the New York Magazine critic who continues to make a name for himself as the world's most mean-spirited theater reviewer.
It's not that Simon holds the plays before him to a higher standard than anyone else does. Rather, when he finds an opportunity to ridicule a work, he does so with such relish that we never get to know if the play is worth seeing - if there is anything about it that's done well enough to be of interest to any audience.
Simon knows that it's always harder to write a favorable review than an unfavorable one. Positive reviews written straight from the heart often end up as pure mush; negative reviews come from that clarity of fury that opens up a whole new vocabulary and range of humor every time.
So if the purpose of book reviewing is as a service to readers, it's important to remember that you can't just blast away at a beloved figure like Maya Angelou and expect readers to hear you.
But this is what Wanda Coleman does in her review. Of course Coleman contends she was heard almost too loudly - witness the bookstore that banned her from its premises. But her meticulous dismantling of Angelou's book and the searing criticism that is supported by real evidence (quotes of the writing) almost get lost in the shuffle.
Every famous writer is capable of writing a weak book, and if Angelou in this case creates a persona that is not accurate according to Coleman's recollection, the reviewer's job is to face both problems and explain them clearly to readers.
Accusing Angelou of being "greedy" or not living up to Coleman's idea of "the concerns of a new generation of angry young blacks" seem to me to go beyond the purview of a book review. You can say the text makes her *sound* greedy and offer a quote as evidence. But you can't assume that the writing of the book alone - "one more traipse to the trough"; gad, that's rough - backs up that claim.
Coleman's last sentence - "Something is being flung up to heaven all right, but it isn't a song" - is to me both hilarious and execrable. It's one of those lines that may cause readers to burst out laughing, but at whose expense and at what price?
At the end of Coleman's review, the LA Times runs an excerpt from the book in which Angelou sits down in her mother's kitchen to pen the first words of "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings."
It's not a particularly well-written scene, but considering the effect of Angelou's famous first book, which broke through a number of racial barriers and is now taught in schools all over the country, the historic nature of that moment and in that kitchen is palpable. For all those who were moved by that book, a mud-slinging review is not fair.
What never made the review at all is Coleman's astute observation that many African American writers are not being held to the same standard as, say, African American athletes.
"Simply put: if [Michael] Jordan played basketball, [Tiger] Woods played golf, or the Williams Sisters played tennis on the level many lauded African-Americans write, no one would have heard of them."
That's tough-minded and incisive, but it's not part of Coleman's review; it's part of a long response to "The Angelou-Esowon Contretemps" that Coleman wrote later for African American newspaper, the Los Angeles Sentinel.
In this piece she talks about the difference between "race-defense," an impulse to "cheer on and support every 'splendid' spokesperson and representative of our race," and "race-defensiveness, in which we become overly sensitive to any kind of criticism from anyone - even one of our own."
Remarks like that, plus thoughts ranging from the significance of being banned from Esowon to matters of "cronyism" in literary circles, have meaning beyond the original review. It's an absorbing article that I hope will appear online one day. Instead of going on the attack, it inspires us to think more deeply about all these issues.
Here's the URL, though, for Coleman's original review in the LA Times: http://www.calendarlive.com/top/1,1419,L-LATimes-Search-X!ArticleDetail-56132,00.html.
One reason I loved being a book editor was that book reviewing was, to me, like the process of democracy - messy and frustrating and important and fun; and exhilarating over time.
As much as they are able, book editors must let all viewpoints in. If they don't, the pressure to conform to a single way of thinking about literature pushes and pushes until somebody - like a Dale Peck or Wanda Coleman - explodes in print.
So even though I disagree with much that Peck and Coleman wrote, I'm glad they've launched a discussion that might have been taboo before. They show us how important it is to consider radically different points of view. I only wish they hadn't done it under the guise of book reviews.
FROM WORKING ASSETS: TELL ASHCROFT TO STOP
If you've been fired up by stories here and elsewhere about FBI agents barging into libraries and demanding to see records that identify which patrons borrowed which books, here's your chance to act.
Working Assets has now made it easy to send an email message to Attorney General John Ashcroft that tells him to stop "all law enforcement incursions into library records until their constitutionality can be determined by the courts."
You can do this simply by clicking on http://www.workingforchange.com/activism/action.cfm?itemid=13612.
I fired the dang thing off myself and the process took about 20 seconds. I don't expect Ashcroft to suspend the practice. But since he announced today that the Bush administration is going ahead with Operation TIPS (see #336) no matter what Congress says, I want him to know that I'm one of hundreds of thousands of people who are not taking these invasions lightly.
The staff wants to party with publishers in New York who take every Friday off during the summer, so we'll be moving to a one-day-only format until after Labor Day. It's the heat, of course - in these late summer months, we don't have any. See you next week!
NOTE TO READERS: Bob Haas (not the poet; the Levi Strauss chief) was a student of Dorothy Bryant when she taught at Mission High School in San Francisco under her first married name, Dorothy Ungaretti. He wrote this note as a personal letter to her and with his permission, she showed it to me. I thought it so relevant to the message of her chapter that I asked if the email could be run in the LETTERS section. Bob Haas has graciously consented. The chapter to which he refers can be read here.
Dear Mrs. Ungaretti (sorry...after 40 years I can't bring myself to write "Dorothy" or "Mrs. Bryant"):
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
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