Reviewing Gone Wrong

The problems with book reviewing are legion, as pretty much every literary blog and magazine noted last year, as newspapers shuttered or cut back their book-review sections. But often the problems are very fundamental: Even the major review pubs run pieces that are sick with cliches (“achingly beautiful,” “stunning”), and among the chief flaws of the amateur reviewer is attacking a book for not being something it was trying to be anyway. A good example is this review of Junot Diaz‘s The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao. Granted, the publication is the World Socialist Web Site, but even partisan reviewers should have a clear idea of what a book’s intentions are. I thought it was obvious that Diaz’s book wasn’t first and foremost historical fiction–it was a study of adolescence, romantic obsession, and what it meant to be a man. All of this was set against the political history of the Dominican Republic, but the book certainly didn’t intend to be a widescreen portrait of the social-political interactions between that country and the U.S. Yet here’s Sandy English:

To a certain extent, the sponsorship of Trujillo and his successors by successive US administrations from Hoover to Johnson goes undiscussed. But this only serves to emphasize that history in this book stops at the Miami airport. Characters are formed only by a Dominican social reality. The bitterness of the dictatorship and the pathos of the failed attempts to resist oppression and degradation are also exclusively Dominican.

This goes some way toward explaining why Oscar’s internal being remains unexplored. Many aspects of American life in the years 1975 to 1995 remain unexcavated by fiction, poetry and other arts. Enormous changes in economy and politics would have had a profound effect on Oscar, Lola and Yunior’s generation. A cultural shift occurred with the Reaganite worship of success and money. A great deal of social water has flowed under the bridge in the past three decades. It affected fiction, but fiction, by and large, has failed to approach and deal with it consciously.

The great Dominican-American social novel that English dreams of may yet be written, and it may be great. But that’s not the novel Diaz meant to write, and it’s preposterous to be mad at him for not satisfying an individual reader’s wish for it.

“Books That Make You Dumb”

Virgil Griffith, creator of the wonderful Wikiscanner–which details how people tweak the Wikipedia pages of the companies they work at–has a new project up now, titled “Books That Make You Dumb.” (BTMYD after) Here’s how it works:

  1. Get a friend of yours to download, using Facebook, the ten most popular books at every college (manually — as not to violate Facebook’s ToS). These ten books are indicative of the overall intellectual milieu of that college.
  2. Download the average SAT/ACT score for students attending every college.
  3. Presto! We have a correlation between books and dumbitude (smartitude too)!

    Books <=> Colleges <=> Average SAT Scores

  4. Plot the average SAT of each book, discarding books with too few samples to have a reliable average.
  5. Post the results on your website, pondering what the Internet will think of it.

Right, yes, what to think of this? Well, BTMYD will likely quickly become a blunt instrument for racists and antireligious zealots who want to argue that black and religious schools are full of low-IQ types: The Color Purple, Flyy Girl, Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Purpose Driven Life, and the Bible are among the books on the low-SAT end. Clearly somebody’s fallen into the correlation/causation trap; reading those books doesn’t make you any dumber, nor does it signify a lack of intelligence. What it does speak to is how the most selective colleges tend to serve wealthy white kids–see Peter Schmidt‘s Color and Money on this point–who likely have no particular compulsion to read True to the Game. (And look at the page for that book: The list of schools where the book is popular includes Bowie State, Delaware State, Lincoln University, and other historically black colleges.)

If BTMYD wants to argue that what gets read at America’s colleges and universities relates to SAT scores and in turn relates to who gets to go to elite colleges, I’m interested. But the very title of the site proves that that’s not where its intentions lay. Congratulations, Virgil–you’ve just reinvented phrenology.

New in Bookforum

Lots of great stuff in the Feb./March issue of Bookforum, free online. In particular, James Wolcott writes about Donald Barthelme, putting the writer’s thoughtful/reckless fiction into context. Barthelme’s experimental fiction, Wolcott writes, was an important counterweight to the prim, just-so stories the New Yorker usually preferred to publish, and influenced the magazine’s style in years to come:

Over the years, Barthelme’s antic break with the traditional tactful manner of the classic New Yorker story, where every stick of furniture and motivation was neatly, firmly in place, would expand into an entire wing of the magazine’s house style. His mastery of incongruity and curveball allusions helped liberate the whiz brains in the office and scramble the genetic code of the magazine’s humor and fiction irregulars: By the ’70s, the set-piece fictions and “casuals” of Ian Frazier, Veronica Geng, Mark Singer, Marshall Brickman, and George W. S. Trow abounded with absurdist dialogues, box scores, chess notations, chicken-scratch scribblings, send-ups of familiar minigenres (liner notes, movie blurbs, capsule reviews, wedding notices), multiple-choice quizzes, and mash-up satires (Geng’s specialty—assigned to write a new intro to Dwight Macdonald’s anthology Parodies: An Anthology from Chaucer to Beerbohm—and After, she pretended to have him confused with the mystery novelist John D. MacDonald, the creator of Travis McGee, and cast Robert Benchley in the part of “the Vietnam vet who drifted freely between the glittering cabanas of the Fun Coast and the oil-stained walkways of a derelict marina”). They ran riot while Ann Beattie stood slightly off to the side, strumming her hair.

The Karibu Effect

Lots of coverage of the closing of D.C.-area African American bookstore chain Karibu Books today. Hillel Italie quotes Zane in an AP story:

“I was shocked to hear the news,” said Zane, the best-selling author who lives in suburban Maryland. Zane, known for such erotic novels as Afterburn and Addicted, said that Karibu stocked her books when no one else would and was the first store where she appeared for a signing. She had made it a tradition to begin each of her author tours with a signing at one of the Karibu stores.

“I had been talking to them about my next book and knew there was something wrong because they couldn’t schedule me,” she told the AP. “Karibu was such an important store for me and authors looking for a chance to break through.”

The Washington Post‘s story suggests that the closure might have more to do with disagreements among the owners than the usual suspect, financial trouble:

“Simba wanted the company to go national,” said Jonathan Robinson, who has managed the Bowie store, one of six in the chain, for two years. Co-owner Hoke “Brother Yao” Glover “felt it wasn’t ready for that yet,” Robinson said. He added that last fall, Sana’s wife, Sunny, who bought books for the stores, abruptly left — the two are divorcing — and that customers began to notice that titles weren’t coming in.

Vice’s Fiction Issue

There’s lots of great stuff in Vice‘s second fiction issue–pieces by Richard Price, Mary Gaitskill, Robert Coover, Jim Shepard, Nick Tosches, and more–but I keyed in on this interview with editor Gary Fisketjon, who’s worked with Raymond Carver, Cormac McCarthy, and more. All I can say to this bit is that I’m trying…:

Is there a temperament of a good editor?

I’ve known all sorts, but I should think the best would prove to be patient, understanding, careful, honest, and forthright rather than falsely flattering or disingenuous, celebratory, certainly, and sympathetic as well about all the trying circumstances all writers face nearly all the time. We’re all in this together, but only because writers have enabled us to be part of it.

Doc Doc

Doc, a documentary about novelist and Paris Review cofounder Harold Louis Humes, opens in New York this week. The New York Times review is here; the paper’s 2007 feature on the making of the documentary is here.

I haven’t seen the film (directed by his daughter Immy), or read Humes’ two novels, but there are lots of intriguing details in the articles: Peter Matthiessen was apparently a CIA agent using his Paris Review gig as a cover; Humes was Norman Mailer‘s campaign manager during his ill-fated mayoral run; he suffered from mental illness and believed he single-handedly prevented World War III.

As the official site for the film points out, Humes’ two novels–The Underground City and Men Die–have been reissued by Modern Library. (Click here for a trailer.)

News and Notes

Ten things that make Cormac McCarthy special

A speculative graphic novel about the war in Iraq, circa 2011

Richard Stern on Norman Mailer:

Yes, this greatly talented man, who could tell you where the grocer bought his suits and what radio programs he listened to, who knew why the Cape Canaveral launchings brought out every motor tinkerer within 500 miles, who knew why Jack Kennedy’s hauling his injured shipmate to safety as he did (teeth gripped on the man’s belt) revealed his ferocity, this brilliant reporter of the world’s stuff, had a depth of innocence he’d grown to dislike almost as much as he disliked and disowned the handsome Jewish boy swaddled in his herringbone suit on the back cover of “The Naked and the Dead.”

More Opera

The Dallas Morning News reports that the Dallas Opera’s first season in its new facility in 2009-’10 will feature the world premiere of Moby-Dick, by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer:

“That book is so operatic in scale and in its emotions,” Mr. Heggie says of the Melville novel. “The emotional trajectory is so clear and so strong. And innately it has so much music in the sea, and so much rhythm in life on a ship.”

No whale will be depicted onstage, Mr. Scheer says. “But we’ll find a way of depicting the whale hunt. But the story is so much more about the personal misguided quest of Ahab, all that it means for him and those around him.”