Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Realizing that repetition becomes tedious, and that my criticisms of book coverage at The New York Times have already been made, I’m ready for a break, as there is nothing more to be added since my June posting. But I do want to share a letter I sent to Janet Maslin on June 8, along with the Donkey Award:

Janet: I send this plaque off to you with a heavy heart, because I so much enjoyed your movie reviews in days past. Nor do I enjoy hurting anyone’s feelings. As all of the judges for The Donkey Award have affirmed in private discussions, it almost didn’t matter who “won,” as long as this plaque served as a statement that the Times book coverage fails to fulfill a longing among a great number of book readers who want to know the “Best” of what is out there—and not the “Worst.”

One of the reasons I appreciated your film reviews is that, as a movie-goer, I wanted to know what to avoid and what to see, so negative reviews of overly hyped movies were of great service…as were reviews of things you recommended. But the feeling among Danny Klein, Bill Henderson, Dan Rattiner, Marc Schuster, Joan Baum, and myself is that we—given such limited review spaces—wanted to know about the good books. Which is why a critic can be appreciated as a film reviewer yet criticized for her book reviews. And since you can choose what to review, this award fits the description of Best Abuse Of Space For The Least Deserving Books.

What is interesting is that the feedback we’ve gotten from the public shows that they didn’t consider your double review of CAUGHT and NEVER LOOK AWAY a winner. But, in fact, your review of STAR tied with that of Stanley Fish’s GOING ROGUE for first place. So the general feeling has been that you are pretty consistent in your approach to book reviewing.

If I could have my wishes granted, I would hope you would only review books you liked, for I would hate to see you get another nomination for the 2011 Donkey Award (our version, I suppose, of the Razzies), which we’re likely to present at Book Expo next year. For now, you are in a class with Sandra Bullock, who won an Oscar and a Razzie last year for two different films. And I’ve always felt you did Oscar style film reviews, but that doesn’t cut it with book lovers.

My other wish is that you’ll hold on to this prize rather than destroy it. Or give it away to someone you like. It might have real value on eBay, being that you are the first recipient of this award. If so, I’d hope that would provide some compensation.

"Making-fun-of" is about the only tool left in one’s arsenal to possibly alter what may very well prove to be unalterable when it comes down to trying to change the state of mainstream media book coverage. Beyond staging another Donkey Award next year, I think it’s time to let the rest of it go for the foreseeable future. So what is there I’d like to share with you in this July blog? My own "SUMMERTIME READING" recommendations and unsolicted opinions about some writers who continue to command undying media respect for reasons that I can’t quite fathom.

Let’s start with Stieg Larsson, the trigger being Nora Ephron’s wonderful satire that appeared in The New Yorker on June 30: The Girl Who Fixed The Umlaut. It touches on everything in Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo that drove me nuts when I read it. And why this was one of those cases, where the film—which I thought was superb—was so far superior to the book, as all the superfluous, repetitive writing was eliminated. This article is a hoot and I urge you to start your summertime reading with it.

Then there is Sam Tanenhaus’s excellent article in The New York Times on June 20, written in response to another New Yorker article (June 14) hailing 20 writers Under 40…an erudite and well deserved criticism of the New Yorker piece. For all my criticisms of the Times Book Review, this is a piece that deserves to be read. If I had any criticism of the New Yorker article it would be how in the hell would they even know the best young writers under 40 since they do so few reviews, and those that appear are invariably from the major conglomerate publishers. As for publishing short stories, the scuttlebutt amongst many insiders is that a personal connection is needed to be accepted at The New Yorker. And that we lack. But I will send their book editor two novels by the under 40 set that we will be publishing later this year and next—not that I expect coverage (we don’t even bother submitting to The New Yorker any longer), but just so that they will have on record for their next “Under 40” story that there are two novelists I would consider atop any list: 29-year-old Liza Campbell’s forthcoming The Dissemblers and 37-year-old Marc Schuster’s The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom & Party Girl.

Finally, my personal opinions about two perennial darlings of the British-American publishing scene: Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens. I read one of Amis’s novels years ago and found it okay but hardly overwhelming. Once was enough. As for Hitchins, I’ve never read him but have listened to him countless times on television where he is always treated as a celebrity auteur and racontour—a pal of Amis—who has wise, witty, entertaining, and controversial things to say. But every time I’ve seen him he came across as a supercilious, pompous, self-absorbed guy, constantly self-promoting, and no-one I’d want to know any better or read. To me, he’s a cunning linguist, having that gift in common with Gore Vidal. But unlike Vidal (a brilliant writer who talked about serious issues without being supeficial in his writing and not about himself when on air), Hitchens seems to me a shadow substitute. The last time I saw Hitchens was on The Daily Show where Jon Stewart had him on as a guest. Hitchens was mumbling and slurring his words and—given his reputation for hard drinking—it appeared that he was under the influence as he drank form a glass while on the show. While Stewart was laughing throughout as if this was a hilarious and terribly clever conversation, it didn’t do much for me.

As always, I welcome your comments and hope you will sign up for future monthly postings. If you have any topics you'd like me address, let me know and I'll make an honest attempt to do so in my next blog.

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  1. Glad to see I'm not alone in seeing nothing at all of merit in Larrson's story. In my opinion the book was published on the strength of the two rather abusive sex scenes included. A sad commentary on our times.

    As for Hitchens, well he performs the same role for the UK establishment that Chomsky performs for the US, that of court-intellectual. Their job is to carefully steer opinion isearch earnestly for truth.n erroneous directions while appearing to

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