Volume I, Issue 3 -- August, 2000
Bellowing and Braying:
The Titles of the Ravelstein Reviews:
American Nobel laureate Saul Bellow's recent novel, Ravelstein (see the complete review's review), occasioned many reviews. Aside from the fact that Bellow remains a leading literary light (albeit in a poor firmament), the sprightly (or at least virile) octogenarian presented a book that is considered highly controversial. It is a novel -- a piece of fiction -- but, as surely all the world knows (or at least those few thousand who are familiar with the names Saul Bellow and Allan Bloom), it is firmly grounded (mired, some might say) in fact. Ravelstein is a thinly disguised memoir of Bellow's close University of Chicago friend, Allan Bloom -- an echo (padded and puffed up), in fact, of Bellow's eulogy of Bloom.
Controversy arises for a number of reasons. First, apparently, among these is that Bellow "outs" friend Bloom, a man who, it seems, took all the Platonic ideals to their extremes. Bellow also reveals that Bloom's debilitating and finally fatal illness was AIDS, a fact that seems not to have been common knowledge.
The reviews are a varied lot -- from high praise to tempered disdain (see reviews, and the complete review's review summaries). Our interest here is not a comparative analysis of the reviews, but rather to see how reviewers (or their editors) headline the reviews. The temptation for wordplay is often hard to resist (see the title of this piece), and this book offers more than the usual goldmine (or minefield) of possibilities.
Surprisingly, Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind -- the bestselling work which made his name more widely known -- inspired only a few review-titles, perhaps because so few remember it:
The titles of some of Bellow's other works were more popular -- Humboldt's Gift and Seize the Day inspiring a few reviewers, with Jonathan Wilson going all out in the most referential title of them all:
- A closing of the American kind -- John Leonard, The Nation (29 May, 2000)
- The closing the curtains on a great American mind -- Zachary Leader, The Independent (22 April, 2000)
The New York Review of Books also teased on its cover with the promise of Bellow Unraveled. However, Insight on the News was the only review we surveyed that tried the wordplay on the novel's own title as the title of a review: Unraveling Ravelstein -- Stephen Goode (29 May, 2000)
- Bellow's Gift -- Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post (9 April, 2000)
- Bloom's Gift -- Louis Menand, The New York Review of Books, (25 May, 2000)
- Bloom's Day -- Jonathan Wilson, The New York Times Book Review, (23 April, 2000)
Time, writing about both the author and the work, suggested Saul Bellow Blooms Again (24 April, 2000), while in The Observer Adam Mars-Jones mused on Life and Saul (23 April, 2000)
Comparisons to other revealing biographers focussed on one name in particular:
Familiar wordplay was a popular option, leading to some imaginative (and some less imaginative) borrowings:
- Bellow Plays Boswell to a Most Extravagant Johnson -- Michiko Kakutani , The New York Times (20 April, 2000)
- Boswell on Gatsby -- Bharat Tandon, the Times Literary Supplement (21 April, 2000)
(Penny Fitzgerald, incidentally, was the only critic surveyed who did not make note of the actual figure of Bloom behind the mask of Ravelstein.)
- For whom the bell tolls -- Gary Giddins, The Village Voice (25 April, 2000)
- When I am old and gay and full of sleep -- Penelope Fitzgerald, The Spectator (15 April, 2000)
- Write me up when I'm gone -- John Mullan, The Guardian (22 April, 2000)
Less assured wordplay came from other sources, including -- surprisingly -- Cynthia Ozick:
A variety of reviewers attempted other approaches, with mixed results:
- Throwing away the clef -- Cynthia Ozick, The New Republic (22 May, 2000)
- A novel approach to distaste -- Garry Wills, Times Union (13 May, 2000)
Others chose the direct approach:
- An Uncertain Friend -- Floyd Skloot; San Francisco Chronicle (30 April, 2000)
- Twilight triumphs -- Brooke Allen, The New Leader (May/June 2000)
- The last titan -- Sven Birkerts, Esquire (April 2000)
- Odd Outing -- Malcolm Jones, Newsweek (7 February, 2000)
- The Egg-Head's Egger-On -- Christopher Hitchens, London Review of Books (17 April, 2000)
Perhaps the best solution was found in an unlikey forum, Salon, where their review was simply titled Ravelstein (14 April, 2000). Or perhaps they just realized that they could not compete with the fanciful efforts of so many other reviewers.
- With novelists like Bellow, who needs biographers? -- Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor (20 April, 2000)
- Bellow, Bloom, and Betrayal -- Sam Tanenhaus, Wall Street Journal (February 2, 2000)
Reviews have to sell themselves, and a catchy title might cause a certain percentage of the potential audience to read what they might otherwise have passed over. Recall that Salon recently fired a number of its editors (including the one in charge of the book section) because not enough people were clicking on their pages -- and that Salon has found that catchy (and especially sexy) titles attract more users. (Presumably their Ravelstein-review wasn't a big hit -- though they might have had a nice tease for it on their home page.)
Certainly catchy review-titles are also a fairly harmless way for reviewers -- often failed writers themselves -- to allow their creative impulses to be of use (though the results often show very clearly why they are, indeed, failed writers).
As information-providers we prefer the plain-paper wrapping: author, title, information. Most media isn't there to inform, of course, but to sell papers or increase page-views (or sell books, even) and therefore anything goes. Mostly it seems like harmless fun, but -- as with absolutely everything having to do with opinion and/or information pieces of any sort (including this one) -- some suspicion is warranted.
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