the complete review Quarterly
Volume III, Issue 4   --   November, 2002

The Year in Reviews
An overview of the most-discussed review-events of the year
(November 2001 - October 2002)


Caleb Carr's explosion
Wanda Coleman and the perils of reviewing
Dale Peck savages Rick Moody
Dreading Koba
Figes v. Polonsky
Other reviews
Scandals and discussions that didn't materialize
Reviewing in general


       The complete review is, at its heart, a book review site. What sets us apart from most other review sites is our embrace of a plurality of opinions (an embrace that is admittedly often a throttling chokehold), as we provide review summaries, quotes from, and links to as many other reviews as we can find.
       Differing opinions and perspectives on books generally offer more insight than a lone voice, and are to be valued for that. That's the main reason we focus on providing them.
       Reviews often also stir the passions of those involved: authors often feel success depends on positive critical notice, reviewers are occasionally carried away by the sheer brilliance (or utter hackwork-character) of a book, or the book-subject is a highly controversial one.
       It makes for an occasionally explosive mix: differing opinions make for good arguments, and if they a very strongly-held opinions can lead to quite unseemly disagreements. Certainly, as far as entertainment value goes, some of the best of these heated clashes pit reviewers against authors, each other, and other outraged parties. We enjoy a good literary slugfest as much as anyone, and we propose with this new annual crQ-survey to keep track of the most entertaining of these.

       It happens a few times every year, usually because of some over-the-top reaction by one of those involved (a completely dismissive review, an angry author-response, etc.). The period November 2001 through October 2002 was no exception, and here is an overview of some of the best review-events from that time.

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Caleb Carr's explosion

       Caleb Carr is best-known for his pseudo-historical fiction, but he is also something of a real historian (how much of a real historian he might be we are in no position to judge). Jumping on the post-terrorist attack bandwagon he published a little volume, The Lessons of Terror. It was not greeted with quite the acclaim Carr apparently hoped for, and two reviews, in particular, displeased him mightily: Michiko Kakutani's in The New York Times (31 January 2002) and Laura Miller's in Salon (Dirty War, 6 February).
       Carr responded to the Salon review with a letter (published 8 February). It begins:
Laura Miller follows in the trend of New York literary critics who somehow think they have been suddenly, magically endowed with a thorough knowledge of military history and are therefore just as qualified to review books on that subject as they are to chatter about bad women's fiction.
       And it goes downhill from there.
       A few days later Salon gleefully posted reader-responses (11 February).
       Carr didn't quite come to his senses, but he offered something of an apology (12 February), writing, among other things:
I do not apologize for the sentiment contained in my reaction, or for my assessments of Ms. Miller, Ms. Kakutani, and that piece of misogyny-in-designer-clothing, Sex in the City
       A good overview of events can be found at MobyLives, where Dennis Loy Johnson wrote about When War Historians go to War (18 February).

       Other coverage included:

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Wanda Coleman and the perils of reviewing

       Wanda Coleman reviewed Maya Angelou's A Song Flung Up To Heaven in the 14 April issue of The Los Angeles Times, in a piece titled Coulda Shoulda Woulda.
       It was not a favourable review. Choice quotes include:
Once again, Angelou dips into her past to offer up an emotional repast that would starve a skeleton.

Song is a sloppily written fake, bloated to 214 pages by large type and widely spaced chapter headings

In writing that is bad to God-awful, Song is a tell-all that tells nothing in empty phrases and sweeping generalities.
       The debate this sparked was about how black American authors do (or should) review other black American authors. Wanda Coleman found herself in part ostracized from a segment of the literary community because of her no-kid-glove treatment of Angelou's book.
       For details and commentary, see:
       Wanda Coleman also described the aftermath of her review in two pieces:

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Dale Peck savages Rick Moody

       Probably the most notorious and widely-discussed review of the year was Dale Peck's piece, The Moody Blues in The New Republic (1 July). There were actually many reviews which, more or less, crucified Rick Moody for his digressive memoir, The Black Veil, but Peck's packed the biggest punch -- its first sentence already claiming: "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation."
       Heather Caldwell got a lot of mileage out of the fuss, offering Pecking Order in New York (22 July) and Pecked in Salon (24 July).
       Other reactions can also be found in the reader responses at Salon, as well as at Holt Uncensored (26 July).

       It should, again, be noted that Peck's review was not the only one excoriating Moody and his work (although The Black Veil did also receive a few favourable notices). Other reactions included:

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Dreading Koba

       Among the books that received the most attention in 2002 was Martin Amis' curious history-cum-biography, Koba the Dread, in which Amis describes the horrors of Stalinism -- and pillories the British intellectuals who, apparently, were willing to overlook (or were blind to) many of the outrages. An example Amis holds up -- of how misguided some fools were -- is his friend, Christopher Hitchens. As Zinovy Zinik sums up in his TLS-review (23 August):
The whole story of Stalin becomes for Amis one big ironical parable. He uses the misery of a distant people as a political trump card in a heated domestic argument. (...) Here adults behave like schoolboys squaring old accounts with cute arguments.
       Things of course got more heated when someone did the obvious -- invite Christopher Hitchens to review the book. It was The Atlantic Monthly: the review appeared in the September issue. This led to some further back and forth -- including such pieces as Hitchens' open letter to Amis, Don't. Be. Silly. (The Guardian, 4 September). But the Hitch apparently wasn't the ideal sparring partner, Tony Judt writing (in his review of Koba in The New Republic (4 November 2002)) about:
the publicity-mad Christopher Hitchens, in whose company Amis has been conducting nauseatingly self-indulgent exchanges of criticism and mutual admiration in the pages of the British quality press, the pair of them basking torpidly in the reflected glow of Stalin's crimes
       Some others also weren't thrilled by the book: Nick Paton Walsh notes (in The Observer, 11 August) that the book was: "attacked by Russian historians and human rights activists who have branded it 'haughty' and 'unacceptable'." ("Unacceptable" is a really useful criticism, no ?) And reviews overall have been very ambivalent -- "a bizarre, self-indulgent essay", Judt calls it, and most would seem to agree.
       There are a very large number of reviews available, but for a sampling check out those at Salon, The Guardian, and The Observer. And see also Boyd Tonkin's piece in The Independent (14 September) about the book.

       (One additional point of interest about the book and how it was presented to the public: it was published in the US months before it became available in the UK -- a rare occurrence when a British author (especially of Amis' stature) is involved. We don't have any good explanations why that was done.)

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Figes v. Polonsky

       Among the more unusual reviewing-controversies of the year was that surrounding Rachel Polonsky's review of Orlando Figes' Natasha's Dance in the Times Literary Supplement (issue of 27 September; not available online).
       The review is a fairly harsh one -- Polonsky says the book excels in this particular "genre of pastiche writing" and finds "problems of accuracy as well as scholarly practice" in it, among other things -- but not (we felt) exceptionally so. Still, there was some fuss about it -- instigated, it appears, almost entirely by The Guardian. First there was a column by Jason Cowley (3 October), and then another by D.J.Taylor (11 October).
       Cowley maintained: "Even by the bitchy standards of the literary world, the TLS's review of the latest book by Orlando Figes was savage." But few others seemed willing to get drawn into the fray, not quite as shocked as The Guardian writers were.
       Figes responded to the review with a letter to the editor in the 4 October TLS, "surprised by the accusatory response from Rachel Polonsky in her review." He addressed a few of the points Polonsky made, and offered some nice rejoinders (claiming also that Polonsky was herself " less than scrupulous in her 'quotations' from my text"), but no full-scale debate on the issues involving the two principals ensued.
(NOTE: It is perhaps worthwhile to introduce an example to show what goes on in some of these debates. In her review Polonsky writes: Figes appears to be unaware that the Decembrist poet whom he cites so approvingly here is the same Alexander Bestuzhev-Marlinsky whom he later describes as "a patently second-rate (and today almost entirely forgotten) belletrist." In his letter to the editor (4 October) this is one of the statements Figes complains about, writing: There is no reason to suggest that I am "unaware" that he later wrote under the pen-name of Bestuzhev-Marlinsky.
       Note that Figes does not address (or even make mention of) the very specific reason Polonsky gave for suggesting why Figes appeared (to her) to be unaware of the Decembrist poet's dual identity.
       In J.C.'s NB column of the 11 October issue of the TLS the review again got some attention, though the focus was on Jason Cowley's comments (Cowley being -- despite writing in The Guardian -- the literary editor of another influential periodical, the New Statesman). It was then these comments, rather than the Polonsky review, that occasioned more letters to the editor (appearing in the 18 October TLS). Among the respondents: Jason Cowley himself, and Roger Scruton. Scruton took the occasion to complain of having also been savaged in the TLS (of one poor review he wrote: "so spiteful was this particular attack (one of many I have suffered in your pages) that people even wrote in to say so" -- oh dear !), but he was even nastier about The New York Review of Books:
which is written by a self-promoting clique of Establishment liberals, for whom "personal prejudice, fellow feeling and career considerations" do indeed seem to be the principal motives for writing.
       (Amusingly enough, John Bayley (apparently an "Establishment liberal") then reviewed Natasha's Dance in the 7 November issue of The New York Review of Books -- and found it a "masterly work". We're not sure what "personal prejudice, fellow feeling and career considerations" played a role in this judgement, but no doubt Scruton does.)
       A.N. Wilson's opinion piece in the 21 October Daily Telegraph also offered some commentary on the succession of responses, but nothing much more seems to have come of Figes v. Polonsky -- a tepid affair, overall, despite The Guardian's inflammatory efforts.
       Interestingly, the debate and the heated words focussed almost entirely on Polonsky's review of Figes' book. Most other reviews were generally far more favourable (and some reviewers were very enthusiastic about the book), but there was at least one other very critical voice: T.J. Binyon, who reviewed it in the Evening Standard (23 September). While ultimately a bit more understanding than Polonsky ("That, in the end, no overall coherent vision should have emerged is, perhaps, more the fault of the subject than of the writer"), Binyon finds many of the same faults Polonsky did, going so far as to state:
However one chooses to read the book, it is necessary to proceed with caution, for factual errors and mistaken assertions strew its pages more thickly than autumnal leaves in Vallombrosa. The suspicion that research has been less than academically rigorous begins to creep in at an early stage.
       Despite these (and other) strong words, Binyon's opinion and his review was hardly mentioned -- and notably absent in the debate in the pages of The Guardian.
       In the odd world of book-reviewing things got odder still. Binyon's review appeared 23 September, and two days later his own book (Pushkin) was reviewed in The Times -- by Orlando Figes. Figes found that "Tim Binyon's long-awaited life of Pushkin (.....) is a magnificent achievement, a monument to a life of scholarship". But then he went on to find: "But otherwise it is a case of the proverbial woods and trees. There are just too many details for the general reader to cut through" -- and also: "there are many instances where Binyon does not give sufficient explanation of the historical or cultural context for the non-specialist to find his way." (This reviewing back-and-forth also seems to have escaped the notice of much of the press.)

       Finally, it is also amusing to recall another Orlando Figes-review -- his 1 September review in the Sunday Telegraph of ... yes, Martin Amis' Koba the Dread (see above for other Koba-reactions). His criticism of Amis' book sounds much like some of what Polonsky and Binyon find wrong with his book -- "unoriginal (.....) using long quotations and unacknowledged anecdotes to pad out his own work (.....) there are basic factual errors on almost every other page." And Figes writes that Amis' pages "remind me of a lot of undergraduate essays I have read: magpie-like with other people's work, sharp and clever (especially with words), over-quick to judgment, and full of muddled facts."

       Intriguing, all of it, but unfortunately all the fun facts and opinions never seem to have been brought into play by all the players, most preferring simply to focus (often not very well) on Polonsky's review.

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Other reviews

       A few other reviews and some review-coverage also got some attention and raised some eyebrows:

David Hawkes on Stephen Jay Gould

       David Hawkes reviewed Stephen Jay Gould's magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, in The Nation (issue of 10 June; not available online). The book occasioned considerable debate, but this was among the more-discussed initial reactions: see this exchange of letters for an overview.

Martin Walser's critical death

       German author Martin Walser's most recent novel, Tod eines Kritikers, was published to considerable controversy this summer in Germany, mainly for its alleged anti-Semitism. The book takes on the reviewing-community and in particular German reviewing-pope Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the novel's unflatteringly portrayed protagonist bearing a striking resemblance to the critic.
       Most of the fuss was about the anti-Semitism many read into the book, but the novel is also clearly a writer's attempt to give the reviewing-community a dose of its own medicine. Not surprisingly, reviewers uniformly disliked the book -- with few noting the obvious conflict of interest of a reviewer reviewing a book that attacks reviewers (it is an inevitable conflict of interest, but surely one that reader should be reminded of).
       Surprisingly many English-language publications reviewed the book (which is not yet available in English translation). The Economist (issue of 31 August) found:
"Death of a Critic" is an atrocious book, so bad that not even Reich-Ranicki could have wished it worse.
       In addition, David Midgley reviewed it in the London Review of Books (issue of 8 August), and Michael Butler reviewed it in the Times Literary Supplement (issue of 19 July; not available online).
       Obviously, more attention was paid to the work in Europe, and the German-speaking countries in particular. In his review Butler found:
    The extraordinary controversy surrounding Tod eines Kritikers demonstrates a considerable parochialism in the German literary scene. Too many of its denizens appear to be obsessed with what they see as the scandalous demonstration of anti-Semitism to read the text without prejudice.
       Less of a reviewing-scandal than it ought to have been (the focus here being on other aspects of the book), the affair still offered considerable review-entertainment.

Posner's Public Intellectuals

       Among the most widely discussed books of the past year -- at least in the pages of serious periodicals -- was Richard Posner's Public Intellectuals. (see also our review).
       This controversial book occasioned much reviewing to-and-fro -- but we have already documented most of this in our cr Quarterly piece Reactions to Richard Posner's Public Intellectuals: Another Study in Decline. Of particular interest here were the many reviewers who were taken to task in the book itself and then responded -- always fun !

Judith Levine's Harmful to Minors

       Judith Levine's Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex was another much-debated book -- even before it was published. In this case, however, little of the mainstream review-coverage was particularly contentious; rather, it was popular outrage by many unfamiliar with the text itself that made this a book much-discussed in the media.
       Accounts of the initial fuss can be found at:        There was a great deal of review-coverage of the book then too, albeit largely outside the mainstream. Major periodicals that did review it include The Village Voice (Sharon Lerner's review (9 July), also focussing on the fuss about the book) and The New York Review of Books (though Garry Wills' multi-book review only briefly discusses it -- and manages to misspell the author's name (as "Levin")). Among the most extensive (and sensible) discussions is JoAnn Wypijewski's review in The Nation (20 May).

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Scandals and discussions that didn't materialize

       Almost as interesting as what reviewers do get excited about is what is ignored. The past year has also seen a few books that, one would have thought, would have occasioned more passionate interest and/or reactions to reactions, but for some reason didn't.

       The most notable case, it seems to us, is B.R.Myers' A Reader's Manifesto (see our review). When Myers' article of the same name appeared in this version in The Atlantic Monthly last summer it got a lot of attention and press -- see our cr Quarterly piece, Considering B.R.Myers' Reader's Manifesto.
       The book version came out in September 2002 and has received extremely limited review coverage. It is unclear why this is so: perhaps reviewers feel they addressed the issues raised in the book when they responded to the article -- or perhaps they simply don't like reviewing books that attack reviewers. In any case: it is disappointing that there has been so little coverage.

       Among the most interesting reactions over the past year were occasioned by Stephen L. Carter's much-hyped The Emperor of Ocean Park -- see our review, with links to other reviews. Few books in recent memory received such divergent reviews, from Erica Wagner simply stating: "This is a bad novel" (in The Times, 1 June) and David Gates calling Carter "a first novelist manifestly without skills and apparently without gifts" (Newsweek, 10 June) to Peter Guttridge insisting "The book is superb, both as a thriller and as a novel of social observation" (The Observer, 16 June).
       There was, however, relatively little discussion of why reactions were so wildly different -- something worthy of more attention.

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Reviewing in general

       When reviewers (or journalists) don't have anything to write about an ever-popular old stand-by is to write more generally about reviewing. Numerous such articles appear year in, year out -- generally without any particularly revealing new insights. Still, here a few of possible interest:

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