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The Literary Saloon Archive

21 - 30 November 2002

21 November: Gabe Hudson's letter (not) from the President | Paulin about-face
22 November: Michael Kinsley - NBA judge | Salon goes OTC
23 November: Ian McEwan's Atonement | Books of the Year lists ...
25 November: Darwin on Darwin | On access to online content | Kinsley reactions
26 November: Tom Paulin appearing elsewhere | Animal Farm sequel | Wolcott on Franzen | TLS-letter re. NWUP | ?!&??!?
27 November: More on the Poetry-windfall | More on Mickey Kinsley and the judging of books | New review: [sic]
28 November: We review ... Prey ?!?? | Alasdair Gray's Lanark
30 November: Paulin at Harvard and other clarifications

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30 November 2002 - Saturday

Paulin at Harvard and other clarifications

       Paulin at Harvard and other clarifications

       We've been following the Tom Paulin-at-Harvard(-or-not) story for a while -- most recently mentioning it here.
       When we first mentioned it, we snickered at the Harvard English department's explanation that "By mutual consent of the poet and the English Department, the Morris Gray poetry reading by Tom Paulin, originally scheduled for Thursday, November 14th, will not take place." Since newspaper headlines suggested: Harvard bars Oxford poet (The Guardian, 14 November) and the like it sounded to us like pure spin. Well, apparently we should know better: news reporting ain't what it should be, and nobody really made clear exactly how it came about that Paulin didn't appear at Harvard.
       In a letter to the editor dated 24 November and printed in the 28 November issue of The New York Times Helen Vendler (a Harvard English professor) tries to clear up what exactly happened. Her letter is, unfortunately, not particularly clear (at least to us), but here the relevant passage explaining (or trying to) what actually happened:
       I, acting on my own, and insisting to Mr. Paulin that there would be no rescinding of his invitation, said I did not think his poetry would get a fair hearing. He and I agreed on a statement that, by mutual consent of the poet and the English department, his reading would not take place. Because this mutual withdrawal was interpreted as a unilateral departmental rescinding, the department subsequently reaffirmed the invitation.
       Got that ?
       In any case, apparently Paulin was not barred or disinvited, as many in the media have suggested, but rather agreed (in some form or another) not to appear. How this wound up getting spun so out of control we don't know -- though if Harvard explained this in the manner Vendler does it isn't too surprising that there was considerable confusion.
       Considerable confusion still remains, at least for us. In her letter Ms. Vendler also quotes Paulin's statement in full. Unfortunately -- and bafflingly --, that statement says nothing about the Harvard reading or mutual consent or anything like that.

       It appears that we didn't have the whole story on what exactly happened to Paulin at Harvard. (It appears we still don't.) The Literary Saloon is a place of "opinionated commentary", not news-gathering. We rely on actual news-organizations for most of the information we then comment on -- though we do make an effort to get information from the actual sources when possible. In this case, the Harvard English department statement, while giving correct information (about the mutual consent) did so in a manner that shed little light on what exactly happened (and what that mutual consent involved) and sounded like pure obfuscation. Media reports suggested something totally different had happened, and we focussed on the media spin. Foolish us.
       It's the second time in recent weeks that we find ourselves very disappointed by the media reports we rely on. The other case involves the huge Poetry-bequest by ... well, ostensibly by Ruth Lilly (see this mention, for example). The details surrounding the bequest in many of the reports are very poor, and the most significant point -- that Ms. Lilly isn't allowed to handle her own money because she has been declared mentally incompetent -- was completely ignored in many accounts.
       A 19 November Boston Globe article does offer considerably more information -- and suggests (at least to us) that a lot more people ought to be looking into this. (See also this piece from WTHR Indianapolis for more on some troubling previous difficulties surrounding Ruth Lilly's handlers.)

       In any case: all this (and more) should at least serve to remind readers: don't trust anything you read ! Look for as much information -- and as many different takes -- on any piece of news as you can find !

(Posted by: complete review)

28 November 2002 - Thursday

We review ... Prey ?!?? | Alasdair Gray's Lanark

       We review ... Prey ?!??

       The most recent addition to the complete review is, indeed, a review of Michael Crichton's newest, the nano-thriller Prey. With some enormous first print run, and the film rights already sold for five million dollars, it perhaps isn't the kind of books our regular readers expect us to be covering. But all we are always looking for is a good read, so we're willing to cast our nets widely. (And, quite honestly, we're desperate for a fun techno-thriller (a new Neal Stephenson, for example -- or, we had hoped, maybe the new Crichton ...).)
       We have certain standards, but Crichton never quite made it down to our list of books and authors unlikely ever to be found at the complete review. Some of the early stuff (The Andromeda Strain, The Great Train Robbery) was satisfying enough to us when we were very young readers -- and we have a lingering fondness for some of his films (Westworld !). The Jurassic-period we found less interesting, and he lost us completely for a long time with the inexcusable Sphere (which is the most outrageous case of an author abandoning his readers with a lame non-ending we've ever had the displeasure to come across). And though we find many mega-selling authors easy to ignore (Grisham, Clancy, etc.), Crichton's scientific interests and basic ideas often make us curious (though books like Eaters of the Dead or Airframe never tempted us).
       Prey certainly promises some fun. Nanotechnology ! What possibilities .....
       Too bad Crichton doesn't explore them. As David Kipen notes in his San Francisco Chronicle-review, Crichton is actually an amazingly conservative guy, and that goes for approach to fiction too. He's an old traditionalist, and among the disappointments of this book is how conventional he makes it -- and how irrelevant the science winds up being. His narrator at one point says: "However this problem got solved, it wasn't going to be with computer code. That much was clear." He's right -- but we're pretty sure things would have been considerably more exciting if computer code had been the way to solve the problem.
       So, unfortunately, we're still looking for that thrilling thriller with the scientific edge. Meanwhile, we wonder how readers will react to our slumming in bestseller-territory ..... Will we be forgiven for wasting precious reading and reviewing time on Prey when we could have spent it on a real book ?
       Actually, one of the surprising things about Prey is the review-coverage it's gotten: among the first to pounce on it was The New Yorker, as well as both The New York Times and The New York Times Book Review. (The New York Times' review was by Janet Maslin, which hardly counts as serious coverage, but still ..... Maslin's review (of 21 November) actually pairs Prey with James Patterson's Four Blind Mice -- which, by comparison, she scarily calls "a less sophisticated undertaking" (quite an accomplishment, if true).)
       To reassure our readers: we have one more fall-blockbuster to deal with and then we figure we're done for the season and we'll be devoting all our time to the usual obscurer stuff.
       But we know we should be spending all our time reading and reviewing books like ...

(Posted by: complete review)

       Alasdair Gray's Lanark

       We are huge Alasdair Gray fans, and we have several of his titles under review. One we don't is his first and possibly greatest, the landmark Lanark. It's been re-issued by Canongate -- in fancy versions as well as as a cheap paperback, with an introduction by Janice Galloway (read an edited extract here) -- and we've been meaning to add a review. We read and loved it years ago, but for a variety of reasons haven't gotten around to covering it on the site (we also realize that after we just wasted our precious resources on Michael Crichton's Prey (see above) our excuses seem pretty lame ...).
       We promise: we will get around to it. Meanwhile: some Lanark-links to tide you over:
(Posted by: complete review)

27 November 2002 - Wednesday

More on the Poetry-windfall | More on Mickey Kinsley and the judging of books
New review: [sic]

       More on the Poetry-windfall

       We mentioned a week ago that Poetry Magazine (or, more accurately: the Modern Poetry Association which runs it) is to be the beneficiary of an unusually large bequest -- something on the order of a hundred million dollars, left to it by Ruth Lilly (of Eli Lilly fame).
       There have been a few more reactions, comments, and suggestions about this piece of good fortune.
       Of particular interest: a piece in the 26 November Slate by Meghan O'Rourke, Willy Lilly Nilly: Venture capital for poets. She wonders whether this windfall is such a great thing (and suggests, as did we in our original post, that spreading the wealth would have been far preferable). But the real news: "Ruth Lilly has been mentally incompetent, by law, for some 20 years (few of the major papers bothered to report this)". It's the first we heard that the donor is non compos mentis -- a fact we find quite troubling .....
       As to other reactions: for those who enjoy ideological contrasts, how about reading Joshua Clover's Poetry Nation beside Eric Gibson's Can $100 Million Help Make Poetry Matter ? The former is from The Village Voice (this week's issue), the latter an opinion piece from the Wall Street Journal (26 November). Clover offers: "Modest $100 Million Proposals, for Better or Verse", while Gibson insists: "Poetry's problem is one of outlook, not resources"
       So Clover suggests, for example (very modestly):
(U)se the income to lobby for pro-education candidates in elections at a national level. A few more congressmen, a senator, and we could have fewer tax cuts for corporations -— wouldn't it be swell to see Lilly money do that ? -— and more teachers, more texts, more classrooms.
       (There's not much to be said about the insanity and inanity of blowing the money on campaign contributions ... though that is one of the few ways one could manage to burn through the whole amount relatively quickly.)
       Meanwhile Gibson shows he also knows best (which obviously doesn't include modern poetry):
This doesn't mean teaching courses in contemporary poetry, at least not before reintroducing the classics, and so reminding students why poetry is at the core of our own and every other nation's literary heritage.
       This week's issue of The New Yorker also has a 'Talk of the Town' piece (by Nick Paumgarten) on the reactions to Poetry's new riches. Not much of particular interest, except the information that Poetry's annual budget is a mere six hundred thousand dollars -- putting the hundred million in perspective.
       Also of possible interest: Tim Rutten on the state of poetic affairs in The Los Angeles Times (23 November)

       Back to Poetry and the Modern Poetry Association for a moment: the Modern Poetry Association has a 28-member Board of Trustees that oversee this whole operation. As we mentioned when we first heard about this story, that Board looks suspiciously unpoetic.
       Looking closer now, we found only two members that look to us to be anything like bona fide poets -- President Deborah Cummins (who published a chapbook and has won some prizes) and trustee Susan Bergman. A few others have done some vaguely poetic things (academics writing about it and such things), but even these seem outnumbered by lawyers. The main qualifications for Board-membership seem to be that members live in the Chicago area (as almost all of them appear to), while other common factors include being married to someone very, very rich.
       No disrespect intended to the Board -- or not too much, anyway: it's done a fine job, after all, keeping Poetry on sound financial footing. That's, of course, what it was there for: raising money (such is the wonderful world of non-profits in America, where it's all about the money -- it's not what you do but who you know (and who you can get to sit on your board)).
       Still, we're thinking maybe this board isn't an ideal oversight committee. This is a board where some of the women are still listed under their husband's names -- even esteemed former leader of the organization Julia (Judy) Bartholomay, now an honorary trustee, is listed as "Mrs. Henry Bartholomay, III". That might impress on the social register, but it really shouldn't count for anything in the poetry world.
       And the point is, the whole raison d'être of a board constituted such as this one is money-raising. And guess what: that's not something the Modern Poetry Association will ever have to do again. So wouldn't it be better to kick out ... pardon: allow the current board to resign, and to form a new one which can focus on what has now become the main aim of the MPA: spending money
       This board certainly did its job very well, but the members' services are no longer needed. The social connections and expertise of the current board members aren't required anymore (and other than these -- and their generously offered time -- most of these board members have nothing relevant to offer). Independent expertise can now be purchased from outside (getting rid of those messy conflict of interest issues), and the social connections are worthless. It's time to turn the board over to the poets. Give them run of the place !
       (As far as we know, no one has made this particular suggestion -- though it seems to us both an obvious and necessary one.)

(Posted by: complete review)

       More on Mickey Kinsley and the judging of books

       We reported previously on Michael Kinsley's complete dereliction of duty in pretending to be a judge for the (American) National Book Award in the non-fiction category, and also on some early reactions to these revelations. (For another opinion piece on Kinsley's judging, see now also Alex Good's The Short-Attention-Span List.)
       On 25 November Christopher Merrill, who chaired the group of judges Kinsley was part of, responded to Kinsley's column in a Slate piece, Bulk Rate: A National Book Award judge defends his honor. He does not suggest that Kinsley's failure is in part also his own -- what kind of a chair doesn't make sure his underlings are doing their duty, after all ? -- but does admit:
Did I read every page of every book ? Of course not. That would be impossible. But I read enough of each book to know whether it merited further consideration.
       While we understand that judges need not have read all the books in their entirety to judge their quality, we object to the use of the word "impossible". Truth is, Merrill was lazy (and, no doubt, pressed for time). Reading 402 books in the allotted time is asking for a lot, but it is not asking for the impossible.
       On the same Slate page Kinsley responds to Merrill's piece, answering Merrill's words that he "read enough of each book to know whether it merited further consideration" with these:
Me, too. Sometimes that was none at all.
       Sorry, that is not acceptable. To read none of the words -- and Kinsley admits he didn't "crack a single spine" of close to ninety percent of the titles up for the prize -- means relying solely on the covers and blurbs and that is just not the way to go about judging what is between the covers.
       Meanwhile Merrill is also the subject of a 26 November article by John Kenyon in The Gazette. We're treated there to the following brilliant display of mathematical legerdemain (which we hope doesn't mirror his literary acumen):
Judges receive honoraria between $2,000 and $2,500 for their time. He said that averaged out to pennies a day because many of the non-contending books still were compelling enough to read cover to cover.
       (If judges were paid the lowest amount -- two thousand dollars -- and received this at a "pennies a day" rate -- let's be generous and say ten cents a day -- that would suggest the judges were at their jobs for over 54 years. Presumably he meant pennies a page. Whatever he meant -- it's a lot of money and we don't understand why people keep insisting it's not. Yes, if you do your job honestly it's less than minimum wage -- but you're reading books ! It's like a dream job ! And it's more than we make at and with the complete review -- per book, per page, per day: any way you add it up.)

       What Kinsley did is inexcusable, but it does point out an obvious problem: how to fairly judge the best book when there are so many to choose from. It seems obvious that the longlist from which these star-judges should then make their selection has to be a manageable one -- we'd suggest fifty, though even that seems to have been too many for Kinsley. Certainly, it shouldn't be more. A pre-selection committee is needed -- though it's probably hard to agree on how it would do the job .....
       One way not to do it is the Man Booker-way. Far from actually considering all the titles that might contend for the best novel written by a Commonwealth or Irish author, the Man Booker places huge hurdles on submissions -- most notably that each UK publisher is only allowed to submit two titles. (There is, admittedly, a bit of leeway, as publishers are allowed to "submit a list of up to five further titles for the judges' consideration", lists from which between eight and twelve titles have to be selected for consideration (and some previous winners also get a free pass); see all the details on How books are submitted.)
       The consequence ? As Dan Franklin of Jonathan Cape said of this year's Man Booker winner (in a 24 October article by Fiachra Gibbons in The Guardian):
"If Martel had been published by one of the big houses, I guarantee the book would never have been entered." Franklin has such literary giants as Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan on his list. "If you have a lot of established authors and they find out you haven't entered their books you will soon discover you no longer have them."
       So if Life of Pi had been published by a major publisher it wouldn't have even been in the running for the prize. Which would seem to be all the proof anyone could want that this is a bad selection system.
       Meanwhile, the Man Booker judges moaned in Kinsleyesque manner, Lisa Jardine complaining (20 October, The Guardian) "the judges were prevented from making the best decision by the sheer number of books they had to read" and arguing for a drastic reduction in the number they had to consider. (The Man Booker judges only had to consider 130 titles this year. It seems to us a perfectly manageable number, but what do we know.)

       Not a great couple of months for the literary-prize-world .....

(Posted by: complete review)

       New review: [sic]

       The latest review-addition at the complete review is American playwright Melissa James Gibson's generally well-received (and quite well-titled) [sic].
       Not much to say about it beyond what you'll find in our review -- but since we're in a crabby mood (cf. stories above) one complaint:
       The book is a nice Faber and Faber paperback. It has 118 pages -- and retails for $15.00.
       The nice publicity people at Farrar, Straus & Giroux (who handle Faber stateside) provided us with a copy at no charge -- which we much appreciate. But what of the poor readers who actually pay for their books ? Fifteen dollars for a slim playscript seems beyond outrageous.

(Posted by: complete review)

26 November 2002 - Tuesday

Tom Paulin appearing elsewhere | Animal Farm sequel
Wolcott on Franzen | TLS-letter re. NWUP | ?!&??!?

       As long as it's not Harvard there's no fuss: Tom Paulin at Notre Dame

       We previously mentioned that poet Tom Paulin was invited to perform at Harvard, then disinvited, and has now again been invited -- and that many heated words were exchanged on the matter.
       We also specifically made note of another Paulin appearance -- at Notre Dame, where he was scheduled to speak after the whole Harvard-controversy erupted.
       Paulin was at Notre Dame on Thursday, 21 November, where he gave a lecture on "William Blake, Irish Visionary: His Influence on Yeats, Joyce and Van Morrison". The only coverage we could find of the event was this article by Justin Krivickas in the 22 November issue of The Observer (that's the South Bend one, not the British one).
       No hysteria ! No mass protests ! No disinvitations and then re-invitations !
       Again we wonder: why ?
       What is it that makes Harvard so special -- while everyone seems completely indifferent about what happens at Notre Dame ?
       Is it that people expect no better of a Catholic institution of higher learning (which is what Notre Dame is) ? Is Harvard the much easier (East Coast, supposedly liberal bastion, etc. etc.) target ? Is it because the Fighting Irish are ranked in the top ten while Harvard is ... well, in I-AA (though they had a chance to tie for the Ivy title over the weekend) ?
       The Weekly Standard again moaned about the spineless Harvard folk (issue of 2 December) -- but doesn't waste a word wondering about Paulin's Notre Dame appearance. (Credit to them at least for pointing out what has too often been confused in the pseudo-discussions surrounding these events: "Not to be pedantic, but the First Amendment also has nothing to do with the decision by a private university to bestow, or not bestow, the honor of delivering the annual Morris Gray poetry lecture".)

       Other mentions of note regarding Paulin-at-Harvard:
  • A "Connections" column by Edward Rothstein in The NY Times (23 November; no link)
  • English Forum Will Explore Flap by Alexander J. Blenkinsopp in the 22 November issue of The Crimson
  • Free-Speech Paranoia by Jason L. Steorts in the 25 November issue of The Crimson -- an opinion piece sensibly noting: "The question whether Paulin has the right to speak here is very different from the question whether he should speak here"
(Posted by: complete review)

       Animal Farm sequel/parody

       Because the original is still under copyright (and because of America's odd copyright laws and judicial (!) interpretation thereof) the Animal Farm-sequel, Snowball's Chance by John Reed is necessarily an 'Animal Farm sequel-slash-parody'.
       There's a long piece on it in yesterday's issue of The New York Times (no link) by Dinitia Smith. It seems John Reed has written a novel that brings back exiled Snowball and has him set up a capitalist state ("leading to misery for all the animals", Smith helpfully sums up).
       We haven't found much material about the book yet, but you can see publisher Roof Books publicity page for it -- where they call it "a wildly scathing, landmark novel".
       Dinitia Smith's article also mentions that the Orwell estate is less than thrilled, quoting an e-mail from literary executor William Hamilton to Roof Books:
The contemporary setting can only trivialize the tragedy of Orwell's mid-20th century vision of totalitarianism.
       Which -- whatever it means -- doesn't seem like the strongest argument against the new book .....
       Author Reed meanwhile acknowledges his intent to write an anti-Orwell book: "I really wanted to explode that book. (...) I wanted to completely undermine it."
       An earlier article by John Strausbaugh in New York Press covers pretty much the same ground (though Strausbaugh at least reminds readers of the absurdities of America's Mickey Mouse copyright law). The author-quotes there:
"My intention is to blast Orwell," Reed says. "I’m really doing my best to annihilate him."
       Well, at least he's ambitious.
       And Strausbaugh is impressed:
He not only shanghais Orwell’s story, but amps up and mocks the writer’s famously flat, didactic style –- that fairytailish simplicity that has ensured Animal Farm a place in high school English classes for the last 50 years.

       Certainly, taking on an old classic is easier than writing anything original -- and it also ensures that one gets a great deal more publicity (recall Pia Pera's Lo's Diary).

(Posted by: complete review)

       Wolcott on Franzen

       A most enjoyable review of Jonathan Franzen's How to Be Alone (see also our review) by James Wolcott can be found in the current (2 December) issue of The New Republic. Wolcott nicely pegs Franzen as the peculiar image-obsessed (and self-image-obsessed) writer that he is.
       Aside from the review, it also offers this nice observation -- of which we were unaware:
The cover of the reviewers' galleys for How to Be Alone (...) shows a woman browsing through a book with a copy of The Corrections set prominently on the table next to her. Perhaps the publishers thought this would be too self-reflexive even for Franzen, because The Corrections has been removed from the cover of the finished book and replaced with a copy of The Brothers Karamazov.
       Likely this was the publisher's doing, not Franzen's -- and yet Franzen (or rather: Franzen's image) practically demands it. Everything is pose, nothing is real; image is everything, substance or truth irrelevant. It's just a blurry little detail -- but in creating that Franzen-image attention to even such details is important !
       Amusing also -- and much to the same point: Wolcott's take on the author photo (a new Greg Martin snapshot, the multi-millionaire author unshaven, wearing a scuffed blue-jeans jacket):
The author's photo for the book looks like a a hostage shot, Franzen holding himself captive and refusing to free himself until we accept the terms of his release.
       Anyway, Wolcott isn't too thrilled about the "pious opportunist" and all that damn ambivalence:
Alone. Together. Inside yet outside. Outside yet inside. The same but different. Different but the same. It's a shame Franzen couldn't just grow a Siamese twin, keep himself company, and leave the rest of us out of it.
       A worthwhile piece -- recommended.

       (The shame of it is, of course, that Franzen is a talented writer -- but the overwhelming shadow of his image now threatens to obscure his actual accomplishments. And he does himself no favours by tweaking it so much (and so publicly).)

(Posted by: complete review)

       TLS-letter on "Kertész in translation"

       We just received the 15 November issue of the Times Literary Supplement. As usual: interesting stuff. For now we have just a brief comment about one of the letters -- Tom McGonigle writing about George Szirtes's 18 October TLS-piece on new Nobel laureate Imre Kertész.
       McGonigle corrects -- "ever so gently" -- Szirtes' mistake about Kertész' two English translations being published by different publishers (they were in fact both published by Northwestern University Press -- one directly by NWUP, one under their Hydra imprint) -- a slip which readers of our Saloon will recall we pointed out a while back (23 October; scroll down for our comment there)).
       But it is what else McGonigle writes that caught our attention, and caused great sadness hereabouts:
I understand that Northwestern is in the process of cutting back on its translation programme, and has already cancelled its UnBound Europe series. This is terrible news as Northwestern and Nebraska were the only two reliable American presses publishing a wide range of literary fiction and poetry in translation, and now it is also said that Nebraska is cutting back.
       Terrible news indeed ! Writings from an Unbound Europe was a great series (comparable to the short-lived Penguin series edited by Philip Roth, Writers from the Other Europe), and among the many good books published in it was at least one masterpiece -- Mesa Selimovic's Death and the Dervish (see our review)
       And if it is true -- that even fewer translations will be available in the future courtesy of NWUP and the U of Nebraska Press -- well, we don't even want to think of such horrors.
       We ... no, it's all too terrible to even consider -- so, for the moment we won't.

(Posted by: complete review)


       We enjoy Biblio: A Review of Books. They provide good coverage of contemporary South Asian literature, and there are occasionally interesting essay-pieces to be found there too.
       In the current online issue (July-August -- they're always a couple of months behind) there's a piece that looks like it might be interesting: Linking up: Constructing the audience and de/reconstructing the text in online book reviews by Rosario C. Rodriguez and Luisa V. Alfonso The piece is described as: an "abridged version of The Influence of Hypertext on Genre: The Case of Online Book Reviews", a paper presented at The Poetics and Linguistics Association (PALA), 22nd International Conference, University of Birmingham, 4-6 April, 2002.
       We're big on book reviews ! We're big on linking ! So we thought this might be of interest -- or even use -- to us (and, of course, our users, who, we figure, might be interested in these sorts of things too).
       We read there, among other things:
Linking practices also foreground the multidimensional and intrinsically dynamic nature of genres by revealing the existence of several communicative purposes within the same text. Moreover, they not only allow audiences to actively engage with the genre, but also challenge the concept of rhetorical structure as a unitary and prototypical textual pattern.
       Well, it's something to think about.
       Or maybe not.
       In any case, we do provide the link to the article to allow you "to actively engage with the genre". And we hope you'll accept our sincerest apologies for doing so ..... (You understand: we just couldn't pass up a chance to "challenge the concept of rhetorical structure as a unitary and prototypical textual pattern".)
       (Note, however, that you are engaging with a different genre here than the one the authors are discussing -- a weblog, rather than book reviews -- and it may be too daring a jump to believe that what holds true for one holds true for the other .....)

       O.k., so they're not spouting complete nonsense (if you waste your time reading the article carefully you'll see it's not entirely devoid of thought or ideas) -- but other than being couched in some (admittedly inspired) jargon there's not really that much substance or insight here.
       Still: an analysis of online book reviews ! Links ! We couldn't pass it up -- and maybe it is of some interest to some of our users out there in the wastelands of academia (where dwellers are more at home (and possibly even comfortable) with this kind of ... expository style).

(Posted by: complete review)

25 November 2002 - Monday

Darwin on Darwin | On access to online content | Kinsley reactions

       Darwin on Darwin

       The latest addition to the complete review is a neat little book from Cambridge University Press, Charles Darwin's The Life of Erasmus Darwin (edited by Desmond King-Hele). Written and first published in 1879, this edition (copyright date: 2003) is nevertheless (and quite remarkably) the first unabridged one, adding (by restoring) about one-sixth of the text.
       Erasmus Darwin -- Charles' grand-dad -- was an interesting figure in his own right, and Charles' always sprightly style makes for a decent introduction here. And CUP (and editor King-Hele) have put a very nice book together here.
       Erasmus also figures prominently among Jenny Uglow's Lunar Men (which we also reviewed recently); see also this piece by Uglow. Now if someone would just re-print Erasmus' own work in affordable editions .....

(Posted by: complete review)

       On access to online content

       We frequently lament the decline in free (and ready) accessibility to online book review coverage, especially from major media outlets (The Washington Post, New Statesman, and the Evening Standard being among newspapers and magazines that have recently made life more difficult for those wishing to peruse their review coverage).
       The trend -- and what a horrible trend it is -- among newspapers publishing online editions continues to be to register users, and to charge them money for access to most material. A good (if extremely depressing) overview of the current state of affairs -- and the dire days that look to soon be upon us -- can be found in this article by Sonia Purnell in yesterday's issue of The Independent. She warns:
The age of free content may soon be over and the era of pay-as-you-go upon us. The name of the game now in newspapers is not how many people go to their websites, but how many people will pay for the information there.
       A small saving grace is the failure of some of these attempts to get people to pay for content:
However, the experiences of some foreign papers have proved cautionary, not least that of The Irish Times, which is said to have lost 95 per cent of its website users by introducing a full charging policy over-night.
       We're usually not big on Schadenfreude, but we're absolutely thrilled that the Irish Times' attempts met such grand failure (we're still ticked off at them for their treatment of one-time literary editor John Banville too ...).
       Unfortunately, the only lesson that will be learnt is likely to be to introduce change gradually. We can only beg and implore all internet users: never register, never pay -- and always complain !
       As far as book review coverage goes, surely every newspaper realizes that there's no money to be made there (who on earth would pay for it ?) -- we suggest: leave it free, a nice low-cost loss-leader to try to lure the suckers in .....

       (We mentioned content-provider Salon going OTC a few days ago; now see also this article from the 22 November San Francisco Chronicle. It includes mention of the following hilarious idea of how Salon might try to stay afloat a few ... hours longer:
One option Salon has prepared, according to a recent regulatory filing, is to sell some of its future revenue to an unnamed bank for 60 cents to 80 cents on the dollar.
       We're just praying that they'll find a way to keep their very fine book-review archive up and accessible when they finally do give up trying to be a functioning company. (Having burned through 80,000,000 dollars and having still not managed it we figure that day will be fairly soon -- though to their credit (or at least on the credit -- of some very generous backers) they have stayed afloat considerably longer than we expected they ever could.))

(Posted by: complete review)

       Kinsley reactions

       As we mentioned on Friday (22 November), Michael Kinsley admitted in a column first published at Slate that while he was a judge for this year's (American) National Book Award (in the non-fiction category), he didn't take his duties seriously in the least and couldn't be bothered to read most of the submissions (including, he suggests, the winning book (volume three of Robert A. Caro's Lyndon Johnson biography) -- for which he must have voted, since the vote was apparently unanimous).
       The story has gotten some play -- mainly in the form of a widely published Hillel Italie AP report (read it at The Washington Post or the San Francisco Chronicle or any of dozens of other newspapers that couldn't be bothered to write their own version of the story). In this piece Neil Baldwin (executive director of the award-giving National Book Foundation) is reported to admit knowing "Kinsley wasn't keeping up" and that Kinsley "had to be talked out of quitting". They know he's not doing the job and they talk him out of quitting ? What about kicking the bum out in the complete disgrace he deserves ? Oh, that's right, this is just about books and literature and irrelevant crap like that -- nobody cares about that, nobody could possibly take that seriously, right ? (Certainly, apparently, not this "National Book Foundation" ... though given their lax and ultra-understanding employment policy we'd love them to consider us for some jobs .....)
       There is one additional piece of information in the AP article that Kinsley conveniently forgot to mention in his piece -- the fact that he got paid for his troubles. A trifling sum for him, no doubt (judges "receive honoraria between $2,000 and $2,500"), but not so negligible in the eyes of impoverished folk like us ..... (It's many times over the annual complete review-budget, for example.)

       A discussion of sorts has also started up on these Kinsley-doings at Plastic.

(Posted by: complete review)

23 November 2002 - Saturday

Ian McEwan's Atonement | Books of the Year lists ...

       Ian McEwan's Atonement

       New books, old books -- we try to juggle (and then review) them all and so we're not always up-to-date with the latest releases. The latest addition to the complete review, Ian McEwan's Atonement, is pretty old for a new book -- it was shortlisted for last year's Booker Prize. Pretty much everyone has been raving about it, and since we're big fans (we've read all of his books, though only one other title is currently under review) one would have thought we might have managed to get to it sooner.
       Fortunately (for us) we finally did get to it, and what a pleasure that was. So, if there are some of you out there who have been similarly remiss and put off reading it -- well, we suggest this is a book one shouldn't miss. It certainly ranks among the finer contemporary novels we've read in recent years.
       The review-reactions to the book are fairly interesting (see our review for dozens of links and summaries). Especially interesting is how reviewers approach the book's two ... mysteries, or plot twists, or whatever one wants to call them. Part of the power of the book comes from how it unfolds, and readers who come to the book knowing nothing about it will probably get the most out of it. (It's hard, however, to approach the book in complete ignorance -- even the jacket-copy provides some spoiler-material.) The big spoilers are: a crime which is committed (not Briony's crime, which is related thereto, but is something quite different), and what is revealed in the epilogue. We tried to be as careful as possible in our review -- certainly about the first spoiler (less so about the second, which, like Briony's crime, is alluded to as the novel progresses and most of which (we felt) doesn't come as all too great a surprise). But there were a number of reviewers who reveal pretty much everything, which we found a bit surprising. Meanwhile, others barely dared say anything about the plot, feeling that to do so would be to reveal too much.
       In any case: readers who don't like too much revealed should probably steer clear of the reviews until they've read the book -- though even if you know exactly what happens and what McEwan does, it's a worthwhile read.

       Part of the reason we did not jump on it as soon as it appeared may have been because of the disappointment of Amsterdam, the ending of which irritated us so that we still haven't quite forgiven McEwan. We're with Robert MacFarlane, who wrote in his TLS-review (28 September 2001):
Three years on, however, McEwan has produced a novel which, in its richness of detail, its gravitas and its length, is mahogany to the balsa wood of Amsterdam. Among the many implications of Atonement's fertile title is that it makes up for the insubstantialities of its predecessor.
       Bafflingly, Amsterdam went on to win the Booker -- while the far superior Atonement did not (beaten out by, of all things, Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang). Yet more proof (as if after Michael Kinsley any more were needed) that literary prizes are hard to take seriously.
       But Atonement does have yet another chance for some laurels -- it's up for the 2003 IMPAC. Of course, so is everybody else -- there's a 125-book longlist for the award. (Surprisingly many of the titles are under review at the complete review -- maybe we'll get around to listing which we favour.) The BBC reports McEwan to be a front-runner -- but with such a huge pile presumably anything can happen.

(Posted by: complete review)

       Oh dear, the Books of the Year lists are here ...

       Rather than providing actual book-coverage it has become popular sport in the media to round-up and summarize previous coverage, compiling year-end "best books"- or "books of the year"-lists. We're not huge fans for a number of reasons -- including the fact that most of the publications making such lists have actually only reviewed (and thus considered) a relatively small number of books -- usually the same big-name, big-publisher ones, too -- and thus hardly seem in much of a position to really judge what's best. (We look at a lot of books, but we look at far too few to even consider making such a list.)
       There's also the fact that the year-end lists should, surely, by their very definition come when the year has ended. Admittedly, most periodicals have access to titles before their publication date and thus can consider and include titles not yet available to the reading public, but it still seems wrong (or at least premature) to us.
       Finally, there is the sheer mass of some of these lists. The San Francisco Chronicle, for example, threatens with a 100-title strong list, due mid-December. The Los Angeles Times best-list seems in some years to include every single book they reviewed.
       The New York Times Book Review "Holiday Books" issue last year (dated 2 December) singles out nine "Editors' Choice"-titles -- their best books of the year -- but they also provide eleven pages of "Notable Books". At least they do make it a true annual list, going back to books review from the last holiday issue (i.e. December 2000, not January 2001). They explain that this list "is meant to suggest some of the high points in this year's" books in all categories. Of course, they only consider books reviewed in the pages of The New York Times Book Review -- which is, we remind you, a very limited list. So how many books were found to be notable in 2001 ? 280 ! That's an average of over five from every single issue of the Book Review over the course of the year. Could they be any less selective ? (Presumably any book that gets reviewed and doesn't make the list has to be (in their opinion) pretty bad.) So also -- with 279 other books with the same words printed on their covers -- so much for the cachet of having "The New York Times Book Review - Notable Book" printed on the cover of a book. (But we know you're not gullible enough to be impressed by anything like that in any case .....)

       So anyway: the books-of-the-year-lists have started to appear, and for those of you who like this sort of thing here are the first ones we found:        Sure, it's fun to see what specific reviewers single out (as on The Spectator-lists), and there's something to be said for reminding readers of truly worthy titles, but overall we'd prefer time, space, and energy to be devoted to actual in-depth book coverage, not this superficial stuff.

(Posted by: complete review)

22 November 2002 - Friday

Michael Kinsley - NBA judge | Salon goes OTC

       Michael Kinsley: I don't read books, I just judge them

       The (American) National Book Awards were recently handed out -- without a great deal of media coverage or public interest (and not even -- as is often the case with literary prizes in Britain -- any gambling on who might win). An explanation why these prizes don't get much respect can be found in a piece by Michael Kinsley at Slate (posted 21 November), Curse You, Robert Caro ! (link first sighted at MobyLives).
       Kingsley was a judge on the non-fiction panel (along with Anthony Brandt, Gail Buckley, Mary Karr, and Christopher Merrill (who chaired); for all the judges see this page). His Slate-piece is a 'humorous' account of being an NBA-judge. Our satire-radar is completely out of whack (still reeling from Gabe Hudson's so-called satirical efforts), so we don't whether it is meant to be taken seriously or not (god, how we wish there were still people who took some things seriously ...), but if any of it is it is pretty shocking.
       Kinsley admits, for example, that he didn't even bother with most of the books: "Bold and fearless procrastination, for example, got the pile winnowed from 402 down to under 50 by others without my having to crack a single spine." Bold ? Fearless ? How about: dereliction of duty.
       To read 402 books over the course of a year is, admittedly, an almost impossible task -- at least if one has any other sort of job. But that's hardly an excuse. To not even crack the spines of over 87 percent of the titles up for the award is just plain outrageous. Publishers actually pay to submit their works -- 100 dollars for each book -- and the least they can expect is that more than the cover is examined. (We hope they sue to get their money back.)
       Kinsley also makes fun of one of the submissions, saying its title alone pretty much put it out of consideration (while acknowledging that it may be a fine book): John Frederick Walker's A Certain Curve of Horn: The Hundred-Year Quest for the Giant Sable Antelope of Angola (buy your copy at "Expecting us to overcome all these barriers and read the book anyway: That is what's unfair", he writes. Sorry, Mike: that's not unfair that's what your job was and that's what you committed to in accepting the position. If you weren't up to the task at hand you should have quit.
       Instead, Kinsley stuck it out -- not that there was much to endure for him, since he apparently took things very, very easily. Eventually the panel made the easy choice and threw the award at Robert Caro's acclaimed brick of a biography of President Johnson -- with Kinsley cutely closing his piece: "So, anyway, we gave the award to Caro. But did I actually read every page? I'll never tell." So he suggests he might not even have bothered to read the book judged to be best .....
       It's hard to take literary prizes very seriously anyway, but when even the judges (at least one of them) have an attitude like this they lose what little credibility they might have.
       In an interview with Neil Baldwin: The man behind the National Book Awards at ASJA Baldwin says:
Getting judges used to be a tough sell, but now if I call up an author and they don't have a book coming out or they're not working on a book, they want to be a judge. A lot of it is attributable to the caché of the National Book Award. Word is out that it's fair and square, everybody has a shot.
       Fair and square, eh ? When a judge admits to not even glancing at close to ninety percent of the entries how fair and square can things be ? As to "caché" (which we always thought was "cachet") -- well, kiss that good-bye (along with any respect people might have had for these awards). (Come to think of it -- and consulting our dictionary -- we still think it's "cachet")
       Judging such a huge number of books is a possibly overwhelming task. To fairly judge 402 submissions over the course of a single year would be, pretty much, a full-time job; obviously the NBA needs to find a better method of trimming down the list to a more manageable number of contenders (a fifty- or twenty-title longlist, for example). Kinsley's method -- look at the covers and titles - is obviously one of the worst possible ways of going about this. (Note that he relied on his fellow judges to winnow down the list to less than fifty -- but who knows what methods they used ? Maybe they actually did read them -- but again: reading that number of books is a full-time job which most of these judges probably don't have time for).
       In any case: if what Kinsley writes is true then it is outrageous and embarrassing and suggests that the NBA should look long and hard at how they determine who receives its award. Maybe the best book did win -- but it sure doesn't sound like it was a fair contest.

(Posted by: complete review)

       Salon goes OTC

       We previously wrote about Salon's financial woes, after Salon stock had the dubious distinction of achieving true penny-stock status, bottoming out at the lowest price at which it could be traded, one cent. Despite a NASDAQ extension, giving Salon more time to meet capital requirements, cash infusions (and the small stream of revenue Salon actually generates on its own) were insufficient to convince investors to push the stock to anywhere near acceptable levels. So came the next blow: on 21 November Salon was officially delisted from NASDAQ, and booted down to OTC (over-the-counter) level -- see their press release.
       Despite their attempts to be reassuring, the fall is a devastating one. Yes, it is still a publicly traded company, but OTC-status doesn't exactly endear companies to the financial markets (or investors -- other than the most thrill-seeking or reckless).
       Can they survive ? If they get a few more cushy loans from very generous investors (as they have over the past year) then sure -- for a while. Long term ... it doesn't look so good. Still: Salon stock is currently trading at considerably above the single-cent low -- check the current price here.

       Also: taking ever-more desperate ... pardon us: creative steps, Salon has now introduced yet another novel revenue-generating technique -- see articles at Online Journalism Review ( Tries the 'Ultramercial') and

(Posted by: complete review)

21 November 2002 - Thursday

Gabe Hudson's letter (not) from the President | Paulin about-face

       Gabe Hudson's letter (not) from the President

       We previously (7 November) wrote at some length about Gabe Hudson's admission that when he claimed to have received a letter from President Bush critiquing his new book, Dear Mr. President, he was, in fact, not being truthful but rather satirical and that he had neither received any letter from the President nor even bothered to send him the book. (See also our 11 November follow-up.)
       As we mentioned, things came to a head when Hudson repeated his initial claims (that he had received a letter from the President disparaging his book) to the Hartford Courant and the White House then denied the existence of any such letter (or even receipt of the book), leading to Hudson's sudden about-face. The Hartford Courant was, however, not the first place where Hudson had spread this story. He spun it out in some detail in, among other places, an interview with Camille Dodero in the 31 October-7 November Boston Phoenix, as well as an interview with Deborah Treisman, published at McSweeney's in mid-October. (He continues to be make the claim on his Write a Letter to the President-page.)
       In her interview with Hudson Ms. Treisman presses him on the question of the veracity of his claim:
Hudson: At first I thought it was a joke. But, one thing I can say for sure, when you have a letter from the President you know you have a letter from the President. The stationery alone is intimidating. It's a weirdly terrifying letter to have in your hands.

Q: Are you telling the truth about this? I have to say, you haven't always been completely honest with the reading public.

Hudson: It's true, I have done some strange stuff in the past, but I will say on my behalf, there was always a point to that stuff. I was always trying to make people think about something. This one is true, though, and I honestly wish it wasn't.
       We wondered how she felt, now that the truth has come to light (and it turns out that Hudson again wasn't completely honest with the reading public -- or her), and so we asked her. She was nice enough to respond, writing to us:
No, I was surprised but not dismayed by the aftermath of our McSweeney's interview, mostly because I didn't, for a second, think that Gabe had actually received a letter from George Bush. He wasn't "lying" to me, as you suggest; he was joking, parodying, satirizing, as he does so effectively in his stories. Gabe's a wonderful generator of fiction, and a good old-fashioned prankster with a great comic imagination. What was surprising to me is that anyone would take seriously the idea that President Bush had written to a constituent to accuse him of producing "plain bad writing." Not seeing it as clearly a joke seems, to me, akin to believing that President Bush makes frequent appearances on Saturday Night Live.
       (Note that Ms. Treisman is the newly appointed fiction editor at The New Yorker, and that she was one of the editors responsible for getting him into print in the début fiction section of the 18-25 June 2001 summer fiction issue of The New Yorker -- which truly launched his career.)
       We'll certainly take her word for it that she didn't think for a second that the claim was true -- and perhaps she was signalling to readers that it should be taken cum grano salis (with the proverbial grain of salt) with her direct question to him as to whether or not he was being truthful (and that observation that he often isn't). Still, she allowed him to play out the fantasy, making no further challenges and allowing Hudson to sound very convincing.
       Again we wonder: how was this satire -- and to what end ? Readers clearly were taken in. As absurd as the story is (the junior Bush reading a book ! ha !), it seemed vaguely plausible -- which in this age tends to be plausible enough. Perhaps the interview wasn't meant (by Treisman) to be taken seriously -- McSweeney's has a reputation for being somehow jokey and hip, and perhaps it is expected that its readers should know better.
       But people do take these things seriously. Kevin Canfield of the Hartford Courant didn't share Treisman's doubts when he first wrote about the claim ("If Hudson is telling the truth -- and there's no reason to think he isn't" he wrote). We're not sure about Camille Dodero in the Boston Phoenix, but that interview sounded like there was little doubt about Hudson's claims either.
       Others were also taken in and took Hudson's claim pretty much at face value: see this column from The New York Observer (28 October) ("After perusing Dear Mr. President (Knopf), the first novel by Gabe Hudson (...) Mr. Bush was moved to take time out from planning his conquest of Iraq and pen a two-paragraph note on White House stationery") or Michael S. Manley's take in his Short Fiction Focus weblog (where he parenthetically acknowledges: "and should he be lying, won't this be a stinkingly ironic bunch of blather").
       Ms. Treisman compares the joke to Saturday Night Live skits parodying the President. This may be true for her interview in McSweeney's -- a forum that might be considered Saturday Night Live-like in playing fast and loose with fact and fiction. But the Boston Phoenix and Hartford Courant (and the The Washington Post, which picked up the story from the Courant) don't fall in quite the same category, the audiences perhaps not as attuned to this kind of "satire" and instead believing the author's wild but not completely absurd claims. (There's crazier stuff in most every newspaper every day, after all.)
       Treisman believes Hudson "was joking, parodying, satirizing", but beyond a parody of how the President might have reacted to the book we don't find much of that in Hudson's claim (and how he spun it out). (Or is showing how gullible (or trusting) readers (and journalists) can be a joke/parody/satire ?) Hudson himself said his claims "were meant as satire, and were intended to be perceived as such". However, even after consulting several reference works we found no way of reconciling Hudson's claims with any form of the concept of "satire". We admit to being a bit dim, and certainly not McSweeney's-hip, but surely it can't be that complicated (and if it is ... well, surely that makes it fairly ineffective satire).
       (In fact, the only point at which we found it might have become effective satire -- or at least a good joke -- was when the White House denied that the President had written to Hudson. If Hudson had stuck to his story and spun it out ever-more wildly, making it completely outlandish, possibly even fabricating a letter from Bush, all in the face of official government denials -- well, that might have actually led to something interesting.)

       Hudson's sense of humour appears to be an idiosyncratic one (well, idio-something, anyway). He presumably had a part in disseminating news of his own death in 2000: see the letter from "Kendall Hudson" at McSweeney's (scroll down to letter of 22 September), where readers learn: "On June 18, 2000, my brother Gabriel Hudson passed away in a random car accident.". See also another letter from Kendall (scroll down to letter of 1 October), where he writes:
As you can see, Gabe was clearly in pursuit of something "big." It is always inspiring to witness a zealous mind fully engaged in the rapture of itself. A mind, if you will, that is on fire, with no water in sight. This was the brother I had looked up to for as long as I could remember. My brother who lived life to the fullest, and so I hereby say that we should not mourn my brother's loss but instead celebrate his life, because his life was nothing if not that: a celebration of life.
       Tasteful, eh ? Though the idea -- faking one's death -- is a bit more interesting than the the fake Bush-letter -- except, of course, that when Hudson did it not many people other than a few McSweeney's readers seem to have had any idea who he was -- or cared that he was no longer with us.
       (Kendall Hudson, whoever that might really be (Gabe himself possibly ?), by the way, is credited with producing and maintaining Hudson's "School of Obligatory Survival"-site.)

       Back to the satire-question again: where does the "good old-fashioned prankster" Treisman sees end and truth begin ? Hudson may not care much about his credibility (hey, he was willing to say he was dead), but to have none whatsoever (as we would contend surely must be the case with Hudson now) can be problematic. Maybe Hudson wins an audience by playing journalists and potential readers for fools. Certainly he also loses one. And the sad thing is it has nothing to do with his writing -- which, for all we know, might be marvelous. But the writer-as-performance-artist isn't something that appeals to everyone (especially if this is the best he can do as far as his performances go).
       Trying to shape oneself into an author who is a completely unreliable narrator in all respects (in life as in fiction) is a fun idea -- and something we actually would respect. But Hudson isn't doing that either: he milks what (so far) have passed for autobiographical facts in flogging his book: he's Texan, he has some Fine Arts degree from Brown University, he was a Marine reservist. And by backing down from his original Bush-sent-me-a-letter falsehood he proves again to be unwilling to fully embrace a lifestyle of complete imposture and artifice. Puzzling.

       There's another Hudson-interview that can almost be recommended. Robert Birnbaum's conversation with Hudson at identity theory (26 September 2002) seems remarkably sensible and Hudson comes across sympathetically -- at first glance. But, of course, that interview can't be read literally anymore -- no, not when Hudson's involved, that "wonderful generator of fiction (...) with a great comic imagination". As an author apparently only bent on satire surely nothing he says can be taken at face value. Surely, it's all one big joke -- and pity the fool who thinks otherwise (like naïve Kevin Canfield at the Hartford Courant).

(Posted by: complete review)

       About-face at Harvard

       Tom Paulin is coming back.
       We recently mentioned (and again and again) poet Tom Paulin being disinvited from Harvard, after he had been invited to read there. Upon further review, the English department at Harvard has reversed its position and re-invited him (and he apparently plans to accept). The department vote was unanimous (with two abstentions) -- making one wonder how that initial decision to disinvite Paulin came about ..... Oh, right, Larry Summers made his opinion known ... but now outside pressure (cries of academic freedom and freedom of speech being impinged upon) apparently outweigh even the formidable inside pressure at Harvard.
       Articles of interest with more details:
(Posted by: complete review)

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