Thursday, November 24, 2005

Ruminating about book reviews

Like most readers, I imagine, of this blog, I like reading - I like reading widely, across many fields and I both enjoy and value quality book reviews that, in some cases, point me to books that I want to read and, in others, give me some sense of what's in books and in intellectual debate in fields I am not in.

I also like to write book reviews, often outside my particular academic specialties in law and international law - most of my book reviews can be found here, at my academic writings page (scroll down). They range from photography books on the Manhattan skyline to musical amateurs, plus stuff in line with my academic speciality in international law. I have long written occasionally for the Times Literary Supplement in London, and occasionally for the Los Angeles Times book review, and then in academic journals and law reviews. I very much like writing and reading the longish review essay, even though I have been repeatedly told by academic colleagues that as a genre, it is not taken very seriously among academics, I guess because it is essentially "derivative" in discussing other people's ideas. I don't think that's necessarily true - the last long review I wrote (and it was really long, as in 30 or so journal pages) was on Anne-Marie Slaughter's A New World Order, and although I gave it a close textual analysis, I also thought there were an awful lot of my own ideas developed there - but I take my colleagues' point.

Over time, though, there have been editorial turnovers at the TLS and other venues, as well as editorial shifts there, and I feel like I have less access to those pages. Partly it's because my contacts with the editor at the TLS aren't as close as they were with the previous editor, Ferdinand Mount, and partly because the TLS under Peter Stothard seems less focused on political books and less focused, actually, on American books and more on Britain itself. Which is fine - one of the reason I read the TLS is in order to know what is happening outside of American letters. On the other hand, I no longer think of the TLS as I once did as the broad survey of arts, letters, and science as I once did. But this has led me to think about the extant general book reviews, both as a reader and writer:

  • TLS. As I said, it seems both more British-centric and less interested in politics than it was. Which is a perfectly good editorial decision for a "literary" supplement, but it does make it less accessible to me as a writer and less comprehensive as a reader.
  • London Review of Books. Its essays are longer than the TLS's, and often given over, in the fashion of the New York Review of Books, to the writer's ideas rather than the books' under review. But I enjoy the writing even though finding the political line of the LRB - well, parochial. That's as a reader - as a writer, I can't imagine it giving a center-right American writer the time of day.
  • Spectator (London). I find the magazine silly, but I do like reading the book reviews because they make me aware of a wide array of serious British books that will never make it to America. Given the journal's taste in books, however, an American reviewer is not exactly what they need.
  • The Guardian. It would not, of course, be interested in someone like me as a reviewer, but I read it regularly online because it often has interesting writers and excellent book reviews of books from everywhere. A friend of mine told me recently that British intellectuals are not polarized the way Americans are, and it allows for a more subtle and fluid discourse, so that although the Guardian's editorials are scrupulously leftwing, one could read much conservative thought there. That's not exactly how I would characterize the Guardian. More importantly, though, what generally strikes me about the Guardian is how little factual reporting it typically contains - maybe that's more honest than American journalism, pretending that the fact stories are kept separate from the opinion pieces, when in fact they aren't and can't be - but the Guardian has long seemed to me long on style and short on reporting.
  • New York Review of Books. Long, long before my own political views moved sufficiently to the right to rule me out of the NYRB, I couldn't abide the tone of the journal - an offputting combination of smugness, an intellectual conversation among the in-crowd confirming its own prejudices, and the unpalatable tone of God Addressing Eternity. I wrote something like this back in my diary, when I still kept a diary and still counted myself as a leftwinger - I was still very much a Californian, and had an instinctive aversion to this kind of East Coast pretentiousness, even before I knew what it was. It was such a relief to discover the TLS - I speak entirely of intellectual style, nothing here about politics - with its straightforward elegance - somewhere Orwell is smiling, and not, alas, upon the NYRB.
  • NYT Book Review. I don't quite know how it works - but every writer for it winds up sounding exactly the same. I do skim it every week, and it is the fastest book review to read, because everything said has been pre-processed into the same blather.
  • LAT Book Review. Since Steve Wasserman left for New York, I haven't followed it. Steve turned it into something magnificent during the years he was there - a quite remarkable achievement. He wasn't pleased with something I wrote about Gore Vidal and Joan Didion, and I dropped off the radar screen there - he then made a valiant effort to bring me back with a review of something by E.D. Hirsch - but then I dropped the ball and never got it to him, something I've always regretted - and regretted losing touch with him and his lovely kids (in DC with their mom).
  • New Yorker. Too mannered.
  • Granta. I haven't really followed it in recent years.
  • The New Republic. I am told that Leon Wieseltier is, umm, difficult, but if you look over the ten year or more time line, I think his back of the book at TNR is the best arts and letters section in the US. He has enough space to do very serious review essays. The range - poetry, dance, visual arts, the whole range - is what a serious review should cover. I think it is what keeps the rest of the magazine going.
  • The Atlantic Monthly. As a general magazine, it has gotten better and better over the last few years - nearly all of the virtues of the New Yorker without the corresponding vices. Say what you will about Mark Steyn's political views, there's no question he's who you want to write your obituary. The book reviews are also quite good - but they don't quite fit what I have in mind, which is really an essay which is central, frankly, to the publication rather than a peripheral add-on.
  • The Weekly Standard. It has emerged as the conservative magazine, and quite good, too. Its arts and letters back of the book has improved as it has been given more space, but the fact remains that it does not really give enough space for genuinely lasting review essays. The model here is TNR, and there is just not enough space to write. In addition - in a problem it shares with most of the other self-consciously conservative publications - there remains (not as much as in early days and not as much as in other conservative outlets) a certain whiff of "here is book x and here is what a conservative should think about it." That's annoying with books, and ludicruous in other arts - dance, poetry, etc. It's not all politics, thank you. It has gotten, I repeat, much better about that, but not enough.
  • The New Criterion. I have great respect for Hilton Kramer's achievement in making a serious intellectual journal of the arts with a conservative bent fly - yet it seems to suffer from precisely what the journal often says is the problem with the arts - making them into politics. It needs less politicization and more arts. What I'm looking for is a genuinely pluralistic outlet that looks for good, interesting writers and is not looking for them to fill a certain editorial line. Unfortunately the New Criterion is not that.
  • The Claremont Review of Books. I enjoy reading it - it has some excellent writers and writing. It is limited to politics, and frankly I don't understand all the ins and outs of its conservative pedigree - is the Claremont Institute Straussian? Not Straussian? What does any of that mean? I frankly have little clue - I came to positions on some important things, such as terrorism and security, that I consider broadly speaking to be center right without any background in conservative intellectual thought - I came from the left, and worried rather more about varieties of Western marxism. I tend toward Burke, with the proviso that you can find pretty much whatever you like somewhere in his writing, and in culture toward undoctrinnaire libertarian, certainly not social or cultural conservative positions. But mostly I have no clue about the intellectual internecine wars of the right, and don't much care. So I wouldn't mind writing stuff for the Claremont Institute, but it seems a rather limited audience, ideologically as well as numerically. (I grew up in Claremont, California, and rode my bicycle most days past what are now the Institute's offices on Foothill Blvd - it seems rather remarkable to me that a conservative think tank could grow up in the fashionably upper middle class liberal left college town that was - and is - Claremont. But then, I was a kid in Claremont in the 60s and 70s, and the Claremont Colleges were not centers of learning for me, but a bunch of lawns and secluded gardens where I went necking with my girlfriend Lauren. (Well, maybe centers of learning of a different kind.).)
  • The Boston Review. I hadn't seen it in a while - had an invitation to write for it a couple of years ago but never followed up, as I went on sabbatical to Spain and spent my time eating tapas in Sevilla - but just sat down and read it in Barnes & Noble today. Well, I have fond memories of Josh Cohen - my teacher on Marxism at UCLA and a friend through my friends Sharon and Bob at Harvard - but really, isn't the Boston Review just the parochial version the NYRB? What's the difference, really? I like the idea of regional reviews, so I am not unhappy with the idea of a review for Boston area intellectuals to write, but it's really a local thing.
  • Policy Review. This a splendid outlet for book reviews and review essays to a select crowd - it is a very broad minded journal published by my very own Hoover Institution and my very good friend Tod Lindberg. It allows the possibility of good essay writing and more length than most of the other venues. It's not precisely an academic journal although much of its readership is academic, while being something quite, entirely different from the usual think tank production, which is mostly just PR for the tank. This is a very serious, very electice, and very intellectual journal. It is also a place that is not afraid to review something that very few people will care about - I am working on a review of the International Committee of the Red Cross' massive, 5000 page new study of customary law of war rules - talk about obscure - and know that Tod will give me the space to adequately critique it. This is a very good venue, one that deserves much wider circulation, on the web and off.
  • Telos. I had dropped out of touch with the critical theory journal Telos years ago; I was saddened to learn, a year or so late, of the untimely death of Paul Piccone, its editor, to cancer. But an old Telos friend, and now Hoover friend, Stanford professor Russell Berman, has taken over as editor, and I am eager to get involved. It is a good place for a particular kind of book review, focused on social theory, that engages a certain conversation about the critique of bureaucracy, social theory, and freedom, somewhat located in - yet without being a prisoner of - Continental social theory.

Well, sometimes I wonder if there is room for a genuinely pluralistic general book review on the web - with full coverage of the whole range of arts, science, culture, literature, politics, history, law, etc., with a wide range of authors and viewpoints? You see attempts - Harry Siegel and friends attempting to resurrect a new, web version of Partisan Review, for example - but none of them ever seem to quite make it.

Maybe there aren't the readers and maybe there aren't the authors available purely on the web - it's a club that everyone can join so no one does. There remains a gatekeeping function of print publications to attract readers interested in not merely what's quality but what's at the cultural center and to show a certain screening function that the web exists to demolish - while unfortunately risking inundating us with junk. One of Steve Wasserman's many smart innovations at the LAT book review was to send it around in the mail to a long list of East Coast intellectuals - so they knew that if they wrote for the LAT book review, their friends would see it in New York. Clever moves like that plus a rolodex to die for and a talent for editing (Steve once coaxed - maybe extorted is a better word - a long overdue review out of my good friend John Ryle, while he was attending a meeting with me in Budapest years ago by going on a hunger strike until John produced his review, which John did in short order) gave the LAT book review cachet and intellectual heft. Who else but Steve Wasserman would have thought to deliver to the Sunday morning readers of Los Angeles a special section of the book review devoted to long out of print dead classics - in translation (for which I wrote him my review of Story of O, here, under the title "the erotics of virtue")?

Still, sometimes I dream of having a pure labor of web love, devoted to putting out a broad spectrum book review, just called, I don't know ... My Literary Supplement. The MLS. The difficulty is, I would want My Literary Supplement to be edited not by me, but by my dear friend and one of the three finest editors I know (Tod Lindberg and Steve Wasserman being the other two), John Ryle. In which case, would it still be My Literary Supplement?

1 comment:

Scott Lahti said...

Wow - I knew there was a reason I've enjoyed your work since your TLS reviews in the early 1990s: your catholic engagement with the general stream of intellectual culture is rare on either "side" of our reductionist political spectrum.

Your diagnosis of the disabling weakness of center-right journals' culture sections - their political "filter" in areas where what Gilbert, Oscar Wilde's alter ego in his dialogue "The Critic as Artist" called "the free play of the mind" ought to rule above all - is spot on. The "pantomime horse" aspect - political "lines" up front, the Imagination taking wing in the back - has marked classic journals of opinion, like The New Statesman in England during the 1930s and 1940s,
at their best: the Fabian and Labourite orthodox took on the week's spot news in the workaday openers, with incisive literary essays by the likes of V.S. Pritchett and Cyril Connolly without fear or favor in the feuilleton closers. And the same prevailed back then stateside at, say, The Nation: I perused the contents of an online issue from March 1947, whose culture section was like a Murderer's Row of (compared to any magazine today) literary legends: Joseph Wood Krutch on drama, James Agee on film,
Clement Greenberg on art, and the lesser-known (and unjustly-so) stalwart B.H. Haggin on recordings. One thinks as well of the disjuncture often noted by reviewers
of latter-day memoirs issuing from the 1930s crowd grouped round Partisan Review: the titans of literary modernism - Joyce, Pound, Eliot, Lawrence - were, in the main, either aloof from or downright allergic to the radical/progressive
orthodoxies of the day.

Your caveats on The New Criterion help clarify its twin weaknesses. Too much of its polemical approach comes filtered through, on the one hand, the prism of the Roger Kimball school of predictable all-is-lost stained-glass lamentations over the baleful legacy of the radical left on the one hand, and, in its original contributions in the arts proper, a constricting elegiac rear-guard formalism that engages
only one of many currents within the
central stream of the ongoing world of art and ideas. When a demanding reader asks who is publishing those critics and essayists with the philosophic/historical depth, range of reference and literary gifts worthy of the historic pedigree, that portion of the harvested reply derived from the newsstand's rightward rump will be, like the excellences of the fabled curate's egg, only, alas, in spots.

Were I forced to choose just one publication from the many you surveyed, I would still choose The Times Literary Supplement without hesitation, for reasons I tried to highlight in my 1986 National Review essay, "The Fourteenth Colony", covering an uncannily similar canvas to that of your post, from my vantage as a cultural historian:

http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/
mi_m1282/is_v38/ai_4588745/print

Relative to its counterparts anywhere else in English, the combined polymathic, linguistic and geographic scope of the TLS finds no rivals, and its apolitical catholicity ensures it freedom from serving as a hostage to any political line.

When you launch your fantasized "My Literary Supplement" ("MLS"), count me as your first charter subscriber - and unsolicited freelancer.

As for The New York Review of Books,
your note on its insularity certainly rings true, though my take
on it is a shade less dismissive. Since I deleted my blog, SUB SPECIE ÆTERNITATIS, shortly before Thanksgiving, my detailed post on The New York Review from May 2005 is
offline, and I close with it as it ranges almost as widely as your own fine post herein, amplifying a number of germane notes.
- Scott Lahti

Literary Cocktails, from Mazel Tov to Molotov

The New York Review of Books , that bastion of Lincoln Center left-liberalism (contrast its non-blood cross-Atlantic cousin, the London Review of Books, with its high-left Hampstead hauteur and Bloomsbury-watercolor covers), born during the 1963 New York newspaper strike (when Edmund Wilson remarked, apropos the temporary absence of The New York Times Book Review, that its being gone presupposed it had ever really existed) is often worth a look for its ongoing snapshots of the preoccupations of a particular Balzac-sliver of the high-toned haut monde. It's had quite a ride since its mid-1960s Molotov-cocktail cover diagram and Noam Chomsky phase (no surprise it became that ripest of candidates as [Tom] Wolfe's-bane, from radical-chic then to its Norman Mailer assault on the latter's A Man in Full later), with a domestic stance of Dissent-and-New Republic-meet-Ronald Dworkin soak-the-rich egalitarianism (its pipe-sucking policy portions often read during the 1970s and 1980s as though they were centrally planned, as it were, by John Kenneth Galbraith, Robert Heilbroner, and Irving Howe), while on the foreign-policy front more of an anti-Stalinist center-left "dovish" realism prevailed over time, distinguishing it from the mission civilisatrice de mon Oncle Sam Cold War liberalism of the post-1960s New Republic under owner Martin Peretz. Its Amnesty-International-like attention to human-rights abusers and prisoners of conscience across the globe has long been to its humanitarian credit, and its reportage from the Soviet-bloc resistance in the later 1980s was exemplary, relying as it did on, among others, the most gifted Anglophone chronicler of that place and time, the multilingual, silver-penned Oxford "historian of the present" Timothy Garton Ash, open letters from that titanic Solzhenitsyn/Sinyavsky of Soviet science, Andrei Sakharov, British Sovietologist Peter Reddaway's flashlight unto the black night therein of psychiatric abuse - and, annus mirabilis dictu, back-channel letters from what Janet Malcolm, in The New Yorker, would later call possibly the most anti-authoritarian of world leaders, Czech playwright/prisoner/President Vaclav Havel, whose gentle charm and Luther-like here-I-stand-I-can-do-no-other incarnation of "living in truth" came in short order to win the hearts of millions worldwide, free and enslaved (first mistyped here as "ensalved", fitting enough itself in the event) alike. As we watched the most heartwarming demonstrations in those days of "people power" against, to borrow a phrase from the British band New Order, power, corruption and lies, we could not help but recall Wordsworth's encomium to the French Revolution as it appeared to its earliest beholders: "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very Heaven."

NYRoB-watchers have always remarked upon the politics of what is ostensibly a more essayistic version of a general book review rather than an opinion journal proper, because of its own inveterate self-styling, making it our closest equivalent to England's New Statesman during the Old Testament phase of the modern British literary left under editor Kingsley Martin: Politics in the front, Culture in the back. This odd pantomime-horse aspect of opinion journals has long been a staple of comment upon them - Alfred Kazin, postwar America's baton-holder of its outside-academe Grand Tradition of Edmund Wilson-style book reviewing, writing in The New Republic, contrasted that weekly's front-of-the-book Beltway-careerist
knowingness regarding last-week's headlines with the often anthology-worthy longform review essays run in the back by its astringent, ethically-trained literary editor Leon Wieseltier. A like front-back distinction plays out in the NYRoB as well, even in the absence of section divisions: its covers, often sporting ominous, Gothic-acidulous pen-sketches by staff caricaturist David Levine (ever seen Kissinger, eyes ablaze, jowls streaked with fresh blood? So has Levine), usually grant pride of place to raising the burgundy-and-brie alarums upon any one of the latest catastrophes promised/enacted by the current cabal of Snidely Whiplashes in the seats of preponderant Power on the Potomac. Contrast this with, say, its much more Eleventh-Edition-Britannica-like great-great-grandfather in England, THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT, whose typical cover might reproduce a portrait of Goethe linked to a lead review thus, and whose Commentary section might just as often devote itself to an unpublished manuscript by Rudyard Kipling or a newly-discovered correspondence between muttonchopped, Old Testament-prophet-resembling literary lions of the Victorian era, and where current politics come refracted only through the occasional hindsight book review by, say, a columnist or leader (aka editorial) writer from the centrist TIMES or center-right Daily Telegraph, social-democratic Oxbridge don, or American-history scholar attuned to America's long tempering in the hellfired crucible of sin and redemption. Although the TLS is overwhelmingly steeped in the less-topical cultural past, its two most recent editors came to their post by way of political journalism (early Thatcherite advisor and novelist-of-manners Ferdinand Mount, 1991-2003), and Establishment journalism incarnate (current editor Sir Peter Stothard, editor of THE TIMES 1992-2002, and a student of Greco-Roman antiquity).

The New York Review's more politicized self-fashioning extends to the e-bulletins it sends for each new issue, which almost always floodlight the topical (from the June 9 issue: Joan Didion, The Case of Theresa Schiavo, and Mark Danner, The Secret Way to War) at the expense of its often quite distinguished contributors among historians, Nobel-laureate scientists, art scholars, novelists and critics. Wags might point out that for some time, the typical humanities reviewer for the NYRoB has been a 70-year-old white-male Ivy-League Eurocentric elbow-patcher, or greybeard man of letters whose first book from the 1950s was the inaugural paving stone on the yellow-brick road leading to his bow-tied arrival at the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters - a cohort holding the ivory fort from equally-talented insurgents from among the differently-gendered, pigmented and affiliated. Its two editors, after all, Barbara Epstein (her ex, Jason Epstein, launched the quality-paperback revolution at Doubleday in the 1950s and has been a publishing lion ever since, late atop the gleaming spires of Random House) and Robert Silvers (whose globetrotting career in publishing dates from the Second World War), have been on the job since they first delivered it to the world on February 1, 1963, in the prelapsarian days of Camelot, where its inaugural contributors included: aristocrat-meets-anarchist Dwight Macdonald on Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (speaking of bow-tied Ivy Leaguers!), a poem from Robert Lowell, and his tribute to the just-departed Robert Frost ; Lowell's wife, essayist-critic Elizabeth Hardwick, who would become the journal's longest-serving regular, on the New York literary scene, and
on Ring Lardner, Lillian "Scoundrel Time" Hellman's old anti-Stalinist nemesis Mary McCarthy ("Everything she [Hellman] says is a lie - including "a", "and" and "the" - The Dick Cavett show on PBS...slander suit, anyone? Ah, those were the days: sorry, Charlie Rose; thanks all the same, Mr. Moyers) on William Burroughs's Naked Lunch (her review also ran across the pond in Encounter), Partisan Review co-founder Philip Rahv on Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, W.H. Auden, Nicola Chiaromonte on "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (Albee Damned), a poem by Robert Penn Warren, poet John Berryman on Auden, Irving Howe on Partisan Review, a young Susan Sontag on Simone Weil, Alfred Kazin on Russian writers, Adrienne Rich on Paul Goodman's poetry, Jonathan Miller on early Updike, Barbara Probst Solomon on Dwight Macdonald's essay collection Against the American Grain, Lewis Coser on "Austrian"-school economist Fritz Machlup, the other founding co-editor of Partisan Review, William Phillips, on Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power, Robert Jay Lifton on the A-Bomb, Norman Mailer on Morley Callaghan, Jason Epstein on Bury's edition of Gibbon, a young Nathan Glazer on Italian-Americans, William Styron on "The Negro in the Americas", and Gore Vidal on John Hersey.

If you detected amid the distinction, circa 1963, a certain incestuous insularity (the heavy Partisan Review contingent, the reviewer and reviewed in the same issue) across the roster, you will understand why the journal has been spoofed over the years as, say, The New York Review of Us (and how opportune was it to discover that the Windows font closest to that of the journal's at once arch and august big-little cover logo is called "Bookman Old Style"?) - Manhattan being, after all, among the more provincial outposts of arriviste self-regard in modern history - it comes with the territory. As a result, readers came to expect, whenever in its life and theirs they first grew acquainted with it, the same narrowed and well-worn swath of the book world from issue to issue, much as its political "line" proved susceptible to plotting thus; one was very seldom surprised pleasantly by the unexpected appearance of a writer from outside the tony and long-tilled plantation, save for the blue-moon occasion provided by, say, its Old-Left anti-Stalinism bearing fruit in the appearance now and again by that English Cold-Warrior graduate of the stained-glass Larkinite 1950s, poet-historian (and onetime Heritage Fellow, probably the only thus to have enacted such cross-pollination) Robert Conquest.

The journal has over its storied past moved from shoestring funds to family-fortune takeover, and from Partisan Review little-magazine recruiting editorially then to a roster more tenured since, and remains in the Internet age, for all its restrictions, one among many worthy sources of enlightened longform journalism, as well as, although less than in its heyday, the occasional anthology-worthy essay. Journals of the future will some day arrive to grab from its passing liverspotted hand the baton of lettered discussion, as its origins in the Kennedy Cold War and ascent to fashionable supremacy in the faculty lounge prove it as mortal as any other human artifact. And those journals, once ripened, may one day approach it in distinction. Given the present-day dispersal of literary energy from print to pixel, and the prolonged deathwatch over the East Coast media monopolies, that inevitable surrender will find its victors quite unlike the vanquished, in form and in content. But the times must be ripe. To paraphrase from Goethe, however bathed in glory our admired past, it must subside before that excellence which has yet to awake before us. May we prove worthy in our turn.