Tip-toeing in after an absence of a few months feels like becoming the ghost of un blog perdu. Haunting has a touch of the illicit about it, doesn’t it? — and I should be not here but scrabbling at the coal face. The same irresistible force behind my first comment on the net four years ago has put springs into these blog-tapping digits. It’s the hope of finding others who have noticed odd behaviour going unremarked in life offline, as far as I can tell.
Why has the Sunday book review section of The New York Times taken to attacking British writers with unique savagery? Discovering two particularly egregious examples in the same spring in which the phrase ‘anti-Atlanticist’ has gained traction in political commentary has me wondering which came first, a cooling ‘special relationship’ in diplomacy evolving into mutual disdain, or growing, widespread cultural friction reflected, now, in barbaric literary scalping?
The first review invites the question of whether the venerable NYT books section is trying to imitate very angry or deranged bloggers to sound younger and less stuffy. Its target was Ian McEwan. Assiduous hyping by his publishers has made this almost mathematically elegant, if uneven, writer the object of bloggers’ bile in direct proportion to the excessive praise lavished on his work by his promoters. But surely the NYT has a reputation for weighed words to protect?
In late April, a front-page critique in the Sunday review of McEwan’s new book, Solar, by the American novelist Walter Kirn read like the sort of baffling murder in which a victim is stabbed often and unnecessarily enough to become a mortuary reminder of Emmental cheese. Were the reviewer and his editors suffering from acute short-term memory lapses or desperate for some NoDoz when they failed to notice how redundant most of Kirn’s complaints were?
That might be obvious from a simple listing of metaphors he used — describing the book as (1) the work of a talented but dull architect; (2) a literary exam; (3) a corpse; (4) a crossword puzzle; (5) a diagram; (6) a culinary disaster wrought by an incompetent cook; (7) a lesson plan.
Here are some choice extracts:
… Instead of being awful yet absorbing, it’s impeccable yet numbing, achieving the sort of superbly wrought inertia of a Romanesque cathedral. There’s so little wrong with it that there’s nothing particularly right about it, either. It’s impressive to behold but something of a virtuous pain to read.
[…] What makes “Solar” such a noble nullity is that it answers these challenges so easily, with such a quotient of stress-free mastery that they feel less like challenges than like problems in a literary exam the author has devised as a means of proving his own prowess.
[…] Because a fictional character can exhibit only so much awareness of his own thematic utility, Beard [the novel’s protagonist] doesn’t notice any of this, merely regarding himself as a colorful eccentric. But readers will see him for what he is: a figure so stuffed with philosophical straw that he can barely simulate lifelike movement.
There’s little that’s lifelike about “Solar,” despite its relentless pretensions to relevance.
[…] The sequence occasions much calculated zaniness, none of it surprising or spontaneous, most of it as dreary as a diagram.
[…] Beard’s fall is at once so generic and so contrived that its climax feels neither inevitable nor cathartic but, rather, overbearing and schematic.
[…] This fine flourish of scatology is not only verbally overripe … but it doesn’t describe a smear of fecal matter.
In “Solar,” McEwan’s Cordon Bleu prose is like that: a buttery, rich sauce ladled onto overcooked, dry meat to help readers swallow an otherwise indigestible meal.
[…] The long-awaited disaster stands revealed as the last phase of a carefully crafted lesson plan.
I’m still trying to work out what ‘a quotient of stress-free mastery’ could mean, and whatever it does, what that might have to do with McEwan’s novel. Two protests from readers about Kirn’s hostility ran in the NYT’s books section the following week. ‘The tone was so venomous and vitriolic, it read as if a personal vendetta were taking place on the front page …,’ complained Elmera Goldberg from New York. Mary Vaughn Blake in Massachusetts said that in forty-eight years of reading the section ‘I don’t recall another [review] quite as hate-filled.’
Like McEwan’s American fans racing to his defence, supporters of a more vulnerable victim of the NYT’s book-vetters have expressed their distress about the treatment of Ill Fares the Land, a dissection of capitalism’s destructive effects on society by the superb British historian Tony Judt on May 2. At least half a dozen times in the last ten years I have guessed — correctly — that some old and famous writer in close touch with New York literati must be fatally ill from the startlingly uncritical and reverential, if not canonical, tone of an interview with, or assessment of a book by, that author. Far from any such consideration, the editors of the NYT books section sanctioned a clumsily personal blast at Judt, even after he revealed that he is gravely ill, too young, with ALS.
That review’s closing paragraph says,
Judt, the immigrant, should know. He has done better in America in terms of access and fame than an American of the same calibre would have done in Sweden or Germany. It is still easier to escape from the slums of America than from the banlieues of France.
But Judt did not come to the US as an impoverished immigrant. He is not American but British (as far as Wikipedia or I know) – simply, a British expatriate.
If he were an immigrant –as the reviewer and the NYT’s fact-checking department imagine – he would apparently have forfeited the right to criticise the staggering growth in income equality in the world’s richest country. Blogging at the Huffington Post, Don Agin said:
Who but the New York Times would assign a foreign conservative hack to review a new liberal anti-capitalism book by Tony Judt? The reviewer, Josef Joffe, is a former publisher-editor of the German newspaper Die Zeit. […] The choice […was…] unfortunate and silly […]. It may get the New York Times some attention, but it acts against the good of the public. Next time choose a centrist to review a book on the left or right.
[…]Joffe says Judt offers a very old idea: the “virtue of collective action for the collective good.”
Well, yes. But does the fact that it’s an “old idea” lessen its import? Joffe thinks so.
Judt is just as critical of Blighty as of the land of Uncle Sam. His book sets out some stunning numbers – of which the Walmart statistics are among the most obscene markers of inequality in the modern West that I have ever seen:
The greatest extremes of private privilege and public indifference have resurfaced in the US and the UK: epicenters of enthusiasm for deregulated market capitalism. Although countries as far apart as New Zealand and Denmark, France and Brazil have expressed periodic interest in deregulation, none has matched Britain or the United States in their unwavering thirty-year commitment to the unraveling of decades of social legislation and economic oversight.
In 2005, 21.2 percent of US national income accrued to just 1 percent of earners. Contrast 1968, when the CEO of General Motors took home, in pay and benefits, about sixty-six times the amount paid to a typical GM worker. Today the CEO of Wal-Mart earns nine hundred times the wages of his average employee. Indeed, the wealth of the Wal-Mart founder’s family in 2005 was estimated at about the same ($90 billion) as that of the bottom 40 percent of the US population: 120 million people.
The UK too is now more unequal—in incomes, wealth, health, education, and life chances—than at any time since the 1920s.
Now, that is an extract from the book that ran in the New York Review of Books, whose standing among New York intellectuals is far higher than the NYT’s, and understandably envied by the newspaper’s book editors. Joffe himself goes out of his way to remind us of that fact in his first paragraph:
But unless the reader belongs to the choir to which Tony Judt preaches — call it the Europhile liberal left, who would rather sell their Prius than forgo their New York Review of Books — …
You’d think, wouldn’t you, that the NYT reviewer and his prose doctors would rise above juvenile rivalry to give Judt the respect that a widely-admired scholar and public intellectual deserves – or at least, refrain from directing such a poorly argued screed at what could be his valedictory offering.
It would have been so easy for the editors to find a dozen reviewers with the credentials to write a measured, elegant and riveting assessment of Judt’s book that it’s hard not to suspect that something more powerful even than jealousy lay behind their choice of critic – and failure to demand a rewrite.
Could that possibly be a reflection of ‘the anti-Britainism in Washington’ further north and east? Even supposing that the McEwan and Judt reviews were retaliation for the literary equivalent of latter-day redcoats eviscerating some American novelist — or novelists — dear to their hearts, couldn’t the skewering have been done gracefully, humanely, and with even the smallest thimbleful of wit?