I just got back in the country, and haven’t been surfing the internet much, so today I’m doing something different.
Less of a Round-up than a discussion of one thing, or some various things related to one thing. I guess on the broadest level, that “thing” is the power of critics and book reviews and venerable literary forums. At the far more specific level, my jumping off point is an incident that happened to recent friend-of-the-Sunday-Rumpus, Patrick Somerville, when his new novel, This Bright River, was panned by the New York Times‘ uber-critic, Janet Maslin.
Being panned by the NYTimes is a high class problem to have. Nobody, including Pat, could possibly expect any of you to lose any sleep on his behalf over this hardship. A review in the Times, even the worst possible one (which this isn’t) sells more books than not having a review in the Times. Most writers, myself included, have never been reviewed there and have wet dreams about having to take to drinking because Janet Maslin panned us. Stephen, when we were discussing this, pointed out that of his 7 books, and the 4 more he’s edited, only one of his books has ever been reviewed there, and never on a weekday–”Nobody,” he said, and often says, “is owed anything.” And I agree with this, really primally in fact. A bad review in the Times is nothing anyone really has an unalienable right to get up in arms over. No writer, no matter how good, is somehow “entitled” to coverage, or to a certain kind of coverage.
What makes this incident, however, an interesting discussion is that This Bright River was panned in part based on factual misinterpretations of the book. Maslin literally gives wrong information in her review, thereby misinterpreting an entire character–the novel’s central character, in fact. In the original version of the review (which has since been corrected by the Times), she says that the novel’s narrator, Ben Hanson, suffers a head injury in the prologue. But in fact the prologue’s head injury happens to an entirely different character, sixteen years prior to the main action of the novel, and it’s not even a “head injury,” it’s a murder. The murdered character is someone Ben Hanson–who is a teenager at the time of the incident–has never even met. Maslin’s interpretation is . . . in other words . . . not just a “little bit” off; it’s a misreading of the whole novel, which isn’t exactly Thomas Pynchon or something–it’s not hard to know what the hell actually “happened” if you’ve read to the end. It looks, bluntly, like Maslin never read the final third of the book . . . which makes it hard to understand how she could be an arbiter of whether the novel ultimately works or not.
And yet she reviewed it. For the NY-fucking-Times.
Pat Somerville, who, like the me-of-my-wet-dreams, took to drinking immediately following this crappy review, writes this piece over at Salon detailing his mortification and–much more amusingly and pertinently–the crazy follow-up when a reader pointed out the error to the Times, and a fact checker proceeded to “contact” the fictional character Ben Hanson, at an email address Somerville–in one of those clever moves of young-generation writers–had set up, asking Hanson if he was hit in the head in the prologue.
In fact, this correspondence in itself is more like a Pynchon novel than is This Bright River. I’m not sure it gets any more postmodern than a New York Times fact checker carrying on an extensive dialogue with a nonexistent person about the “facts” of his life. You don’t have to have read the novel, or care about its fate, to enjoy this crazy, hyperbolically ironic exchange. Pat’s Salon piece was the highlight of my reading week.
When you’re done laughing your ass off, though, the question remains: what was Maslin thinking?
Well. People make mistakes. Here at The Rumpus, “nice is in the mission statement.” The Rumpus doesn’t slam people or engage in snark. It distinguishes itself from many of its online contemporaries in that way. The Rumpus is run by some of the nicest freaking people you would ever want to meet. There’s not only a deep and genuine desire to help champion writers and good writing, but also a deep understanding around here that the purpose of cultural media venues should be, first and foremost, to help guide people towards relevant and rewarding cultural sources and ideas. Trash talking doesn’t help achieve that; it just encourages excessive, obsessive dialogue about the things that don’t really matter. We can all flick on our television sets and watch the latest Real Housewives of Wherever The Fuck (I’m waiting for the Real Housewives of Butte, frankly) if we want to spin endlessly about things that contribute little that could be construed as “constructive” (wait, was that too snarky for The Rumpus? It might be. I’m not sure “nice” is in my personal mission statement, but I swear I am trying!) The fact is, I’m sure there can be great arguments for the relevant cultural deconstruction of the Housewives monopoly. The fact is, Janet Maslin is a human being, and human beings make errors, and there is arguably nothing to be gained for raking any one human over the coals about what–in the scheme of genocides and senseless wars and economic recessions and child abuse and whatnot–is pretty freaking irrelevant in the long run of it all. Clearly Maslin is a highly intelligent and competent person. It would be ridiculous to argue that anyone could reach her position in life without those things being true. Were she some “fraud,” no one would read her anymore. Etc.
Yet here is another fact: in the review of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Maslin had another weirdly inaccurate fact. She writes of the (unnamed) Woman in the novel, Ultimately she gave up and took a bullet: “She was gone and the coldness of it was her final gift.” In a book whose events are isolated and carefully chosen, the appearance of a flare gun late in the story is filled with echoes of her final decision . . .
Another fact if you’ll bear with me: the Woman in the novel doesn’t shoot herself. She would never waste a bullet that way: a bullet her husband and son will need someday, as the family only owns 3 in their gun. She kills herself with a fairly blunt piece of flint, if I myself am remembering it correctly, in the dark, at a distance from her husband and son. She refuses to say goodbye to her son first, though the Man begs her to. In the dark, alone, she presumably manages to slit her wrists with the flint, and bleed out, quietly. There is no “echo” in the flare gun. There is no noise of a bullet being fired. Maslin not only gets the facts wrong, but she reads later echoes and resonances based on something that never happened.
It’s a review. Yeah, I know. It sure didn’t hurt McCarthy, whose novel was wildly successful. Big deal.
But maybe it does call some things into question.
If critics are–as they clearly are–not just fallible but sometimes careless, then why do they have so much clout in terms of what the public reads? Or do they have so much clout, or power, after all? Is it the NYTimes review, or ultimately the marketing budget of the publisher and what they choose to spend on a novel, time and energy wise, that will dictate the “success” of This Bright River and other books? If reading a review in which the reviewer doesn’t think twice about jumping up on an enviable platform and shouting her or his (factually incorrect) ideas to the world makes me want to put my eyes out with a fork a little, who else really cares? The New York Times is waning anyway. Maybe these careless mistakes are just some kind of “proof” of why.
But the thing is, I’m not celebrating the waning of the Times. If anything, it saddens me. I love the Times. I love the fact that journalists used to . . . you know, get paid–that writing about books was a JOB. I believe in that. I’m 44. I’m an editor at two online literary communities and I love this globalized, leveled world of online cultural dialogue, but I mourn, too, the fact that writing is less and less a viable choice in a capitalist economy (or, um, any economy) because words are increasingly . . . free. I would, in another lifetime, not mind being Janet Maslin and having that gig. Who would? Man. It’s the kind of career that is fewer and farther between–the Janet Maslins, the Donna Seamans, the Rick Kogans of the former world of literary journalism. The new generation cannot aspire to that anymore. Those jobs no longer “exist” per se. They are held by the old guard, and will die with the old guard. Their replacements–the Jessa Crispins and Carolyn Kelloggs–occupy a different terrain. Some get paid decently but have little freedom and space for their ideas, as print literary components of papers are all but dead and blogs change contents rapidly and mainstream news blogs tend to focus on briefer, lighter content. Other high profile online writers have more freedom and space, but virtually no income. And so on.
Is Janet Maslin obligated, because of this sad fact, to revere her own position–to take it with the weightiness of the Last of Its Breed, and tread more carefully? Surely she is not. She isn’t responsible for the direction of modern book culture or journalism, per se.
But. And. Should one of the most revered book critics of an entire era feel an obligation to get the basic factual information of a book right before discussing it in perhaps the most esteemed literary forums of a (dying) era?
There’s an argument to be made, I think, that she should.
There’s an argument to be made that if she can’t–if maybe nobody can, because everyone screws up sometimes–then maybe the whole reverence of the Times, and of critics, is itself built on quicksand.
And so the argument eats its own tail. I mourn the decline of the Times. And perhaps the Times declines because it is based on principles that were always faulty. Maybe no one voice should have that kind of power. And in an online world, with rapidly changing content and thousands or millions of shouting voices, probably no one does . . . or ever will again.