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So...you're saying it's shite?
August 29, 2006 9:21 AM   Subscribe

Oh God, please never let the NYT review of my latest novel never start like this: Every few years, as a reviewer, one encounters a novel whose ineptitudes are so many in number, and so thoroughgoing, that to explain them fully would produce a text that exceeded the novel itself in both length and interest. Lately it seems the book reviewers at the NYT--including Michiko Kakutani, on Jonathan Franzen's latest ("Just why anyone would be interested in pages and pages about this unhappy relationship or the self-important and self-promoting contents of Mr. Franzen’s mind remains something of a mystery")--have been pulling out all the stops. Poor Irvine Welsh (?).
posted by gottabefunky (61 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
I wish Franzen would stop writing this stuff and get back to writing novels. He is great at that.
posted by caddis at 9:25 AM on August 29, 2006


We just saw Welsh give a reading last week, and the s.o. and I both noted that, while entertaining and ribald, the sections he picked did have a hell of a lot of adjectives and adverbs.

And I've had Macfarlane's book ("Mountains of the Mind") on the shelf for over a year, and this makes me want to take it down and read it.
posted by gottabefunky at 9:25 AM on August 29, 2006


Your favorite writer sucks.
posted by mattbucher at 9:26 AM on August 29, 2006


The covers of this book are too far apart.

- Ambrose Bierce
posted by mds35 at 9:29 AM on August 29, 2006


That wasn't so much a book review as it was a critique written by a high school English comp teacher.
posted by Hypnic jerk at 9:29 AM on August 29, 2006


My favorite bad art review begins thus:
Don't you hate the way it feels when you've had a couple of rotten-egg-and-sardine milkshakes, and then you get stuck going backward on a roller coaster for an hour or two, and the only music you've got for your Walkman is an accordion version of "Carmen"?

You know that feeling?

No?

Then go see "Beyond the Frame: Impressionism Revisited: The Sculptures of J. Seward Johnson, Jr.," which opens Saturday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:30 AM on August 29, 2006


They didn't think much of The Man Who Heard Voices either.
posted by Armitage Shanks at 9:32 AM on August 29, 2006


"Save me from Michiko Kakutani!"
posted by matteo at 9:36 AM on August 29, 2006


I wish Franzen would stop writing this stuff and get back to writing novels. He is great at that.

He is, although unfortunately he is not as great as he thinks he is. I enjoyed The Corrections quite a lot. It's definitely a good novel. It may even be an excellent one. But it's not the groundbreaking and profoundly innovative work he seems to consider it.
posted by orange swan at 9:38 AM on August 29, 2006


Michiko Kakutani pegged it this time.
posted by blucevalo at 9:40 AM on August 29, 2006


I'm having trouble finding it, but there's an old Mark Twain piece very similar to this, in which he simply rips a contemporary writer to shreds for twenty pages or so. Good stuff, if anyone knows what it's called.

I've loved Welsh's stuff in the past, but this does sound pretty awful. I like that books and other "finer" art forms are now able to get reviewed as pitilessly as movies and music. For a while there, it was like there existed a review "cushion" that simply said, "Well, give him credit, he did finish writing a book, and that oughta count for something."

Oh, and my favorite review opener:

"The Wedding Planner seems to take place in San Francisco, but actually takes place in an alternate universe wherein Jennifer Lopez is Sicilian"
posted by Navelgazer at 9:40 AM on August 29, 2006


Navelgaver, is this it?
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:44 AM on August 29, 2006


I haven't yet read Franzen's memoir, but if Kakutani correctly depicts the author's arrogance and solipsism, the question is raised: did Ayelet Waldman marry the wrong man?
posted by billysumday at 9:45 AM on August 29, 2006 [1 favorite]


I read the Irvine Welsh novel a few weeks ago. The plotting's haphazard in parts and the prose is indeed clunky, but I didn't think it was as bad as all that--it was reasonably entertaining for a couple of days, and there are at least two laugh-out-loud set pieces. The review quoted above expends most its effort on maligning the prose style.

There are, however, shameful errors of fact in matters of geek culture that seem out of place, given that Welsh clearly did some research. Brian Kibby attends a Star Trek convention and has a discussion about the difference between the opening title voiceovers of TOS and TNG; yet Kibby expects DeForest Kelley to make an appearance there (Kelley has been dead for several years). Kibby is a fan of the videogame series Harvest Moon, and discusses differences in gameplay strategy between Harvest Moon 64 and Harvest Moon: Back to Nature--yet he plays Harvest Moon on an iBook (the game has never been released for Macs). There may be more mistakes of that kind that I missed.
posted by Prospero at 9:46 AM on August 29, 2006


not as great as he thinks he is

come on, we all think like that, it's a fact of the human condition
posted by matteo at 9:57 AM on August 29, 2006


"Although it fails at every imaginable level — metaphysical, ethical, technical, thematic — it is at the stylistic level, the level of the sentence, that Welsh’s novel is most wanting."

Oh, snap.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 10:04 AM on August 29, 2006


I love this Franzen story. It's the only thing of his I have ever read, but I like it a lot.

Just saying.
posted by Danf at 10:07 AM on August 29, 2006


Mr. Franzen writes that he and his wife .... “reacted to minor fights at breakfast by lying facedown on the floor of our respective rooms for hours at a time, waiting for acknowledgment of our pain.”

Yea, but I bet its a really, really nice wood floor.
posted by R. Mutt at 10:09 AM on August 29, 2006


I've not read any of these books, but I wanted to mention that I can never remember which is Michiko Kakutani and which is Michio Kaku.

That is all.
posted by infidelpants at 10:09 AM on August 29, 2006


Oh God, please never let the NYT review of my latest novel never start like this

Pray for a good editor. He rewards specificity.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:11 AM on August 29, 2006


You can't criticize a memoir unless you've written a memoir!!!

Thanks for the Twain link; that is priceless.
posted by xmutex at 10:13 AM on August 29, 2006


As Twain puts it...

A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are -- oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.

Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.

posted by anotherpanacea at 10:17 AM on August 29, 2006


Prospero: deep-geeking your Harvest Moon objection: there are GB and GBA emulators available for OSX, and he may have... why am I bothering? It's Irvine Welsh, he doesn't know what the hell he's talking about, he's taken a geek out for a drink, only bothered to make notes on half of the conversation, and not shown the draft to anyone who knows the subject.
posted by Hogshead at 10:19 AM on August 29, 2006


Kirth Gerson: Never say never again...
posted by gottabefunky at 10:24 AM on August 29, 2006


Damn. Did Welsh fuck MacFarlane's wife or something? I've always thought he was a bit overrated myself, but this is brutal.
posted by Skygazer at 10:26 AM on August 29, 2006


there are GB and GBA emulators available for OSX, and he may have...

That's how I play Harvest Moon! w00t turn1ps!
posted by sonofsamiam at 10:26 AM on August 29, 2006 [2 favorites]


I have only read Franzen's essays, and I enjoyed them, but when I first started his new book, I figured it would only be interesting to a fellow depressed 40-year-old and shelved it.
posted by drezdn at 10:32 AM on August 29, 2006


If the review is accurate, Welsh's latest novel seems like a tired hodgepodge of themes he's already explored in various books and short stories, especially "Filth" and "Acid House", with a little Dorian Gray thrown in for good measure.

Perhaps Welsh has run out of ideas?
posted by clevershark at 10:36 AM on August 29, 2006


I'm torn -- on the one hand it is annoying how many truly incompetently written books get timid and respectful mixed reviews. On the other hand, flogging a crappy book is really easy, and since most crappy books are crappy in more or less the same way, it's usually not as much fun reading these reviews as it is writing them (though certainly it is much more fun than reading the flogged crap itself.)

Strangely, Kakutani's takedown of Franzen's memoir made me think I'd probably enjoy it. Which is the sign of a good bad review -- it gives a rich enough portrayal of the book that people who don't share the reviewer's pet peeves can still get a sense of what the book offers.
posted by escabeche at 10:37 AM on August 29, 2006


I have only read Franzen's essays, and I enjoyed them...

His essays My Father's Brain which leads off his mostly good collection How to be Alone is one of the best and most genuinely emotional things I've ever read.

I would figure that someone who wrote that essay could maybe do a good memoir, but from the looks of things, I suppose I am mistaken.
posted by xmutex at 10:37 AM on August 29, 2006


FWIW, my wife has a cousin who occassionally reviews new fiction for the NYT Book Review, and I've yet to see her give anything a positive review. Reading fiction reviews in the NYT Book Review is sort of like reading movie reviews on Mr. Cranky -- the scale seems ot start at "boy, did that suck" and goes downhill fast from there.
posted by mosk at 10:42 AM on August 29, 2006


I thoroughly enjoyed "Mountains of the Mind" and a bunch of other writing by Robert Macfarlane.
posted by liam at 10:57 AM on August 29, 2006


nobody could destroy a written work as thouroughly as Karl Kraus. A shame that no translation of his work can be found online, except some wiki quotes
posted by kolophon at 11:03 AM on August 29, 2006


I'm supposed to care what Bitchiko thinks about Pantzen? Do I care what the village idiot thinks about the mayor's retarded son?
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 11:06 AM on August 29, 2006


NYTimes Book Review: almost as vicious as metafilter.
posted by Football Bat at 11:07 AM on August 29, 2006


Robert Macfarlane is a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

Theres your explanation right there.
posted by sgt.serenity at 11:08 AM on August 29, 2006


Not all NYT reviews are bad:
Now, in “The Emperor’s Children,” her splendid new novel, she has produced a formally nimble novel of formidable scale. Set mostly in New York City at the turn of the 21st century, “The Emperor’s Children” is a masterly comedy of manners — an astute and poignant evocation of hobnobbing glitterati in the months before and immediately following Sept. 11.^
posted by caddis at 11:14 AM on August 29, 2006


Welsh writes not-so-great book, gets overstated and showoffy review.

Michiko continues to be Michiko, the worst writer ever graced with a Pulitzer.

Not sure that makes for a worthwhile post, but it was worth it for matteo's link to that wonderful Korda piece on Greene. I loved it when it came out ten years ago, and I had tremendous fun reading it again.
I was ecstatic, but also astonished. Why, I asked, had Graham decided to leave Viking? "It's quite a story," Monica replied. It began after Greene sent Viking the manuscript of his latest novel, "Travels with My Aunt." Viking sent a copy of the manuscript to the Book-of-the-Month Club, but an executive called to say that, while they loved the book, they didn't like the title. Monica told me that Tom Guinzburg, the president of Viking, had decided, on reflection, that he didn't like the title much, either, so he asked Monica to send Graham a cable recommending that he change the title for the American edition. He and the other editors at Viking had meanwhile dreamed up a number of alternative titles. Apparently, Guinzburg had failed to get to know his irascible author sufficiently. Soon afterward, Monica said, she received a terse cable from Paris: "WOULD RATHER CHANGE PUBLISHER THAN TITLE. GRAHAM GREENE."
I miss Graham Greene. That man was a writer.
posted by languagehat at 11:19 AM on August 29, 2006 [1 favorite]


not as great as he thinks he is

come on, we all think like that, it's a fact of the human condition


I disagree. I know lots of people who have a very realistic opinion of their own abilities.
posted by orange swan at 11:27 AM on August 29, 2006


Thanks for the link MrMoonPie, that's exactly what I was talking about.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:43 AM on August 29, 2006


A Personal History

What, autobiography ain't good enough for you little writer boy?

Fucking writers.
posted by bardic at 11:45 AM on August 29, 2006


"WOULD RATHER CHANGE PUBLISHER THAN TITLE. GRAHAM GREENE."

I miss Graham Greene. That man was a writer.


Amen.
posted by blucevalo at 11:50 AM on August 29, 2006


whoa. after a review like that, the author might want to try shoving a coconut up his nostrils. I have a feeling the pain almost wouldn't register anymore...
posted by krautland at 11:58 AM on August 29, 2006


i would never read a book called "Travels with My Aunt".
posted by dydecker at 12:00 PM on August 29, 2006


Kakutani's review is awful - it says nothing about the writing, almost nothing about the story, choosing instead to take a few swipes at Franzen that all boil down to 'I don't like this guy.' The ironies and complex sympathy of The Corrections should have alerted Kakutani to expect this kind of self-laceration from Franzen, who really is a skilled and serious writer (though with the exception of the essay about his father I've not seen anything of his that compares to The Corrections).

Then again, Kakutani's an overrated and mannered reviewer, her importance (as the NYT go-to guy) far out of proportion to her critical seriousness. Her review of Ron Suskind's latest book was a pathetic showing, and her 'takedown' of Franzen is in line with it.

Now I've not read the book, so I have no idea whether it's good or bad. But Kakutani isn't reviewing the book, she's reviewing Franzen. No one has ever lost literati cred pissing on the It Novelist of a couple of years ago (witness of course the backlash against the near-inhuman Dave Eggers).

How to be Alone isn't bad, BTW. But it's like William Gaddis's essay collection (The Race For Second Place or something like that): fine for anyone else, but disappointing given the monumentality of the fiction that preceded it.
posted by waxbanks at 12:14 PM on August 29, 2006


Slate calls Kakutani "profoundly uninteresting."

Here are some of the worst she's ever done:
Kakutani writing as Austin Powers.
Kakutani writing as Elle Woods from Legally Blonde.

Talk about cringe-worthy. It's like hearing your mom talk about MySpace.
posted by mattbucher at 12:29 PM on August 29, 2006


Bad review are the only ones that interesting enough to read.
I always skip good movie reviews.
posted by Liquidwolf at 12:31 PM on August 29, 2006


I know lots of people who have a very realistic opinion of their own abilities.

of course they do -- it's called "depression"

and really, who doesn't miss Greene?
posted by matteo at 12:31 PM on August 29, 2006 [1 favorite]


Between the NYT Review of Books and Pitchfork, I think I have gotten to the point where I think reviews are mostly pointless and written with the motive of making a celebrity out of the reviewer.
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:35 PM on August 29, 2006


The House Beautiful is The Play Lousy. — Dorothy Parker

More Parker: It is that word 'hummy,' my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up.

And this, most timely: You can't teach an old dogma new tricks.

Anyway ... think Franzen prolix? Check the master, Thorstein Veblen.

It is not only that one must be guided by the code of proprieties in dress in order to avoid the mortification that comes of unfavorable notice and comment, though that motive in itself counts for a great deal; but besides that, the requirement of expensiveness is so ingrained into our habits of thought in matters of dress that any other than expensive apparel is instinctively odious to us.
posted by Twang at 12:44 PM on August 29, 2006


We can all make our own minds up. We are all individuals.
posted by Joeforking at 3:16 PM on August 29, 2006


i would never read a book called "Travels with My Aunt".

I don't think I would either.
posted by delmoi at 3:39 PM on August 29, 2006


I loved The Corrections and Trainspotting was an amazing book. So, to me, as long as they've written one decent novel, it's all good!
posted by liquorice at 3:46 PM on August 29, 2006


i would never read a book called "Travels with My Aunt".

Your loss, it's great.
posted by runkelfinker at 3:49 PM on August 29, 2006


I A M M I C H I K O K A K U T A N I
BY COLIN McENROE
posted by DenOfSizer at 3:59 PM on August 29, 2006


In an elevator going down to the depths of hell.

Elevator operator..."Seventh Level of Hell All subway mothers, televangelists, and book critics please exit here."

Before everyone starts screaming I know, I know...it's Woody Allen.
posted by jamie939 at 6:03 PM on August 29, 2006


*is a book reviewer, cowers beneath desk*
posted by Wolof at 8:52 PM on August 29, 2006


A bad review does not necessarily translate into smaller readership. Given the Times' reputation lately, a slam by them might be read as an endorsement by others. Indeed, given how many people only read headlines, the mere mention of one's book in the paper can suggest that it is at least worthy of attention.

(Graham Greene, hmm. Fun read much of the time, but I'm uncomfortable in raising his rank too high. His actual prose went steadily downhill over there years, became downright sloppy towards the end, and his stories have the all too common problem that they are satisfy most if you happen to agree with his politics.

But what do I know? He's still in print and loved and respected by millions years after his death, which is more than I'll ever be.)
posted by IndigoJones at 7:21 AM on August 30, 2006


His actual prose went steadily downhill over there years, became downright sloppy towards the end

This is true of most writers, Hemingway for an obvious example; is The Sun Also Rises not great because of the crap he typed later?

and his stories have the all too common problem that they are satisfy most if you happen to agree with his politics.

This is simply not true; in fact, I'm not sure he had any consistent "politics." I certainly don't agree with his strange brand of Catholicism, but somehow I consider his writing superb anyway. It may be that you have a hard time appreciating writers whose stance you don't agree with; if so, that's your problem, not his.
posted by languagehat at 8:02 AM on August 30, 2006


I know lots of people who have a very realistic opinion of their own abilities.

of course they do -- it's called "depression"


The depressed people I know have a warped view of their worth, i.e., they consider their work bad, but they still think they should get lots of validation for it.

You must move in bloated circles.
posted by orange swan at 12:38 PM on August 30, 2006


It may be that you have a hard time appreciating writers whose stance you don't agree with; if so, that's your problem, not his.

I have to disagree, it absolutely is his problem. It's crucial to what separates a scribe from an artist.

Greene is chiefly a story teller and polemicist, a pulpeteer. It can make for entertaining writing, even good writing, but it will to my mind ever keep you out of the top ranks that many of Greene's adherants claim for him. He climbs up his creaky rostrum and thumps, which is fine if you're an adherent to the faith. For a secularist, it can be uncomfortable, even embarassing. For an artist, it is death.

What makes the truly great truly great is their ability to raise interesting questions without really providing you answers. Greene's subject is justice, and if his settings are shadowy, his POV is not. You always know pretty much exactly where Truth lies, with whom you should have sympathy, for whom, contempt. Not a lot of gray in Greene, and even when he does make the effort to show the Other Side of Things, he cannot raise himself to real dispassion or sympathy for the characters. It's just not in him.

It's a common enough failing, and does not preclude entertaning writing- but it does separate sheep and goats. Thus, Conrad trounces Greene, Yourcenar trounces Robert Graves, Shakespeare trounces Arthur Miller. (Young Tolstoy trounces Old Tolstoy, for that matter.)

To the prose issue- again, respectfully disagree. It's highly uneven. I think he had talent and was capable of good stuff, but I suspect laziness (did he ever write a long book?), certainly in the later days, possibly earlier. Young Greene would have had editors to snag the wowsers, but once his name was made and appeared above the title, there was no reason and the mistakes made in haste and ignored at leisure began to accumulate rather badly. (Cf Orwell, whose writing ready pristine and ready to go to press, always.)

Bottom line, I think he was a useful essayist, but really should have been kept away from fiction. I would say the same of Gore Vidal.

Anyway, that's my problem with Greene the artist. YMMV, and clearly does, which is what makes the artistic endeavour endlessly entertaining. (BTW, and to my shame, I also have a problem with Hemingway. I've been toying with asking Mefi to explain what I am missing, and may yet do so.)

(Sidenote- finally saw Syriana last week and I had a similar problem. Stock figures and stock answers. The only really humane believable figure in the whole thing was the terrorist's father. Him I believed, him I thought human. Then too, the writer chickens out at the end by having the bombers take out, not a morally troubling airplane full of innocents, but- an oil tanker. Possibly some no doubt evil oil exec and sheiks. A bad film.)
posted by IndigoJones at 5:31 AM on August 31, 2006


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