Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Jamestown and the NYTBR

There's been quite a bit of noise in the lit blogs about Matthew Sharpe's new novel, Jamestown. I don't know if I'll get around to reading it, but I did read Susannah Meadows' lame review of it in The New York Times Book Review. It gets off to an irritating, cutesy start:
Americans have been very, very bad. Gluttonous, warmongering, nonenvironmentally conscious bad. In Matthew Sharpe’s strange and strained “Jamestown,” set in the post-apocalyptic future, everything is ruined, even the country, even the people. Brooklyn and Manhattan are fighting each other; the Indians have, inexplicably, retaken the South. The East River is goopy (or goopier). The Chrysler Building is rubble. Hares stalk the dead landscape biting off the heads of rodents. If Sharpe’s book had come out in the ’90s, Kevin Costner would be looking to direct.
From the opening sentence it seems that Meadows is tired of hearing about America's less than perfect role in the world, annoyed to have to write her review, annoyed that Sharpe has written his book at all. Later in the review she writes:
In this bad new world, the Manhattan Company is the government, dispatching a busload of men to get what its [sic] needs — oil, food, trees — from the Indians. The Manhattanites build a settlement, calling it Jamestown, after their boss. The Indians have corn. The settlers have guns. A lot of people die.

Sharpe doesn’t exactly take a gutsy approach to the old ideas. (Why is every imagined future post-apocalyptic, anyway?) War for oil = bad; corporations = eeeevil. And the white man? What a bunch of savages.
This is a common enough theme, it's true, and maybe Meadows is right that Sharpe doesn't bring anything new to the material (though I know of several bloggers who disagree). But her review is bad, and she doesn't convince. And her parenthetical question is priceless: "Why is every imagined future post-apocalyptic?" Yeah, hard to credit, that.

Scott Esposito, who has read Jamestown, has a fuller critique of Meadows' review (he quotes from another, silly part of the review, in which Meadows talks about how boring it is listening to or reading about other people's dreams).

Incidentally, I read this review in the print edition of the Review, which just reminded me, yet again, why I think the NYTBR is generally worthless. The cover is black, with a red-trimmed circle (it looks like a dartboard) in the middle, at the center of which is a skull-and-crossbones, above and below which are the words "Bad For You". Images of vice (alcohol, cigarettes, pills) are spoked out towards the edge of the circle. At the bottom of the page is a mock Surgeon General's warning that reads: "Benjamin Kunkel on Nirvana - Joe Queenan on bad books - Diane Johnson on New Age spirituality - Tom Carson on Warren Zevon". Other reviews are of books about drug addiction, smoking, teenagers, gambling, etc. That's right: it's another theme issue. Stuff that is bad, or bad for you.

There's nothing inherently wrong with a theme issue of a publication (although I find this particular theme pandering and uninspired). But the theme issue is apparently one of the few organizing principles available to Sam Tanenhaus. A few weeks ago, there was the "Fiction in Translation" edition. I didn't see this issue, but it got a lot of notice in the blogs--see The Literary Saloon's comment here, as well as Levi Asher's coverage at LitKicks here. In Asher's post he says: "I don't generally love 'theme issues', but the NYTBR can do an issue like this anytime they want." Fair enough, right? We'd all like to see substantial coverage of serious fiction, and especially of fiction in translation, which is too often ignored in this country. An issue devoted entirely to fiction in translation helps, so I have no complaint with that individual edition of the Review. My problem is that it's clear that such an issue is a token. I doubt that the NYTBR is ever going to consistently put out issues that cover serious fiction, translated or otherwise, in a serious way (or even serious non-fiction in a serious way). The Literary Saloon complains about the NYTBR quite a bit (here's a representative post, from just two weeks prior to the "Fiction in Translation" edition), and with good reason--except that I wonder why they and others bother.

In many respects, of course, I'm far from the best person to weigh in on the relative merits of the NYTBR (which is why I usually avoid doing so). I've never liked its coverage of books. This is why I went online in the first place: book review sections didn't come close to filling my need, and, oddly, they still don't. (The Literary Saloon often notes, rightly, that the coverage at the NYTBR is heavily weighted toward non-fiction. It would take a separate post that I'm not likely to write to get into my considerable political problems with the non-fiction coverage itself.) Because I don't like its coverage, I tend not to seek it out. I don't, for example, know how often it actually is organized around a theme, and I really don't care. I do know that I check in every so often (like when I pick up the Times for Aimée), and rarely am I impressed. Obviously, it occasionally includes a good review of a book worth reviewing, but these are exceptions. My assessment of the NYTBR's value, then, arises from personal, but not regular, observation of issues over a period of several years (not just the admittedly worse Tanenhaus era), combined with reading the continuous complaints from other bloggers who seem to care a lot about it. Conclusion: it's terrible. Solution: stop caring.


Anonymous said...

Richard, would be happy to send you a copy of Jamestown, understanding of course that you might not have the time to get to it...Only if you'd like. Or if there's anything else you might like...My email is richard@softskull.com (I couldn't find an email on your site, sorry!)

Anonymous said...

I found some great fiction book reviews. You can also see those reviews in Non fiction

Anonymous said...

I hope you get around to reading Jamestown. It is full of wit and also profoundly sad.

brandon said...

I had a similar response to the 'Jamestown' review even though my first reaction to reading summaries of the book were similarly snarky to that of the NYBR's critic.

The opposition to the book seems as if it began before she opened the book (this seems true of many Times book reviews). It almost feels like the book isn't what Meadows wanted it to be (poor, cliched) but she went with it anyway...

I recall, sometimes in January, a review of a Hart Crane publication which was incredibly rude and cruel. It mocked Crane's suicide and his homosexuality...

It seems as if often, for "shock value" the Book Review purposefully creates incongruities between the reviewer and the book, finding the critic least apt to enjoy the book to review it...

Richard said...

Brandon -
My initial reaction upon reading about Jamestown was admittedly curiosity, but with a sense that I wasn't sure I'd read it anytime soon, especially given what my reading focus has been lately. I'm interested in post-apocalyptic scenarios in theory (like I'm sort of a sucker for time-travel stories), though I don't read too many of them. Or, I'm interested in them as scenarios (probably because of my own particular political beliefs and fears), whether or not I enjoy the books containing them.

I agree with this: "It seems as if often, for "shock value" the Book Review purposefully creates incongruities between the reviewer and the book, finding the critic least apt to enjoy the book to review it... "