So much for book reviews

As I’ve written about before, I read book reviews less often than I used to, but I do still enjoy a quick skim through the New York Times Book Review on Sunday mornings. Yesterday made me wonder why. The main problem was that I didn’t like Daniel Mendelsohn’s review of Jonathan Franzen’s new book The Discomfort Zone. The review struck me as overly focused on Franzen as a person, whom Mendelsohn clearly does not like. Mendelsohn does critique the writing too, but the whole thing is colored by his opening complaint about Franzen’s “excessively lofty sense of himself.” He describes the book as

an unappetizing new essay collection that makes it only too clear that the weird poles between which the author seemed to oscillate during l’affaire Oprah — a kind of smug cleverness, on the one hand, and a disarming, sometimes misguided candor, on the other; a self-involved and self-regarding precocity and an adolescent failure to grasp the effect of his grandiosity on others — frame not only the career, but the man himself.

Franzen has done a number of stupid things (the Oprah incident being the worst), but I can’t find it in myself to get as annoyed with him as a lot of people seem to. I’ve noticed on a number of the bigger book blogs that Franzen-bashing is kind of normal and expected — like you don’t have to bash the guy at all, just mention his name and people know what you mean — but I don’t see why. I liked his novel The Corrections, and I liked his book of essays too, How to Be Alone. And he strikes me as someone who has some flaws, like speaking before he thinks and therefore saying stupid things that get him into trouble, but also as someone who tries hard to write honestly about himself, flaws and all. In his essays, I suppose, I see a level of candor that I like. He has a quality I see in other essayists I like such as Mary McCarthy: a desire to tell the truth even if it makes him look foolish.

I don’t take gleeful delight in mocking Franzen because I can somehow see myself saying something stupid at just the wrong time to the wrong person, and although that person almost certainly won’t be Oprah, I’d feel trapped by the whole incident anyway and I’d hate to be defined by it, in the way Franzen is defined by his bad incident.

I’m not certain I’ll read Franzen’s new book, but that’s largely because I’ve already read big chunks of it in The New Yorker. We’ll see. I might check it out anyway.

The other thing that annoyed me about the book review yesterday was the quotation from Adam Gopnik’s new book Through the Children’s Gate that the reviewer ends with. This is about a chess match:

“Luke next played a slow girl who was taking everything down in proper notation,” Gopnik writes about his son. Of course the boy lost, learning a concrete lesson. “ ‘Girls with notebooks are risky,’ he said, truer words never having been spoken.”

At this point, I was ready to fling the paper across the room. Yeah, smart girls — you gotta watch out for those.

And I’ve been wanting to read Daniel Mendelsohn, who wrote the bad Franzen review, and Adam Gopnik as well. I might read both of them, but I’ll probably put it off for a while.

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