23 October 2004

This is an awfully strange day in the publishing business. Basically, this is the last Saturday for the book reviews before they get inundated with the Christmas-season materials. Next weekend's editions won't reflect it, but by Wednesday the various editors will be bald from pulling out their hair while trying to find places for all of the last-minute bound galleys arriving late. And it will just get worse until Thanksgiving, when the industry begins another five-week holiday.

The Guardian gives us an interesting item on the not-so-joyful world of involuntary ghostwriting, tells us of more turmoil at Harper-Collins (gee, internal turmoil at NewsCorp… that's never happened before), a snarky (if all-too-accurate, based on the last several books in the series) review of a science fiction novel that comments (fake paragraphing removed for clarity)

Imagine that the storyteller has a well-educated and thoughtful mind with which he fills you in on all the details of these new worlds and peculiar personalities, and that he has the skill to paint in words the most breathtaking portraits of our universe on levels from the chemical to the personal. Imagine that he is hugely enthusiastic and charming, and that his thoughtful analyses of contemporary human politics range from the individual to the mass, from theory to action, from ideology to consequence. Imagine that his editor is on holiday.

and another snarky look at career sales for major-prize winners. From that column, I infer that the "award effect" is a helluva lot more reliable and a helluva lot greater in relative magnitude in England than it is in the US.

The NYTBR is surprisingly lively this week. Some time back, the editors decided in their infinite tomfoolery to alternate the focus of issues between fiction and nonfiction. This is a nonfiction week; that usually means boring reviews of books that don't really need reviews, or vicious and entertaining attacks upon books produced by the various reviewers' longstanding intellectual adversaries. (Publishing politics are even more vicious than those in academia, because in publishing there isn't even tenure at stake.) Sometimes one finds an excellent bon mot, such as this zinger from today:

Instead, she plunges directly into the 18th century, quickly and neatly distinguishing between two opposed sets of thinkers — the British (who are the good guys) and the French (who are, well, French).

Scott McLemee, reviewing Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Road to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments. The real problem with this review is that it makes the book sound a great deal more exciting and coherent than I have any right to expect after Himmelfarb's last four books. More typically, one finds Larry Tribe's screed against Larry D. Kramer, The People Themselves: Popular Constitutionalism and Judicial Review. Tribe's rhetoric is reflexively amusing, although perhaps not intentionally so:

Having pulled the linguistic trick of equating judicial review with a judicial monopoly over constitutional truth, Kramer is ready to break up that monopoly with remedies far more disquieting than just urging Congress to confront the court more forcefully over matters like religious freedom.

Leaving aside whether that accusation—which resembles 1937ish British Left accusations that various individuals were "objectively fascist" for the crime of preferring the criminally negligent Trotsky to the criminally repulsive Stalin—has any accuracy to it, which I cannot judge as I have not read the book in question, it's just plain bad, petulant writing, and largely what I've come to expect from the NYTBR on serious nonfiction that touches on academic issues. It is little more than a "rhetorical drive-by shooting"… which is word-for-word how Tribe characterizes the book he's reviewing, largely relying upon out-of-context soundbites and his own authority as a leading law professor instead of actually controverting the arguments and evidence proferred in Kramer's book. If Tribe's review represents the underlying book correctly, he's correct in his substantial criticisms; but that's no excuse for this kind of writing.