26 December 2006

Propter Hoc

We're currently in the midst of the publishing industry's winter-solstice break (roughly 15 December to 10 January). That means that there's very little in the way of news. What news there is seems vaguely filthy. On the one hand, we have additional post hoc "revelations" that Judith Regan had been admonished at work for making antisemitic comments, which does nothing whatsoever to convince me that the real reason she was fired was anything other than her dubious editorial judgment. In short, it's a pretext. (An entirely believable pretext... but given the track record News Corporation (including Fox News, even on-air) has regarding antisemitism,1 one that I don't credit in these circumstances.) Then, there are Sony's continued legal problems with its ludicrous DRM, which have resulted in (depending upon whom one listens to) from US$4.25 million to US$5.75 million. Schade. And yes, this does apply to the book-publishing industry; remember who makes the latest, greatest e-book reader? Do you really think that the corporate attitude is going to be any different?

But, if I can't talk much about publishing, at least I can point to some interesting items about books. Book reviews per se are usually rather boring. I seldom refer to them on this blawg, primarily because their very blandness makes them less than useful. If a reviewer can't manage to show some passion — favorable or unfavorable — about a book that took several hours to read, and more time to review, then I'm not interested in that reviewer's opinions. Even a dryly factual review can still evoke passion for the underlying subject! In no particular order, here are a few reviews I've found of some interest over the last couple of weeks.

One example of the passionate (if ultimately wrongheaded) review that I find useful appeared in the NYTBR, as one of the occasional, grudgingly printed reviews of speculative fiction works. The biggest problem that I have with David Itzkoff (or, for that matter, his predecessor Gerald Jonas) as a reviewer is that he seems to know very little of the world of literature outside of (a tiny subset of) speculative fiction. That limited perspective seriously mars his review of John Scalzi's latest novel, The Android's Dream. I'm afraid that he really missed the point of the most cogent criticism of Starship Troopers, which is an equally cogent criticism of Scalzi's loose trilogy: The rejection of a professional officer corps. It's one thing to say that we have historically given platoon leaders and company commanders too little training and experience (which is rather ironic in Heinlein's case, as he was a squid — the one part of the military that virtually requires the opposite of its junior officers). It's another thing entirely to equate leadership, tactical direction, administration, and strategic thinking with technical prowess... or to assume that one can never cross the line of battle. Itzkoff's review is still helpful, but it lacks context; that undermines its somewhat tepid display of passion. Unfortunately for Itzkoff, his review is primarily helpful in how it helps define a negative space: The books for which Itzkoff has expressed enthusiasm, or at least the reviews I've caught in which Itzkoff has done so, have uniformly sucked, in direct proportion to his enthusiasm. It's sort of like that friend we all had in high school who invariably enthused about some aspect of "high school being" — and whose enthusiasm was always misguided. Avoiding mistakes can be useful, too.

WaPo Book World is ordinarily a lot better in considering speculative fiction as a part of literature, and as merely an heir to a particular storytelling paradigm than something inherently distinct, than is the NYTBR. Whether that comes from the financial preoccupations of New York or the inherent fantasies inside the Beltway, or some other cause, seems somewhat irrelevant. That's particularly so when WaPoBW reviews scholarly works on the underpinnings of speculative fiction fairly and as if they matter, while the NYTBR seldom reviews such works at all.

Passion, though, isn't always an adequate grounding for a review... especially one that goes on at length. If you want a review that won't fit on the back of the paperback edition, or substitute as catalog copy (perhaps in a catalog of books to avoid, if the reviewer is Michiko Kakutani), avoid the newspapers and "industry" outlets and start with The New York Review of Books. A recent review of Thomas Pynchon's latest novel provides an illustrative — if not entirely salubrious — example. The review alternates between attempts to show how clever the reviewer is and wild misstatements of fact, such as "The flap copy (written, as such things usually are, by the book's author)..." (if you work in publishing, I apologize for — but will not reimburse you for — the damage to your keyboard; I was just quoting the review). It is useful in implicitly demonstrating that Against the Day is a much more complex book than many of the short reviews make it seem; it is also useful in learning about Luc Sante's own approach to reading (if not necessarily all that useful in learning about Against the Day itself).

Cultural iconology is often an interesting subject for both books and book reviews. There's always the Shakespeare industry to consider. It's not that I don't appreciate Shakespeare; it's that I don't think of Shakespeare as the epitome of everything of literary value. Conversely, there's the involvement of government in the arts, either overtly and "positively," as the French practice asserts, or more darkly and ominously, as implied by the rest of European history.

Finally for today, consider the ideology of affirmative action, which seldom gets a searching examination. When it does, as in this book by purported "leftist" Walter Benn Michaels, almost nobody defends it. In the end, it's pretty easy to see why affirmative action as we know it seems indefensible: Affirmative action, like virtually every other "solution" to longstanding barriers to diversity (whether in education or elsewhere), commits the error of using a single factor as a proxy for everything that is "wrong" with the status quo. Class structure is founded on a lot more than race, or religion, or ancestral wealth, or any other single factor. Human behavior is a lot more complicated than quantum physics; the lack of success in developing a unified field theory in physics should be a big hint that there isn't one for human behavior, either. Then, on the other hand, we have all of the post hoc arguments over who was the greatest figure in the war on form-of-bigotry x, and the revisionist biographies (both ways), and the inevitable attempts to, and accusations of attempts to, color those biographies for or against someone's unstated interests.

  1. Remember, "antisemitic" isn't restricted to bigotry against "Zionists," or even the broader classification of "Jews." Palestinians, among others, are Semitic peoples, too. Bigotry is bigotry; it's always unacceptable, which in turn means that we don't get to pick and choose which varieties we ignore in the name of expediency. (Except that, as we'll see a few items below, good-natured French-bashing is always in season around here.)