Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Good Old Bill

This past Tuesday, Bill Clinton's memoirs were released. (I'm on vacation, so I'm a bit behind.)

Apparently, the Times' senior books writer, Michiko Kakutani, decided to pull rank and review the book herself.

Normally, I'm a fan of Ms. Kakutani's somewhat cranky reviews. I think books should be held to a high standard, and when she writes that she has actually enjoyed a book, it often gets bumped up pretty high on my "priority reading" list.

This time, however, I think Ms. Kakutani may have overreached.

"In many ways," Ms. Kakutani writes, "the book is a mirror of Mr. Clinton's presidency: lack of discipline leading to squandered opportunities; high expectations, undermined by self-indulgence and scattered concentration. This memoir underscores many strengths of Mr. Clinton's eight years in the White House and his understanding that he was governing during a transitional and highly polarized period. But the very lack of focus and order that mars these pages also prevented him from summoning his energies in a sustained manner to bring his insights about the growing terror threat and an Israeli-Palestinian settlement to fruition."

While I'm not surprised that Mr. Clinton's writing fails to live up to Ms. Kakutani's high literary standards, and she rightly calls him on it, I think that few people will pick up My Life based on their high expectations for the quality of its prose. At the same time, if I may be pardoned for my frankness, Ms. Kakutani's assessments of Mr. Clinton's poltical career strike me as a bit trite. And, as much as I admire Mr. Clinton, to have assassinated Osama Bin Laden, closed an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, AND to have produced a slim, diamond focused memoir would have been a godlike set of accomplishments indeed.

We literary types often need to remind ourselves that we don't really have equal insight into all aspects of existence.

(Ed. note: the Times ran Larry McMurtry's more positive review of My Life on 6/23.)

Friday, June 18, 2004

1904, It was a very good year. . .

In addition to Bloomsday, a celebration very close to my heart, this year marks the centennial of the birth of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Yiddish-American Nobel Prize laureate.

While Singer's centennial has prompted a surprising amount of controversy (see: The New York Times), but I, unsurprisingly, would like to focus on a more pedestrian controversy.

I've long admired the Library of America, co-founded by one of my literary heroes, Jason Epstein. Epstein himself, however, complains in his book Book Business about some of the editorial decisions of the Library of America's board:

"The editorial selection [of the Library of America] has followed [Edmund] Wilson's original prospectus but with troubling deviations. These include a volume of sermons most of which are without literary merit or historical interest in themselves; collections of first-hand descriptions by journalists of American battles, interesting in themselves but of little interest as literature; the novels in translation of Vladimir Nabakov who is no more an American writer than Joseph Brodsky is an American poet; and a four-volume anthology of American poetry, separately financed by the National Endowment for the Humanites, which includes, inexplicably, much that is second rate or worse. . . . A hint of similar trouble ahead is the announcement of a [now published] anthology of writing by Americans about oceans, separately financed by a generous donor. Since the aim of the Library of America is to make permanently available the complete or subtantially complete works of important American writers, this topical anthology represents not only a dilution of purpose but a waste of scarce resources. . . . The Library of America has now published substantially all the work for which it was created and for which the rights are available. Its obligation hereafter is to husband its resources so that this work remains in print and accessible to readers, and to ensure that funds are on hand for the publication of twentieth-century writers as rights permit."

In fact, the LOA has followed the anthology on the sea with anthologies on New York, Los Angeles, Paris, and baseball. Additionally, in celebration of I. B. Singer's centennial, the LOA is not only publishing three volumes of Singer's short stories, but also a volume of reflections on Singer by contemporary writers. I'm not interested in arguing whether Singer belongs in the Library of America or not (the question of what is "American" is inherently troublesome); I'm more disappointed that the LOA seems so interested in producing books that are basically sentimental souvenirs.

I don't care what Jonathan Safran Foer thinks about I. B. Singer. Give me a volume of Lionel Trilling instead.

(My apologies to Mr. Epstein for the long quote. Buy Book Business here.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

June 16, 1904

Bloomsday in Lansing is pretty quiet. The good old reliable Times came through, though. This article ran in today's paper, and John Banville's reflections ran in last Sunday's Book Review.

Arts & Letters Daily also has their usual wealth of links, including Michael Dirda's excellent essay, and Edmund Wilson's orginal 1922 review.

I put together a piece myself, but the local free weekly didn't run it.

Really, I'll be happy if you just pick up a copy of the book. It's worth reading. Really.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

What should we think of Reagan, really?

As an antidote to all the one-sided eulogizing and demonizing (as exemplified by's competing links), here's a refreshingly debunked take on our 40th president, courtesy of

On the other hand, Slate's discussion between Dinesh D'Souza and E.J. Dionne on whether Reagan or Clinton is responsible for economic boom of the 90s is pretty entertaining too.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

The Only Book Club That Matters

Business mogul, feel-good guru, and literary critic Oprah Winfrey has posted the latest selection to her new, revamped book club--Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

I don't know whether that in itself is particularly newsworthy, except for Oprah's admission (pointed out by The New York Times on Monday) that she has never read the book herself.

Can Oprah really expect her army of suburban houswives to read an 862 page 19th Century Russian novel? Will they identify with characters whose names they can't even pronounce? Will they flock back to my store in droves, demanding their money back?

By the way, not that anyone asked, but my theory is that Oprah is picking dead authors for her book club now because when she picks a dead writer she only has to deal with the publisher, and she knows that any publisher will kiss her ass. (None of that Jonathan Franzen "I have reservations about the selection of my novel" crap.)

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

A sinister conspiracy?

The New York Times today published a remarkably content-free story on a Princeton undergrad who, as her senior thesis, produced an analytical survey of fiction published in The New Yorker from 1992-2001. One of the study’s primary conclusions? That “male editors generally publish male authors who write about male characters who are supported by female characters.”

No shit.

Of course, Katherine Milkman (the undergrad who produced the survey) may have missed the real scoop by cutting off her data in 2001, which meant that her efforts compared the tenures of two male fiction editors, Charles McGrath and Bill Buford. The New Yorker's current fiction editor, Deborah Triesman, took over the position from Mr. Buford at the beginning of 2003.

Has a female editor made a difference? Not as much as one might think. My own informal survey of fiction published in The New Yorker since my subscription began on August 4, 2003 revealed that Ms. Triesman had published 27 stories by male writers to 15 stories by female writers. 64% may be a bit of a drop from the peak of 70% male authorship under Mr. Buford, but it's certainly nowhere near parity. (And it's substantially higher than the 57% male authorship under Mr. McGrath.)

Has Ms. Milkman’s work opened any eyes? Ms. Triesman had this to say:

"Do I walk away [after having read Ms. Milkman’s study] thinking 'Now I have to think about gender and race and location in selecting stories?' No."

Kind of makes all the work worthwhile.