Books are silent, dusty things—and if, of late, so are the essays written about them, maybe we should blame The New York Times Book Review. The Book Review is read by nearly 2 million subscribers every week, and by and large, it's terrible.
One doesn't know where to look for poorer criticism of such purported import. Newsweek, in a recent article about the Book Review—a tear-jerky "news" piece lamenting the sad state of the Review's shrinking page count and "plummeting ad revenue"—stated as fact in the first paragraph the Book Review's "entrenched status as a weekly must-read for the literati." It is nothing of the sort: The Book Review is fulsome, promotional, and dull.
Newsweek gave its hand away with a quote from Patricia Eisemann: "It is heartbreaking. If the paper of record doesn't review you, it's tough." Eisemann is vice president of publicity for Scribner, so by tough she means tough to sell books. It makes sense that selling books is what Eisemann cares about—it is her job—but should that be all The New York Times Book Review cares about? Is the Book Review meant to be a sales machine? Maybe if it offered more than plot summaries, puns, and illustrations—maybe if it was more passionately engaged in the question of what makes good literature—more people would read it, more ads would sell, and Newsweek wouldn't have to run any more sad, silly articles.
The problem with critical attention today is that it tends to avoid being critical. The book business of late has thrived on a community of uncritical critics. A notable exception is Michiko Kakutani, who writes for the daily books section of The New York Times and who is tough in a way that Ms. Eisemann didn't mean—and almost flawlessly accurate, if accurate often means cruel, in her assessments.
Increasingly, Kakutani is not alone in her efforts. She has yet to shake things up in such a singular and much-celebrated fashion as Dale Peck did recently in The New Republic, with a review of Rick Moody's latest book into which Peck dragged—and dragged around—a handful of card-carrying members of the literary canon. (The opening line of the review read, "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation"; subsequent statements concerned Don DeLillo's "ponderously self-important" writing, Joyce's "diarrheic flow of words," Faulkner's "incomprehensible ramblings," Nabokov's "sterile inventions," Donald Barthelme's "reductive cardboard constructions," and Thomas Pynchon's "word-by-word wasting"of formidable talent. I stop listing them, not because there aren't more, but because I'm exhausted. Though at the same time, I'm thrilled.)
The latest product of a suddenly fierce American literary discourse is the release of B.R. Meyers' A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose, which is—in New York Observer critic Adam Begley's estimation—a "relentless broadside against Mr. DeLillo, Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster, and David Guterson." Begley asserts, "Mr. Meyers is glib, mean-spirited, occasionally amusing, and consistently irritating."
I have read some of A Reader's Manifesto, and I say of B.R. Meyers, to his credit, one critic reviewing another: At least he gives a damn and isn't dull.