Thursday, July 16, 2020

Best of Book Riot 7 Great Novels The New York Times Panned

Best of Book Riot 7 Great Novels The New York Times Panned This week we’re running some of our favorite and most popular posts from our first three months.   __________________________ A recent interest in book reviews as a genre led me to  Books of the Century:  A Hundred Years of Authors, Ideas and Literature  from  The New York Times Book Review. This volume collects notable pieces from the first 100 years of the  NYTBR, including reviews, impressions, letters to the editor, and literary essays. Its a fascinating look at how book coverage, taste, and discussion have changed since the  NYTBR  launched in the fall of 1896. Of particular interest are the things the review got wrong. Commendably, the editors of  Books of the Century  not only chose to include critical missteps, but they even highlighted them (calling them Oops! entries). Here are a few highlights: __________________________ On Henry James  The Golden Bowl: It seems to me to present Mr. James at his worstWe find, standing for subtlety, a kind of restless finicking inquisitiveness, a flutter of aimless conjecture, such as might fall to a village spinster in a department store. Mr. James, the prolix, the incoherent, the indecisive; it is of this Mr. James that we carry an impression from The Golden Bowl. Thoughts: Aside from the shift from the first-person singular to the first-person plural, the notable feature here is that the reviewer seems to mistake James interest with that of the characters in  The Golden Bowl. To my mind, the aimless conjecture and indecisive descriptors are aptly applied to the characters rather than James himself. Forgetting that the authors concerns and interests do not necessarily align with the concerns and interests of the characters is a common reviewing mistakeand rather refreshing to see from the Grey Lady. __________________________ On E.M. Forsters  Howards End: As a social philosopher, evidently, Mr. Edward M. Forster has not arrived at very positive convictions. He evinces neither power nor inclination to come to grips with any vital human problem. Thoughts: Ah, the good old days when one could chastise a writer for not coming to grips with any vital human problem unironically (and use clichés like come to grips with impunity). Those who love Forster love him in part, I think, for his lack of moral certainty or judgment. That this reviewer expected an identifiable social philosophy tells us much about the moment: just seven years later, criticism in this vein would be seen as woefully naive. __________________________ On Virginia Woolfs  The Voyage Out: This English novel, by an English writer, gives promise in its opening chapters of much entertainment. Later, the reader is disappointed. That the author knows her London in its most interesting aspects there can be no doubt. But aside from a certain clevernesswhich, being all in one key, palls on one after going through a hundred pages of itthere is little in this offering to make it stand out from the ruck fo mediocre novels which make far less literary pretension. Thoughts: You can be smug. You can be condescending. And you can even be wrong. But you cant be all three at once. Or so I thought. __________________________ On J.D. Salingers  The Catcher in the Rye: This Salinger, hes a short story guy. And he knows how to write about kids. This book though, its too long. Gets kind of monotonous. And he shouldve cut out a lot about these jerks and all that crumby school. They depress me. Thoughts: It has yet to be shown that satirical impersonation is a viable mode of literary criticism. Usually, the writer comes off as an ironical jackass; this case is no exception. Still, there is a whisper of truth about Salingers gift for the short-story, not as a mark against  Catcher, but as a foreshadowing of his long publishing drought as he struggled to contain his opus about The Glass family. The unruliness of the novel form itself seemed to be a part of the problem, and this reviewer presciently suggested he stick to the short story. __________________________ On Joseph Hellers  Catch-22: Catch-22 has much passion, comic and fervent, but it gasps for want of craft and sensibility. If Catch-22 were intended as a commentary novel, such sideswiping of character and action might be taken care of by thematic control. It fails here because half its incidents are farcical and fantastic. Thoughts: First, Im not sure you can gasp for want. Second, slamming  Catch-22  for craft and sensibility is a little like panning a Ferrari because theres not much trunk space: it is just completely and utterly beside the damn point. Third, how delicious that a book criticized for lack of thematic control would itself be a symbol for all the contradictions of late 20th American life. Whats that phrase for either way youre wrong? __________________________ On Betty Friedans  The Feminine Mystique: Sweeping generalities, in which this book necessarily abounds, may hold a certain amount of truth but often obscure the deeper issues. It is superficial to blame the culture and its handmaidens, the womens magazines, as she does. What is to stop a woman who is interested in national and international affairs from reading magazines that deal with those subjects? Thoughts: These would be only moderately obtuse points coming from a freshman. Coming from a NY Times reviewer, they are embarrassing. Also, what is more superficial than a leading, block-headed question that sounds like an obvious truth but actually demonstrates the problem? __________________________ On Anthony Burgess  A Clockwork Orange: With his tongue popping in and out of his cheek, Mr. Burgess satirizes both the sociological and the penal approach to juvenile crime, literary proletarianism, and anything else in his path. Written in a pseudo-criminal cant, A Clockwork Orange is an interesting tour-de-force, though not up to the level of the authors previous two novels. Thoughts: Besides not quite liking  Clockwork  enough, this seems pretty right to me, though the interesting tour-de-force is a frustrated phrase. I suspect that satires are particularly easy for a critic to get wrong, since much of what a good satire accomplishes is only apparent in hindsight. __________________________ Jeff ONeal is the editor of Book Riot. Follow him on Twitter: @readingape

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