WHAT'S WRONG WITH THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW


Some years ago I loved a woman who worked in sophisticated finance, municipal bond insurance to be exact. To demonstrate my respect for her day job, I would from time to time recommend an article I'd seen in the New York Times Sunday Business section. 'It's not for me,' she would say, dismissing the paper without bothering to look. Huh, I asked? The only financial professionals who read the biz section, she insisted, are those who deal with the unsophisticated public, say who have retail customers, such as stockbrokers.

I realized that I always had the same feeling toward the NY Times Sunday Book Review, as well as the Sunday Arts section—they weren't for me as an books and arts professional, but for people who go into stores filled with the latest produce from commercial publishers or see new movies and Broadway plays, such as, needless to say, my sometime girl friend, a Vassar alumn, who did read the books and arts sections of the Sunday Times respectfully. Bless her.

As a cultural historian authoring books meant to survive for decades, I have necessarily avoided the NYTBR
for the simple reason that I couldn't afford to fall for momentary fads—not for a minute. For someone like myself, this channel offers disinformation. Since anyone writing arts or literary history based primarily upon cultural produce featured in the Sunday Times would look like a dunce, avoiding the paper has been for me a perquisite for mental hygiene. (Nonetheless, for the record, I should note that I have written for the Sunday Times Book Review since 1963, also contributing from time to time to several other Sunday sections: Arts & Leisure, Travel, The Magazine, Sophisticated Traveler, The City, and Real Estate. No 'outsider' am I.)

Besides, since only a few of my many books published over forty years were ever reviewed in the Times Book Review, never favorably, I could perversely boast that I earned individual entries in Encyclopedia Britannica and the Merriam Webster Dictionary of American Writers, among other enviably selective directories, without ever receiving a positive notice in the Times, so irrelevant had it apparently become to the highest cultural arbiters, truly cultural professionals, who may not read the NYTBR
either, Incidentally, none of my books has ever been reviewed by the daily Times reviewers, who swim in a cultural ditch, or in the highly peculiar New York Review of Books, which the elite arbiters, smart about guidance necessarily, probably ignore as well.

Some years ago, I broached the concept of the idiot-identifier, which is my epithet for a cultural icon so suspect that I (and others) tend to think of his/her/its admirers as cultural idiots, other claims to 'intelligence' notwithstanding. John Kenneth Galbraith has always served that function, at least for me; Alan Dershowitz for others; Susan Sontag for me and others. Likewise, I tend to think that people who look only to the NYTBR for literary advice are dim.

With these prejudices in mind, you can imagine how surprised I was to find a new book of mine reviewed in the NYTBR
for the first time in perhaps two decades, not in any of the full reviews, which in the issue of June 29, 2003, were devoted to memoirs by Sandra Day O'Connor and Hilary Clinton, Douglas Brinkley's biography of Henry Ford, novels by Javier Marias and Fay Weldon, and the Collected Poems of Robert Lowell, among other titles no doubt featured in the chain bookstores. It is by the contrast between omissions and inclusions that a medium like the NYTBR gets the 'reputation' it deserves.

No, my book gets only a single paragraph under the headline 'Books in Brief' (incidentally giving EB's editors good reason to ignore a medium that slights writers honored in its pages). Someone named Glyn Vincent summarizes with fair accuracy the contents of my book, SoHo: The Rise and Fall of an Artists' Colony (Routledge). Thanks. Nonetheless, what was bothersome were the remarks about me. 'A hermetic student of downtown culture, Kostelanetz would seem SoHo's perfect idiosyncratic historian.' Though his the epithet Hermetic might have passed ignorant eyes unnoticed, it offended me (and initially prompted this critique), as it means 'protected from outside influences,' 'with an airtight closure.' That is hardly appropriate for someone who is elsewhere described in Vincent's review as living in the center of a cultural hothouse, whose book relates interactions with his neighbors. Obscure writing is sometimes called 'hermetic,' meaning something that only the author can understand. Though I've done putatively hermetic texts as poetry or numerical art, my narrative history of SoHo must be thoroughly clear, given the accuracy of Vincent's summary, disproving his point implicitly. Thus, his inept adjective reflects lapses not only in the writing but in the NYTBR
editing.

Elsewhere within his few hundred words, Mr. (Ms.?) Vincent characterizes my book as 'minefield of non sequiturs, dyslexic syntax and arrested thoughts.' What the hell, I hear you saying, is 'dyslexic syntax'? The crucial adjective refers to 'abnormal difficulty in reading and spelling,' though, most would agree, someone whose book describes a personal library with over 15,000 volumes would not have difficulties reading—reading-obsessed, perhaps; but reading-challenged, no. Dyslexia is more commonly used to describe a predisposition to interchange letters or numbers within a row. My hunch is that DS is Vincent's response to uncommon sentences for which I'd admit a taste (e.g., 'so irrelevant had it apparently become to the highest cultural arbiters'), risking what might be distinguished to sophisticated people but problematic for illiterates.

 Those subscribing to the Google search engine would be surprised to discover that all but a few of the 93 entries on 'Glyn Vincent' acknowledge only a book he'd published recently on the artist Albert Blakelock. Why nothing else? What is the truth behind this odd fact of a writer with such a limited Google inventory? After pondering possibilities, may I suggest that GV might be a beginner, which seems unlikely, or a limited-use pseudonym for someone else? If so, for whom? Jayson Blair?
 
Vincent's killer is his concluding sentence, which must be quoted in its entirety: 'More troubling than the book's lack of narrative cohesion—perhaps appropriate in describing the avant-garde scene—is the absence of any persuasive perspective.' Huh? Doesn't the book subtitle broadcast my 'perspective'? Don't most of the episodes in the book illustrate my subtitle? If anything, my book could be criticized for too much 'persuasive perspective,' but that isn't what Vinnie says or what was printed by his editors at the NYTBR
, who are apparently sloppy here as well. In my experience, under-editing of details customarily reflects laziness about larger problems (and vice versa).

In my SoHo memoir, I noted in passing that the development of New York City's most distinguished art neighborhood received more appreciation in the Home and Real Estate sections of the local NY Times
, rather than its cultural pages, which has for decades tended to ignore SoHo. As excerpts from my new book appeared in both Sunday Real Estate and Sunday City sections, all would agree that the NYT responses to my own book would prove this unfamiliar truth of mine as still true, too true, the Times once again demonstrating as a newspaper of cultural record it is definitely, if not self-consciously, unreliable. Why this truth should still be true is still a mystery to me, no doubt raising questions familiar in the wake of the Jayson Blair about subversion within the Times itself. Rest assured that no one was bribed to prove my paranoid hypothesis true.

For those colleagues who think objecting to a problematic review of one's book in the NYTBR
is inadvisable, may I recall that I first did so three decades ago, responding to L.J. Davis. My antagonist and I met soon afterwards, befriended one another, and a dozen years later almost bought some Boerum Hill real estate together. I still count him a friend, who is among our best investigative business journalists, a dope though he may have once been as a literary book reviewer. No question about it - my critical response then was certainly worth doing. 

Finally, may I conclude that my claim to top-drawer recognitions without a favorable NYTBR
review remains pristine? Yippie, I'm still a virgin. Doubting if my boast is unique, I publish it in part to give other an opportunity to make a similar claim.

Need I mention that an earlier version of this critique was submitted to the NYTBR
, whose editor asked to see a 'letter' from me. Once it was sent, I never heard from him again, no doubt implicitly demonstrating another truth of mine. Lying I don't do, opportune though fibbing might be.

         © Richard Kostelanetz 2008