Wednesday, May 20, 2009

How not to write a review: Dwight Garner, file number one

I say this with all the rancor and envy I can muster: why the fuck is Dwight Garner being groomed to be the NYT's book reviewer?

I had some minimal dealings with Garner when I reviewed a few books for Salon. He was a nice enough person. But he never struck me as a literatus. It is with horror that I have watched his rise at the Times. I am well aware that working for national media requires a mind well leavened with mediocrity. The occasional genius, the suspicious hermeneut, the investigative reporter, or stylist will be forever the outsider in those precincts. But Garner's mind has no leavening at all - it is, at best, a flatliner's shadow.

Take this review. Now, reviewing is a much abused art, and it is in parlous state in these here times, but this... is shocking.

First, an intro paragraph that sounds more like a parody of the discussions of some hi concept movie in The Player than a review. Especially as Garner, after throwing out a number of names gets down to business by ... dismissing his own buildup.

"If you could create the perfect rock biographer, he or she would probably be equal parts Robert Caro, Greil Marcus and Nick Tosches. That is, part buzz-saw researcher, part warm-blooded public intellectual and part roguish street-corner hustler. The resulting book — a biography of Randy Newman? Neil Young? Aretha Frankin? — would be, to quote the soul musician Swamp Dogg, total destruction to your mind.

Let’s not hold it against Barney Hoskyns, a journeyman British music writer, that he is not all that — or even particularly close to all that."

Now, it isn't that the Garner's first paragraph shouldn't have been written - as any reviewer knows, you write a first draft first paragraph on the largest lines, so that you can radically change it or just dump it once the review starts showing some sign of life further down the page. Garner, though, simply kept the first draft first paragraph. And a NYT that seems increasingly disconnected from actually editing its book reviewers let him.

Of course, once started on the game of pointless name-dropping, Garner can't quit. Thus, his next maneuver is to attach Nick Hornby's name to poor Hoskyn's hull, like some cancerous barnacle. Garner even picks Hoskyns own name dropping passages to quote in his 1200 words:

Now 59, Mr. Waits has been so good for so long that he is easy to take for granted. He was only a few years out of high school, after all, when he wrote “Ol’ ’55,” a song the historian Simon Schama has called “the single most beautiful love song since Gershwin and Cole Porter shut their piano lids.” Mr. Hoskyns’s book is a chance for a multiangled reappraisal.

Mr. Waits is not an easy man for a biographer to approach. He would not speak to Mr. Hoskyns, and asked others not to. But as Mr. Hoskyns points out: “He is no rock-and-roll version of J. D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon. He never hid out in the mountains like Dylan after his motorcycle accident, or like Bucky Wunderlick in Don DeLillo’s novel ‘Great Jones Street,’ ” adding, “Generally he’s been on hand to give good quote in support of the latest album.”

So, what do we have so far? A review of a book which is not by Robert Caro, Greil Marcus or Nick Tosches, or about Randy Newman, Neil Young or Aretha Franklin. It is about Tom Waits, who, it turns out, is not J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, Bob Dylan, or a fictional character in Delillo's Great Jones Street. Readers who wondered can now wipe their brows. Whew! Glad that is cleared up.

At least we know that Garner is not a reviewer like Cicero, Cyrano de Bergerac, or Pierre Bayle, if they were reviewers, which they weren't.


Ray Davis said...

Since you seem concerned about lack of comments, I'll deposit another me-too, repurposed from the tastiest morsel of feeding-hand I've bitten since moving online: "What we got here is not just smugness, but downright noisy celebration of shared limited knowledge. critics are they who seek to enjoy, without incurring the Immense Debtorship for, a thought thunk."

(If I'd been given enough time in which to type "Yes," I would also have cheered on your brief, brilliant contextualization of Moretti's "distant reading" project.)

Roger Gathmann said...

I've been thinking though - maybe this biting the hand strategy isn't the most brilliant idea I've ever come up with. Wyndham Lewis might not be the model of literary success I should strive for!

Ray Davis said...

My (present) managers have (once again) been hinting at something similar, Roger, and all I can say is: Not all dogs go to heaven.