Friday, March 02, 2007

dark days at the TLS

It isn't often that we here at Stevereads find ourselves at odds with the mighty TLS, but it happened quite a bit in a recent issue. The 16 February issue, to be exact, the one with John Brown's yelling, canting face on the cover - in which there was a plethora of pieces that stirred the exact opposite of the reactions the TLS usually inspires. Usually, the appearance of a new issue inspires us here at Stevereads with hope and joy - but this particular issue had ... well, let's just call them major snags. Most of the big showpiece reviews seemed slightly crabbed, needlessly argumentative, even, dare we say it, wrong.

Some of the problems are small. For instance, Caroline Moorhead spends a long and very favorable review of 'Decca,' Peter Sussman's collection of the letters of Jessica Mitford. It's a warm and enticing review, enlivened by frequent stunning quotes from Mitford's utterly infectious letters. And then right at the end, you get THIS slapped across your face like mackerel: 'This collection of letters, edited by Peter Y. Sussman, is much too long." Um, OK. Yeesh. Buzz-killer.

Or Jon Barnes' review of 'Edgar Allan Poe and the Murder of Mary Rogers' by Daniel Stashower ... Barnes reviews the book's central facts, the murder of the lovely cigar girl, the miraculous powers of ratiocination displayed by Edgar Allan Poe in putting forward a possible solution to her murder. All well and good, but Barnes also retails Stashower's derring-do conclusions:

'John Anderson was the man who had first employed Mary in his cigar store, the man responsible for her fame, and after her murder he grew rich, eventually becoming one of the wealthiest men in the city. After his own death, in the course of a protracted court battle over his fortune, two pieces of highly suggestive rumour came to light. First, that Anderson himself had once got Mary Rogers pregnant and that he paid for an abortion. Second, and most singularly of all, that Anderson had supposedly paid a certain writer to compose a fiction which would avert suspicion away from him and on to some other, nameless suspect. The records are vague but there can be no doubt about the identity of the writer accused of the deception. His name I shall leave to your own powers of ratiocination.'

Great. Edgar Allan Poe, accomplice to murder. Just great.

Then there's Alex Burghart's review of two books of medieval history, Veronica Ortenberg's 'In Search of the Holy Grail' and Paul Hill's 'The Anglo-Saxons.' Burghart does both books justice and writes very well in the process, so the reader is happy. Then the second shoe falls:

'Both Ortenberg and Hill have important things to say about J.R.R. Tolkien's contribution to the repackaging of the Middle Ages in the present day. What they both miss is that Tolkien is actually the villain of the piece. In creating a fascinating, heavily resourced, wildly dramatic narrative he succeeded in undermining the very period he was trying to promote. Those who bought and buy into his stories rarely go on to read about medieval history but rather become obsessed with the fantasyland. The remainder lump in those who like medieval history with the elf-fetishists and stay well away.'

Elf-fetishists. Lovely. Tolkien as the villain of the piece. Yeah, THAT makes for sunny reading.

And it gets worse. It gets darker. David Wootton reviews a new re-issue of 'Europe's Physician' by the late great Hugh Trevor-Roper. Trevor-Roper's book is a biography of Sir Theodore de Mayerne, who Erasmus considered a first-class booby.

Trevor-Roper was one of the 20th centuries very best historians, and Wootton entirely agrees with this - and eventually reveals that the reason he agrees is because WE'RE ALL GOIN' TO HELL:

"It is because common culture is gone for ever that Trevor-Roper's 'Europe's Physician' will have no successors. The texts it is based on are in Latin and French, with a smattering of Greek. The secondary sources are in Italian, German and Dutch. The manuscripts are in England, France, Germany and Switzerland. No young scholar would want to write this book, and perhaps no young scholar could. But if you want to understand the age of religious wars, or if you want to be reminded that the purpose of a great history book, as of a great play or a great novel, is to transform how you see the world around you, then you should read this last relic of a lost age. Great history books are few and far between. This is one.'

At the risk of repeating ourselves, Yeesh.

Let's not cue the Great Darkness just yet, shall we? Lord knows, we here at Stevereads spend a great deal of our free time bemoaning the future. 20-year-olds in 2007 America are almost universally ignorant of a broad range of essential subjects. The only things they actually know, basically, are a) the events of their own personal lives in the last five years, and b) the price and availability of all the drugs and alcohol within 200 blocks of where they happen to live. We here at Stevereads often seem to gleefully revel in these horrifying facts.

But geez, enough's enough. Wootton's doom-and-gloom scenario, in which the next generation of historians won't even be able to READ the works of the previous generation - much less match their travel-vouchers - is just too damn depressing. AND it's contradicted by some of the books appearing on bookstore shelves even now, some of which have even been mentioned here at Stevereads.

No, however tempting apocalyptic doom-saying might be, it's lazy. Real, serious history is still being written (doomedly, quixotically, since the AUDIENCE for it thins with every passing year) - some of its products dating well after Trevor-Roper cited his last op cit. We here at Stevereads are the first to decry the present generation, but we keep our ear to the ground. There are fifteen-year-olds currently attending Boston Latin who are every bit as smart as Hugh Trevor-Roper ever was, and HUNGRIER than he ever knew to be, because unlike him they can FEEL how much more the questing world needs them. The good Muse Clio is safe in their hands, no matter what David Wootton might think. He, perhaps, hasn't actually met any of these bespectacled youngers ... but we here at Stevereads have, and we're not so pessimistic.

But NONE of this holds a candle to the biggest offense the issue has to offer. Stephen Abell finally gets around to offering the TLS' review of Norman Mailer's 'The Castle in the Forest.' The review is intensely intelligent and, it must be said, largely negative - but that matters very little in the shadow of, of all things, the review's ILLUSTRATION. Right there, while the review is making its stately case and holding Mailer accountable for every one of his sentences and ideas, the accompanying illustration has Mailer dressed in a Nazi uniform, saluting with one hand and waving a Nazi flag with the other.

Because Norman Mailer wrote a novel about the boyhood of Adolf Hitler, the TLS editorial board thought it appropriate to publish a picture of him as a Nazi.

The mind boggles. Literally no explanation could possibly hold water. The TLS owes Mailer a prominent, abject apology - and twenty years ago, he'd have squeezed it from them in a court of law. These present editors had better hope he's lost a step or two since his litigious heyday.

So it was a dark week at the TLS, but everybody's entitled to be off their game once or twice. We'll check in next week and hope for the best.


Hellmo said...

Yeah, HOWEVER- we are currently experiencing a Tolkein backlash! Too much for too long(thanks to the films and Ho Miff's new movie cover per month per book policy), making the sacred material fodder for dorksylvanian meetings in the basement presided over by outreaching moms in Hermione garb. IT hits me where I live, for it will now take all of my prowess- intellectual, magical, sexual- to coax the lovely Sara into reading the sacred texts. She represents the intellectual elite that MUST steer clear of all fads and fashions lest scabies set in. You can't blame her. It's our MISSION, though, as those lucky enough to have read the books before the trend crash-landed, to expose our loved ones to the goodness, the purity, and above all, the golden absence of the Liv Tyler.

hellmo said...

That said, the reviewer is an idiot. Doesn't get Tolkein, doesn't get fantasy. Loves McSweeneys (provided there's no visible enthusiasm).

Sam Sacks said...

The Mailer cartoon is all the stupider because the TLS could just as easily (and topically) have run an illustration of Mailer in the guise of Satan, and got in their facetious jab without being so atrociously offensive.

I don't understand the Tolkien reviewer's point. Is he claiming somehow that the point of "The Lord of the Rings" was to get people to appreciate the glories of medeival literature, or that this was ever Tolkien's responsibility? Leave it to a Brit to conflate the creation of art with the creation of an effective syllabus.

steve said...

How lovely can this 'Sara' person be, if she's never read 'Lord of the Rings'? She's probably web-handed and cloven-hooved, with a vestigial hand growing out of her left cheek.

Hippolyta said...

Well, damn! What does that say about the fact that I've never read LOTR?

steve said...

Easy: if Hippolyta has never read 'Lord of the Rings,' then 'Lord of the Rings' must stink.

Hippolyta - and her alcoholic hand-rinse - rules!

Gianni said...

I guess that means Reichmarshall was right. j/k Seriously though, the Lord of the Rings is a classic piece of literature that is constantly overlooked because of it's "fantasy" setting, since just about every fantasy writer (I'm talking to you, Piers Anthony and Robert Jordan) stole his ideas and watered down the genre with the sameness that you get from most fantasy titles. Each book from The Lord of the Rings is a GREAT read, regardless of said genre, and SHOULD be read by everyone, especially those who would bother to respond to this blog. Skip the Hobbit, though. It's not bad, but compared to the next three, well, it just doesn't compare.

I'm very opinionated on this.

Beepy said...

I can see a gender chasm opening because I, like Hippolyta and the delectable Sara, have never read "Lord of the Rings" either. I can understand Sara shying away from it because of the hype, but I had many hype-free years in which to read it. So what gives here?

To be fair, I did read "The Hobbit", started "Lord of the Rings", noticed something shiny floating by and swam away.

beepy said...

Hellmo, the problem with Mr. Reviewer Dude (too much effort to go back and get his real name) is the same one that our host has. He imagines a world where people quest for knowledge. He has spent his entire life with intellectuals and suspects that everyone has a hidden core of brilliance that just needs to be coaxed into the sun. If the encouragement is successful, people read Tolkien and go on to read about the Middle Ages. If people read an abridged edition of "Moby Dick", they will go on to read the original. If they don't it is some flaw in the route, not some flaw in the person.

Well, I am here to say that the intellectual elite is called "elite" because it is...well, elite. (feel free to quote me) And I'm not talking about the absence of intelligence here. I'm talking about otherwise intelligent individuals who just don't care.

I come from such a family. I understand them. It's not intellectual laziness, as Steve would have it. That implies that there is some lack of energy preventing them from the Quest, when really, they don't even know that there is a Quest. And if they did, they just wouldn't care.

Okay, I'm not being very clear. I believe the number one quality that everyone on this blog possesses - also everyone that Steve and Mr.R.Dude deal with intimately - is curiosity. When I read something about, say, Stalin, I want to go out and read everything about Stalin. That leads me to want to read everything about Soviet History, which leads to the Russian Revolution, which leads to Rasputin, which leads get where I'm going. Tolkien LEADS to the Middle Ages. When my brother reads something about Stalin, he thinks "Hmmm, Stalin. Interesting. I'll have to remember that. What's for supper?" NO CURIOSITY!

If I were Locke or Sam, I could probably put together some amazing arguement that would stun Steve to silence, but I can't really put two sentences together to make my point (THAT is intellectual laziness...shut up, Steve). I'll go think about it some more.

Beepy said...

And Steve, what's wrong with being "web-handed"? Some of my best friends fall into that catagory?

locke said...

"If I were Locke or Sam, I could probably put together some amazing arguement that would stun Steve to silence..."

or just throw a ball down the hall. that usually does it.

or call him a Jesuitical throwback. that also works.

locke said...

okay, I'm going to be an ass. I'm going to drop a bombshell in the middle of the bloggeen and then run away to do other things (eat, shower, work) without fully explaining myself... here goes:

I think Tolkein's prose is pretty crappy.

God (and Steve) knows how much I love those books (and films). I've re-read them every couple of years since I was 11 (ah, 1996, a very good year)... I know that's not so often compared to Steve's obsessive re-reading habits, or those of the Elvish-speaking Ring-nut World. But for me to re-read something that often, that regularly is rare (Mockingbird is the only other case).

They are a constant security blanket / literary comfort food / philosophical happy balm for me. Reading them makes me very very happy.


As the years go by, each time I return to re-read them, I find it a little harder to get past the leaden prose, the arch cloddish style. Don't get me wrong -- I read a few chapters and my love of the characters and especially the story and the world takes over and by the time I get to Rivendell I hardly notice the prose anymore.


This HAS become somewhat of a problem with the popularity of the films, since now people who used to mock me as a kid for reading 'that crap' are now expressing interest in the books. Likewise, friends with literary snobbish leanings who've sneered at the books all their lives are asking me if they should read the books.

And it's tough, because while I fully consider LOTR great literature, it is so IN SPITE of its sentence-for-sentence dialogue and prose.

So you hand it to someone, you rave about it, you tell them how much it meant to you all your life, and they start to read it and really, it's NOT the fantasy elements that turn them away -- the movies have prepared them for the Orcs and Balrogs and wizards and Elves. It's the PROSE that kills it for them. The prose is every bit as silly and overdone and cloddish as the 'genre ghetto' stereotypes would suggest.

There. I've said it. Tolkein was a GREAT researcher, with a wonderfully detailed and intricate imagination. And he is a delightful storyteller and weaver of new mythologies and heroics. But word for word, he is a CRAP prose writer.

And I say that adding that he is a crap prose writer who has brought me a lot of the greatest joy and happiness i've experienced as a reader.

locke said...

(um, and before some Tolkienista slaps me down as being a wet-behind-the-ears Hobbitling who clearly hasn't read the books ENOUGH, I should point out to those who don't know me that the crack about being 11 in 1996 is, sadly, very much a joke. 1976 would actually be much more accurate.)

locke said...

(it would help if I backed up my supposed love for Tolkien by spelling his name correctly... what can I say? not that STRONG a speller... and I was taking my cue from "hellmo"--he confuseded me!)

steve said...

Did somebody mention throwing a ball?

Beepy said...

I am realizing a very perverse little aspect of myself. Steve mentioned once something about Alice Munro being a talentless gassbag and I immediately thought "I should give her a try." Locke talks about Tolkien's horrible prose and I think "Maybe it's time I read 'Lord of the Rings'". Even taking into account that it is early and I'm craving a decent cup of coffee (something the size of a paint can sounds about right), what the hell is wrong with me? (shut up, Steve)

locke said...

Well, before I get tarred as "hating" Tolkien, I want to point out (as Steve no doubt would, if he wasn't busy chasing the ball), that prose and dialogue are only one part of a writer's appeal or a work's worth -- how LARGE a part is up to the individual reader's taste. I find, as I get older, that I have less and less tolerance for really thudding, tone-deaf, cliched prose. I like modern detective novels by folks like Lawrence Block, James Lee Burke, Pellicanos, and even Michael Connelly, but anymore, when I go to pick one up, it always takes me a chapter or two of tamping down my gag reflex before I get "used" to the prose style and settle into the story.

Sadly, it's becoming the same with Tolkien for me -- I just have to hold my nose a bit whenever I start re-reading the Sacred Texts.

BUT, my point is that there is SO much more than the prose and dialogue to love about LOTR -- one can argue that complaining about the prose is like complaining about the shape of the stones used in building the Great Pyramid -- it's the overall effect and purpose that is impressive and wonderful.

Still, what I was saying yesterday was that when you are handing LOTR over to someone who isn't pre-disposed to liking fantasy and has, in fact, perhaps avoided it all their reading lives BECAUSE they don't care for the genre's primary elements, Tolkien's prose becomes an early sticking point for them. They read a few pages and say "bah, this is exactly the sort of crap I feared it would be -- this is WHY I don't read 'this stuff'".

I fully understand WHAT about LOTR appeals to me and WHY, and yes, a LOT of it has to do with the age at which I discovered it. It's silly to hand LOTR to a 30-yr-old who's never read or really been that interested in fantasy and say 'here, read this -- you'll love it' and expect them to plug into it the way you once did.

Kevin Caron said...

I read Lord of the Rings for the first time just a few years ago.

I liked the prose.

I also liked the way Tolkien would pause in the telling of the quest to save life-as-we-know-it to describe the dew glistening on a particular bit of shrubbery.

Call me crazy.

beepy said...

Locke, I understand how much you love Tolkien. You did make that clear in your comments from yesterday. I think if I examined my bookshelves I would find examples of books I love whose writers have a hard time writing good prose. I just found it odd that your promise of bad prose made the book more attractive to me, not less. I'm generally in the prose-over-story camp. To give you an idea of my taste, one of my favorite authors is Henry James - not a master of the page turner. Give me an author who is master of both and I may just follow you into hell.

But I consider myself very good at the art of compartmentalising my reading based on what I want from it at the time. Sometimes I read just to hear a ripping good yarn and thus am not afraid to dip into the science fiction/fantasy waters. Thus, I see "Lord of the Rings" floating my way.

beepy said...

By the way, I've avoided seeing the movies just on the off chance that I might someday read the books. So it'll be all new to me.

Sam Sacks said...

Wow! Beepy, what lagoon have you been living in?

(Or do you think you somehow ignored the LOTR meteorite that smashed into the country a few years ago for reasons Elmo brings up--that the screaming commercial spectacle of it all (and the zillion end-caps you had to set up) turned you cold?)

Gianni said...

I don't remember Tolkien's attention to detail rivaling anything Herman Melville wrote, but maybe I need to go back and read them.

Jeff E. said...

"End-caps", eh? Look at Sam tossing around the retail jargon. I managed an end-capless retail store for years, and just recently read about end-caps for the first time in an article about Wal-Mart pushing fluorescent light bulbs onto the average American consumer.

My LOTR maneuver was to read all four volumes (yes, the Hobbit too) for the first time in October 2001, in preparation for the plainly awesome movie that was about to come out in December 2001 (and 2002 and 2003). Reading the books first has seemed like a very wise decision in hindsight.

beepy said...

I'm not sure where that lagoon was, Sam, but it sure was lonely.

Let me quickly sum up my Tolkienless life. As a teen, I read and enjoyed "The Hobbit". I started the first volume of LOTR and for some reason didn't get very far. (my shiny object comment from earlier seems as good a reason as any)

For many years, I had two very used mass market paperbacks on my bookshelves, and hoped to find the third to match. I can't even remember which two they were. Eventually I got rid of them and now have a pretty set done by Quality Paperback Book Club, as well as the big three volumes-in-one trade that came out around the time of the movies. From this information you should understand that I always meant to read them.

The only reason that I didn't go see the movies was that I wanted to read the books first. The only reason I didn't read the books was...oh, I don't know. Moon fever, maybe. The hype (and the endless end-caps) didn't really figure into it.

beepy said...

In preperation, I snuck into Steve's apartment and read his copy of "300". Don't tell.

Jeff E. said...


beepy said...

I just finished reading "Fluke" by Christopher Moore. He tells us that all killer whales are called Kevin. I know that is not the same as all Kevins being killer whales, but it has helped me form a mental image of our own Kevin when he's at home.

beepy said...

"In preperation, I snuck into Steve's apartment and read his copy of "300". Don't tell."

I, of course, meant "preparation"...or perhaps "pepper ration" but, really, I've got to go with what makes sense given the rest of the sentence.

Kevin Caron said...

According to this quiz, I'm more of a sea horse.

beepy said...

Oooo, goody, a quiz.

I'm apparently a crab. (Shut up, Steve!) Hard shell, soft inside, prefers to be alone and seems to follow rules. Who knew? I prefer to think of myself as having a soft outer skin and a hard underbelly, but what the heck.

In either case, I'm not turning in my manatee wings(flippers?)yet.

Greg said...

I'm an octapus......yay.

Sam Sacks said...

I'm also a sea horse. But the results we're likely skewed: I wanted to choose as a main trait "independance," but couldn't since that is not, in fact, a word. (Maybe a kind of dance?)

And what's with that Hitler gag? Geez, the people they let on the internet these days.

Jeff E. said...

I was also a crab, but I found the results quite oddly unrelated to my input. I put in things about being calm and thoughtful, and it was like, "You are a crab: outwardly mean, you don't like people; on inside you're overly sensitive."

Maybe I'm just being overly sensitive, but I just don't like those quiz-making people.

Sam Sacks said...

Still, this test was better than the personality test I took a couple years ago while, in a state of unemployed inebriation, I applied to work at Red Lobster.

They give you a scan-tron and a 100 question quiz. Each question is really just a one phrase character trait: "loves telling stories," "likes competition," "becomes easily stressed out," etc, and then you answer how strongly or weakly you affiliate with the trait. (Always, often, sometimes, rarely, never.)

I turned the quiz in, they sent it to be scored at the central office (probably in some lobster hub like Topeka), the results were faxed back, and I failed! That was it, interview over. I couldn't tell if I was supposed to be proud or embarrassed that I didn't have the personality to cut it as a Red Lobster waiter.

But I think everyone at this blog should stop at their local RL and take the test too. I want to know which of us WOULD advance to the second round of interviewing.

beepy said...

"Still, this test was better than the personality test I took a couple years ago while, in a state of unemployed inebriation, I applied to work at Red Lobster."

I'm laughing so hard that I think I've broken a rib.

beepy said...

Jeff - I think what sealed it for me was the question about the perfect job. So I like my home...sheesh.

beepy said...

Geez, Jeff, I just re-read the last sentence of your comment. There goes another rib.

You guys are good for my soul.

Jeff E. said...

Steve is going to be pretty excited about this: High School Musical 2

“It’s like ‘High School Musical’ on crack."

steve said...


locke said...

Wow. HSM 2! Someone at Disney is gonna get a big, fat promotion and raise for coming up with THAT idea!

I can just imagine the weekly staff meetings:

Boss Mouse: "Boy, this High School Musical is through the roof. The ratings, the sales of the soundtrack and dvds, the touring shows. If only there were some way to keep this money-printing machine going... Nothing? Anyone? No? Okay, let's move on and talk about those Lilo & Stich pilates dvds..."

beepy said...

From the High School Musical article:
"Ryan, one of the six lead characters (the one who sometimes wears a newsboy cap at a jaunty angle)."

This pretty much sums up the reason that I will never be as enthralled by High School Musical as Steve. That, and I'm not a big girl.