The specter of incivility, currently threatening so much of our media and other shared culture, seems recently to be making alarming inroads in the pages of the New York Times Book Review. Last week, there was this in Clive James’s review of Elias Canetti’s Party in the Blitz:
The translator, Michael Hofmann, has found all the right English words for the wartime detail: the V1 was not a rocket, but that mistake was probably in the original text, whose comparative brevity should be taken, I think, as its chief virtue. We are fortunate that there is no more of it, lest we start wondering whether Canetti should not have received another Nobel Prize, for being the biggest twerp of the 20th century. But a twerp must be at least partly stupid, and Canetti wasn’t even a little bit that.
Instead, he was a particularly bright egomaniac, and this book, written when his governing mechanisms were falling to bits, simply shows the limitless reserves of envy and recrimination that had always powered his aloofness. The mystery blows apart, and spatters the reader with scraps and tatters of an artificial superiority.
This week, there’s this in Bryan Burrough’s review of Simon Winchester’s A Crack in the Edge of the World:
Me, I hated it. I wanted to drop-kick this book across the backyard. If Doris Kearns Goodwin or David McCullough can lay claim to being the Miles Davis of popular history, Winchester is becoming the Kenny G.
And also this week, in P. J. O’Rourke’s review of Leslie Savan’s Slam Dunks and No-Brainers, we find this:
And Savan writes that “exactly when cool jelled into the word we know today is difficult to say.” It is not difficult to say upon looking into The Oxford English Dictionary. “Assured and unabashed in demeanor . . . calmly and deliberately audacious or impudent” dates to the 1820’s. But the O.E.D. is not in Savan’s bibliography, which contains “Jones, Gerard. ‘Honey, I’m Home!: Sitcoms: Selling the American Dream'” and “Moore, Michael. ‘Dude, Where’s My Country?'”
Though these insults are witty and well-formed (and they and quips like them make for an amusing recounting in Gawker‘s “Reading About Reading” feature the following week), they really are no more than insults. As Gawker has diligently documented, the Book Review has become more and more like a middlebrow literary exercise in Crossfire style ridicule and riposte. (See? This insult thing is contagious.) The fact that, unlike with other types of reviews, the reviewer and the reviewed often exchanged roles probably helped (a few notable feuds aside) to maintain a certain level of decorum until recently. But once the balance tipped away from decorum, things seem instead to be playing out as the annihilating denouement of a failed arrangement of mutually assured destruction (as those few feuds had already suggested was possible).
But why has this happened just now? The easy answer is that for whatever reason (the lack of mainstream blood sports, public executions, and the like; the growing disconnection between our opinions and the evidence of their consequences; or a societal affluence that grants us the leisure to indulge in such nonsense), the media audience seems to really enjoy watching people insult and degrade each other. And as a visit to most interactive forums on the Internet shows, a significant portion of that audience seems to enjoy participating whenever they get a chance. That the more popular and populist media is willing to serve that appetite isn’t surprising, but why is the New York Times Book Review succumbing to this impulse?
My guess is that it’s the indirect result of another decision the Times made. Almost two years ago, there was a shift in the editorial policy of the Book Review. The editors decided to “skew” it toward non-fiction. As Bill Keller explained, “The most compelling ideas tend to be in the non-fiction world. Because we are a newspaper, we should be more skewed toward non-fiction.” That may be true, as far as it goes, but it suggests a subtle yet significant change behind in perspective. The contention over ideas had traditionally been the purview of the op-ed page, while the Book Review had been (I naively believed) about the craft of writing. With this change, the line between the op-ed page and the Book Review has become blurred, and I can no longer spend my weekends reading the Book Review in hopes of doing something so quaint as trying to decide which books I’d like to read. Simply put, the New York Times Book Review has surrendered its aesthetic perspective, going from equanimous observer to attached participant. That seems a loss to me.