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NYT Reviews Reprise

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I have no idea how the editors of the New York Times decide what books to review and how prominently to feature those assessments. I’m particularly intrigued by the choices they make when they revist a book with multiple reviews. This week, the Times featured reviews from two books that caught my attention. In both instances, I’m wondering why they bothered.

In Sunday’s paper, Paul Gray weighs in with his review of Jay McInerney’s The Good Life. As you all know, I have been an unashamed McInerney fan for years and I enjoyed this new novel. However, Mr. Gray is nowhere near as enamored as I was. He writes that if McInerney had taken the ten years Norman Mailer suggested before writing about September 11th, then “with a little additional time for reflection, McInerney might have conceived a more resonant fictional use of the literal horrors in Lower Manhattan. Instead, he’s turned them into a Hitchcockian MacGuffin, a crowd-gathering catalyst to draw attention to the novel’s real subject, an oddly listless and unappealing adulterous affair.”

Gray then trots out the usual complaints about McInerney’s work. Too many celebrities, too many brand names, not enough substance.

One interesting side note… Gray criticizes the insider-nature of some of McInerney’s name dropping in the novel. “Salman” cancels his attendance at a dinner party while a film director reminesces about “Marty and Peter and the gang” in 1970’s Hollywood and other folks attend a book party at “Nan” and “Gay’s” townhouse. Gray writes that “Corrine and Luke apparently deserve attention because they move in circles that sometimes intersect with those of the famous, occasionally even those of the ultra-cool one-name variety.” His insinuation is that McInerney trades on this insider, elite membership to prove his point. But earlier in the review, Gray writes that Corrine “fiddles, on spec, with a screenplay.” During the course of the day, I asked no less then a dozen people, normal readers all, intelligent, thoughtful, but not professionally involved in publishing or film, if they knew what this meant. Not a single one of them knew what it means to write something “on spec.” Some were able to ultimately figure it out while we talked, others thought it meant to write something based “on the specifications” that you’ve been given. But it was hardly a commonly understood term. Which I thought was a little too insider-y.

Now, Gray’s review isn’t the first time the New York Times has examined The Good Life. Michiko Kakutani reviewed the novel almost three weeks ago. Kakutani was more mixed in her review, pointing out some positives along with the negatives, but she was far from smitten with the novel. But my query is, why have multiple folks voice basically the same opinions of a book? I could understand it if the Times presented radically different viewpoints to balance each other out. Equal time and all that. But why give voice to the same opinions on the same novels multiple times?

A second review reprise was Tom Shone’s review of Nick Laird’s Utterly Monkey. Shone applauds the book, calling it a “a boisterous caper that scampers from London to Ulster” and saying that Laird excels in “his vivid, off-the-cuff phrases.”

Utterly Monkey was first reviewed by Michiko Kakutani on January 6, a little more than six weeks ago. In fact, her rave review was precisely what pushed me to log off the computer, drive to the bookstore, and buy the novel. I bought the novel that very same day. Unfortunately, as you know, I was tremendously disappointed in the way the novel was executed. I wasn’t alone in that assessment. Publishers Weekly said the protagonists’ “aimlessness impedes the building of any narrative momentum, and the book’s climactic scene is as rushed as it is contrived. The novel is well intentioned, clever and occasionally quirky—but the whole feels like less than the sum of its parts.” Booklist argued that Laird’s “plot is overcrowded–including a bomb threat, a tepid sex scene, and a scatological incident readers best discover for themselves.” Metroactive cautioned “Warning! Don’t read half of this book, have a beer and go online to enthuse about it. Be sure to finished the second half, which falls apart like a $99 suit. You’ll lament your intemperate praise with bitter tears.”

To be fair, the novel does have a sizable fanbase, so all opinion is not negative. But why run a second, overwhelmingly positive review of the book in the New York Times? And why run it almost a month and a half later? This isn’t some huge cultural phenomenon that needs to be commented upon and this isn’t some runaway bestseller that continually attracts new fans. Why bother with the second review?

I’m going to see if I can talk to someone at the Times and try to learn how the review decisions are made. I’ll keep you updated if I find out anything.