A Few Words About Books, Book Reviews, and Literary Critics Who Need to Tone It the Heck Down

September 24, 2007, 1:07 pm

Now and again I get emails from people asking what I think of this book or that book, referring to items posted in the section to the left, Tenured Radical is Reading. I rarely comply, but never for the same reasons. As a matter of fact, since I am usually reading three or four books at the same time, the book that is posted is more or less a random pick from the pile on my bedside table (a pile that is also currently sporting a copy of Bitch magazine, the title of which intrigued me so much that I bought it on the spot at the natural foods store check out line.) But to date, I have reviewed only two books, one a more or less trivial but entertaining gay novel, and another a management book that helped me think about how to navigate my little world where – as a wise older colleague said to me the other day — “Several decades back there was a battle between the giants and the pygmies. And the pygmies won.” You can see how very helpful a management book can be in this situation. (Apologies to any actual pygmies who are readers and are offended by being deployed as a negative stereotype.)

But back to what I think of the books that I appear to be reading: I don’t think it is really fair to review someone’s book without an editor looking over your shoulder, except in the more or less descriptive ways that several blogs do — blogs whose purpose, God Bless them, is to let us know what we should be reading in their field. So that’s my general rule, but there are also particular issues that crop up that prevent me from reviewing books.

I didn’t review one book (even though I was urged to do so by several people) because I became so screamingly bored I had to stop reading it. I’m not even going to tell you what field it was in, because it is really mean to tell anyone –even someone really famous who makes a lot of money — that they have bored the pants right off you. And it’s even meaner to tell the entire blogosphere: it would be better just to drop the author a card. Too bad Hallmark doesn’t have a “Sorry! Hated your book!” or a “Better Luck Next Time!” line available in the local CVS.

I didn’t review Walter Benn Michaels’ new book, The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality because I hate the title; the premise is false and intended only to sell books because people like me have to read it and a lot of other white people have been waiting to discover a good reason to stop talking about queers and colored people, even though they have no intention of talking about class; and Walter Benn Michaels clearly never talks to people who work in the fields of feminism or critical race studies who think about class constantly (can we say “intersectionality?”), or if he does, he doesn’t listen to what they say. I would say it is the kind of book that could just make you hate academics, but it isn’t actually very academic. There are countless factual errors, large and small, and the book is entirely driven by an “if – then” style of argumentation that relies on these false, partial or inaccurate facts. It also relies on an extraordinarily partial reading of a period of American history that Michaels either doesn’t care about or doesn’t know well. Thus, I realized that it would be a lot like swimming in quickmud to even try to review it. See? That wasn’t a review. It was a rant. Just like the book. But if you want to rant, you should probably blog, not write a book.

What is it, by the way, with these big shot scholars, most of whom seem to live in Chicago, that they are so into writing polemics nowadays?

Back to more pleasant topics. I am reading and enjoying the book currently posted, Ed White’s novel about Stephen Crane, The Hotel de Dream, because I have read every book White has ever written. In addition, I have been invited to the book party — or a book party, I should say, since I’m sure this is one of several — and as it is a short novel, it seems like the least I can do is read the book, even though time to read is in short supply this week. But I won’t review it. Just as I think it is arrogant of Walter Benn Michaels to think he can write history literally off the top of his head, it would be arrogant for me to review a novel off the top of my head. Right? Right.

By the way, speaking of books, of which (like the rest of you) I own a great many: I bought a new wallet this weekend, and in transferring objects from the old wallet, I discovered that I actually have nine library cards, four of which have been issued by the federal government. How funny is that? I’m thinking they might need a wallet of their very own, maybe with a little folding money to pay the fines I inevitably incur when I forget to return the books and persistently ignore the emails telling me they are due.

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