BY MIKE BEEMAN
The New York Times has done it again. When Michiko Kakutani savaged Beatrice and Virgil in the Times‘s regular books section, I jokingly predicted that the paper would print a second, less harsh review within two weeks. Looks like I should have put this in writing, and bet Nico five dollars. Exactly two weeks later, Robert Hanks would have made me some money.
The Hanks write-up is more of a detailed summary than a review, and the analysis is limited to two pretty tepid sentences:
Although his ambition is admirable, the literary complexity and the simplicity of feeling Martel is aiming for don’t comfortably mesh. “Beatrice and Virgil” has its rewards, but the frustrations are what stick in the mind.
Contrast that with this from the Kakutani review:
Though Virgil and Beatrice are sweetly engaging characters, the play in which they appear remains a derivative recycling of Beckett, and Mr. Martel’s efforts to turn their tale into a kind of philosophical meditation on the Holocaust result in a botched and at times cringe-making fable.
…they are another awkward element in this disappointing and often perverse novel.
These shenanigans are all too common in the Times. Akin to what reviewer Garth Risk Hallberg dubbed “The Kakutani Two-Step,” this might be called the Sunday Switcheroo. I first noticed this with Kakutani’s savage review of Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, which she called a “tedious, overstuffed novel” full of “a lot of pompous hot air.”
Ten days later, in the Sunday Book Review, there was this glowing review, in which Gregory Cowles calls Chronic City “turbocharged,” “astonishing,” and “intricate and seamless.”
The old switcheroo!
Imagine these quotes next to each other on the dust jacket, and you’ll see the problem.
In both reviews, I agree with Kakutani more than the apology-review that follows. But I disagree with the practice. Readers look to influential reviews in the NYT, WSJ, PW, Chamberfour, etc., to find out if a book is good first and foremost. From time to time, certain books will be controversial and warrant reviews from those who both love and hate them. Lolita is such a book, as is American Psycho and, recently, Jonathon Little’s The Kindly Ones. These seem more like back-pedaling to undercut vitriolic reviews. Readers find Kakutani’s review in the regular Arts section, where she savages the successful author, and the second piece—by an unknown reviewer in the Sunday Book Review—weeks later. Which review are we supposed to believe?
Maybe issuing conflicting reviews is a NY Times policy, but it sure is confusing to readers (not to mention how confusing it must be for the authors…”They called my book “Intricate and seamless” and “a tedious, overstuffed novel?”).
But if it works for the New York Times, it may work for C4. In the days to come, you can look for favorable reviews to off-set our least favorite books. Sean will rave about Going Rogue. Nico will put up a post touting the value of the Amish-slice-of-life genre in Plain Pursuit. And Eric Markowsky, long missing in action, will come back from retirement to praise the works of Douglas Preston. Stay tuned!