Useless book reviews in the FT

by Maria on June 14, 2011

My weekly treat of the Saturday FT is becoming less and less something to look forward to. It’s not just that the fashion shoots are as gauche as those of newspapers everywhere, or that the odious ‘How to Spend It’ bizarrely channels a middle class aspiring to be hot Russian money in London. Nor that Mrs Moneypenny has irrevocably (i.e. on television) revealed herself as a bit of an empty vessel. Nor, even, that my beloved Secret Agent is running out of things to say about the property-acquiring super rich. (I guiltily admit I loved him more when he was melancholy, and still daydream of fixing him up with a friend.) No, my ability to pleasurably drag out the reading for more than an hour is vexed by the increasingly uninsightful and plain old poor value for money that has begun to mark the fiction reviews.

The increasing Americanisation of the FT now has writers review books by their brothers and sisters in arms. The British tradition of publishing book reviews by people who are real-life critics and not part-time cheer leaders and quarterbacks may be nasty, discomfiting and sometimes unfair to writers – and for this I blame editors – but it gives a reader a much clearer view of the essential question; ‘Is it any good?’. I imagine it’s also costing unsung book reviewers their living as money is thrown at superstar writers at the top of the pile.

Case in point: this week’s review by Annie Proulx of a novel, ‘Irma Voth’, by Miriam Toews. Without the name recognition of Proulx, it’s hard to imagine the review being published anywhere except, perhaps, a town newspaper wishing to fill up space and appear cultural by inviting the doyenne of the local book club to write a little something. Proulx dedicates 800 of her 1000 words to describing the plot of the novel from beginning to end; 800 tedious words of ‘this happens and then that happens’, and then a final 50 to more helpfully add that Irma Voth is a parable of redemption with a decent pay-off. It’s just not a very good piece, and yet it is given star treatment.

Proulx’ review occupies the most prominent real estate in the sadly pared back FT book review section, and has an apparently custom-ordered illustration to go with it. The picture alone takes up the same amount of space on the page as 6 of the mini-reviews that comprise the meat of the section. What a waste of space! The books editor may have imagined a gloriously co-branded vista, with the joint intellectual capital of Proulx and the FT expanding geometrically as far as the eye can see. What’s ended up on the page is a colossally wasteful exercise in winner-takes-all back-scratching that is unworthy of either party.

Which is not to say writers don’t have anything interesting to say about books. (And Lionel Shriver’s reviews for the FT are much better than those of Proulx.) Where would the LRB be without writers talking to and about other writers? However, a weekend book review section is for readers, and editors booking puff pieces from rock stars to add to squeezed book sections the illusion of mass would do well to remember this.

{ 46 comments }

1

imajoebob 06.14.11 at 2:15 pm

And I started reading this “review” with much anticipation, too. But as soon as you decided to claim the new “style” of inanity and ignorance in British newspapers must be “Americanisation” I knew that this post was going to be as bad or worse than everything you were complaining about.

What you don’t like is the vested interests created and promoted by the cross-ownership of media. While that’s also a problem in The States, it is actually more of a British born and bred behaviour. We used to have strong rules against such conflicts and concentrations in the US, but the “successes” fostered by the corrupt business-friendly Thatcher administration were foisted on us by her boyfriend Reagan (if Maggie told Ronnie the sky was purple he would have changed the colors of the flag to match). That it’s come home to roost in the FT should be no surprise, since they’ve owned Penguin for forty years.

“Corporatisation” is the applicable term, and if it wasn’t invented by the Brits, they certainly perfected it.

2

David Moles 06.14.11 at 2:56 pm

@imajoebob “What you don’t like is…”

Hmm, what I thought Maria didn’t like was lengthy badly-written reviews by famous authors taking space away from insightful and useful reviews by actual critics. How far did you read past the sentence that convinced you there could be no thing worse in itself than Maria’s post about that thing?

3

Henry 06.14.11 at 3:18 pm

As a general rule, I find that the jobbing book interviews that they sometimes run next to the editorial page in weekday editions are much better than the ones in the weekend supplement. They’re by staff, and sometimes the common prejudices of the FT are just a little _too_ prominent, but they often cover books that would never get reviewed in any other major newspaper (academic books with an interesting twist etc).

David – threadjacking a bit – I’ve been meaning to say somewhere how much I liked “A Soldier of the City.” A really great short story – the economy with which you depict the main setting and hint at a future trajectory is admirable. Looking forward to when that novel mss hits the presses …

4

Chris Bertram 06.14.11 at 3:22 pm

Coincidentally, I just moaned on FB and twitter about Paul Scheffer’s _Immigrant Nations_ which I ordered on the strength of an FT review. The book is full of selective evidence and assertion and almost every page seems to have some heavily ironic rhetorical question appealing to the basest instincts of the reader. The FT review was by David Goodhart, who is ideologically aligned with Scheffer. I thought I’d better read it though, hoping (on the basis of the review) that I’d face some tough arguments from people I disagree with that I’d have to think hard about. Nope. (The best bit of the book so far is the cover, which is Saul Leiter’s Snow, New York, 1960 – not that you’d know that from the book, because the publishers, Polity, have failed to give attribution.)

5

bert 06.14.11 at 3:38 pm

The problems of British newspapers — opinionated proprietors, differentiation by political and social tribe, intensely competitive markets, editorial standards compromised by commercial interests — are longstanding. The best source is probably still Scoop (published 1938). If you want to make a comparison with America — and imajoebob is clearly keen to — I’d say these features are most obvious in the area of TV news.

Turn the comparison around, and compare British TV news with American newspapers, and again you find factors in common. The BBC aspires to impartiality, and manages in some nontrivial sense to define the boundaries of what audiences find acceptable. Sky News is frequently crass, but exists in a different universe from Fox. They are subject to regulation, of course, but what governs their behaviour is a knowledge of how much overt bias the market will tolerate. This is not a constraint the editor of the Sun has ever struggled with. Similarly, the New York Times sets famously lofty standards, which account for the greyness of the Grey Lady. In doing so, they have managed, at least historically, to set some kind of tone.

6

bert 06.14.11 at 3:48 pm

For what it’s worth, I’d say the FT is the only serious newspaper in Britain. This is because it delivers readers to its advertisers by means of financial data and analysis, which has given it slightly more freedom on its editorial line.
You’re absolutely right though that the Saturday edition comes wrapped around the offputting turd of How To Spend It, in which advertisers compete to exploit the status anxieties of City workers and their grasping wives.

7

Chris Bertram 06.14.11 at 4:05 pm

How to Spend It only appears about once a month.

8

bert 06.14.11 at 4:08 pm

I tend to leave it behind in the newsagent.

9

Metatone 06.14.11 at 6:02 pm

It’s worth noting that both the Economist and FT have changed markedly within the last 10 years – and that change coincides with a big marketing push from both publications to broaden their readership in the US.

Correlation is not causation, but it can alert us to causation.

10

Maria 06.14.11 at 6:10 pm

Indeed, Metatone. It’s a shame, as both publications have lost their distinctive and pungent qualities as they second guess what they think American readers will like.

As to what I don’t like / think I don’t like / don’t think I don’t like, David Moles has it!

11

tadhgin 06.14.11 at 8:22 pm

Is the difference between the FT and the Economist not that the FT is the paper of choice among the European elite, while the Economist strives to (and somewhat succedes in) acting as a signaling mechanism for a certain US audience. This results in a difference in tone between the two publications.

12

eilis 06.14.11 at 10:54 pm

Don’t / haven’t ever read the FT – but is that style of writer-on-writer reviewing not what makes the Guardian’s Saturday Review section? Which is fantastic, I think?

Is FT’s style different?

13

vivian 06.15.11 at 12:45 am

My favorite Saturday treat is Ta-Nehisi Coates. It means staying away all week, but the writing is stellar, the book reviews are wonderful, etc. The Economist started going American in the mid-nineties, though it seems not to have hit bottom yet. Never got the FT habit, fortunately it sounds like.

14

bert 06.15.11 at 1:11 am

The Economist started going American in the mid-nineties, though it seems not to have hit bottom yet.

Parts of it are still relatively unaffected, and don’t require a decoder ring. The rot set in earliest and most obviously in its American coverage. The current editor ran the America section for a good chunk of that time. He wrote books called The Right Nation and God Is Back. No reviews necessary: the titles are all you need. With all that said, there’s a case to be made for the Economist’s approach of running book reviews without any byline at all.

15

David Moles 06.15.11 at 5:09 am

@Henry — Thanks! I’m delighted to hear you enjoyed the story. I’ve got roped into another anthology this summer and that’s taking time away from novel revisions, but I hope to get back to it soon.

16

Phil 06.15.11 at 7:26 am

is that style of writer-on-writer reviewing not what makes the Guardian’s Saturday Review section? Which is fantastic, I think?

‘Mostly unreadable’, I think, but de gustibus.

Parts of it are still relatively unaffected, and don’t require a decoder ring. The rot set in earliest and most obviously in its American coverage.

Guvatf ner jbefr guna V gubhtug!

17

Jonathan 06.15.11 at 9:02 am

Back-scratching in book reviewing has plagued British papers for many years (see, as they say, Private Eye passim) so that it is often hard to tell whether a book is any good. I am wary of making definitive claims about about trends (qualities expanded their book review sections compared to the 1980s but they now seem to be falling back) or particular publications – I don’t share Maria’s enthusiasm for Lionel Shriver, but never mind. With the Saturday Guardian at it’s best it’s very good but often employs reviewers with no obvious competence – e.g. solipsist columnist William Leith reviewing Paul Krugman, English literature dons like Terry Eagleton apparently being qualified to write on just about anything. And don’t get me started on how the notionally pr0gressive Guardian and New Statesman use John Gray as a reviewer.

18

Maria 06.15.11 at 1:43 pm

Vivian, how disciplined of you to wait till the weekend to enjoy Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog. I lost the will this morning and spent a good hour on it.

Jonathan, I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m enthusiastic about Lionel Shriver’s reviews. The last couple I’ve found very writerly. But when I picked up Proulx’ one, Shriver’s suddenly seemed a lot better in retrospect.

Interesting points all round, though. The trend I’m seeing is maybe less of a trend and more of an observation.

19

Steve Williams 06.15.11 at 3:44 pm

‘I don’t share Maria’s enthusiasm for Lionel Shriver . . .’

I’ll say. As if ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ wasn’t bad enough – and it was! – here’s Lionel with her submission on public intellectuals:

‘I guess I understand a public intellectual to be somebody who moves public discourse forward. Someone who either says something new or says something that everybody knows to be true but is afraid to express.’

‘One of the people I would consider a public intellectual, for example, is David Coleman. He’s a demographer. And he’s written some very brave analysis [sic] of immigration to Britain. Some of his ideas are growing more acceptable to give voice to: asking the hard questions about what is a country, what is a culture? And he was writing about [sic] this kind of material when multiculturalism was all the rage.’

So when asked about ‘public intellectuals’, she voluntarily gave a shoutout to a leader of deeply xenophobic right-wing pressure group who campaign against immigration, who is coincidentally a prominent member of the Galton Institute, and then had a quick bash at multiculturalism while she was at it. What an iconoclast!

20

roac 06.15.11 at 3:55 pm

Back-scratching in book reviewing has plagued British papers for many years

At least since 1872, when Trollope wrote about it in The Way We Live Now.

21

Myles 06.15.11 at 4:22 pm

Is the difference between the FT and the Economist not that the FT is the paper of choice among the European elite, while the Economist strives to (and somewhat succedes in) acting as a signaling mechanism for a certain US audience.

I think the Economist is extremely efficient if you look at its opinions not as valuable intrinsically, but as advisory items to people with money on the line. So, for example, they give the entirely sound advice of putting no money in Kirchner’s Argentina, while investing in Lula’s Brazil. I do think their anti-Berlusconi campaign has jumped the sharp, though. In any case, the Economist is tremendously popular in the rest of the world too, outside of Europe.

You’re absolutely right though that the Saturday edition comes wrapped around the offputting turd of How To Spend It, in which advertisers compete to exploit the status anxieties of City workers and their grasping wives.

People who are complaining about How To Spend It are missing the fact that it is actually objectively the best lifestyle insert among all English-language newspapers.

22

Phil 06.15.11 at 10:34 pm

One of the people I would consider a public intellectual, for example, is David Coleman.

Quite extraordinary.

23

Phil 06.15.11 at 10:44 pm

I do think their anti-Berlusconi campaign has jumped the sharp, though

In what sense? I quite liked the latest instalment – which is more anti-everything that’s wrong with Italy than anti-B specifically – and I think they’re going to turn out to have been right all along very soon, possibly by this time next week.

24

Bloix 06.15.11 at 11:01 pm

Myles, it’s “jump the shark.” Google it.

25

Helen 06.15.11 at 11:19 pm

in which advertisers compete to exploit the status anxieties of City workers and their grasping wives.

So even on this blog, in 2011, it is assumed that a City worker will be a man and the “wife” will spend the money? How very Mad Men of you.

26

bert 06.15.11 at 11:46 pm

Are you telling me the City isn’t male dominated?
Seems you are. I’m sure you don’t mean to.
There’s a difference between what one would like to be the case and what actually is the case.

27

bert 06.15.11 at 11:51 pm

I’m also not suggesting the wife spends it. The advertising in How To Spend It divides evenly between ludicrous knobbly watches and jewellery.
Both have their status anxieties, as I think you’ll find I said.

28

bert 06.15.11 at 11:58 pm

29

des von bladet 06.16.11 at 8:23 am

FACT: The Serious Elite Media — the Doshbladet (“FT”), the Dismalbladet (“Economiste”) and local equivalents elsewhere (here, NRC Handelsblad) — are firmly in the grip of Big Chronometry, a sinister cabal of steampunk entryistes.

30

ajay 06.16.11 at 8:27 am

So even on this blog, in 2011, it is assumed that a City worker will be a man

… you haven’t ever worked in the City, have you?

31

ajay 06.16.11 at 8:29 am

the Serious Elite Media—the Doshbladet (“FT”), the Dismalbladet (“Economiste”) and local equivalents elsewhere

I like this system of classification.
The Scotsman, or Jockbladet
The Independent, or Skintbladet
The Daily Telegraph, or Tweedbladet

32

Chris Bertram 06.16.11 at 8:45 am

What happens when How To Spend It features something moderately attainable and wearable (I love this letter):

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/0a391eca-bd3f-11df-954b-00144feab49a,s01=1.html

33

sg 06.16.11 at 9:25 am

bert, wtf else are you suggesting with the misogynist phrase “their grasping wives”?

34

bert 06.16.11 at 10:35 am

wtf else are you suggesting with the misogynist phrase “their grasping wives”?

My contempt for a well-defined group.
I appreciate you putting in the time to do a volunteer shift on language patrol, though. Keeps everyone on their toes.

35

ajay 06.16.11 at 11:09 am

32 is great.

One of the people I would consider a public intellectual, for example, is David Coleman.

I was incredibly disappointed to find that this was the demographer and not the fons et origo of Colemanballs.

36

Andy 06.16.11 at 12:28 pm

How To Spend It is great if read as a work of comic sociology.

37

Phil 06.16.11 at 1:20 pm

#32 is paywalled, and I did the Coleman gag at #22. H’mph.

38

Tim Wilkinson 06.16.11 at 1:45 pm

Not a paywall – just registration, which is worth it to get some halfway decent news stories.

39

bert 06.16.11 at 2:17 pm

Chris is right. It’s beautifully put.
I hope I’m not infringing somehow. If I am, delete this of course:

From Ms Emily Brearley.

Sir, Unlike many of your readers during and post the financial crisis, I have never found your magazine How To Spend It either ridiculous or offensive, because I knew better than to be offended by the illusory.

I’m a working-class girl made good through sheer hard work and determination. And though I’m a poor PhD student, and my chosen career in development will never make me rich, I never cared.

I knew that the sparkling things in your magazine would never make me happy. I knew that what really counts is intellectual discovery, good friends, a supportive family and good music.

But then you had to go and present Back to Glamour – six pages of fashion heaven (September 4). Normally your fashion pages consist of bored-looking stick insects wearing utterly unattractive and impractical clothes. But this time the garments were glorious, feminine and thoroughly wearable.

Suddenly I thought, damn it! I would look great in those outfits! My life really would be better if I could just have that delicious Louis Vuitton wool bustier (even if I wore it in the library).

Please could you go back to featuring ridiculously expensive, ostentatious and ultimately ugly items in your magazine – it would make me feel so much better.

Emily Brearley,

Johns Hopkins University,

Washington, DC, US

40

roac 06.16.11 at 2:25 pm

But The Hopkins is in Baltimore! Though Ms. Brearley could not improbably be commuting from DC.

41

bert 06.16.11 at 7:41 pm

Phil @#22, Ajay @#35:
Never mind David Coleman.
I think Jonathan at #17 is being unduly hard on John Gray.
I found Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus to be profound, insightful and deeply moving. (Some commenters may have known this already without being told.)

42

David 06.17.11 at 6:28 am

How can you spend 41 comments beating up on HTSI without once mentioning David Tang’s column towards the end of House & Home?

43

Jonathan 06.17.11 at 12:55 pm

bert@#41 – kicking myself now for missing that one.

44

Jun 06.20.11 at 2:01 am

I’ve been following FT’s book review section since the mid-80′s, and sense that it has somehow gone down hill. I don’t know the reasons. Maybe it’s just that I got older and became more finicky. In which case, I guess it’s one of the sad side-effects of ageing.

How to Spend It is so outrageously extravagant and ostentatious that it almost seems like life on another planet. Envy and covetousness don’t come into play when something’s so far out. I don’t care much for its fashion shoots, which strangely seem so un-sexy, but the rest are quite enjoyable; I always read the last page. My sister, a humble school teacher, is very much into it and I give her a copy whenever I’m finished with it.

45

Doctor Slack 06.21.11 at 4:40 am

I can’t take issue with the general point that it’s way awkward to have writers reviewing books by fellow writers, nor am I particularly going to take issue with the specific criticism of Proulx’s review as being lacklustre. It might well be. Nevertheless, this:

Without the name recognition of Proulx, it’s hard to imagine the review being published anywhere except, perhaps, a town newspaper wishing to fill up space and appear cultural by inviting the doyenne of the local book club to write a little something.

The apparent implication that Toews — a Governor General’s Award-winning author with at least one bestseller to her credit — would be for some reason unworthy of attention outside of whatever obscure tundra-bound slum she’s presumed to hail from without Proulx’ name recognition is… well, what?

I mean, it may be a worthy criticism of the FT’s editorial staff that they thought Proulx was needed to do the review. Or it could be (more likely) that Proulx pitched them the idea of bigging up whatever writer she’s big on at the moment, and they accepted, and you can criticize them for that. Either of those positions would be understandable. But blathering as though Toews ought to be some sort of nonentity outside the pages of her podunk local rag is ignorant in a way that directly undermines the credibility of your commentary on the diminished state of book reviewing in the FT.

46

Substance McGravitas 06.21.11 at 5:34 am

But blathering as though Toews ought to be some sort of nonentity outside the pages of her podunk local rag

I read Maria literally here: the review itself, written by Proulx, is bad. I don’t see it as an attack on Toews.

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