Saturday, November 05, 2005

Another Kamiya piece from the first decade of Salon + Dwight Garner

Anthropologist Philippe Bourgois went deeper into America's crack culture than anyone before him.
Too deep.


America's moral wars grow harsh and increasingly cartoonlike. On the right, resentful moralists, oblivious to the shaping power of history, demand that individuals be held absolutely responsible for their actions. On what's left of the left, pious academics, oblivious to the fact that individuals also choose their fates, insist that societal oppression excuses criminality.

Shocking images from the inner city -- pregnant women smoking crack, murderous dealers flaunting their Mercedes, teenagers gunned down for a pair of shoes -- are constantly invoked by conservatives as evidence of moral pathology. Now an academic named Philippe Bourgois has decided to reclaim that terrain for the left, by going far more deeply into the brutal reality of the ghetto than his ideological opponents ever have. His "In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio" is a stunning piece of reporting that overturns the dogmas of left and right alike -- including, disconcertingly, those clung to by Bourgois himself.

Bourgois, an anthropologist at San Francisco State University, lived among Puerto Rican crack dealers in New York City's East Harlem for five years. He immersed himself utterly in his subject's lives, hanging with them in crackhouses, partying with them, grieving with them, celebrating with them, dodging the cops with them, earning their complete trust. From thousands of hours of taped conversations, Bourgois constructs a densely-textured documentary that affords unparalleled insights into the culture of the street.

There are terrible revelations here, offered casually in project staircases over snorts of coke and heroin; there are brief moments of joy and banal cruelty and boredom. Few passages in contemporary literature are as heartbreakingly pathetic as the scene in which one of Bourgois' main informants, Primo, talks about his son, whom he has largely abandoned. Such passages, almost cinematically vivid, give human faces to a demonized group, revealing the shallowness of the moral judgments we are so quick to pass. And by demonstrating how structural economic changes -- the disappearance of factory jobs and the concomitant growth of the service economy -- have slammed the door on the dreams of young males in the underclass, Bourgois demolishes the conservative myth that opportunity is equal for all Americans. He convincingly demonstrates that crack dealing is indeed a "rational career choice" for many ghetto youths.
Crisis in Critville:
Why you can't trust book reviews


In a tart and clear-eyed essay he titled "Confessions of a Book Reviewer," George Orwell once wrote that it is "almost impossible to mention books in bulk without grossly overpraising the great majority of them." And he added, perhaps unnecessarily: "Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are." More than 50 years later, have books gotten any better? Have reviewers? With Orwell's confessions in mind -- and before you flip open your local Sunday book section this week -- let's open the floor for a few questions.

1) If Orwell's thesis about critics "grossly overpraising" books is still true, how can I test it?

The next time you bump into a book critic at a party, ask what he or she has read in the past six months that's really blown their hair back, that they've really admired. Chances are they'll be stumped -- at least long enough for you to refill your drink -- even if they've written a heap of glowing reviews during that time. (In print, they purred about the new Edwidge Danticat or Thomas Beller book. In person, they get cagey.) I propose a new rule: Critics may only praise books they're willing to force their friends to read.

2) Can I trust book blurbs?

Are you kidding? One true story, among many: This writer once reviewed a moderately bad novel titled "No Regrets," by a woman named Fern Kupfer, for a national magazine. (Okay, it was the Village Voice.) I referred to Kupfer's novel, in what I then thought of as a nifty stab, as "the best example yet of what can only be called Vintage Contemporary Lite." (This was in the late '80s, when Vintage Contemporaries were in vogue.) When the paperback came out, I was blurbed thusly: "The best example yet of what can only be called vintage contemporary life." Small "v", small "c", no "Lite." Talk about Orwellian. Ask your local book critic for his or her horror stories.

3) Do critics try  to get blurbed?

Only those who are aspiring to be Joel Siegel or, on a somewhat loftier plane, Michiko Kakutani. But here's a game you can play: The next time you're in a bookstore in a major city, preferably New York, scan for the book critics hovering by the "new paperbacks" table. (Critics look just about how you'd expect them to look -- a little pale, a little paunchy, a little ink-stained wretchy.) No, they're not buying books. They get those for free. They're checking to see if their reviews are blurbed on the backs of new arrivals. If they are blurbed, critics worry they're becoming Gene Siskel. If they aren't, critics worry they're not on the map.

4) Why do I keep buying highly-praised books that turn out to really suck?

Three words: literary grade inflation. Critics read so much gray, mealy, well-intentioned schlock that anyone who is halfway readable -- T. Coraghessan Boyle! Barbara Kingsolver! Gish Jen! -- begins to seem like a Writer for the Ages. Another word: laziness. It's far easier to write a positive review than a negative one. (Think about the mash notes you've written. Now think of the break-up letters.) Certain plummy phrases -- "deeply-felt first novel," for instance, or "one of the best young writers of his/her generation" -- practically come pre-programmed on the junior reviewer's laptop. Dissent, on the other hand, requires a deft touch, a nice high style, and enough knowledge and vigor to make your opinions stick.

5) Are there any great, eagle-eyed, up-and-coming attack dogs out there?

Not really. Walter Kirn, the regular book columnist for New York magazine, isn't exactly a critical hero of mine, but he had a nice run going last year, grandly letting the air out of a whole pile of overpraised novels (including Cormac McCarthy's "The Crossing" and Howard Norman's "The Bird Artist"). You felt that, among the critics writing in the glossies anyway, Kirn was at least reviewing as if books really mattered. And Leon Wieseltier, while not exactly a young Turk, did a whole career's worth of heavy lifting when he lowered the boom on Cornel West's hazy phrasings in a New Republic cover story last year.

6) So, then, are there any reliable young critics I can hitch my reading to?

Nope, sorry. Kirn's fine for high, inside hardballs, and he's always a pleasure to read. But he's not remarkably erudite -- and he surely doesn't have the world of literature spinning in his palm the way, say, John Updike does. (Updike is, hands down, the most reliably probing critic currently writing for a popular audience.) Lit crit, sad to say, doesn't seem to be a real calling for young writers any longer. There are some bylines that are worth scanning the horizon for (Adam Begley in Lingua Franca and the New York Observer and Stacey D'Erasmo in the Village Voice are two that pop immediately to mind), but there's no critic with a regular forum who can summon up the passion or the influence that, say, Pauline Kael had during her tenure as film critic at the New Yorker. Nobody that gets people talking, and becomes a satellite that other critics can spin around and bounce off of. Maybe the potentially great book critics are out in the ether, writing music or film reviews. Or maybe what used to be called belles lettres simply aren't as valued as they once were. In today's literary culture, the authors of grindingly second-rate novels are far more revered than first-rate essayists. Wasn't always so.

7) Is the literary fame game rigged, as James Wolcott implied in his bruising Wall Street Journal review of the "The End of Alice," the new novel from that New York media darling A.M. Homes?

Not entirely, but probably more than you want to know. Anyone who's toiled at a women's magazine (I have, briefly) knows that it's far easier to pitch a novelist's new book if that novelist happens to wear a size 6 and look great in Anna Sui. Similarly, if Richard Avedon has ever happened to photograph you, even if you just wandered into the background of one of his street shots in the '60s, your chances of being profiled in The New Yorker are immediately doubled.

8) What's James Wolcott doing in the Wall Street Journal anyway? Isn't he a staffer at The New Yorker?

Wolcott -- probably the shrewdest and noisiest book critic alive during his stints at Harper's and Vanity Fair in the '80s -- has been a mere half-submerged tidal buoy at Tina Brown's New Yorker, where he's been relegated to the TV beat and appears only irregularly. When he does write about books for The New Yorker, you feel his sights have been limited somehow -- he can no longer blast those writers (and there are legions of them) who in some way dwell under The New Yorker's umbrella. Is someone going to start printing Free James Wolcott bumperstickers?

9) Should there be term limits for daily book critics?

Four years maximum, given the track record of the critics at the New York Times and most other dailies. Daily critics, with the Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley as a possible exception, have the half-life of snow tires. They calcify quickly. These days you can count on Michiko Kakutani to swat at anything (Phillip Roth, Nicholson Baker) that -- sexually, morally -- puts some sweat on her brow. And reading the Times' other critics, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and Richard Bernstein, it almost doesn't matter whether they're writing pro or con; the tone doesn't vary. (Their earnest, straight-on, eight-paragraphs-of-plot-summary prose is the equivalent of what used to be called, in football, "three yards and a cloud of dust.") No one's regularly throwing sparks. Anywhere.

10) So what's to be done?

We have the annual Day Without Art. We need the Year Without Book Reviews. It's time for critics to have their sorbet course, flitter for a while among the daffodils, cinch in their belts, and start all over again. We could all of us -- readers, writers, critics -- stand to shed a few blurbs.


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