William T. Vollmann and the Principles of Review

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I did not appreciate William T. Vollmann’s review of Anthony Swofford’s Exit A in the New York Times Book Review yesterday. It’s not that I believe he was wrong about the strengths of Swofford’s first book, Jarhead, or even that he was wrong about the weaknesses of Swofford’s first novel Exit A. It’s because I found the tone of the review to be excessively harsh for a first novel. In my Manual of Book Reviewing Principles (yes, I just made that up), I think it’s necessary to reserve different level of harshness for authors in various stages of their careers. For a literary great, if a no-holds-barred takedown is necessary, then so be it. The same goes for a mid-career author, perhaps with employing a pinch more carefulness. But a first time novelist (Jarhead was nonfiction) should be handled with kid gloves. Of course there are flaws in the novel, and Vollmann does the reader a service by pointing out how serious they are, but few first novelists come out of the gate at a sprint (If they do, they are often feted for it). More often, it does take a few novels, as Vollmann points out at the end of the article, to achieve a measure of literary competence, much less greatness.

Now I don’t mean that a review of Swofford should be saccharine or cloyingly nice or even avoid saying harsh things. I appreciate a bad review because it tells me not to buy the book (as well as performing the pedagogical task of judging and analyzing types of literary flaws). And since Vollmann obviously didn’t like Exit A, I don’t mean that he should write empty praises. But his review, through and through, is ruthlessly demeaning (other than the compliments he pays to Jarhead). It’s a scarring, eviscerating, decapitation. I think there is some way to express a strong dislike for a novel without a employing such a harsh tone. Ultimately, it’s not the content of his complaints that bothers me as much as the dismissive tone in which it is conveyed.

I do appreciate the match-up: Well-established author reviewing beginning author. What I appreciate less is the obverse: beginning author reviewing established author. But both of these unequal match-ups can have their flaws. For the beginning author who is reviewing an established author, the danger is that the beginner critiques the wrong things, misses the point. For the well-established author reviewing the beginning author, the danger is that the review comes from such a high place (with a retrousse nose) that the review feels dismissive.

Vollmann says he "hate[s] to write reviews like this." I believe him. I believe that he was compelled by the poor execution of the prose and the flat characters to deliver a verdict that characterizes the novel as poor quality. But the way and extent to which he did it made first time novelists everywhere cringe over their computers.

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  1. Vollmann isn’t one to talk — or write. His first paragraph contains a grammatical error; and his last paragraph contains a simile that makes no sense: “a four-leaf clover in Astroturf?” It’s nice to know that such sloppy writing slips by the copy editors’ eyes at the Times.

  2. Michael, the full simile is:

    Interesting sentences can in fact be found in “Exit A,” but they are as rare as four-leaf clovers in a field of Astroturf.

    I’d offer that this simile makes perfect sense, as a simile, and is actually sort of funny.

  3. Hello Mr. Fox,

    I agree with everything you said in your blog about
    Vollmann’s review of the Swofford novel. In fact, I
    got into a great cross-continental argument about thatvery review with a book-reviewing friend of mine in New York.

    Vollmann writes as though Swofford has committed some kind of crime, which is hardly the case. Your analysis of the inappropriate tone is quite correct.

    All the best,