Saturday, December 26, 2009

Who will buy?

As you know, when my subscription ran out at the end of 2007, The New Yorker and I took a break from our relationship for a while. We had grown apart. It was for the best. But I got a new subscription as a birthday gift, so we're back in touch, and I'm pleased to say I'm in a much healthier place now. I don't feel pressured to read every page. It's not scripture, for heaven's sake, it's a magazine. So I've learned to skip the things I know I won't like, and spend my precious magazine-reading subway time on the articles I'll find satisfying. Nowadays that means I spend most of my time on the feature articles, and of course the Hertzberg (or Packer) editorials at the front of "Talk of the Town." Otherwise the "Talk of the Town" shtick has gotten a little stale for me, so I tend to breeze through those quickly. If "Shouts & Murmurs" is half-baked or underwritten, as it so often is, I move along rather than brooding over the lost opportunity. I try to read the "financial page" -- I usually learn something -- and there is almost always at least one feature article to savor. (The most recent issue was an exception, for me, but I expect to be bored by the "theme" issues.)

And then there's the critical reviews, which used to be my favorite part. Alas, I'm afraid the thrill is pretty much gone. You already know about my disenchantment with The New Yorker's theatre coverage: I learned some time ago that one shouldn't read John Lahr before seeing the show he's reviewing, because he writes as though his readers will never see the show under discussion -- he repeats all the best jokes and always spoils the ending. But since his West Side Story rave he's been downgraded from "Don't read till after I see the show" to "Don't bother reading at all." And as you know, Hilton Als was already in my "Don't bother" column. When it comes to movies, I had more patience with David Denby than some, but I lost it when he published Snark. That just leaves Anthony Lane, and I still read (or at least skim) his stuff, but it's not the scintillating experience it once was. The guy needs a long vacation.

Alex Ross and Sasha Frere-Jones are still a good read (provided I care enough about whatever music they're covering). I used to admire Nancy Franklin's offhand style, but it's been a long time since I thought she actually delivered the goods in her TV column. And the last issue of The New Yorker reminded me of one more source of dissatisfaction: Joan Acocella.
I never liked her critical essays, and absence has not made my heart grow fonder. A lack of interest in dance is one of my personal character flaws, so I can't really comment on the quality of her insights into that art form -- all I know is, I never make it to the end of those reviews. But when it comes to books, a subject in which I am interested, I find her criticism disappointingly drab from every angle. This is the first sentence of her December 21-28, 2009, review of Peter Ackroyd's "retelling" of The Canterbury Tales:
The received wisdom on Geoffrey Chaucer is that he was the freshest, clearest, and sweetest of the great English poets -- which makes sense, since, living in the fourteenth century, he was also the first great English poet.
Does that make sense? I'm not at all sure it does. Does it make you want to read on? I'm sure it doesn't. I did, though, because I am interested in Chaucer and intrigued by this project. And when Acocella finally gets around to evaluating Ackroyd's project (very late in the day, as per New Yorker book review custom), her judgments seem very sound: she dislikes it, just as I'm certain I would, and for all the right reasons. But the essay stretches across six pages, and most of it is a very dull introduction to Chaucer. Sample observation: "With scatology Chaucer is equally blunt. How he loves fart jokes!" I know The New Yorker can't always be enlightening, but I expect it to at least be clever. This review strikes out on both counts.

It was always my impression that Acocella wrote about literature like a dance critic. (E.g., I don't know if you've heard of Chaucer, but he was a poet, and he wrote these stories, and many of them are quite ribald!) Now, though, I'm not sure. A dance critic should at least get stage-related references right. So what to make of this?
When [Chaucer] woke up in the morning, the [2004] biography [by Ackroyd] tells us, he could see and hear from his window the merchants arriving from the farms outside London, and the hawkers advertising their wares: "Twelve herrings for a penny! Hot pies!" (This sounds a little like the opening of Oliver!, but it is probably true.)
The reference to Oliver! is as flat and empty as any other comparison in the essay (wrong century, for one thing), and the "it is probably true" observation is typically useless. (Is it? Thanks.) But the reason this jumped out at me, as you musical-theatre geeks have already guessed, is that Acocella has her musical numbers mixed up. She seems to be thinking of "Who Will Buy?" -- the number in which vendors dance and sing outside Oliver's window on a sunny morning. But that song happens near the beginning of Act Two, when Oliver has been transplanted to Mr. Brownlow's comfortable London home. Let's turn to Wikipedia's synopsis for a description of the actual opening of Oliver!:
The musical opens in the workhouse, as the half-starved orphan boys are entering the enormous lunchroom for dinner ("Food Glorious Food"). They are fed only gruel.
Kind of a famous scene -- and pretty much the opposite of what Acocella had in mind. Is this a major error? In the scheme of things, no. But here are some questions for the editor: Why mention Oliver! at all? And if you're going to let the reference stand, why get the details wrong? And if you're going to get the details wrong, why am I reading six pages' worth of this critic's thoughts on Chaucer?


Amy Wilson said...

"it's not scripture." tee hee.

Sarah D. Bunting said...

I have it on good authority that Nancy Franklin does not watch very much TV, reads nothing in the field, and spends the bulk of press tour asking other critics what she should think about the myriad mainstream shows she doesn't bother with. I used to find this somewhat sad, in the same vein as the NYTimes's coverage of the internet ("weblogs, also known as 'blogs'"), but at a time when print crit is fast going the way of the ditto machine and every job is hotly contested, the fact that she still draws a paycheck for her stale secondhand thoughts on TV is kind of shocking.

Mollie said...

I wish I had a hard time believing that! When I first started reading NF, I sort of enjoyed her style, and I guess I blamed the out-of-touchness on the venue. It seemed so like the New Yorker to not get around to noticing a TV show (like, say, Arrested Development) until it had been written about absolutely everywhere else, and then not acknowledge the oversight when they did finally get pay attention. (Yes, we're writing about this show for the first time after the season has ended. Doesn't everyone?)

But after a while her "criticism" just felt so LAZY -- I don't watch all that much TV myself, but anytime she wrote about something I did watch she seemed to get it only half-right at best. She was always the last to notice anything noteworthy. And for a while there she was comparing absolutely everything to The Sopranos (unfavorably), which was kind of pathetic, especially since by the time she noticed The Sopranos everyone else had long since moved on.

Time to clean out the critics stable at the New Yorker! But what else is new.