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The Tao of The Bad Review

November 26, 2010

Somewhere,   some place,  there are writers who never  get a bad review.  All their notices are glowing and highly appreciative.  Their every thought is understood perfectly by critics,  the jokes too.  To these writers I say: God Bless You.

As for myself,  I have been known to receive  a bit of negative feedback from time to time.  The bad review comes with the territory.  The process is dreary and familiar enough:  the notation on your Google alert,  the unflattering headline employing not one of the good “a” or “s” words like “astonishing” or “startling” but rather a bad “f” word  like “flat” or “flaccid” or “fatuous.”

At this point you have a choice: you can stop reading,  save the pain,  or you can scan the page with faint hope that your bad review is going to be “thoughtful”,  i.e.  in the critic has deeply considered the book,  pointed out its strengths and weaknesses,  and offered a number of intelligent, well-reasoned objections that inspire a respectful exchange  which serves not only enrich the writer’s next book but also deepens the critic’s work.  Good luck with that.

The critical response to  The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story From Buchenwald to New Orleans has been largely favorable.  The New York Times reviewer,   Dwight Garner had his reservations but it was clear that he both liked the book and acknowledged its overriding themes.  A writer  is happy to put up with a critic having a little fun at his expense as long as he says,  as Garner does, “Mr. Jacobson’s book passes the primal test,  when you put it down you look forward to picking it up again.” Likewise,  a wide swathe of the blog-o-sphere,  where most of the reviews of books appear these days,  declared  The Lampshade to be interesting and worth reading.

This is good because The Lampshade is a weird book. Any story involving a lampshade reminiscent of those supposedly made in Nazi concentration camps from Jewish skin that sixty years later turns up in New Orleans during the aftermath of hurricane Katrina and is subsequently proven by DNA testing to be “of human origin” is likely to be weird.  A recurring phrase in most discussions of the book  is “not for everybody.”

The book definitely wasn’t for Tim Rutten,  who  in the October 27,  2010 edition of the Los Angeles Times wrote a review of The Lampshade under the headline,  “A macabre piece of furniture made from human skin becomes an unfortunate topic of a book.”

To summarize: after beginning with a quote from the estimable Ludwig Wittgenstein,  “whereof one cannot speak,  thereof one must be silent,”  Rutten trots out his scholarly bonafides,  noting that “Pirke Avot,  the only Talmudic tractate to deal exclusively with ethical and moral questions” once referred to the commentary of  “Simeon,  son of Rabbi Gamaliel who  said,  “I was raised among the sages and from them learned that nothing is to be preferred to silence.” From there Rutten writes that if only “Mark Jacobson taken counsel from such wisdom ancient and modern” then “readers might have been spared his repellant new book, “The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story From Buchenwald to New Orleans.”

After dismissing your humble blogger  as a “prolific magazine writer” who like “most freelancers” has an “inclination to slice experience like salami,” Rutten,  who has worked for the LA Times for more than 35 years most recently as a media critic in the paper’s movie industry suck-up Calendar section,  says The Lampshade could only be filed under “Holocaust porn.” The takeaway,   Rutten contends,   is that The Lampshade  is so disrespectful to the six million victims of the Holocaust that it would have been better if it had never been written in the first place,  especially by a heedless,  self-hating bozo like me.

Certainly it is no fun to receive such a review,   but I cannot say it was wholly unexpected.  In the three years that I worked on The Lampshade,  I encountered  a number of people who expressed opinions later echoed by Rutten.  Officials at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum discounted the numerous stories of  human skin lampshades.   Former USHMM head of collections Diane Saltzman,  while allowing that the DNA report was “interesting,” insisted the object was “a myth,” a figment of frightened prisoners’ imagination. Michael Berenbaum,  another former USHMM official, also believed the lampshade and the many stories about it  to be “a distraction” to the real narrative of the Holocaust.  Foreshadowing  Rutten’s comment,   Berenbaum  said the objects like that lampshade and the soap the Nazis supposedly made from Jewish camp victims,  were  “the pornography of the Holocast.” Both Ms. Saltzman and Mr. Berenbaum are quoted extensively  in The Lampshade since I felt, as long-time museum professionals and avatars of authencity,  their views were valuable to understand an object that has  for so  long dwelled  in the shadow world between rumor and reality. Theirs is the official story,  but in this case I didn’t feel it was the only story.

Should I have written a rebuttal to Rutten’s review,   I would have mentioned my attention to Ms. Saltzman and Mr. Berenbaum.   In his attack  on the supposed insensitive sensationalism of The Lampshade,  Mr. Rutten wants one story and one alone,  as if he is so spooked by idiot Holocaust deniers that he’s discounted anything that doesn’t fit into the official narrative of one the most cataclysmic events in history. For a guy who mouths off for a living his credo here seems to be: “oh,  just shut up.” The Wittgenstein quote might have struck him as a winning lead but the notion of telling a journalist,  especially a Jewish journalist dealing with a Holocaust-related topic,  not to follow an obviously intriguing story seems a self-defeating,  mule-headed affront to the progressive ethics of a honorable profession.

I would have said this and much more had I written a rebuttal to Rutten’s high-handed punditry.  I definitely would have mentioned that a simple google search turned up the fact that in 2008 Rutten  was honored by the Anti-Defamation League with its Hubert Humphey First Amendment  Freedoms Prize.  No doubt this is a worthy accolade,   except  that an  accompanying photo shows the beefy,  bearded  Rutten standing beside ADL’s bullyboy President Abraham Foxman,  whom  I have criticized in print upon occasion,  including in The Lampshade.

Oh yes,  it would have been a firecracker of a response!  I would have made note of the fact that every single negative item in Rutten’s screed previously appeared in other,  far more thoughtful critiques.  This would lead to the question of whether  he’d actually read the book at all.  Indeed,  he appeared to be review  the idea of The Lampshade,  which he found offensive,  rather than doing his job and considering what was in it,  a process which might have altered his stuffed-shirt a priori prejudices.

But there was no way I ever would write such a rebuttal.  What would be the point?  Hatchet man or not,  Rutten is entitled to his opinion,  however  kneejerk it may be.  Plus, as most writers know,  there is really no way to reply to a bad review,   even a very bad bad review.  The review may be patently unfair or flat-out erroneous,  but it is still difficult to avoid sounding like a peddler of sour grapes. Even in the New York Review of Books,  one of the few forums where one would even  consider responding to a disagreeable notice,  the replies from authors, justified or not,  read like tedious whine.

So why am I even taking the trouble to write this?  Because things have changed.

Ten,  even five years ago,  it would have been easy enough to put a bad review out of sight and mind.  This isn’t to say it is not  a drag to be slammed in the LA Times,  especially for a book like The Lampshade. This subject matter is interesting to Jews and there are a large number of Jews in LA. Who knows how many of them will not read the book simply because of one wrong-headed  review?  Still,  not long ago,  the damage  might well have been mitigated by a good notice in The San Francisco Chronicle,  the Miami Herald,  the Philadelphia Inquirer or any number of papers across the country.  Except now most American newspapers,   if they’re in business at all,  don’t review books anymore.  They don’t have book reviewers.   For the most part art sections pick up reviews from the few large papers. If you’re not Jonathan Franzen,  or a TV star,   you are lucky to get two or three reviews which will be recycled over and over again. The positive NYTimes  Lampshade review has been reprinted several times and  appeared all over the web.  This has been the upside.   The downside is the LA Times piece (although thankfully not to the extent of the NYT item)  also has been recycled to death.  It is currently hovering in  the eight or nine spot of the items that appear when you put “Jacobson Lampshade” into the search engine.

Another shift in the landscape is that now I have this blog,  the sole purpose of which is to chronicle my thoughts regarding the post-publication life of the The Lampshade. That would include,  I believe,   according to the new social media covenant a reporter makes with his readership,  the right to comment on Tim Rutten and the way  the swill he wrote about me in Los Angeles Times has lingered,  in the manner things on the web tend to do,  like gum stuck to the bottom of a shoe.

For me,  the most unfortunate incidence of the persisting bad review occurred in New Orleans,  my beloved  second home,  where I arrived one sweet late fall evening last week to do some  readings from The Lampshade. I had been looking forward to the trip since many of the events described in the book take place in the Crescent City and a number of the individuals I write about would be present at the readings.  Before coming down,  I talked to the people who run the excellent Maple Street Book Shop about possibly getting some publicity for my appearance.  Fans of the book,  they said they’d see what they could do. Yet  when I talked with Gladin Scott,  the manager of the store  the day before the reading,  he seemed glum.

A soft-spoken man with a classic NOLA drawl,  Gladin said he guessed I’d seen  the item in the Times-Picayune,  the daily paper which only a few months before had laid off 55 members of their editorial staff,  including anyone likely to write a book review.  No,  actually,  I told him,  I hadn’t.

“Then maybe you shouldn’t,” Gladin said.

So,  of course,  the first thing I did was check out the Times-Pic,  the newspaper  from which I got all my Katrina news when the staff there heroically managed to put out the paper no matter what.  And there it was,   page C-7,  Tim Rutten’s LA Times review,   in all its vitriol.  Below the review was the note that I’d be reading and signing this book that the reviewer  thought should have never  been written at the Maple Street store.

“We had a few people call to tell us to cancel the reading,” Gladin Scott told me. “They said it would be in poor taste.”

“You’re not going to cancel it,  are you?” I asked.

“Oh,  no,” Gladin said. “Haven’t you seen our website,   fightthestupids.com,  we can’t pay attention to that sort of small-mindedness.  We’re a book store.”

The reading went off as planned.  A big crowd came and with a couple a glasses of wine in them,  people appeared to enjoy themselves in spite of what many said,  “how sad it all is.”

Still,  it bothered me,  that the Times-Picayune had chosen to run that Tim Rutten piece. It was a rag to be sure,   in the pocket of the uptown  rich and had endorsed the Republican whoremaster David Vitter for Senator,  but it was still my (second) home town paper.  If someone in the City was actually offended by The Lampshade and thought it was a bad book,  I could accept that.  At least it would be a local opinion.  But running a month old piece from Los Angeles about a book that takes place in New Orleans? That seemed kind of cheap.

There were other suggestions as to the paper’s motives.  Some thought reprinting the Rutten review was in response to appearance in the book of David Dominici, a local thief who found the lampshade in a wrecked house after the storm and sold it to at a rummage sale,  telling the buyer it was “made from the skin of the Jews.” Dominici,  after all, was,  by his own admission,  “the most hated man in New Orleans.” This dated back to his former career as the  “cemetery bandit” during which he was the ringleader of a group of drug addicts who looted the famous “Cities of the Dead,” stealing marble mausoleum statues and selling them to corrupt antique dealers in the French Quarter.

“People still pretty much hate Dominici,” I was told. The fact that I had portrayed the erstwhile bandit with a degree of sympathy might have  prompted the printing of the Rutten review.  “They were just looking for a bad review,  any bad review,   didn’t matter what it was about.”

A few days later,  having spoken to inside source at the paper,  it appeared that none of these rationales had come into play.  “They’re so understaffed and lazy over there,”  said my informant,  “they needed a review so they just pulled one off the internet.  It happened to be that one.  Luck of the draw.  That’s mainstream book criticism for you these days.”

Just when it seemed as if I’d never  be free of Tim Rutten and his bad review,  a friend sent me a You Tube video of an CNN Lou Dobbs Show that aired during the early stages of the 2008 Presidential election. Dobbs,  a former financial pundit turned anti-immigration firebrand was also mad at something Tim Rutten  had written.  Slapping his hands together,  the diminutive Dobbs said,  “the Los Angeles Times published this weekend a personal elitist out-of-touch column by a hack posing as a media critic.” Over the next two minutes Dobbs referred to  Rutten as “an advocate”  who  was “not interested in reality or truth” and had allowed “his tortured mind to crush his sense of reason.”

Well, all right!  Couldn’t have said it better  myself.  Go Lou!

Except,  of course,  Lou Dobbs is a rightwing nut who,  if he had his way,  probably would retroactively halt immigration back to my grandparents,  which would have left my family back in Romania where they’d been easy prey for the Nazis and the local Iron League.  Those not killed right off would be sent to a camp where they would be fodder for any lunatic prison guard who might have a sick desire to turn them into a lampshade. Rutten’s column,  had really ticked Dobbs off,  gotten under skin,  so to speak. The worst thing,  Dobbs said,  was that Rutten,  “a vituperative ,” “apoplectic hack,”  didn’t even have the guts to come on his show to discuss the matter like a man.

Watching this, I had the sinking feeling that whatever Tim Rutten had written about Lou Dobbs,  chances are I likely would have agreed with it. At least to some extent. So I decided to try to forget all about Rutten and his bad review. Critics—you can’t win with them.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Erica Hernschlort permalink
    May 13, 2011 5:40 am

    I read Rutten’s LA Times review and although he approaches his critique as a matter of aesthetics, the book has deeper flaws:

    1. The author’s overbearing sanctimony. He’s quite keen to let you know he subscribes to all the correct viewpoints as decreed by the New York Times. It borders on paranoia at times, see for example how he casts doubt on the DNA lab’s results because they are Republican donors

    2. The Bush bashing. This may well come down to the lack of a competent editor, but it his constant harping on W makes you wonder if he has deep seated anger issues. Examples above on his descriptions of Dobbs and Vitter. There apparently is not room in this world to hold a counter opinion to the author without being either insane or evil. This smallmindedness is on pretty much every page of the lampshade, and detracts greatly from the work

    Other than that, the story is adequately written and the character descriptions solid. It would have been a finer work sans the liberal pieties, but worth a read.

    EH

  2. jdmarkel permalink
    December 23, 2010 10:37 pm

    Rutten panned you? That’s an A+ for me. Trust me, Los Angeles Times opinion piece on just about anything is dissed around here except among some hangover lefty Cold War bots. For context, in the last few years one of times “motifs” is lecturing Jewish people using Jewish culture and such on why they should hate Israel and Sarah Palin. Check out Rutten “Calendar” section stories with the word “Palin.” His urban prissiness and high dudgeon will entertain. A real man should not drivel on like that. See email.

  3. November 26, 2010 9:21 pm

    I’m glad you got it off your chest and can now move on. When I got a bad review there was nothing I could do about it. It frustrated me endlessly that a powerful critic who judges a restaurant by whether the guacamole is made to order or not obviously doesn’t understand that the flavors have to meld. Yet knowing little about Mexican food he had the power to nearly destroy a restaurant that has been there over 20 years lovingly watched by me and put my livelihood in jeopardy. Maybe he had a bad experience –we all have bad days– but he couldn’t have had 3 bad experiences on the three visits required according to the policy of this newspaper before giving a bad review. When personal attacks take the place of informed criticism you understand why people lose confidence. Most reviewers are fair and have been incredibly supportive throughout my career. We are still here because my customers appreciate my food and have supported me over the years.

  4. Toby Thompson permalink
    November 26, 2010 8:50 pm

    I would imagine that even more frustrating is the fact your book was not critiqued as literature. Despite 45 years of practice, reviewers still do not get the difference between ordinary reportage and literary journalism, creative nonfiction, the New Journalism or whatever else its name of the moment might be. If you had chosen to write this, a true story, as fiction (as Doctorow, Mailer et al have done or did for decades) no criticism like this would have appeared. Wolfe, in his 1973 introduction to “The New Journalism,” was right. Nonfictionists still are treated like the peons of literature.

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