Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Piven > Beck

Over at The Chronicle Review Frances Fox Piven reminds us that she is both much smarter and much, much saner than Glenn Beck.

Freedom Rides; Radiohead

I'm off to give a talk at Tarrant County College's Northeast Campus in Hurst, Texas (Dallas area) tomorrow from 12:30 to 1:30. If you're in the area, I'll be presenting "The Freedom Rides at 50."

In the meantime, you might have heard that Radiohead shocked even its most in-the-know fans by releasing their new album, King of Limbs, for early download last week. If you care about music even one tiny bit go get it now. It is freaking awesome.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Honoring Bill Russell

President Obama honored Bill Russell with the Presidential Medal of of Freedom a few days ago (rightfully pointing out that Boston needs to do more to honor the Celtic great) and in so doing reminded us of one of the great figures from the world of sports. Indeed Russell always transcended mere sport. Always outspoken about politics and racial issues Russell's integrity always stood out, even above his sizable frame and other-worldy basketball accomplishments.

When people think about race, sports, and Boston they immediately zero in on the woeful record of the Red Sox, the last Major League team to integrate, a team overtly hostile to black players long after Jackie Robinson integrated the Dodgers. The unwillingness of the Red Sox to integrate probably played as big a role in their long championship drought as any single factor. And yet people too often use the Red Sox as a sort of shorthand metaphor for race relations in Boston, a city fraught with racial strife and a sometimes shameful history, particularly given the city's putative liberalism.

Yet if the Red Sox serve as the ur-example of Boston's racial hypocrisy the Celtics represent the opposite strain. Name a significant landmark in the integration of professional basketball and the Celtics either set the pace or quickly fell into line, and that history emerges almost parallel with Russell's career. Russell was not the first black player in the NBA, but he was the league's first bona fide black superstar, its first true black team leader, and not only did he become the NBA's first black head coach, but he was a revolutionary in all of professional sports in breaking that ground. Russell was the first black basketball Hall of Famer and was the cornerstone of the first team to be predominantly black.

Beyond his social importance, Russell has almost been somewhat forgotten in the age-old bar debate about the greatest players of all time. That mythical title long ago went to Michael Jordan, and I always believed that we conceded that title too quickly and too easily. Jordan accumulated incredible numbers and his highlight reel was second to none. yet the point of team sports is to win, and Bill Russell was the greatest winner in the history of American professional team sports. And Russell was always the unquestioned leader and best player on those teams. Russell did not pile up gaudy individual numbers because he was too busy doing the things to make teammates better -- and if making teammates better is a major factor in assessing greatness, who made more players great than Russell? Some might argue that Russell was great because he was surrounded by so many Hall of Famers. I would argue that Russell was great because he made so many good players into Hall of Famers.

In that era Wilt Chamberlain racked up numbers. Bill Russell simply beat the pants off of Chamberlain. And that is because in the context of a team game, Russell was simply the better player. If we have a draft to create an all-time team, if I draft first, I'm taking Russell. And all evidence indicates that my team is going to win while yours looks good losing.

Friday, February 18, 2011

My Absence

Goodness -- has it really been more than two weeks since I last posted? Things have been crazy, topped off with a trip to Austin early this week to try to help UTPB's public profile at the legislature, not to mention two local showings of Freedom Riders. But fear not! I'll be back in the saddle soon so that tens of you can enjoy my wit and wisdom.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Updike's Rules for Reviewers

Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Board of Directors, recently posted John Updike's rules for reviewers, drawn from the introduction to his collection Picked Up Pieces. I am a member of NBCC and have written scores of reviews ranging from 190-word Choice snippets to review essays, and over the last few days have been giving Updike's rules a lot of thought.

Updike was as good a reviewer and essayist as he was a novelist, and so with all humility I want to respond to his ideas. I'll highlight his rules and will then respond after each.

"My rules," he writes, "shaped intaglio-fashion by youthful traumas at the receiving end of critical opinion, were and are:
His drawing from "youthful traumas" is not happenstance. Reviews of my books have been quite good, but in academia everyone has to deal with the dreaded reader's report for both journal article and book submissions, and frankly if you haven't experienced "youthful traumas," or mid-career traumas for that matter, you haven't been submitting things. The double-blind peer review process might seem like the gold standard for objectivity, but most commonly, blind review allows people to be pricks with no repercussions. No one has ever adequately explained to me why reviewers ought to get or need the protection of anonymity. As a result, now that i review both book manuscripts and article submissions I have committed myself to constructive and fair criticism, and have endeavored in particular to avoid the gatekeeper effect whereby I see myself as the gatekeeper to the kingdom of publication. generally speaking, I want things to see the light of day and let the reader (and future reviewers) decide. this is not always possible, but I think it is a pretty sound best practice.

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
Another way to think of this is to review the book the author has written, not the one she did not write. It is amazing how many reviews assess the latter instead of the former. Yes, it is fair to address opportunities miss, arguments ignored, peculiar choices. But take the book on its own terms.

2. Give him enough direct quotation--at least one extended passage--of the book's prose so the review's reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
Ahh, the golden age of book reviewing. I think Updike's standard here is likely more apt for fiction in any case, but in his time book reviewers were allotted a great deal more space than most of us get now. Plus, let's face it -- Updike could likely write as much as he wanted. I agree that it is great to quote when appropriate, especially to highlight particularly good (or bad) writing, but extended passages can be tough given a word limit that is likely to weigh in at something under, usually well under, a thousand words.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.
Again, this seems more apt for fiction reviewers. Of course Updike lays out a false dichotomy here inasmuch as a non-fuzzy precis seems appropriate depending on context.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants' revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)
This one is almost wholly aimed at fiction writers. It is pretty difficult for a reviewer of a book on the Civil War to keep the outcome a secret.

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author's ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it's his and not yours?
This is great advice. Most nonfiction reviewers will do this as a matter of course, placing the book within a larger literature or situating it within various schools, debates, arguments, or trends. And, yes, when pointing out failures or shortcomings, make sure they are both the writer's and that they are germane.

I am going to break this next paragraph down into its component parts as it contains some of the richest material:

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like.
I think this is key. In the historical profession it becomes increasingly difficult to review books of complete strangers. we tend to know one another or to know one anothers' colleagues or advisors or what have you. but it seems clear to me that you don't review books of clear enemies or dear friends. Forget about the ethical aspect of this latter -- if a book reviewer owed his audience honesty first and foremost, is it really worth it to run the risk of losing a friend? And while sticking it to a foe might seem worthwhile, the personal animus is either already known or will become clear. Trust me -- at a certain point your problem will be that you have too many books to review, not too few. Turn down any where conflicts are attendant. (If the Times comes calling, of course, let your conscience be your guide.)

Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind.
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author "in his place," making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers.
I love how in telling people not to grind axes, Updike grinds a couple of axes. Well played, sir!

Review the book, not the reputation.
You know, I don't entirely agree with this one. Here is why. Sometimes a book explodes and gets far more credit than it deserves and in so doing overwhelms other, worthier books. I don't think one should go after a big name just to get a notch on one's belt, but I also think it is fair to say, this book that's getting a lot of praise? It's not so good and it is muscling out these books that deserve your attention. I stand by this, for example (though how naive was I to think that FML would be published in 2003?).

Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban.
I agree 100% Better to err on the side of kindness and give a book a chance than to condemn. Humility in reviewing is an invaluable trait. And I say this as someone not often accused of excessive humility. But there is lots and lots of very good work out there and there will be long after you've penned your last review.

The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.
Reviewing is, to my mind, invaluable and underrated. A reviewer is part of a conversation, neither the first nor the last word. Take criticism seriously as a writer of it, a recipient of it, and a reader of it.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Ten Worst Men in Sports

Hate. Glorious, glorious hate.