For The Los Angeles Review of Books
If you’re the kind of responsible citizen of the literary community who keeps up with the most notable book reviews, then odds are you have already heard of the recent feud between Frederick Seidel of The New York Review of Books and Nicholas Miriello of The Los Angeles Review of Books. For those of you who haven’t, allow me to briefly summarize. Seidel published a rather harsh review of The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner’s widely lauded sophomore effort, that seems to be less about attempting to write a fair assessment of the novel and more about eviscerating it for not conforming to his particular taste and sensibilities. Miriello was apparently unable to abide this grievous injustice and published a response to Seidel a mere two days later, thoroughly critiquing the shortcomings of Seidel’s review.
While Seidel has every right to his opinion and Miriello means well, there is still an irony inherent to the fact that their exchange is, at the end of the day, men having a conversation of sorts about a book about a woman, written by a woman, without directly including women. This irony is doubled when taking into consideration the fact that The Flamethrowers is a book that deals heavily with themes of misogyny. Reno, a young Land artist from her namesake in Nevada, spends most of the novel hanging out with misogynists. Her boyfriend Sandro Valera, the Italian heir to a massive fortune and a Minimalist artist fourteen years her senior, often treats her less like a girlfriend and more like a student he must instruct, even admitting in his point-of-view chapter that he often saw Reno as a daughter. Sandro’s best friend and Reno’s one-night-stand Ronnie Fontaine has a cruel habit of maintaining “a girl on layaway” and his art often includes tasteless depictions of women, such as the photo gallery of beaten-up women he presents at the end of the novel. Of course, there are other insufferable men that Reno must deal with but it is Sandro and Ronnie that exert the most influence over Reno.
The misogyny Reno experiences usually takes place in dialogue–a fellow dinner guest at a party hears she knows how to ski and proceeds to give her a skiing lesson filled with outdated advice, Marvin and Eric, her bosses, spend more time talking at her than to her, Sandro and Ronnie often speak about her in front of her as if she isn’t there. This is no accident and is clearly very intentional on Kushner’s part. In the pages prefacing curated portfolio of images included in the end of the book, Kushner writes:
I was faced with the pleasure and headache of somehow stitching together the pistols and the nude women as defining features of a fictional realm, and one in which the female narrator, who has the last word, and technically all words, is nevertheless continually overrun effaced, and silenced by the very masculine world of the novel she inhabits…
That Seidel and Miriello so blindly fall prey to the same perpetuation of sexism through dialogue habits as the novel’s male characters and perpetrate the “very masculine world” Kushner mentions above is enough to make me wonder how carefully they read Kushner’s description of how she approached crafting Reno. If you ask me, it is likely that Seidel never made it this far into the book and that Miriello did not do enough to examine himself in the context of Kushner’s portrayal of misogyny, possibly assuring himself that he would never be guilty.
What I find most striking about the casual misogyny of Seidel’s review is not his descriptions of Kushner’s writing as “histrionic” and “hysterically overwritten” or his own confession that he enjoys Kushner’s stylized over-narration when it comes from other authors, all suspiciously men. It is Seidel’s uncanny resemblance to Chesil Jones, one of the other guests at the Valeras’ home in Italy.
One of the most memorable scenes involving Chesil Jones is a dinner in the Valeras’ home where Reno is unfortunately seated next to him. Upon hearing that Reno is a trained skier, Chesil proceeds to condescend to Reno, telling her that “women have a tough time learning to ski” because “they don’t have the mind for the physics of it” and inundates her with outdated advice on the basics of skiing. He does not pause to consider that Reno knows all of this already and more nor does he ever allow Reno a moment to speak. When describing the interaction, Reno thinks:
…but my experience had nothing to do with Chesil Jones. It wouldn’t have interested him one bit. He didn’t bring up skiing to have a conversation, but to lecture and instruct. I’d seen right away he was the type of person who grows deadly bored if disrupted from his plan to talk about himself, and I had no desire to waste my time and energy forcing on him what he would only will away in yawns and distracted looks.
It is a description that reminds me of Seidel’s nitpicks of Kushner’s description of motorcycles:
I thought at first I was reviewing this book because of the motorcycles in it. They are not very convincing motorcycles, nor are the accounts of how it feels to go fast particularly convincing. I like motorcycles. The race bikes I myself have ridden have mostly been Ducatis, made in Bologna, Italian.
It is made clear in that passage that Seidel is with Kushner’s description of speed and motorcycles for not accurately capturing his own personal experience, and probably wishes she had written it the way he would have written it. (How would he have written it? He provides no answer to this question, nor to many other questions his review brings up.) It does not seem to occur to him in this interview that Kushner might have her personal own experience that she drew from to write her novel and that neither subjective experience makes for more accurate or “convincing” fiction. He talks about motorcycles the way Chesil talks about skiing – this passage, much like most of his review, seems more interested in lecturing on how the novel should have been written and spends minimal time paying it any compliments, like an elementary school teacher whose only praise is “You were a pleasure to have in class!”
Miriello, on the other hand, is not as obstuse as Seidel and is apparently more capable of recognizing sexism than Seidel is, rightfully calling out Seidel’s sexist “dog-whistle terminology” and puzzling exclusion of any discussion of sexism within his review. It is not enough to save him from sounding like Sandro, whose feminism later proves hypocritical when he cheats on Reno and expects her to take him back, when Sandro asks Reno why she tolerated Chesil’s arrogance and condescension, but it is still an improvement. The difference is perhaps partially a result of the different culture at their reviews. As Tom Lutz, one of our editors, points out in his comments in Marc Tracy’s discussion of the Seidel/Miriello feud over at New Republic, The New York Review of Books has one of the worst Vida Counts, which is a tally of women’s bylines. It would not be unfair to say that perhaps the presence of more women at The New York Review of Books would have prevented a review as obtuse as Seidel’s.
However, it is also not unfair to point out that Lutz is yet another male voice entering the conversation and Miriello, despite his good intentions, is still a male voice dominating the conversation. The exchange between Miriello and Seidel, which includes the voices of women only occasionally in quotes, is reminiscent of the way Sandro and Ronnie talk about Reno like she isn’t there. Like Reno to Sandro and Ronnie, Kushner becomes “meant to form a concept that had rigor.” It is easy to draw a parallel between Seidel dismissing Kushner’s brilliance and Miriello swooping in to defend her (and, it seems, to protect his ego and justify his appreciation of the novel) and Sandro refusing to take Reno’s publicity trip to Italy seriously until Ronnie intervenes to change his mind, Ronnie being motivated more by a desire to win somehow than a desire to genuinely help Reno.
Ultimately, one must wonder what Seidel and Miriello’s reviews would look like if they were women. Would there be less ego, less snark? Less of a superiority complex? Less subjectivity, more objectivity? More prioritization of women’s voices over their own? I cannot answer these questions – but there is one I am confident I can answer.
What are these reviews interested in? The voices of men.