Reviews of Reviews pt 1

Back in September, Feministing wrote a piece on sexist book reviews, citing The New York Times review of Katha Pollit's Learning to Drive as an example of such. Jessica Valenti writes:

Sometimes it seems like women are criticized just for having the audacity to speak the truth about their own lives. I'm so over this kind of hackneyed, backlashy bullshit. It's the easy way out: Don't want to bother with writing a thoughtful review of something? Just go the "harping woman" route, it's a winner!

The Times struck again, in its review of Susan Faludi's The Terror Dream. Reviewer Michiko Kakutani accuses Faludi of "recycling arguments similar to those she made a decade and a half ago in her best-selling book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991)" which now "feel forced, unpersuasive and often utterly baffling." Faludi's main argument, that female voices were systematically silenced post 9/11, in favour of a more macho, cowboy ethic is considered suspect. For an example in the media, Kakutani points out that Katie Couric* was made anchor of the CBS news. Never mind the pages of statistics in which Faludi points out that the numbers of female editorials, columns, and appearances on TV were in rapid decline. Never mind the threats made to those women (Pollit included) who questioned the new mindset. Never mind the drudging of their character in the media (not just the Right Wing media either). Nope, Katie Couric was on the news, so Faludi's "thesis [...] rings false."

Kakutani comes up with two other female names of news reporters, but can't argue the statistics, so zie** ignores them. In fact, it's rather funny that Kakutani engages in just the sort of shoddy work zie ascribes to Faludi. Wherever Faludi's extensive research doesn't fit this hit-and-run review, it's ignored. And that is to say, the facts and figures are never quoted.

The strongest part of The Terror Dream, for me, focuses on the immediate aftermath of 9/11. This is where Faludi is at her best, and most comfortable. As in Backlash, her research is extensive, compelling, and the conclusions drawn are uncomfortable, and thought-provoking. Agree with her or not, the fault isn't in her writing and execution. If there is a fault in The Terror Dream, it's trying to tie post-9/11 reactions to a larger, national neurosis about invaders, and how that changes how females are treated in American society. I'm not sure I'm convinced of that at all, but I am intrigued with the notion, and at the very least, now educated in some early American history.

By calling The Terror Dream "[an] ill-conceived and poorly executed book — a book that stands as one of the more nonsensical volumes yet published about the aftermath of 9/11," Kakutani leaves the reader of the review feeling like this was more of a vendetta piece. I don't think I've ever seen a more slanted review, and ironically, it speaks to the phenomenon Faludi is writing about: silencing the voices of women who dare to speak out.

Rebecca Traister in Salon also reviewed The Terror Dream, in a far more balanced way. While Traister also had some problems with the book (the opposite ones I did, actually; she finds the last bit of the book "brilliant and exhilarating"), she doesn't just throw the whole thing on the fire. Addressing critics of Faludi's methods, Traister writes:
It's a complaint that has been lodged against Faludi before: that she's a cherry-picker, rounding up the juiciest anecdotes that suit her argument and leaving the rest to languish. On the other hand: What a bumper crop of cherries!

The impression is that Faludi's work, is worthwhile, though not without problems. To me, this seems like a very fair assessment of the work.

In any polemic, and to be sure that is what The Terror Dream is, there are spaces in which to attack. But that's fair. That's what is supposed to happen. A book like this is supposed to create thought and debate. However, anytime I see a review so obviously slanted, so eagerly derisory, as was published in The Times, I smell a rat. It's too easy to give into simple nit-picking, without even considering that Faludi, on one level or another, just might be right. The Times review didn't respect the book (or the author) enough to give any consideration to Faludi's arguments, and thus, Kakutani's piece simultaneously fails as a review, yet manages to prove at least some of Faludi's arguments through vitriol.

"This, sadly, is the sort of tendentious, self-important, sloppily reasoned book that gives feminism a bad name." No, Michiko. This is the sort of thoughtlessly reactionary, sloppy, needlessly nasty review that gives rise to books like The Terror Dream. So, well done!

*Though Couric's appointment actually speaks to Faludi's thesis as well. When she moved to CBS, there were a lot of stories on her, and most of them focused on her family life.
**I'm using gender neutral pronouns here, as I'm not sure of the gender of this reviewer.

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