The Players: Peter Manso, an author who has written Marlon Brando's biography and written for The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and the San Francisco Chronicle; Dwight Garner, book reviewer for The New York Times.
The Opening Serve: On July 7, Garner penned a piece for The New York Times shredding Manso's newest book, Reasonable Doubt, which covers the Christa Worthington murder trial. "It's unhappy work, then, to report that 'Reasonable Doubt' is a disaster, at once lumpen and bonkers," Garner writes. He also reveals, "And I've always enjoyed Mr. Manso's author photographs--his mop of hair, his sneaky resemblance to Al Pacino or Richard Price. The way he scowls as if he’s just caught you snatching his morning newspaper from the front porch. He looks like he’s full of beans." On July 8 Garner also tweeted "Late link to my review of Peter Manso's bk about Christa Worthington's murder. Capsule summary: Let me out of here" with a link to The Times.
Manso aired his rebuttal to Women's Wear Daily. "This is a review designed to kill a book, not to describe a book or its shortcomings," he said. WWD also reports Manso said that Garner's review might be because of both their connections to Norman Mailer. WWD explains that Manso describes Garner as "a devotee of the late Norman Mailer and is a champion of the Norman Mailer Estate." Manso penned Mailer's authorized biography, managed his mayoral campaign and had a noted falling out with the writer after years of friendship.
In Sunday's Review, Garner described Manso’s oral biography of Mailer as "bristly and blood warm, like a freshly killed wild boar."
The Return Volley: WWD said that Garner was awaiting corporate approval to pen a short response and reported that a Times spokesperson said via e-mail: "It is not surprising that Mr. Manso dislikes the Times review of his book. However, his suggestion that the negative review is due to a connection between the book reviewer and Norman Mailer is absurd. The reviewer’s writing related to Mailer consists of a review of his wife’s memoir, and a few blog posts."
Contacted by The Atlantic Wire, Manso said he wasn't satisfied. "I want to find out what’s behind this hideously atrocious review," he told us. "He [Garner] fails to talk about the book, and instead he misrepresents the book...And does he put a sound bite after every review he tweets? Is that normal?"
Manso tells us that he sent a 700-word response to The Times, but hasn't received any indication (as of today) if they intend to print the letter. They did however issue a correction to Garner's original review, "The Times runs this piddling correction, but now they need to run a correction of a correction," he said. "Let’s see if they have the professionalism to open things up...That’s unforgivable. If book reviewers were held to the same standard as reporters, every day news reporters, he would be fired."
What They're Fighting About: The merit of Reasonable Doubt. Manso spent six years writing a book that was initially contracted for a year and a half. It's understandable that he would defend his book. Garner thinks Reasonable Doubt is a "disaster." Discord between the two should come as no surprise.
What They're Really Fighting About: The ethics of criticism. Manso points to the Norman Mailer connection, the structure of the review, and the "Al Pacino" aside as evidence that this isn't really about the book at all. He argues that the bad review is tied to his person and not his art. The New York Times is defending its writer saying those connections have no bearing on the ethics of reviewing or the scathing review.
Who's Winning Now: Manso. Rushdie, Franzen, and even Mailer himself all have risen above bad reviews with a certain New York Times critic, proving that controversy sparks interest, and interest is all you can ask for in our Kindle/iPad world. Garner on the other hand, seems to stumble over his own review. At one point in his piece, Garner concedes that he agrees with Manso that the man on trial is framed--leading Manso to wonder: "He's convinced by my book's central argument. If I’ve succeeded in convincing this guy, then isn't that a success? Right?"