Ah, nothing like an old-fashioned East Coast-West Coast literary feud to spice up the summer. The scrappy upstarts at the Los Angeles Review of Books are apparently beefing with Robert Silvers's revered New York Review of Books, which is in the midst of its 50th-anniversary celebration. Well, the Southern California literati have no use for Manhattan reverence, according to a report by Marc Tracy in The New Republic.
The drama boiled over when the LARB published Nick Miriello's takedown of a NYRB review. That offending NYRB review, written by poet Frederick Seidel, was in turn a slight takedown of Rachel Kushner's otherwise universally praised novel The Flamethrowers.
But as Tracy notes in this morning's analysis, the LARB threw the first stone by choosing a name so close to that of its New York predecessor. He quotes LARB editor Tom Lutz as having said, “We are not under the shadow of the New York publishing industry and the kind of conventional wisdom of that industry.” Those are fighting words, in some circles.
It was only a matter of time before the city of Tom Wolfe hit back against the city of Lindsay Lohan. And while New York-based poets are within their rights to not like books by L.A.-based novelists, this passage in Seidel's review of Kushner does seem to hit a little too close to home for film-loving Angelenos:
The Flamethrowers has been praised in many places for the vivacity and invention of its language, [...] But to me the novel too often sounds like the stylized voice-over narration of film noir, sardonic, self-conscious, very American, the sound of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity.
One does not simply insult the pillars of a city's (admittedly small, but hey, at least they're not Denver) literary tradition. Accordingly, Miriello had a few choice words for Seidel. While Miriello's main complaint is that Seidel "made a clear decision to place style in front of substance" he also called the review "gallingly condescending" and "often inadequate." Siedel, in his review, asks "what is this book interested in?" Mirello mirrors him a line that perfectly sums up his argument: "What is this review interested in? Frederick Seidel."
Miriello's review of Seidel's piece is harsher than Seidel's review of Kushner's novel, and by publishing Miriello's piece, Tracy argues that the LARB issued a challenge to its New York counterpart:
There is nothing quite so explicitly regional in Miriello’s rebuttal, but consider that he’s responding in the Los Angeles Review of Books to a New York-based poet writing in The New York Review of Books about an L.A.-based novelist's latest book, which, though for large stretches based in New York, undeniably crackles—particularly in scenes basedin the Nevada desert—with the western flair of an Ed Ruscha work.
There are a couple of problems with Tracy's argument. First, while Kushner lives in Los Angeles, she's not really an L.A. writer. Tracy admits as much: "Raised in the Pacific Northwest, she received her MFA at Columbia and lived many years in New York. She currently lives in L.A. I sense that she wouldn’t consider herself an 'L.A. writer,' but I do think the novel possesses a Western sensibility." Second, Mirello's also a New Yorker. It's possible that he just really, really liked The Flamethrowers and thought Siedel needed to step off his high horse.
Then again, this isn't the first time Angelenos have had to deal with New Yorkers hating on their literary culture. And there is, moreover, a sense of the LARB as the new kid trying to distinguish itself from the old guard, especially in its emphasis on solely digital publication and removal from the Manhattan media world.
And as Tracy explained in an email to The Atlantic Wire, while NYRB is indeed very much centered on Manhattan, LARB is less concerned with regionalism. "The LARB's most important project, in my reading, isn't to provide an L.A.-specific perspective on literature, but to provide a generally, just, different one."
Lutz, the LARB editor, went further, telling The New Republic that his publication has a "sense of a bigger tent, in terms of the kinds of voices" it features. That sounds like a dig at you-know-whom. Your move, Silvers.