Money for Nothing

SOURCE: Henry Holt & Company

With just 747 words at her disposal, Eve Fairbanks published a review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s new collection of columns, “This Land Is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation,” in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review that serves as an almost perfect example of how not to review a serious work of nonfiction. To top it off, she also offers a useful illustration of what is wrong with much of American liberalism today.

Before I begin, let me explain that I have never met Fairbanks and know nothing of her work. She works at a magazine, The New Republic, of which I am often critical, but whose writers I also often praise, and a few of which, I count as friends. I have also written for the magazine a few times and happily cashed its tiny checks. I do know Ehrenreich slightly, but have spoken with her probably no more than two or three times in the past 20 years, and never for more than a minute or two. While I admire her prose style as a writer and share many of her political concerns, her views are well to the left of mine. So in case you were wondering, there is nothing personal going on here. Fairbanks’ essay just struck a nerve.

Fairbanks begins most curiously: “Capturing the spirit of an era is American journalism’s holy grail, as elusive as it is pursued. What makes the great decade-capturing books great isn’t so much the originality of their themes—Michael Lewis wasn’t the only guy to write about rapacious ‘80s bond traders—but the delicious precision of their details. Take the beginning of Tom Wolfe’s ‘Radical Chic,’ in which Wolfe savors the ‘little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts’ Leonard Bernstein served to real Black Panthers at a fund-raiser in his apartment. It’s a moment so keenly observed, so wicked, so right, that it reveals more about the late-’60s style of self-congratulatory slumming than any sweeping pronouncement could have.This kind of texture is what’s missing from Barbara Ehrenreich‘s new book ‘This Land Is Their Land,’ a collection of short opinion pieces for The New YorkTimes, The Nation and elsewhere repackaged as a bid to define the Bush years—‘America in the aughts,’ as the jacket copy puts it.”

I have nothing against the work of Lewis or Wolfe, but Lewis’s book is just that—a book about his experiences as an investment banker in the 1980s. Tom Wolfe’s essay came in at just under 25,000 words and also formed the better part of a book. How in the world are these apples in any way fair or even somehow useful comparisons to Ehrenreich’s orange: a collection of more than 60 short articles, op-eds, and blog posts? And since when is a once-in-a-decade achievement a proper basis for measuring the value of any work? No music critic in the world would ever complain that an album of three-minute pop singles somehow did not measure up to “Kind of Blue,” or“Sergeant Pepper.” Ehrenreich probably doesn’t quite rank with Proust or Tolstoy either. As my 10-year-old would say, “And your point is…?”

Fairbanks then goes on to complain that the author does not spend enough time with the rich folk whose actions she condemns. Perhaps this is true; I haven’t read the book. (The first chapter of which can be read here.) But her attacks do not inspire confidence. After all, if Ms. Ehrenreich is writing about the effect of the policies of the rich on the rest of us, then their likes and dislikes—the color of their eyes and their chaiselounges—is really beside her point. She also complains that “Ehrenreich offers what read now as obsolete explanations for their behavior.” Well, um, yes. It’s a collection. Some of the pieces are meant to read in context and, undoubtedly, to illustrate the historical moment in question. True, one might ask why a piece deemed to be “obsolete” might have been included,” but Fairbanks herself answers this question: “It’s a mordantly funny piece.” That’s good enough for me.

As if driven to demonstrate every possible flaw a review can embody in the shortest possible space, Fairbanks then goes on to commit what I consider to be the Reviewer’s Cardinal Sin—one that is particularly common to reviewers who have themselves never written a book—that is to lecture the author in question about the book the reviewer thinks should have been written, rather than the one the author chose to write. She writes: “It would have been more fun to watch her riff on the Bush era’s barbecue-fueled quest for culinary authenticity than on the food fads of the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Fun for whom, kemosabe?

And here’s where the author’s failings as a reviewer meet her politics, and sadly, illustrate a common tendency among contemporary New-Republic-style liberals. The problem, for Fairbanks, is that Ehrenreich focuses on poor people. She admits, “Ehrenreich is at her best (and she’s very,very good) when chronicling the outrageous human downside of our economy, the costs it imposes on people who can’t afford a bacon-infused old-fashioned.There’s the hospital worker whose employer garnished her paycheck for anemergency room visit, ‘a condition of debt servitude reminiscent of early-20th-century company towns.’ There’s the poor man who got himself arrested in order to live more comfortably in prison, because ‘we are reaching the point … where the largest public housing program in America will be our penitentiary system.’ Remove the less-than-trenchant lifestyle and culture essays, and you’ve got a tight and chilling companion volume to Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich’s account of her own experience working undercover in the low-wage economy.”

Then, however, Fairbanks makes her concern plain: “Surely someone of Ehrenreich’s political persuasion could have found more time to skewer the things I really associate with the Bush era: Iraq, the lobbying scandals, reality TV, BlackBerrys.” This sentence is actually a little scary. In first place, exactly what is the connection between Ehrenreich’s “political persuasion” and her lack of “time to skewer the things that [Eve Fairbanks] associates with the Bush era”? Is the reviewer saying that Ehrenreich was too busy to pay attention to Fairbanks’ concerns? Well, sort of.

What she really appears to wish to condemn is the fact that the author has chosen to focus on issues of economic inequity and the consequences thereof. How boring, says the associate editor of the allegedly liberal New Republic magazine, that any author should concern herself with poor people, emergency rooms, prison, and housing programs, when she could be focusing on things like BlackBerrys and reality TV. And she’s right, isn’t she? Poor people are so passé these days.How dare we be asked to read an entire collection of essays focused on their problems, when we could be arguing about “Pimp My Ride,” “Who Wants to be a Supermodel?” and the fact that people sometimes type messages to one another on small electronic devices.

Over the last quarter-century the portion of the national income accruing to the richest 1 percent of Americans has doubled. The share going to the richest one-tenth of 1 percent has tripled, and the share going to the richest one one-hundredth of 1 percent has quadrupled. In 2005, the wealthiest 1 percent of the country earned 21.2 percent of all income, according to IRS data, while the bottom 50 percent of all Americans earned just 12.8 percent of all income, down from 13.4 percent a year earlier. For working people, wages and salaries now make up the lowest share of the nation’s gross domestic product since the process of collecting this data began more than 60 years ago; meanwhile, in the period since 2000 the number of Americans living below the poverty line has increased by nearly a third. (Those statistics can be found in Why We’re Liberals.)

Statistics tend to fail to move people, and so Barbara Ehrenreich tells their story, however gauche and unfashionable it may be when compared to the things Fairbanks might associate with the Bush era. How did the wealthy pull off their bottom-to-top wealth transfer during the past three decades? My guess is many of the answers might be found inside Barbara Ehrenreich’s new collection, though Eve Fairbanks’ review of the same, sadly, provides compelling, albeit inadvertent testimony as well.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at http://www.mediamatters.org/altercation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, was recently published by Viking.