I’ve grown used to seeing some rather… odd things in the New York Times these days, but I really didn’t expect to wind up arching an eyebrow at their book review section. Sadly, that’s what happened when I saw a jaw-dropping headline on the site yesterday from book critic Jennifer Senior. The title probably tells you all you need to know about it. “I Take Back My Praise of Jeff Flake’s Book.”
When you’re in the business of writing for a newspaper – in almost any capacity – you may find yourself in a position where you feel the need to issue a retraction or correction. The examples are too numerous to list here. But walking back a book review? Or, for that matter, a review of a movie or television show? There had to be more to the story, and there was. Senior had previously reviewed Jeff Flake’s book “Conscience of a Conservative.” But now she wants to recant. Let’s find out why.
When his book came out last year, I saluted Flake for doing something politically contraindicated and Rubicon-crossing, establishing himself as the first Republican senator to call President Trump the domestic and international menace that he is. I applauded him for describing the president’s tweets as “all noise and no signal” and for daring to charge his administration with Orwellian doublespeak, “dividing us along fissures of truth and falsity and keeping us in a kind of low-level dread.”
I said that Flake’s book had rhetorical power.
But looking back on it, it didn’t. Jeff Flake’s book couldn’t even convince Jeff Flake. As of this writing, he has voted with Trump 84 percent of the time.
There’s plenty more along the same lines. The columnist’s opinion of President Trump is made crystal clear, above and beyond calling him a “domestic and international menace” as she does in her opening salvo. Her reasons for giving the book a good review are equally clear. She hates the President with a burning passion and, having found a Republican willing to say bad things about him, she decided to reward him by giving his self-promotional book a nice review.
Now Ms. Senior has realized that Senator Jeff Flake didn’t hate the President and oppose him quite enough to meet her standards. With that in mind, the glowing book review must be retracted.
But let’s pause for a moment and consider what Senior’s job is and the initial task she undertook when writing the original review. It’s a book. It was produced, completed and released last year. Her job was to read the book and write a review, which she did. But guess what. The book is still out there. Aside from the possibility of some very minor editorial corrections in a second printing (and I haven’t confirmed that there were even any of those), the book is still out there and it’s just the same as it was when she wrote the review.
How can the book be worse now than it was then? It was either a good book or a bad book. She found it to be worthy of a read. The fact that she’s choosing to retract it now means one of two things. Either Ms. Senior was lying then or she’s lying now. But far more likely is the idea that the actual quality of the tome when it was first released didn’t matter to her. She wasn’t providing guidance to readers as to whether or not it was well crafted and worth their time. She’d found a Republican willing to spew some venom toward the President and since that venom fit in with her world view, she gave it a thumbs up and tried to promote its sales.
If that’s your idea of what a book reviewer’s job is supposed to be, you really need to look into a new line of work.