Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Cock Up

What the fuck even is this?

I just read a review of D. Watkins's new book The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir in the New York Times Book Review. The reviewer is a guy named Jason Parham, senior editor at a magazine called The Fader. And it is one of the worst reviews I have ever read - not bad in the sense that it excoriates the book, but bad as in I finished the review thinking that the reviewer probably liked the book? but might not have thought it was well-written? but I couldn't tell? And somehow he manages to be patronizing even while expressing solidarity with the author.

So let's back up. I should start by saying that I don't know Dwight Watkins, although our paths have crossed. I have a definite memory of meeting him. Maybe it was back when I helped run a coffee shop in SoWeBo, an arty neighborhood embedded within a crack neighborhood. It might have been at the library. I'll be honest - what I really remember is not wanting to read his stuff. Because of the jobs I have had, people sometimes tend to assume that I am into angry poetry and gut-wrenching personal narrative. But I mostly read children's books and sci-fi, and before that I mostly read about diseases.

But Watkins is from Baltimore, and the book is about growing up here, choosing the drug trade over college, then rejecting the drug trade in favor of becoming an educator. And I do know Baltimore. I did live in neighborhoods where I observed the drug trade out my window and on my stoop, and I work with young men incarcerated for playing their part in the business they grew up around.

The DEA raiding the crackhouse next door to the coffee house,
shot from my apartment upstairs.
The other thing I know about is reviewing books, and this review is absolutely mystifying.

We start with two paragraphs of the familiar refrain "Baltimore I Love You But You're Breaking My Heart," referencing Nina Simone's 1978 album "Baltimore," Freddie Gray, and "The Wire." Yup, that's where D. Watkins lives. In case the title "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir" was confusing to you.

Then three paragraphs of summary. Three paragraphs - that's a column and then some. I often find NYT reviews to be heavy on summary, so maybe that's an editorial guideline.

And then finally we get to criticism. And here my real problems begin. "I could have written at length about Watkins's lean, casual prose and how it was difficult to sustain throughout... but I would have missed the book's larger aim." What is that? Is he saying, 'Don't think I didn't notice this flaw, and I'm going to mention it because you might have a problem with it - but I'm not going to give evidence of it, and by the way if it bothers you, you're missing the point.'

That's not the way to do that. Good books with important 'larger aims' can have flaws, and it does not take away from those aims to actually give examples of the flaws and let the reader decide whether the flaws will distract from the reading. But the above sentence, along with an earlier drive-by slap: "Beyond identifying some of the book's technical faults..." gives the impression that the book is poorly written. But important! But poorly written. What does this guy think he's reviewing, a slave narrative? Dwight Watkins has two masters' degrees, including an MFA. If there are problems with the prose, critique the man like you would any literary author.

"I never set out to be a part of that life," Parham quotes, "but that never stopped that life from setting out to be a part of me." I mean, I'm no expert, but in my opinion that is in fact EXCELLENT prose.

And then there's this: "And because storytelling can function as catharsis for black writers, there is a measure of value in the book's publication... Words, for me and, I assume, for Watkins, are a means to personal deliverance." I must be misinterpreting this. Because it looks to me that Parham is saying that the value in publishing this book is the catharsis it brings about for Dwight Watkins.

I just want to know if the book is readable, accessible, and well-paced. I'd like to get copies for some of the incarcerated dads I work with at the county detention center, who, if they see themselves on the page, see themselves glamorized in thug life fiction or villainized in everything else.

Parham takes "other reviewers" to task, supposing that they might stick labels on the story or its prose (hey, here's an idea, guy - wait to make such accusations AFTER someone has actually done such things), and says "that would have misinterpreted his testimony, offering a shallow and one-sided distortion." Instead, Parham suggests that we, "as readers and as critics, mine deeper." This is where he offers that dig at Watkins's difficulty sustaining his "lean, casual prose," and I think he means that we are to look past the writing in order to discern "Watkins's belief in the telling of black stories, in their ugliness and their beauty."

Oh man. That is the best you can do? Cataloging this memoir under a hashtag? Like #blackstoriesmatter? Two sentences are quoted in the final paragraph of the review: "I was depressed with my friends and the decisions they were making. I couldn't do anything to save any of them." So shut up, reviewer. You are not doing any favors for a book that looks, in fact, very good.