A Moment of Jen
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Friday, April 18, 2003
posted by Jen at 4/18/2003 04:32:00 PM

I think I'm entering the cranky portion of my pregnancy. The nights of aches and pains and interrupted sleep. The days of, "if I don't know you, then get your hands off my belly."

Plus, I'm still sick. And learning that being A., pregnant and B., sick, does not get you out of your Passover obligations. You've still got to show up at your husband's family's seder and be polite to aforementioned old-lady belly-touchers, even though all you want to do is stay home, drink tea, blow your nose and re-read Judith Krantz books.

Meanwhile, the New York Times pulled one of my least-favorite Stupid Times Tricks this week by reviewing the same book twice. I know I've written about this other places, and it's something I will never understand -- given the Times' vast influence, and the huge number of books published each year, and the ever-diminishing space where book reviews are published, why would the paper choose to review a book once on Sunday, then review the same book during the week, particularly when the reviews both say pretty much the same thing?

Such was the case last week when the Times, which on all other nights ignores the entire chick-lit genre, reviewed the same book twice (hey, maybe it was a Passover thing), and gave Lauren Weisberger's THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA two consecutive thumbs-down.

For those of you living in caves, or buzz-free zones, Weisberger's book has been widely described as a roman-a-clef about the year the twenty-five-year-old author spent toiling for the imperious editor of Vogue magazine, Anna "Nuclear" Wintour. It sounds along the lines of last year's THE NANNY DIARIES -- fun, frothy, a little bitchy and mean-spirited but mostly light-hearted, a glimpse at a slice of New York City's upper crust that most of us don't get outside of "Sex and the City." At least, that's what most reviews say.

But the Times makes TDWP sound something like magazine publishing's version of THE SATANIC VERSES Its two reviews didn't quite call for a fatwa, but they did wind up calling Weisberger (and her narrator) a self-absorbed, righteous, stuck-up little snob who had no business writing a book.

First up: Kate Betts, who penned a Sunday review that reads less like a book review than a job application. She trashes the book's heroine, Andrea Sachs (she has an "unbecoming superiority complex and is just as much a snob as the snobs she is thrown in with,") and vigorously sucks up to real-life Vogue-ers, the "incomparable" Andre Leon Talley (who, as coincidence would have it, was flatteringly profiled in the same Sunday Times) and "food writer Jeffrey Steingarten, whom (Weisberger) should have been studying for lessons in how to write."

The sycophancy's hard to figure, until you get to the last paragraph of Betts' review and learn that she worked at Vogue for eight years was mentored by Wintour, and seems to want nothing more than to return to the hallowed fold. So much for conflict of interest, huh?

Janet Maslin's Monday review sounded some of the same notes -- Weisberger's self-absorbed and overly ambitious, sour and sarcastic, and the book's more mean than funny, even when it's detailing the ways in which editress Miranda Priestley abuses and mistreats poor Andrea ("She must go pick up her boss's custom-made tennis shorts at Chanel. She must get an advance copy of a book from "that wretched Harry Potter series" and send it, at huge expense and inconvenience, to Miranda's ungrateful children in Paris.")

In an interview about her review, Maslin said she deliberately declined to name the real-life inspiration for Miranda Priestley because "I think that when a tell-all author takes a cheap shot at a well-known person - in a book that would have little reason to attract attention without that cheap shot - then reviewers need not compound the insult (or help to promote a mediocre book) by reiterating the identity of the target."

As a New York City outsider, I'm mystified. If the book was that darn mediocre (and, in the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I haven't read it yet), why even bother to review it once, let alone pan it twice? It's especially strange, given that neither reviewer even attempted to mount a defense of Ms. Wintour, or to suggest that she'd been treated unfairly.

Instead, both pieces seem to acknowledge that Wintour is, in fact, pretty much the monster Weisberger describes -- a woman who can't be bothered to remember the names of her underlings, who sucks up to senators and treat regular Joes and Janes like dirt, who accepts sickening amounts of payola and gratis designer-wear, who never says thank-you, who expects her assistant to pack her clothes in velvet.

And since when do reviewers have a problem with a writer using real-life experiences in fiction? I certainly don't. As long as the characters and anecdotes are used in interesting ways, that they're there to develop the plot and the story, to serve the purpose of the fiction, not just to serve as cheap shots or further a grudge. Plus, any powerful editor has to know that his or her employees might harbor novelistic ambitions (or an actual manuscript), and that if Powerful Editor is dumb enough to treat his or her underlings badly, he or she pretty much deserves what's coming.

So how to explain the Times' rush to protect Anna Wintour, and to demean and belittle a twenty-five-year-old who had the temerity to point out her flaws? I have no idea. Maybe it's a professional courtesy, one that female New York City journalists routinely extend to one another. Or maybe Wintour knows where some very interesting (or at least interestingly dressed) bodies are buried.

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