If you don’t hang out in the New York Review of Books Letters section, you may have missed this fairly heated exchange between Rumaan Alam and Ruth Franklin, who reviewed his National Book Award-nominated novel Leave the World Behind in the publication’s last issue.
The review in question was mixed (at least according to the extremely human and not at all robots over at Bookmarks). “The verisimilitude with which he depicts a certain social world is impressive. But I was left wishing he had marshaled his talents in the service of something more ambitious,” Franklin writes. In his letter, though, Alam takes issue not with Franklin’s assessment of the novel’s merit, but with “the methods [she] deployed.”
“The review relies heavily on material that’s not the book under discussion, notably a profile of me, in New York magazine,” he writes. In the review, Franklin makes reference to Alam’s husband’s race and his career, as well as a quote he gave in the New York profile about the ways in which non-write writers are considered “niche” by the literary establishment.
“The excitement with which Leave the World Behind has been greeted by many readers and critics. . . suggests that the establishment may not be so immutable after all,” she writes.
“Franklin feels the book’s warm reception negates my entire experience of life,” Alam responds in his letter. He closes by saying that he can handle a bad review—”I look at Goodreads, for Christ’s sake”—but that Franklin’s review amounted to labeling him “a superficial f*ggot laboring under a delusion of racial persecution.”
In her response, Franklin disputes that drawing from the New York profile was inappropriate, or unusual. “It is a normal critical practice. . .to use material an author has said or written elsewhere as a way of illuminating the work under review.”
She denies suggesting that Alam’s success negates his “experience of life,” and closes by referencing her work “combat[ing] bias in the literary world.” She writes, “While recent years have seen real change in the cultural landscape, there is no shortage of work yet to be done.”
As a pretentious busybody, I can’t help but wish more of these disputes played out in the pages of prestigious publications.