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Larry McMurtry as Harper's Book Reviewer: The Reviews Are In

by Jerome Weeks 20 Jan 2012 4:58 PM

The devoted fans of Lonesome Dove and Last Picture Show may not know it, but author Larry McMurtry has been a terrific essay-writer and reviewer. They certainly wouldn’t know it from his latest gig.


To lead off its “Reviews” section, Harper’s Magazine has long had a regular critic rounding-up several books — kind of a self-selected survey. Guy Davenport did it for a number of years, then the late John Leonard held court there. Most recently, the novelist Zadie Smith has been filling those duties.

In the January issue of Harper’s (pay wall), Larry McMurtry stepped into the position — with what seemed like an easy, lead-off pitch that he could swat over the right field fence: He wrote about Richard Brandt’s biography of Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon (One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Not only is McMurtry a long-time, old-style, bricks-and-mortar bookstore owner in Archer City, he’s written about the book trade, about being an antiquarian collector, about how bookless Texas made him a bibliophile, about how his love of books will survive any need to write, certainly any desire to screenwrite.

But what we get in Harper’s has the same offhand, lackluster quality that dogged his memoir, Books, and quite a few of his recent novels, as well.  “Bezos is a farsighted merchant whose company provides an excellent service. Want a book? Use Amazon and you can have it the next day. Such literary expeditiousness has never existed before and all readers should be grateful that it’s here.” Hm. Right. Four sentences that could have been written eight years ago by a writer much duller-eyed than this one. His second effort, in the February issue (pay wall), is a bit livelier — but then he’s writing about his good friend, Diane Keaton, as well as the American exploration and conquest of California, something comfortably in his Old West turf. I suspect both factors will not be present on a monthly basis.

McMurtry’s not exactly boring — I’ve long argued his essay-writing is woefully under-appreciated, and the herds of people who worship Lonesome Dove haven’t exactly paid much attention. But it’s precisely because I admire McMurtry’s non-fiction books (In a Narrow Grave, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, Sacagawea’s Nickname) that I find these efforts disheartening. It’s like he’s doing it because he’s got nothing better to do. And it’s not just me that feels this way: Blogger Jim Willis found a few things to ponder, but David Daley, senior culture editor of Salon, was practically cruel (McMurtry has become “our most cringe-worthy critic”).

  • Russell Laird

    Perhaps Mr. McMurtry is giving what he gets

  • Anthony Mariani

    I agree, Jerome. Not only is McMurtry’s taste suspect — he’s probably never even heard of Ben Marcus, Padgett Powell, or Breyten Breytenbach — but the old man’s writing is insular, clunky, and surprisingly rudimentary, as if he were writing about books and the business thereof for Martians. Every month, I wonder how in the hell a magazine as brilliant and progressive as Harper’s ended up with a guy whose tastes and prose are more appropriate for a small West Texas one-sheeter than a legendary international magazine.

  • Alden Morrisey

    I wonder of Anthony Mariani has ever heard of The New York Review of Books? Mr. McMurtry has written a few dozen essays for them, all of which have been intelligent, engaging and clearly by a man of letters. He’s certainly well read; his bookstore in his hometown houses over 400,000 volumes. His own personal library constitutes over 30,000 volumes, and rests in his home a few block from the bookstores.

    • Anthony Mariani

      Alden. I never said — nor implied, I think — that McMurtry wasn’t well-read, just that perhaps the bulk of his reading amounts to tomes of Old West history, which, IMHO, is the opposite of progressive and/or cutting-edge. Though I tire of overseas writers infiltrating progressive U.S. magazines and intellectual literary debates, I’d take former Harper’s book reviewer Zadie Smith over McMurtry. Hell, I’d take a hack like Jonathan Safran Foer or Colson Whitehead over Larry. At least they’re young(-ish), smart, and forward-thinking.