THE WORLD NEEDS more organizations dedicated to the kind of expansive cultural analysis and insightful writing regularly featured at LARB, and I was delighted to discover that LARB recently ran a review of my book, Frontiers of Boyhood. Of course, I would have been even more delighted to read a glowing review of the book. However, I am not so naïve to expect all reviews to glow nor do I shy away from criticism of my work. I do expect thorough analysis and high-quality work from all LARB writers. With regard to those expectations, I have some concerns about what I read, and that is why I am writing to you.
My main concern is that Andrew Beckner, who wrote the review, has failed to review the majority of the book’s contents. I cannot, of course, be sure that Mr. Beckner did not read the entire book, but the review betrays an alarming lack of attention to most of its contents. Aside from a cursory reference to the conclusion (with its focus on Sheriff Woody from the Toy Story films), the review deals entirely with material from the introduction and the first chapter. In short, it reads like Mr. Beckner read those sections, turned to the conclusion, and called it a day. I have reviewed many books myself and can empathize with someone charged to write about a book they are not interested in or do not much care for. Still, I have never reviewed a book I did not read carefully from beginning to end. As a LARB reader, I feel confident you expect the same from your reviewers.
Many of Mr. Beckner’s descriptions of the book second the notion that the review was hastily put together after a partial reading of the text. I was particularly alarmed by a number of passages that come dangerously close to replicating the exact language from my book without any attribution, passages that blur the lines between Mr. Beckner’s words and my own. These two passages are representative of this trend:
From my book: “At the start of the novel, twelve-year-old Lincoln Stewart moves West to Sun Prairie, Iowa to confront a childhood defined by punishing work and hardscrabble living.”
From the review: “In Hamlin Garland’s Boy Life on the Prairie, 12-year-old Lincoln Stewart moves to rural Iowa to confront a life of farm work and hardscrabble living.”
From my book: “Garland romanticizes the prairie as a pure space of natural boyhood. In doing so, he stresses Lincoln’s deep and abiding connection to the land, with the child’s development from boy to man closely paralleling the land’s development from wild prairie to domesticated farm.”
From the review: “Garland romanticizes the prairie as an idealized place for boyhood, and the backbreaking development of the land coincides with the development of the young protagonist through labor and savage play.”
There is more like this, as much of Mr. Becker’s review features thinly rewritten passages from my book’s introduction and first chapter. I am not concerned about being plagiarized here, but this approach seems lazy at the very best, betraying a lack of serious analytical or rhetorical work on the part of Mr. Beckner. It suggests he failed to demonstrate due diligence in writing this review, that he read the book quickly (and incompletely) and wrote his findings up quickly. In writing you about this, I run the risk of coming off like — of, in fact, being — that thin-skinned writer who cannot abide criticism of his work. I feel like I value criticism, though, and that is actually the main source of my disappointment here. A review such as this provides a real opportunity for intellectual dialogue with a broad readership about ideas that readership may find compelling. This review misses the chance to provide any such opportunity.
To be more specific, I would be curious to hear about how, as Mr. Beckner suggests, this book fails to adequately address race, class, and gender. As the review fails to reference the content in the book attempting to address these issues, though, it is hard to learn much about his critique. Likewise, I would like to read more about how the critiques of William Cody “read more like apologies than thorough reevaluations,” as Mr. Beckner concludes. This is a very legitimate concern for me and a discussion worth having. However, this review contains no mention of the many places in the book where attempts to critique Cody are made. In addition, it makes no reference to the many previous efforts by historians and writers to evaluate and reevaluate Cody’s legacy. As such, Mr. Beckner offers his readers nothing from the text to spark discussion — and no context to situate that discussion in. Finally, Mr. Beckner determines that the book’s conclusions are “antiquated,” which is another point worthy of consideration. However, he does not explain what these conclusions are much less what makes them antiquated. Frankly, any reader of Mr. Beckner’s review — barring Western historians — will be hard-pressed to form an informed response of any kind to this claim.
I want to end by reiterating that I hold LARB in the highest regard and really am very pleased that you decided to review my book. Selfishly, I would love for Mr. Beckner to have found more merit in my work. More importantly, as a LARB reader, I would love to feel like Mr. Beckner had conducted his work with the integrity I associate with LARB, and that his review lived up to the high standards your organization has established. Sadly, it is not so, and I thought I should bring that to your attention. Thanks for your patience in hearing me out.
Andrew Beckner Responds to Martin Woodside:
I’m sorry to hear that Martin Woodside is dissatisfied with my review. I pride myself on being a good and thorough reader. I gave more than the appropriate amount of time to read and consider.
Book reviews are limited by word count, making it difficult to respond to the entirety of a volume without focusing on a microcosm of the book’s macrocosm, which is why my review deals primarily, though not exclusively, with Woodside’s analysis of Garland, Twain, and Cody.
In my experience and opinion, it is not plagiarism to summarize points made by the author whose book I am reviewing. The summarized passages in question simply restates Woodside’s ideas for the benefit of the reader. If that is unclear, forgive me for that.
I do not think my review is overly critical, and it does find merit in Woodside’s book. My critique is a small one. Because the title of this book is a direct reference to the future of boyhood, the complexities of race, class, and gender are not confronted as extensively as I expected. I find this future of boyhood to be mostly exclusive, concerned primarily with cisgender heteronormative white boyhood. Perhaps I am not the reader he desired, but my reading was thorough and my review is written with integrity.
Martin Woodside Responds to Andrew Beckner:
I appreciate the time Mr. Beckner has taken to respond to my letter and am grateful to the editors at LARB for publishing this exchange. After reading back through the response — and the original review — I am struck by Mr. Beckner’s comment that, on account of my book’s full title, Frontiers of Boyhood, Imagining America Past and Future, he was disappointed to “find this future of boyhood to be mostly exclusive, concerned primarily with cisgender heteronormative white boyhood.” I understand Mr. Beckner’s concern here; any book speculating about future boyhoods should move beyond the narrow limits he describes. However, this concern has no real bearing on my book.
Frontiers of Boyhood is a work of historical analysis. The book is not about the future of boyhood. As I write in the introduction, on page seven, my book uses Buffalo Bill “as a critical framing device for my analysis of the connections between frontier myth and American boyhood in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” In other words, the book is meant to analyze how Americans living then “imagined” the past and future. True enough, those people were concerned primarily with boyhoods that were cisgender and heteronormative (even if those words would have held no meaning for them). That’s why I devoted so much attention to investigating their efforts to promote a singular vision of ideal boyhood. The goal was to shed new light on where the restrictive notions of boyhood and manhood I grew up with came from.
After all this back and forth, the familiar cliché about judging a book by its cover comes to mind with startling relevance.
Martin Woodside is a Philadelphia-based writer, poet, and scholar and a founding member of the book publisher Calypso Edition.
Andrew Beckner is a writer from central Indiana. He has published stories, prose poetry, and journalism. His work has most recently appeared in or is forthcoming from Chicago Quarterly Review, Mojave He[art] Review, and Red Wheelbarrow, and other venues.