Charles Bock’s NYT Review Of Richard Yates Seems Angry, Factually Inaccurate

Charles Bock’s New York Times review of Richard Yates by Tao Lin is like many reviews of Richard Yates, in that it contains, in its first paragraph, the word ‘ironic’ – a word that has largely lost its meaning in the context of cultural writing, much like the word ‘hipster’ [which the New York Times conceded to using more than 250 times in the past year. Wonder if the word ‘hipster’ in Mr. Bock’s review makes 251.]

According to Mr. Bock’s definition, ‘ironic [distance]’ is what Tao Lin allegedly employs to provide himself with an ‘out’ in the event he fails at being ’emotionally devastating.’ Seems hard to imagine a writer sitting down to write a novel and saying to himself ‘this is going to be so fucking emotionally devastating.’ I would guess successful writers create some form of narrative or self-expression and then wait to see how it is received/interpreted by people. Seems like Mr. Bock feels like ‘leaving something to interpretation’ means ‘having a hesitant vision,’ or something.

The second paragraph of Mr. Bock’s review of Richard Yates contains the phrases ‘self-serving’ [seems derogatory here, despite the fact it is widely established that authentic creative work by its nature cannot be anything but] and ‘New Lit Boy’ [in context, this also seems subtly derogatory/ emasculating, although it is open to interpretation whether Mr. Bock is more offended by ‘New’ or ‘Boy.’]

In so doing he immediately seems to reveal a personal agenda. One could argue that the revelation of personal agenda in the second paragraph of a 13-paragraph review would be enough to discredit the pursuant paragraphs, but it is in the third paragraph that, as previously noted by the Village Voice, Mr. Bock truly ‘shows his hand.’

It might seem petty to vocally lambaste Bock’s assertion that ‘the celebrity monikers are presumably screen names’ [re: main characters Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning,] but even an amateur blogger or casual internet user should immediately be aware that this is not the case. The last time the phrase ‘screen name’ was relevant was on AOL [circa 1992-1998ish]. Anyone with a modern email account who uses the internet as a ‘platform of communication’ knows that there are no ‘screen names’ on Gchat.

This excludes perhaps the more egregious omission: The fact that a virtual legion of interviewers have asked Lin the immediately obvious and natural question ‘why did you name your main characters after celebrities?’ and he has stated on what seems like several occasions an explanation that should be imminently available via the most cursory of Google searches. If Lin’s young internet-ready readership is a little more ‘up ons’ than Mr. Bock, the fear that drives his review of ‘Richard Yates becomes pretty comprehensible/ relatable. Wonder if Mr. Bock knows how to conduct perfunctory research using Google [as is ‘the norm’ in modern journalism].

Seems like Mr. Bock does not frequently conduct casual ‘banter’ with friends via internet messaging or other online communications platforms. Regarding the novel’s opening, where Dakota talks about holding a hamster/the hamster’s ‘tiny paws,’ Mr. Bock says readers with ‘innocent hearts’ will experience ‘charm’ while ‘those less amused’ will find it ‘cloying and gimmicky.’ Since Mr. Bock later says that Richard Yates makes him want to ‘kill [himself]’ we can assume that he is ‘less amused.’

We can also assume he finds it ‘cloying and gimmicky’ because he’s unfamiliar with chatting online. Those who are seem to be aware that conventional ideas about tone are excused from text-based conversations. People who chat frequently with one another tend to establish their own ‘tone,’ thus it is not possible to ascribe the same context to things people say to one another online as one would to things people say to one another out loud/’IRL.’

Seems Mr. Bock thinks that what is fast becoming the dominant communication format for most people in generations subsequent to his is ‘gimmicky’. Seems that when he says ‘cloying and gimmicky’ about someone else’s Gchat conversation that is used to begin a novel in order to indicate that the characters chat frequently enough to have established their own ‘tone,’ Mr. Bock is revealing that he is confused/possibly resentful. Seems when he says ‘blasé cynicism’ he is projecting.

This makes his concession that Lin’s work is a ‘way of portraying the world in which he’s come of age’ – and praise for it as smart seem obligatory/insincere, like it is saying ‘I guess text-based communication is important somehow because a lot of young people seem to be doing this, but I don’t understand it/don’t like it.’

He suggests that Lin’s use of numerous Gchat conversations as a dominant ‘window’ into a narrative about two people results in Richard Yates feeling ‘minimal’ and ‘stripped down’ and asks ‘to what end’ the novel is referencing other authors called ‘minimalist.’ Seems hard to imagine someone coming up to an author and saying ‘to what end did you create a minimalist work’. Seems evident that minimalism is intended to allow the reader to imagine/interpret relevant details on their own, maybe Mr. Bock didn’t want to do this/felt threatened.

Here is where Bock and the majority of other mainstream/veteran reviewers of literature come to a halt regarding Richard Yates: Lin’s approach is unfamiliar to them, and they feel so alienated that they never pause to analyze the narrative that approach serves. They simply decide Lin is the poster boy for a method of human interaction that seems poised to ‘shake the foundations’ of what they believe a novel should be. Embracing that literature is always deeply rooted in the communication norms of its time seems like it would be frightening to people who have not kept up with those communication norms.

Seems like it would be easier for someone to say it is a ‘gimmick’ and dismiss it, or create an ‘ironic distance’ between themselves and the work. Seems like if they were a critic they would try to ‘nip that shit in the bud’ so that it doesn’t become a bigger thing that further excludes them.

Mr. Bock cites ‘what it is to be young and pushing against the world’ in what seems like backhanded praise. It is, to some extent, formulaic that the young should ‘push against the world,’ but it seems like in this particular situation that tendency is something Mr. Bock feels compelled to ‘quash’ with his condescension. It is evident Richard Yates has pushed against Mr. Bock’s world hard enough to make him afraid.

Ironically, the narrative of Richard Yates is precisely about common fears that lie inside all human beings, and the way unhealthy control behaviors arise in vulnerable people as a response. Seems like Mr. Bock might have been able to find it relatable.

Richard Yates portrays several avenues of maladaptive coping, like ‘a person feels unlovable so they demand another person tackle the impossible goal of making them feel loved’ or ‘a person is driven to harm themselves because they fail to please others’ or ‘a person feels like they are not included in normative society so they steal things’.

Or ‘two vulnerable people develop a painful vicious cycle of injuring each other because they rely on one another to make them feel good enough’ or ‘a person disassembles the work of another person because they are afraid it means they are irrelevant if the other person is successful.’

Sometimes when something is too honest and too reflective of the innermost self/different/frightening, an individual long set in his/her ways finds it easier to relegate it to a ‘small object,’ focus on its surface elements or dismiss it as a ‘gimmick,’ rather than face what they see of themselves therein.

Numerous critics seem to have missed the point of Richard Yates, categorizing it as ‘a book about the internet’ or something about ‘the iPhone generation’. Even [presumably] Lin’s own publisher miscategorizes the work on the back jacket, saying something wildly dissonant regarding ‘illicit sex,’ which is not the focus of the book at all [neither is the sex that Mr. Bock concludes is ‘desultory,’ simply because it is not described in detail.]

Most of the current generation’s constituency know that it is no longer especially socially horrifying for a precocious 16-year-old to have a relationship with a troubled 22 year-old, and so doesn’t find it worthy of note except that it informs the power dynamics of the two lead characters and illuminates their respective insecurities.

So concerned are book critics with Lin’s delivery [or, so deliberately are they preoccupying themselves therewith] that most people seem unable to perceive that Richard Yates is not about sex or even Gchat, but is a book about people rather like them: people who depend on power and influence over others, people who manipulate in order to achieve approval, people who become obsessed with ‘judging and shaping the way other people express themselves’ as a response to feeling irrelevant or powerless.

In Richard Yates, Haley Joel Osment’s expectations of Dakota Fanning represent a self-serving need for validation masquerading as personal concern or even, at times, support for her development/best interest. Seems like critics of Richard Yates should be able to relate. Dakota Fanning’s self-inflicted powerlessness in the face of the ideals to which she aspires is also something critics should also easily find relatable.

Rather than admit to her incapacities, her fears, that she is, to some extent, out of her depth in her relationship with Haley and his inappropriate needs, Dakota lies pathologically and develops bulimia. She puts on a façade of being good enough and hides the rest. As this type of ‘complex’ is crucial to the portrayal of relationship in Richard Yates, perhaps the most revolting thing about Bock’s review is that he essentially relegates Dakota’s bulimia and ‘cutting’ as minor clichés in the same breath he suggests that Richard Yates would be better if it contained ‘a father with a baseball bat’ or a ‘suicide on the train tracks’ [with apologies to Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, he quips.]

Mr. Bock must be told: Bulimia is not a fucking minor cliché. It is the most self-effacing, excruciating, shame-inducing and emotionally-destructive form of ‘maladaptive coping’ that a person who does not feel ‘good enough’ can execute upon themselves. And while it has been wildly melodramatized in shit like ‘Lifetime television movies’ or young adult fiction, Lin’s undecorated and genuine portrayal of the real and painfully mundane circumstances that create such a condition is, without a doubt [take it from a critic, bro] the most authentic and poignant illustration thereof that has existed in literature to date, and should you find a better one, I challenge you to qualify your opinion.

There is pain for the everyday person in the fact that their battles and triumphs and injuries and victories do not even approximate the noble dramas of our common entertainment media. Mr. Bock might be hung up on Lin’s ‘stripped-down’ and modern language, but it’s that approach that permits those small and yet crucial human truths to speak for themselves.

Do the critics who hate Lin’s ‘minimalism’ truly believe that such an effortless, literal portrayal of those human truths requires arbitrary ‘dressing-up’ [via train tracks/baseball bat/epic confrontation] to attain validity? Or is it done so easily and so well that they cannot accept that dramatic narrative can really be so simple?

Fundamentally, the dismissal of Richard Yates by Mr. Bock and numerous other mainstream critics comes down to the fact that their alienation from the relevance of the delivery prevented them from forming what could have been a very personally-revelatory relationship with the narrative.

In that way, Mr. Bock’s review, with its visible resentment, inaccuracies and naked anxiety, might be the largest item of evidence extant speaking to the relevance and efficacy of Richard Yates. And therein, at last, lies the quintessentially most-correct definition of ‘ironic.’ TC mark


More From Thought Catalog

  • herocious

    My review uses neither 'ironic' or 'hipster' IN THE ENTIRE review. I think Mr. Bock probably shouldn't be blamed for his anachronisms and blatant lack of even the most perfunctory research. He did read TLs RY, and that is more than a lot of people (not all) should do, and he did get some kind of a review in the nytimes, which probably means a lot more people will read RY than should. It's publicity.

  • christopher lynsey

    Guilty of what writer accuses reviewer.

  • Brittany

    tagged “bulemia”

    • sadforyou

      No… In the tags, the spelled was correct.


  • richard lin

    does thought catalog spit or swallow after tao lin metaphysically jizzes all over the lit world?

    lol jk. we all know 'thought catalog' swallows.

    • catecholamine

      if that is the case, the fact that you visited it and went out of your way to leave a comment makes you seem pretty lame

      • christopher lynsey

        Jizz and swallow.

    • tao hamster

      “4 people liked this”

  • alexander leighigh

    It's hard to imagine anybody making it past paragraph four of this mess.

    No offense Tao Lin fans, but I really don't think any of you are doing the author any favors. Each supposed defense of RY, written by another person in this sycophantic circle, is more unreadable than the previous one. It's laughable. Kinda sad, too.

    Why do I say such things? Here, just so this prose-expert of a reviewer, is aware: nobody is doing any vocal lambasting in the NYT. Even on-line, the medium is one of words and writing (vocal is for aural, i.e. sound). While I'm at it, you can't seem factually inaccurate — a fact is either inaccurate or it isn't. Oh, gosh, and circa and -ish are the same thing too. These are straight out mistakes, from your pull-quote, the thing you use on the front of the site to advertise the article.

    Probably not the best idea to include this masterpiece in your clip file when you are searching for that next freelancing gig.

    But yeah, awesome job there going after that reviewer for all his mistakes.

    • antoinette

      you forgot to hyphenate 'straight-out'. if i were editing you i would substitute for 'outright.'

      do you see how stupid it seems to employ a dissection of semantics in a disagreement with an article? in the piece itself, the analysis of the word choices are used to create conclusions about the NYT reviewer's attitude.

      not that i love this article or something but it seems you are also excessively concerned with the delivery so as to ignore the argument.

      'inclined to express oneself in words, esp. copiously or insistently: a vocal advocate of reform' is included the dictionary as an appropriate use of 'vocal'.

      'factually inaccurate' is idiomatically appropriate the way 'materially irrelevant' would be.

      'circa' and 'ish' appear to be employed here as colloquialisms that seem appropriate in the context of the culture with which the author appears to identify. '

      again, not that i especially care for this article myself, but it's pretty ironic that you criticize an article about scrutinizing the delivery and missing the message by doing the same thing yourself.

      also: 'supposed defense' 'laughable' 'sad', sarcastic implementation of 'masterpiece' — are you yourself resentful about feeling excluded from what is evidently an emergent style or mode of expression?

      The fact that you said 'clip file' makes me wonder, since no modern working writers have 'clip files', as all their work is online.

      I'd honestly like to agree with you, but unfortunately your reaction makes you appear to be proving the author correct in his analysis of people who have an immediate and highly negative reaction to Lin's work. Perhaps you should ponder this while you are pasting magazine clippings into your portfolio and applying to work as a New York Times reviewer.

      • alexander leighigh

        With point A you justify a mistake because it is idiomatically appropriate; with point B you rely on a broad definition provided by a dictionary and ignore popular vernacular. So long as there's any out, you leap to it. Meanwhile, this essay remains unreadable.

        Your response, Antoinette, was not exactly easy on the eyes, either. In a comments section you might get more of a break for that. Or maybe not.

        As for clip file, every freelancer, every generation, whether they email in their clips or not, calls them clips. But maybe you are right on the term clip file.

        Either way, I still don't think any of you are doing Lin any favors.

      • Molly Oswaks

        Don't forget, not everyone is trying to do Lin favors. We know it's yours, we know. But it is not the national agenda.

    • Molly Oswaks


  • Ian Miles Cheong

    Well, you just convinced me to read this book.

  • Molly Oswaks

    Thought Catalog: All The News That's Fit To Print –– And Everything Else, Too.

    Having a writer who is a flag-waving, kool-aid-drinking member of Team Tao Lin write such a salacious screed in defense of her fearless leader is, at best, embarrassing – and at worst, editorially inept.

    The only thing this writer does is negate the validity of the NYT reviewer's critical opinion. It's a fucking book review: the whole point is to present a critical opinion!

    Oy vey. Love that a video game blogger thinks she's outwitted the literary world.

    (Also: In this piece, there are two disparate paragraphs in which every sentence, every single one, begins with “Seems…” – it's besides the point, of course, but god-fucking-damn.)

    • christopher lynsey

      In this review of a book review, we have a writer guilty of what they are accusing the reviewer of. Then it perpetuates again, fold after fold: Lo and behold, a commentator guilty of what the original reviewer was guilty of and it just perpetuates, and perpetuates. and it's all just one big hoax which benefits nobody except

      • Molly Oswaks

        But the only thing the original review was guilty of was … reviewing a book. So, basically, all you're saying is that I, as a commenter, reviewed this review of a review. Well, yeah, I did. And I did it without defending or championing or metaphorically blowing Mr. Bock.

    • Thought Catalog

      In this review of a book review, we have a writer guilty of what they are accusing the reviewer of. Then it perpetuates again, fold after fold: Lo and behold, a commentator guilty of what the original reviewer was guilty of and it just perpetuates, and perpetuates, and perpetuates, and perpetuates, and perpetuates, and perpetuates, and perpetuates, and perpetuates, and perpetuates, and perpetuates and the only people that benefit are:

  • jacqueline_chan

    I think that Leigh has copied the aesthetic of Tao and the gchat realists' writings but completely misunderstands the philosophy behind that aesthetic.

    The reason, to my understanding, that Tao and etc use words like 'seems' and put cliches/abstractions in scare quotes is:

    a) they do not want to use rhetoric.

    b) they do not want to make their personal opinions, when offered, seem objective

    In my opinion Leigh is guilty of these two things, posing her opinions as facts and using excessive rhetoric, far more than Charles Bock or maybe even any article I have read this year. And this seems even more retarded since her article seems to be an attempt to uncover Bock's rhetoric and personal biases.

    If I misunderstood what Leigh is trying to do then I'm soz. But I think readers shouldn't look at this and consider it an example of the writing style used by the 'gchat realists'.

  • a polar bear

    'jesus' – tao lin

    • Melatonin


  • Ben Keough

    This was a dumb article.

  • Mandy

    Sure is a lot of infighting going on in this thread. Hope BSG is ‘on it.’

  • The Well-Read Wife

    Wondering why my comment didn't post:(

  • Haley Joel Osment

     I know that I am a latecomer to this comment board and that probably no one will read this, but I wanted to say to the author that — while I am no fan of Bock’s review and actually disagree with all of it — I did not like your response either. Specifically, I think that, in general, the ad hominem approach is not the way to go in literary criticism. You should have countered Bock’s points rather than speculated on his psychological motives for making them.

      It was fine that you disagreed with Bock’s assertion that Tao’s rendering of online text conversation is gimmicky. I disagree with that too.  Your suggestion that maybe Bock found the text gimmicky because he is unfamiliar with the way young people communicate online today was also insightful, as was your assertion that he does not appear to recognize the necessity of literature to adapt to changing cultural norms in order to remain relevant. These are all good points. But the analysis should have stopped there; i.e. remained even-handed, analytical, and fair. It doesn’t help anyone to assert that Bock and other members of the literary establishment felt threatened by this work and that they tried to squash it because it caused them to become aware of their growing irrelevance. Honestly, there is no way to know how the book made Bock feel beyond what he adumbrated in his review. We know that he didn’t like the book and that he found it emblematic of a lot of cultural trends he disapproves of. Fine, I agree with that, counter *that*. Because we do not and cannot know if the book made him feel insecure about his position in the literary world, and that this insecurity motivated him to go beyond his usual role as a professional arbiter of taste to slander this book and prevent it from gaining the attention it deserved.  To try and pin him with this kind of nefarious, underhanded motive is really cheap and in my opinion, weakens your position.

    Anyway, I know that this post will most likely go unread, but if you do read it I would be interested in hearing your defense of your approach. I admit that psychological speculation in lit crit is a particular pet peeve of mine so I was probably more sensitive to it than most of your readers. But still, I really don’t think it is a good approach, either in an analytical sense — because you are not dealing directly with the text but allowing yourself a large degree of speculative freedom — or in a rhetorical sense — because readers might view your criticisms as cheap, underhanded, and unfair and thus be less sympathetic to your legitimate points.

blog comments powered by Disqus