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Sam Anderson: How Critics, Including Me, Screwed Up Our Alice Sebold Reviews

Photo: Courtesy of Little, Brown and nytimes.com

So it turns out that a surprising number of book reviewers made a debatably major error about the plot of Alice Sebold's new novel, The Almost Moon. They said — okay, we said — that Helen, the novel’s narrator, puts her mom's corpse in a meat freezer when, in fact, she only thinks about putting her mom’s corpse in a meat freezer. Really she just drags it down the basement stairs and leaves it next to the freezer. (It’s a subtle distinction, in a subtle book.)

Lee Siegel, writing in the Times Book Review, caught most of the flak for the error, mainly because his review ran next to a graphic of Mom’s corpse in the freezer and under the (creative!) headline “Mom’s in the Freezer.” In Siegel’s defense, he never actually claims that Helen puts her mom in the freezer. All he does is quote some dialogue (“What did you think putting her in the freezer would achieve?” “I don’t know”) and issue the following judgment: “You find yourself struggling simultaneously with the juvenile contrivance of Mom in the freezer, the icy cynicism of such a conceit and the utter unreality of the conversation.” This is all indisputably true. Putting Mom in the freezer is a juvenile contrivance, whether it actually happens or is just a dark fantasy. Siegel's ambiguity only looks like a misreading when it’s sandwiched between a deceptive headline and a garish illustration, both of which were probably out of Siegel’s control. So the critics criticizing the critic for his lazy misreading have themselves lazily misread the critic! Irony explosion!

A few of us, however, managed to screw things up unambiguously. My review, for instance, misstated the plot point as bluntly as possible (“Helen puts her mom’s corpse in the freezer”), then went on to repeat it as a zinger in the final paragraph: “These days, everybody puts Mom in the freezer.” The New Yorker, the Daily News, and the L.A. Times also got it wrong. (The Boston Globe did a nice job of tracking down all of us who made the mistake.)

There are two major questions here. First, how did Sebold manage to inspire such a vortex of professional misreading? I'm still a little baffled by my mistake. The Almost Moon is not exactly The Sound and the Fury, and I read it with my full attention and an active pencil, from its sensationalistic opening sentence to its improbably sudden final epiphany. I'm tempted, in self-defense, to blame the book; rereading the relevant passages in light of the error, I still find them confusing: The evidence (as Galleycat points out) is certainly there, but I'd argue that it's not organized in a particularly coherent way — and I don't buy that the incoherence is thematic.

But that's just a fancy excuse. I'm trying to apologize here. Every book deserves, regardless of the critic's perception of its quality, a diligent and accurate reading. My strong distaste for The Almost Moon — particularly after my enjoyment (with an asterisk) of The Lovely Bones — was all the more reason to make sure I had my facts straight.

The second question is larger and makes for an interesting debate: Does the mistake matter (beyond, of course, making certain reviewers look silly)? Is freezer vs. floor an inconsequential question of logistics, the equivalent of asking what color of towels Helen uses to smother her mom? Or is it freighted with all kinds of thematic and moral consequences? Either way, my closing zinger should have read, "Everybody thinks about putting Mom in the freezer." And I still believe it wouldn't have changed a thing. —Sam Anderson

Related: The Mother Smotherer [NYM]
Mom’s in the Freezer [NYTBR]
The NYTBR And The Case of the Misplaced Corpse [Galleycat/Mediabistro]
The Sock Puppet Did It! [Boston Globe]