Look at Your Game, Girl: On Emma Cline’s ‘The Girls’

June 6, 2016 | 4 books mentioned 38 5 min read


There is so much I wish I could unknow about Emma Cline and her debut novel The Girls. I wish, for instance, that I didn’t know Cline was 25 when she sold the book, or that Random House paid a reported $2 million-plus for it as part of a three-book deal. I wish, too, that it weren’t so obvious that the cult that Cline’s narrator, Evie Boyd, joins in the novel is based on the Manson Family, whose senseless 1969 rampage at the home of Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate has been the subject of countless books and documentaries. Finally, I wish Cline hadn’t chosen to tell the story in the retrospective first person, both because the heavy-handed foreshadowing in the framing story kills any lingering doubt over what’s going to happen, but also because Cline’s narrative voice is so much smarter and more emotionally aware than the girl she’s writing about that it’s often hard to believe they’re the same person.

covercoverCline is a gifted stylist, and her subject is a sensational one, which is no doubt why her editors saw in The Girls the potential for a breakout literary thriller like Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics or Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. But I fear New York publishing has jumped the gun here. The weight of expectation that comes with the headline-grabbing book advance combined with Cline’s inexperience as novelist cancels out the many flashes of fine writing in The Girls, leaving the reader wishing this talented young writer had been allowed to develop slowly, under the radar, instead of being showered with cash and pre-publicity before her craft had caught up to her prodigious gifts.

Those gifts are on display in the novel’s perfectly realized opening scene when Evie first sees the female acolytes of the Charlie Manson stand-in, here called Russell Hadrick, in the summer of 1969. The scene unfolds like the opening shot of a 1970s art-house thriller, all saturated color and sinuous slow-motion, as Evie watches the scruffy, long-haired girls saunter through a suburban picnic, seeming to “glide above all that was happening around them, tragic and separate. Like royalty in exile.”

Evie, a lonely 14-year-old whose parents are divorcing, is mesmerized by the girls’ mix of grunginess and hauteur, noticing how “a ripple of awareness followed them through the park.

The sun spiked through the trees like always — the drowsy willows, the hot wind gusting over the picnic blankets — but the familiarity of the day was disturbed by the path the girls cut across the regular world. Sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water.

The novel begins to sag soon after this bravura start, though it takes a while to figure that out because Cline writes so well even when there isn’t much going on. Cline sometimes tries too hard and she might want to dial down the reflexive sentence fragments, but she has a natural’s eye for the telling detail, the single image that makes a character indelible: a girl with a “face as blank as a spoon,” a smarmy young drug runner whose “upper-class upbringing kicked in like a first language.” A few pages later, Cline nails the look of the late-1960s Haight-Ashbury in one pitch-perfect sentence: “Everyone was healthy, tan, and heavy with decoration, and if you weren’t, that was a thing, too — you could be some moon creature, chiffon over lamp shades, on a kitchari cleanse that stained all your dishes with turmeric.”

But whatever they may say in MFA programs these days, a novel is more than the sum of its sentences. For much of the first 100 pages, before Evie gets caught up in Russell’s cult, The Girls is a glacially slow tale of a lonely teenager struggling to come to terms with her parents’ divorce. Here and there the social and political freakiness of the Vietnam-era 1960s penetrates Evie’s cocoon-like suburban existence, but for far too long the book reads like a well-written but underplotted Judy Blume novel.

One plods through this familiar territory waiting for the shock of Evie’s immersion into the cult, only to find oneself once again dropped into a world that all too neatly matches one’s expectations. Cline has combined a few of the real-life characters for narrative simplicity, and moved the group’s base of operations from a ranch north of Los Angeles to a ranch north of San Francisco, but in every other way she has simply inserted the fictional Evie as a minor player in the true-crime story of the Manson Family.

Here we have Russell/Charlie, a scuzzy Flower Power Wizard of Oz in buckskins and bare feet yammering on about free love and emancipation from straight-world hangups while dreaming of being a rock star. Here we have an actual rock star, Mitch Lewis, based on Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, who befriended Manson and introduced him to music producers that Manson thought would make him a star. And most important of all, we have the teenage girls who idolize Russell/Charlie, sleep with him, cook and clean up after him — and ultimately kill for him.

covercoverCline is very good on the heady concoction of big-sister admiration and suppressed sexual longing that draws Evie to one of these girls, Suzanne Parker. If she had distilled the relationship between these two — one a lost, love-hungry suburban teen, the other a knowing, manipulative would-be murderer — into a taut short story, or else deviated from the Manson Family script to carry Evie and Suzanne’s relationship to its logical conclusion, perhaps Cline could have added some fresh perspective on one of the most exhaustively documented crimes in American history. As it is, by hewing to the history of the Manson murders, and tossing in Evie as an innocent bystander, Cline manages only a pallid fictional retelling of a famous story that readers can get in more vivid form in Jeff Guinn’s excellent 2013 biography Manson or prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 true-crime classic Helter Skelter.

Younger readers, for whom the turbulent ’60s are as distant and exotic as World War II is to a Gen Xer like me, may not be as put off by the second-hand quality of the historical material in The Girls. But even readers who know nothing about the Manson murders and the period that gave rise to them may wonder whether Evie’s decisions make emotional sense. Why would this bright, ordinary kid run off to a commune where the girls scavenge trash out of dumpsters and where on her first night she’s forced to give a blow job to the filthy little twerp who runs the place?

This, of course, is one of the enduring mysteries of the real Manson story. Many of Manson’s followers were ordinary suburban kids, and one, Leslie Van Houten, who was recently cleared for parole after 47 years in prison for the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, was famously a homecoming queen. But beneath this veneer of ordinariness, according to Guinn’s Manson, Van Houten was, like most of Manson’s followers, caught up in the madness of the ’60s, dropping acid in high school and running away at age 17 to the Haight.

This ultimately is what is most glaringly absent from The Girls, the deep gash in the societal fabric that swallowed up a generation of troubled kids. In 1969, America was losing a bloody war in Vietnam. The inner cities were exploding. Drugs and sex were everywhere. College kids were going underground to declare war on the United States, and high school kids were burning their draft cards and heading to San Francisco. In that atmosphere, which is curiously missing from Cline’s much-hyped debut, Manson’s apocalyptic ravings about a coming race war that would cleanse the planet of everyone but his followers could sound almost mainstream.

is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Salon, and The Economist. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, and The Cortland Review. His debut novel, Blithedale Canyon, is due out from Regal House in June, 2022


  1. Thank you for this review. The Girls made me crazy for all of the reasons you cite—the fact that the Manson family is hardly fresh territory, the fact that the one interesting relationship in the book (the element that could have set it apart from the Manson Lit canon) is under-explored, and the MFA poetry-over-plot style. It would have been almost impossible for this book to have lived up to the hype, and Emma Cline has not been well-served by the rush to publish this.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful review. Haven’t read The Girls yet and I want to, and am sorry to hear that it may not do justice to that mysterious and troubled time. I was a teen in the sixties and vividly remember the Manson murders with terror and fascination, and completely agree that why teenage girls, from seemingly normal backgrounds, followed him is a central mystery. To shed light on that you need to understand the madness of that era, especially the drug culture. Looking back on the time, sadly, it is not that difficult for me to understand, especially given the perilous mixture of idealism, innocence, and drug induced delusions that characterized teen culture in the sixties. I recently published a YA novel set in the sixties inspired by a true crime that I consider a precursor to the Manson murders (or harbinger perhaps). In writing it I wrestled with the same question – why would a teen girl follow a sociopath and of course I am interested as to how Cline approached the same topic.

  3. I don’t understand the point of fictionalizing these events. It’s like writing a novel about a President O’Shaunessey who was assassinated on 12/25/1963 by a man named Lonnie Henry Osgood, who was then in turn assassinated by night club owner John Emerald. It seems very coy and trite.

  4. Maybe Cline and Garth Risk Hallberg can put their advances together and go in on a one bedroom apartment in San Francisco, where they can both sit and stare and the walls while they try and figure out what the eff to do next.

  5. I don’t see any reason to hate on writers for getting big advances, good for them. But if it’s for sensationalization over merit, then the blowback is going to be harsh. Less Than Zero holds up, even though Ellis was super young when he wrote and got a lot of hate at the time. He continued on to American Psycho and some other moments and his podcast is very interesting and he seems to be branching out into film. But does Tama Janowitz still have readers? In any generation there’s a crop of fresh young turks and most are flashes in the pan. That’s just how it is.
    I’m glad to see themillions at least offering a negative or tough review. So much online content on these types of websites is puffery and “OMG this is the greatest thing since Joyce!” that it gets stultifying.

  6. I agree with Sean, do not begrudge author’s pay, most writers are terribly under paid. I read helter skelter as a 16 yr old in 1977, scared the shit out of me. I pre-ordered Cline’s book, but my great trust in Bourne’s reviews makes me think I may have (yet again!) succumbed to pre-pub buzz. Damn, will I never learn?

  7. I will never ever understand people who are happy for the small percentage of people who get paid bookoo bucks while everyone else gets peanut shavings. I find it very strange. And then what I find even stranger are the same people admonishing other people for being upset or jealous or resentful that there are a tiny percentage of people making money while the rest of us make nothing. I’d like to classify you people into a type but I don’t know how to name you. I am can be named simply in that I am commonly referred to as a hater, but you, you who clap and cheer for those rolling in the dough, you’re almost like some medieval archetype who used to point to the castle way up high on the mountain and then turn to the rest of your fellow peasants feasting on horse scraps and say, Do not begrudge the King, for if it were not for him we would all be covered in darkness, or something like that. I write fiction and I would like to get paid, but I never will, and you want me to be happy about that? Happy that some 25 year old girl who was written the umpteenth fictional treatment of the Manson murders got paid one, two, three million dollars? What’s it to me? Do I get a cut? Does it trickle down? Are you some kind of weird neo-liberal Reaganite literary figure? Explain yourself. I’m easily explainable. I’m a bitter failed writer who has to work a shitty, monotonous 9-5 office job that barely covers my rent and food. But who are you, you who reads of other writers who get million dollar advances and smiles and gives a solitary fist pump? And are you gently sipping from a mug full of General Foods’ International Coffee when you do so? And does the idea that somewhere, someone, is getting paid make your coffee taste better?

  8. It’s hardly clapping and cheering. Sheesh Anon. Go after the business of sports if you are so pissed off about grotesque amounts of money paid out for nothing. And fucking lousy pop “artists” whose music is an assault to one’s ears every single time one enters a store. Not to invalidate your anger, but really, as a writer yourself this type of advance could happen to you one day. Will you turn down the money in keeping with your ethics?

  9. Great review. Glad as well to see something more negative in The Millions, instead of puff pieces. Since you mentioned that the book could have just been a short story, I’d only add that the book WAS actually a short story, originally, in the Paris Review. Or a short story with very similar themes (young girl becomes friends with older more corrupt girl, lusts after her / wants to be her, innocence is eventually ruined). So you’re not wrong – like a lot of things now-a-days, it’s a thematic short story stretched into a novel…

  10. Heather Curran: What ethics are you referring to? Did I say anything about ethics? I don’t have any ethics when it has to making money. I would take two million dollars in a heartbeat, but I will never be offered two millions dollars because being offered two million dollars for a work of fiction is like winning the lottery. Where did you get anything about ethics in my rant? I didn’t say she shouldn’t have taken it, what I said, which I think is clearly obvious, is why people like you have a problem with other writers being jealous or resentful of some writer getting two million dollars for some novel that is no better or worse than any other novel out there. Your attitude seems to be that if one person gets two million dollars then it is good for the rest of us, and this is what I find so mystifying. Just as you obviously find my troll-ish and cranky behavior distasteful, I find your championing of wealth for a small percentage of people distasteful and indicative of something strange I have never understood. I’m not saying you can’t be happy that someone else has made a shitload of cash, but my question still stands: why does it bother you that someone else would be irritated or resentful re: this matter? And please don’t tell me you could care less, because you obviously do. You read my comment and deigned to reply, so, what is it that agitates you about what I said? Are you superstitious? Do you believe that if too many people complain and whine about large advances for younger-ish writers that somehow these advances will cease to be given out and that you will not receive the bounty you so rightfully deserve for your own writing?

  11. “Your attitude seems to be that if one person gets two million dollars then it is good for the rest of us, and this is what I find so mystifying.”

    Well for what it’s worth on the Other People podcast, Cindy Sweeney, another million dollar baby, said the success of her book has allowed her publisher to take chances on riskier books by unknown authors with smaller sales potential that would otherwise never see the light of day – this according to her editor.

    Then again, with all the marketing $ being spent to push the big-advance novels, the case can be made that lit fiction suffers as a result, because books like The Girls and The Nest are presented as literary fiction when they are really middlebrow made-for-tv novels, the public buys in, and innovative lit fic becomes even more marginalized.

  12. “…said the success of her book has allowed her publisher to take chances on riskier books by unknown authors with smaller sales potential that would otherwise never see the light of day.”

    Yes, just like all the small, personal movies Hollywood makes with bounty from the billion dollar grosses from all those blockbuster superhero movies, right? This logic doesn’t take with me. This is nothing more than rote, canned PR talk.

    Big money follows big money. It doesn’t trickle down.

  13. “This is nothing more than rote, canned PR talk.”

    Possibly. It did sound a little scripted. However I think the world is grayer than you depict. Lawyers taking on cases pro bono, billionaires and their charities, movie stars/directors doing the blockbuster so they can pursue their “passion projects”.

    Best of luck with your rage, which can certainly be productive.

  14. Anon: “rant”. Precisely. Don’t mock or disparage my views and I will do the same for you. It achieves nothing (for me anyway).

  15. “Go after the business of sports if you are so pissed off about grotesque amounts of money paid out for nothing.”

    For nothing? How about being really fucking good at sports? If you’re making an argument about people getting paid what they can or what the market will bear, why is it stupid when applied to sports? Lit/academic reflexive anti-athletics is so predictable and odious.

  16. Sorry to the author of the review. We’ve gone off topic. I will not post again, nor read anymore comments. Yes farnley, sports are nothing but a business, it is all about the money. I hate sports (except golf, running and cycling, which I do for my own pleasure) but in my very own, personal opinion, sports stars and the trading and the dealing and the price of tickets and the drugging for performance makes me sick. Testosterone fuelled fights while the crowd roars like a bunch of indignant sadists. Is it so bizarrely wrong to expect writers to earn money for their work? And I am not talking EL James and that ilk. This website is for lovers of lit. ESPN (or whatever the heck the channel is) runs all day, feel free. And Anon your rage, while I am at it, would be more credible if you actually wrote your rants without hiding behind ‘anon”. Writers deserve to be paid a living wage. Don’t we all?

  17. “Yes farnley, sports are nothing but a business, it is all about the money. I hate sports (except golf, running and cycling, which I do for my own pleasure) but in my very own, personal opinion, sports stars and the trading and the dealing and the price of tickets and the drugging for performance makes me sick. Testosterone fuelled fights while the crowd roars like a bunch of indignant sadists.”

    I hate to break it to you, but publishing is nothing but a business, too. Athletics are beautiful, and very similar to writing in terms of human beings pushing themselves to the limits of their capabilities, in terms of striving. Cheering for these people, along with other people, is a pleasure. The reason I’m bothering to comment about this is that I see this kind of kneejerk opinion a lot in academia and the literary world–calling sports fans “ignorant sadists” is exactly the kind of thing that contributes to a rhetorical gulf between literature and the larger culture, and in a roundabout way makes it hard for authors to make money.

  18. Again, my rant had nothing to do with writers being paid, it had to do with the curious pathological aspect of some peoples’ personality whereby they hear of someone else making an obscene amount of money and then transfer that success to themselves and assume that everyone else should be happy about said success despite the success having absolutely nothing to do with them. That’s all I was curious about. Of course writers should make a living wage. Who said they shouldn’t? I never said that. Everyone should be paid a living wage. Except athletes, apparently. Does that include female athletes as well, Heather? Are the people who go to watch women’s tennis and gymnastics and soccer and swimming and ice skating sadists too? Geez. You’re kind of weird.

  19. Oh, and my name is Jonathan Wilcox. I live in Jersey City. My number is 609.979.6778. Call me.

  20. I promised myself not to read anymore comments, yet I did and I have new found respect for you both. Yes, although I am not in academia by a long shot, I am a police dispatcher in Canada, you both make valid points and yes, as the recalcitrant woman that I can be, I am prone to knee jerk reactions. A little self reflection wouldn’t hurt me. Thanks fellows.

  21. Hi Heather,

    To be completely fair, plenty of sports fans are indignant sadist, just not all of them :)

  22. Hi everyone, especially Anon and Heather Curran,
    I’m an up-and-coming writer and I stumbled upon this article on a whim, and to my delight because thefrankness and reasonableness of the article was refreshing compared to reading reviews that are far too skewed/extreme either way on most book sites. Reasonable is the right word I guess. Anyways, I wanted to say to you both, Anon and Heather, that your comments were so entertaining to read, maybe as much as the article itself, just your views and the way that you say things, and your interaction haha. You both would make interesting characters for a novel in and of itself, and my question is why don’t either one of you write a book based on this because in my opinion there would be people interested in those types of characters and how you say things. Just my opinion and encouragement I guess? I know this is old but hopefully you read this now, if you’re notified. And please don’t sift my comment for alterior motives because there really are none, just my frank, honest (hopefully encouraging?) opinion. In the same tone/way the writer of the article writes, I guess.
    Have a good day….
    I’m also interested to know if you guys have contacted each other, just to show how interested I am haha.

  23. I didn’t like ‘The Girls’ either–for nearly all the same reasons detailed in this review and in subsequent comments–but I didn’t realize the author got such a hefty advance. The criticisms “Cline sometimes tries too hard and she might want to dial down the reflexive sentence fragments…” and “Cline’s narrative voice is so much smarter and more emotionally aware than the girl she’s writing about that it’s often hard to believe they’re the same person” seemed especially accurate, and echoed the troubles I had with the novel (and why I abandoned it about halfway through). I’m all about, as one commentator noted, “poetry-over-plot,” because I do believe in “art for art’s sake,” or what have you…but–and this is what I think so many writers forget–it still has to work. “The Girls” does not.

    I enjoyed this review and reading through the comments! The tension between athletics/literature is a troubled binarism we need to overcome, surely, but the suggestion that at its root is a literati or an academia that is not quick enough to appreciate sports seems to me the exact inverse of the actual issue. That is, I think the overlap between the two tends to happen most often with “literati” who do enjoy sports–participating or watching–and that the current is less likely to run the other way. When was the last time anyone saw a pro-athlete at a poetry reading? Meanwhile, there does exist a literature of more ostensibly “literary” endeavors that are concerned with athletics, such as Harbach’s The Art of Fielding from a few years ago, Matt Christopher’s novels for young readers (which plagued me as a sports-adverse youth, an aversion that had nothing to with my literary habits and everything to do with my eschewal of traditionally performed masculinity…which seems, truly, to be at the root of that whole discussion, with athletics coding for action and literature coding for passivity, which makes it a discussion about gender and sexuality, really, and thus, isn’t it problematic to suggest that “literature” is “at fault” for its (suggested) inability to interest athletes and sports fans, when “literature” is clearly the unfavored (and there for “at risk”) term? But that’s a tangent).

    Also: no one has trouble with the fact that ANYONE –a writer, an athlete, whomever–would be paid millions of dollars for something, while people work for 7.25/hour? Or is it only a travesty if those minimum waged workers are potentially working on the next great American novel in their free time?

  24. “Cline sometimes tries too hard and she might want to dial down the reflexive sentence fragments…”

    Actually, what Cline is doing is not trying hard enough to blend her obvious influences deeper into the canvas. The longer sentences, blinking with day-glo verbs and metaphors, are from Don DeLillo:

    “The dark maritime cypress packed tight outside the window, the twitch of salt air. I ate in the blunt way I had as a child—a glut of spaghetti, mossed with cheese. The nothing jump of soda in my throat. I watered Dan’s plants once a week, ferrying each one to the bathtub, running the pot under the faucet until the soil burbled with wet.”

    Whereas the drier, cooler, flat-affect sentences are Joan Didion to a “t”:

    “The pleasant part was important, the magic trick of invisibility only possible when it seemed to fulfill the correct order of things. As if it were something I wanted, too.”

    Cline even ends the passage, containing the sentences I excerpt, with two plain, crypto-ominous sentences so pitch perfectly Didion that one could giggle over it (Cline does this sort of thing often, it seems):

    “I hadn’t been in the ocean at all. A waitress at the café told me this was a breeding ground for great whites.” (DISSOLVE TO:)

    Well, at least DD and JD are good influences and at least Cline can actually write (she just has to work on making the sentences stick together better; it’s a rather crumbly, possibly over-worked, text). The huge advance is absurd, obviously, but it’s no worse, really, than hearing that someone else won the lottery. Any hype/praise for the book doesn’t rankle the same way that herdthinky praise for genuinely *shitty* books (eg The Sellout) does; it’s not quite the same 2+2=5 problem, with Cline.

    Cline has worked hard enough, at least, to get herself in the *ballpark*. Nowadays, that feels pretty close to being a good-faith attempt to honor the calling, which is the best faint praise I can give. I never finished reading “The Girls” but I would probably give whatever Cline’s doing, a few years from now, a go.

  25. James Wood was gushing over this sentence in his New Yorker review: “The nothing jump of soda in my throat.”

    Maybe I lack advancement, but this sounds like nothing more than pretentious gibberish to me.

    There is an interesting forum thread to which I won’t link for fear of filters, but you can easily find it by searching for that sentence. In that thread, posted before publication of Cline’s novel, a translator is asking the community’s help in translating this sentence. An interesting exchange ensues. Someone writes:

    ” [the translator’s] questions in another thread, based on the same text, seem to suggest that it might be in English, but not written by a native.”

    This is a hilarious contrast to the hyped reviews: when readers don’t know the author is a millionaire MFA establishment darling, they think she’s ESL.

  26. @Norman Landers,

    I don’t know. The cited paragraph in the comment above yours has some good moments. I credit her with being ambitious with her prose, if failing at times. “Nothing jump” is kind of nice–where it misses for me is that the tingle of soda in the back of your throat is something-y, not nothing-y. I like the burbling soil quite a lot, but why with “wet?” Plain old “water” would do just fine. In general, the writing here, if it’s representative, feels overreaching, but at least it’s reaching, which is a nice antidote to the pedestrian fare that mostly gets published and praised for its “taut and spare sentences.”

  27. Coldstone:

    The question, which neither of us can answer, is this: if you saw that sentence in an obscure short story written by a nobody in an unknown online literary journal, would you still praise it for “reaching”, or would you just say something like, “What is this nonsense?” There is a reason that high six and seven-digit advances are always “leaked” (through the publisher’s publicity office), and that $5,000 advances are never disclosed: it’s much easier to appreciate something when you know someone paid–and someone else received–millions for it.

    At the end of the day, none of that matters. Cline will disappear into oblivion, just like her predecessors have. Does anybody remember Nell Freudenberg? A decade ago she was being hailed as the next George Eliot and sitting on a seven-digit advance for a yet-unwritten collection of short stories. Today the only seven digits she sees are in her Amazon sales rank. And Harbach, and Hallberg… and Lepucki, who made a jillion dollars because a TV clown used her as a prop… and Maggie Shipstead, who was hailed as the next Edith Wharton but produced Randianly awful characters and was mocked even in the Kirkus Reviews (!).

    The shticks of publishers and publicists work, which is why we’re even having a discussion of Cline’s awful novel, but they only work over a short term. You can’t publicize talent that is not there, and bubbles always burst.

    Cline, too, shall pass.

  28. It’s easier to appreciate something when you know people paid millions for it? I would argue the opposite. This book got amazingly good reviews considering the amount of backlash the advance generated. Especially from people like James Wood, who has no vested interest in promoting a big buzz book. And Cline won the Paris Review prize long before the book deal. She’s very talented.

  29. “It’s easier to appreciate something when you know people paid millions for it? I would argue the opposite.”

    Then you’d be arguing against established research in behavioral economics. It’s called “Irrational Value Assessment”: you’d rate wine as of higher quality if you’re told it costs $100 a bottle than if you’re told it costs $10 a bottle, regardless of whether the money came out of your pocket, or of someone else’s.

    You’d also be arguing against facts: as I’ve already stated, it’s only the mega advances that get “leaked”. According to your reasoning, the publishers should be doing the opposite and “leaking” only the $5,000 advances, thus creating minimal expectations that would generate great reviews. But I believe they know their job better than you do.

    As for your Paris Review Prize argument, well, you’re deducing talent from prizes. It’s an appeal to (a very questionable) authority, a well-known logical fallacy that is very common in the arts. I don’t know anything about Wood’s vested interests, and neither do you, but Wood is susceptible to logical fallacies and irrational behaviors just like anyone else. He wasn’t given a ream of Letter-sized sheets for a double-blind review.

    By the way, have you read “The Girls”? Can you, with a straight face, put lipstick on this pig:

    “Her sudden appearance made the day seem tightly wound with synchronicity, the angle of sunlight newly weighted”

    I’ve read some awful novels in my life, but I don’t recall reading a novel in which the author is lurking behind every sentence, calling attention to herself with bad similes and awkward word choices, begging you to notice that she put a lot of effort into crafting every phrase, that each word was picked out of a particularly thick thesaurus, that each sentence was constructed with some MFA textbook in the background. Cline has subsumed her narrator(s), made them into puppets that dance to her tunes, but you clearly see the strings, thick and dark, and Cline’s shadow darkens the whole production. There’s no Evie; there’s just Cline, hammering out similes and images until you feel like shouting, “Would you shut up already and let Evie speak?!”

    Sometimes we just have to admit the princess has no clothes, even when James Wood tells us that “gruff with stubble” is some sort of a literary gem that we commoners can’t really appreciate unless it’s pointed out to us.

  30. Twelve publishers bid on the book, which I believe was every editor it was submitted to. Every single one of those editors with all their years of experience were wrong? They all bid on a terrible book? Sounds like the book isn’t to your taste. But to argue that she has no talent or the book is bad is ridiculous.

    And they don’t leak the amount, the range appears in Publisher’s Weekly. Maybe that helps book sales but I don’t think it helps reviews, which often suffer from the hype/backlash in the literary world. It’s not like wine at all.

  31. “There is so much I wish I could unknow about Emma Cline and her debut novel The Girls. I wish, for instance, that I didn’t know Cline was 25 when she sold the book, or that Random House paid a reported $2 million-plus for it as part of a three-book deal.”

    This whole review is basically a guy saying knowing how much money the author got tinted his read of the book.

  32. “Every single one of those editors with all their years of experience were wrong? They all bid on a terrible book? ”

    What do you mean by “wrong” and “terrible”? These editors work for a for-profit publisher. If at the end of the three-book deal the publisher is in the black, then they were right and the book is great. If he’s in the red, they were wrong and the book is awful. It’s that simple.

    By the way, I’m not an expert on the publishing industry, but I believe the people who make a decision on how much to bid on novels aren’t editors, not properly at least. They’re acquisition managers, or buyers, or purchasing professionals, or something along these lines. They are not hired or promoted based on their ability to understand Joyce or quote Shakespeare but on whether their purchases end up in the black or in the red. Appeals to their expertise belong in discussions of the business of publishing, not of literature.

    Now if we adopt your reasoning, then who’s a better author than J. K. Rowling? Isn’t Stephen King the best American novelist, ever? Once again, you’re appealing to (a very questionable) authority.

    By the way, what do you know about the actual bidding? Perhaps three of the twelve quit at $100,000 and then sat aside laughing at the suicidal bidding war of the other nine. Perhaps the winner kicked himself the moment the bidding ended, saying, “I wish I’d quit earlier,” as auction winners often do. It doesn’t matter either way, but I’m just saying, you’re using fragments of a story to which you’re not privy, and those who are privy to it care far more about public image than about truth. Can you imagine a press release going, “We’ve just purchased three books for two mil, and we feel we’ve made a big mistake.”? Neither can I.

    “But to argue that she has no talent or the book is bad is ridiculous.”

    Actually, I’ve tried to explain why the book is bad. You’ve ignored my reasons and appealed immediately to other people’s judgment–prize committee members, “editors”, etc. That, I think, is ridiculous.

    “And they don’t leak the amount, the range appears in Publisher’s Weekly.”

    Hence the quotation marks around “leak”. Can you tell me, e.g., how much Jennie Erdal received for “The Missing Shade of Blue”? I didn’t think so, and I’d bet it’s not a fortune. And wine was just an example. I could have used a painting or lemonade or air travel tickets.

    “This whole review is basically a guy saying knowing how much money the author got tinted his read of the book.”

    Let’s start at the beginning: this review was written partly because Cline received a windfall for “The Girls”. Did Bourne also review Erdal’s novel? Why not? The publisher would have gladly sent him a copy. But there was no buzz around it, whereas there is a buzz around Cline, and the advance is a huge part of it. There is no such thing as bad publicity, etc. It’s a spin on Parfit’s non-identity problem: Bourne complains about knowing of the advance, but it’s that knowledge that brought him to review the book in the first place. Without the knowledge, there would probably have been no review. Once again, the publicists at Random House know the intricacies of this far better than all of us.

    Now let’s go back to wine, your aversion notwithstanding. A drinker of a glass of wine may assign to it ten units of goodness if he’s told the wine costs $10 a bottle, and fifty units of goodness if he’s told it costs $100 a bottle. So, dollar-for-dollar he considers the “cheaper” wine (it’s the same, of course) to be better, but ounce-for-ounce he still considers the “expensive” wine to be better. In other words, for its price the expensive wine disappoints, but it’s still better than the cheap wine. See where I’m going?

    Bourne was disappointed by the book because he thought that a two-million-dollar author would do better than that, but that doesn’t change the fact that he probably still overrated it because of the advance. Whether or not he did indeed overrate it is impossible for anyone (including him) to tell, but odds are he did.

    “Maybe that helps book sales but I don’t think it helps reviews, which often suffer from the hype/backlash in the literary world.”

    Studies have shown that *one* letter in an author’s name affects reviews and perception: people take you more seriously if your byline is Edward J. Exley than if it’s Edward Exley, perhaps because initials seem more scientist-like (scientists usually add their initial to distinguish themselves in citation formats that use only initials, e.g. Exley, E. J.). Established science, peer-reviewed. Look it up, or just ask J. K. Rowling where the K came from. And you’re telling me that the number of zeroes in your advance makes no difference in reviews and criticism? I can’t take that seriously, so I won’t.

    I noticed, by the way, that you’ve ignored my question about reading “The Girls”.


    [Frasier is typing on his laptop. Niles is reading Honey’s manuscript, laughing.]

    Frasier: Niles, will you please stop giggling? It’s very distracting.

    Niles: I can’t help it. Have you read this?

    Frasier: I’m trying to recommend the book. Reading it doesn’t help.

  33. Yep, read it on the recommendation of Geoff Dyer in the Guardian and loved it. I think it’s safe to say people have different literary tastes and leave it at that.

  34. No, *I* have a literary taste. Maybe it’s bad, but it’s my own. You, on the other hand, like what you’re told you should like, by Dyer or “editors” or reviewers or sales ranks or whatever. You’re the stuff publicists live for, and on. Don’t pretend we, or our tastes, are equals.

  35. As much as I agree that a 25 year old can’t possibly write a truly deep novel (as was proven to me when I read The Tiger’s Wife) I feel like Emma Cline doesn’t deserve all this criticism. As I’ve witnessed many times in my life it is much easier to criticise and destroy than to create. It takes so much energy to create anything of any value but just a little energy to dismiss it.

  36. this review was so clearly written by a man lmfao… the main point was so clearly missed

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