In his review of Denis Johnson’s fine novel Tree of Smoke (“A Bright Shining Lie,” December Atlantic), B. R. Myers flouts one of John Updike’s (admittedly rough) rules of literary criticism: “Never, never try to put the author ‘in his place,’ making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation.” Myers begins his screed with an evisceration of Tree of Smoke based on others’ praise of it—this, after he admits to never having read any of Johnson’s other books—and then utterly fails to comprehend Johnson’s effort. I also take issue with his disparagement of recent literary history. It seems that he is unaware (or purposefully ignorant) of the last century of American literature, in which crises of meaning were played out on the printed page to wonderful effect.
New York, N.Y.
Given that B. R. Myers will no doubt stand alone in his criticism of Denis Johnson, I wanted to send in my thanks for such a fine polemical shredding of such a perfectly uninteresting book. Myers’s conclusion is especially apt. Evidently mainstream America can now take seriously only crude anti-intellectualism, tasteless bad jokes, and shabby writing, even in our literature; little wonder we elect the cynical fools we do. One is reminded of the famous Confucian doctrine of “rectification of names”: when language is badly used in a country, everything else will be, too.
Kansas City, Mo.
B. R. Myers replies:
I have no idea why Jed Cohen thinks I have disparaged a hundred years of American literature, especially since I praise Michael Herr and Tim O’Brien in the same review. As for John Updike’s rules, I am not bound by them. Saying that reputations must never be reviewed would place reviewers above criticism. A bad book is a trivial thing, but to hold up a bad book as good is, as Larson Powell points out in his letter, to perpetrate an attack on values themselves. If other critics don’t fight back, who will?
While James Fallows paints a charming picture of life among the captive giant pandas at the Wolong Nature Reserve (“Among the Pandas,” December Atlantic), he apparently failed to ask some obvious questions about the Chinese breeding program.
Fallows might have asked, for example, why all those young pandas, many of whom are still on a milk diet because they don’t yet have the teeth they need to crush bamboo, are not living with and being nursed by their mothers. The answer is that cubs at Wolong are taken from their mothers when they are only 4 to 6 months old, so that their mothers will cease to lactate and will come into breeding condition again. In the wild, a panda cub stays with its mother for two to three years. The mother teaches the cub how to care for itself and find food. At China’s breeding facilities, a cub gets a few short months of motherly care. Then the baby is whisked away to be raised by humans, and Mom is artificially inseminated (again) and produces another cub, and the cycle is repeated.
The Chinese are bent on producing as many panda cubs as possible in as short a time as possible. They speak optimistically of releasing these pandas into the wild. Yet these are animals that are raised almost exclusively by humans. The cubs are carried about, played with, hand-fed treats, photographed, and in general, treated like pets. The thought of turning these animals loose to fend for themselves in the wild should make anyone with a conscience cringe. How can any amount of preparation transform such an animal into a wild, self- sufficient creature?
James Fallows replies:
Sandra Parshall presents the most familiar criticism of the Wolong Nature Reserve and Chinese panda-protection operations in general. I raised this point with Chinese officials during my visit to Wolong and again, after receiving Parshall’s letter, with the U.S. support organization Pandas International. I find their response, which I paraphrase below, more convincing than the criticism:
The Wolong center’s main goal is indeed to breed more pandas. By this standard it has been remarkably successful, as my story described. Its efforts have the incidental benefit of increasing the number of animals that can be sent to zoos around the world and later procreate as well. Each surviving panda is a significant addition to a world population on the verge of extinction. Toward this end, Wolong does resort to artificial insemination if natural mating fails. When a mother panda has had cubs for two straight years, she is not mated or inseminated in the third.
At least half of the cubs being raised by human attendants in a Wolong nursery would have died in the wild. Mainly they are the “un-chosen” cubs from sets of twins. (Panda cubs frequently arrive as twins, but a mother is capable of feeding only one. In the wild, she quickly chooses one to care for, and the other dies.) They also include cubs of first-time mothers that for various reasons do not accept or care for their young. According to Suzanne Braden of Pandas International, the cubs are typically left with their mothers for eight months, not four to six, as Parshall contends.
The biggest contrast between what Parshall says about Wolong and what I saw there involves the preparation of pandas for ultimate release into the wild. Whenever Tang Chunxiang, the chief veterinarian at Wolong, talked about future reintroduction efforts, he emphasized the difference between two groups: the regular breeding population of pandas at the reserve, and the small group being prepared for possible release. The breeding pandas were deliberately exposed to human contact from an early age, so that their attendants could safely deal with them in the future. Pandas being considered for return to the wild were shielded from human contact as much as possible. During my visit, Tang told me that Wolong was preparing a vast, 300,000-square-meter enclosure in which young pandas could live for several years before release, in a setting as close as possible to the wild, while still under the reserve’s protection and control. The people who work with the pandas obviously understand that the herds of young animals who interact with trainers every day are not the ones who can fend for themselves in the wild.