"A Disturbance of Fate" and its critics
For reasons I don't entirely understand, authors are not generally supposed to confront critics--except in the New York Review of Books, where long-time readers know it is essentially mandatory. Responding to critics at Amazon.com is perhaps unseemly, but that is largely an elitist view that one should not argue with the "masses."
Personally, I admit to being somewhat ambivalent, but realized, since I have this blog, why not respond to the criticisms my book has received? Since I am proud of the endorsements the book has continued to receive from historians, literary persons, and writers--and who my conversations with have shown me the endorsers really read the book (something that too often does not happen in the publishing world)--I should be willing to acknowledge and discuss the criticisms the book has also received.
So here is a short response to criticism of "A Disturbance of Fate":
I just saw a recent semi-negative review of my novel, "A Disturbance of Fate", at Amazon.com, which criticisms repeat those of a few other critics at Amazon.com regarding the book. The critics of the book are, in this author's view, wrong because the critics (1) are themselves "presentists" in attacking the what-if's, particularly in their unstated assumptions that the New Deal can't work better than Reaganomics or any other system, (2) miss what other readers can catalgoue in the book as RFK's errors, ignorance of the future, and ironic and difficult challenges he faces as a presidential nominee in 1968, and as president, (3) fail to see how past historians, such as Catherine Drinker Bowen, amalgamated history and with a writing style more like fiction back in the 1940s and 1950s (Her book, "Miracle at Philadelphia" became the play and film "1776" for example--and I loved her books, I should add!), and (4) think the book is "too long," not realizing that if it was shorter, and did not deal with the interplay between politics, culture, economics, technology and various nations' interactions with each other (and most importantly gave voice to critics of RFK), it would be attacked as too shallow. See here for an attack on an RFK docudrama for not being "in-depth," for example.
That last criticism is often a sly attack by right wingers because the criticism reflects a frustration that they cannot touch the fact that the book gives voice to the conservatives of the time, from Goldwater to Reagan to Nixon and even Bob Dole, and deals with the dynamic between politics, culture and economics--and technology.
Another criticism, from a friendly reviewer as well as the less-friendly reviewers, is the book's use of accents for Chicago Mayor Daley, Ralph Yarborough and LBJ, but not RFK. In making this literary decision, I concluded that a Kennedy accent was so well known, and will be for another 50 years, that trying to write RFK's accent got in the readers' way almost universally. Whereas for the other three persons most often mentioned by critics, I have heard from an equal number of people that adding the accents brought those persons alive--especially for those who did not know Daley or Yarbough, for example. And anyway, I don't hear those critics ripping Steinbeck or Dickens for using accents for some, but not all of their "characters." It is the critics who are more often uncomfortable with the amalgamation of fiction and non-fiction who are most bothered by this literary decision, and this stylistic attack is a symptom of that discomfort.
The criticism I have fully accepted is that if I have the chance to do have a new edition published, that edition would remove the three or so references in the main text to our current time line. I had gotten rid of most of those references during the manuscript stage, and, in retrospect, I should have removed them all. The time line references belong in the endnotes of the book, pure and simple.
Overall, when it comes to stylistic attacks, everyone's entitled to an opinion. Everyone. There is really no need for much knowledge as stylistic arguments are more about how we "feel" about a book than anything else. What is easier to discuss with information and knowledge is the presentism of the relatively few critics whose own political cynicism, acceptance of capitalist primacy, or belief that individuals cannot significantly affect systems, or who bring other unstated assumptions to the table, before they even open a "what if" book such as mine. Directly confronting that presentism, and deciding whether or not I am more or less presentist than those critics, is a more rewarding and fruitful discussion. That discussion also opens the way to understand how familiar such critics are with the political, economic and cultural trends of the 1960s, what forces led to the "Sixties," how the "Sixties" affected our society thereafter, and how one or two changes in leadership during that transitional decade affected history--and how we analyze "History."
There. Got that off my chest! And now, let's see if anyone cares to debate things further. That was, after all, an important reason in writing the book.