Attack! And Riposte! (Countering a Nasty Reviewer)

categories: Cocktail Hour


A couple of days ago I came under attack in Terrain.Org, an on-line journal that I have always been, and remain, quite fond of.  The gist of the review, if one can call it that, was that my primary concern as a writer was being “cool,” as if I aspired to be a kind of literary Fonzie.  How did I go about that?  By drinking beer in my pages and “dropping the F-Bomb.”  The reviewer, Frank Izaguirre, made almost no mention of my topic, which was the disastrous BP oil spill, but made many references to how irritating he found me.  (I’ve pasted the full review below.)

“Don’t reply to it,” my wife said.  “It’s beneath you.”

I usually take her advice, and I quelled my initial response, which was admittedly angry and defensive.  After all there was no mention of the humor in the book, and no mention of the anger or passion, and no mention of the people who I wrote about or the issues that they faced after the spill.   Certainly the reviewer, who is obviously something of a bully, deserved to be stood up to, but I knew my wife was right: I didn’t want to descend to rebutting his points, or to bickering.

What I would like to do instead is perhaps kind of dull for most people.  I would like to describe for Mr.Izaguirre what I was trying to do with my book, and what I try to do in my writing, which by necessity includes describing the literary tradition in which I work and what I have tried to do with that tradition.   

I can truthfully say that being cool, or trying to be liked (another of his accusations), has never once entered my head in the course of writing eight published books and hundreds of essays.  But trying to be honest has. That was my vow when I started writing thirty years ago—to be as honest as I possibly could on the page—and that remains a guiding principle.  Honest to my experience. Honest to what I see, and honest about my often complicated reaction to all of  it.

This begins with voice.  My goal is to speak on the page as I do in real life.  To speak to you as if we are sitting across from each other having an open and honest conversation, with or without beers in our hands (thought preferably with).  I aspire to bringing my speaking voice to he page, and for the Gulf book I transcribed much of what I wrote from tape recorders, trying to get something fresh and direct.  Unfiltered.  As it turns out, that means I say fuck every now and then.   That is how I speak.

A good example of this, and how I try to turn even the monologue-heavy sections into a dialogue, comes near the end of the book.  I write:

“I don’t want to get hokey here and say that something is being asked of us.  But maybe something is being asked of us.  And maybe this time around we’ll dignify what is being asked with an answer.  Even if the answer is: ‘Well, what the fuck do we do now?’”

According to Mr. Izaguirre’s analysis, I added the “Fuck” in the last sentence to “be cool.”  But the real reason it is in the text is quite different.  It is there because I am trying to dramatize a process of thought, or more accurately, to make a scene out of my thinking as it evolves,  instead of merely lecturing.  Just as important, I am trying to cut through the stale cliché of  the phrase “something is being asked of us” and give it new life.

Oh, and there is another reason.  Humor.  (Of course, as a rule, people who lack humor don’t recognize it.)

Mr. Izaguirre suggests that I am posing in my work, and to the extent that all art is a fabrication he is right.  I often write about myself as a character who encounters nature, but I try to be as honest as possible about how that self responds.  And what does that mean?  It means that I try to portray that self in all its complexity, with its doubts and its drinking and its reading and its worries and its other relationships with the world, natural and otherwise.  If that works, this means that the reader identifies and says, yes, I have that relationship too.    Again, cool has nothing to do with it for me.  Honesty has everything to do with it.

I have been criticized from some older nature writers for not simply coming out and saying, in the style of an advocate, “This wrong” or “This is right,” for not, as this reviewer puts it, showing my convictions. But that is not and never has been my topic.  My topic in this case is the psychology of environmentalism, often played out in a character who just happens to me.  Is that character the most fascinating in the world?  No.  But for some readers he acts as a stand in for their own complex reactions, and in ways that I hope strike a chord in them.  Yes, he has a beer or two. And yes, he has doubts about being a joiner, and is suspicious of any sort of –ist, since it seems unnatural to him. Finally it’s true that, yes, he swears from time to time, as I do in real life.  An astute reader would also notice that he reads a lot of books, thinks hard about serious topics, and gets very involved in the world outside him.

As for the greater tradition, Thoreau is always reflexively cited as an obvious predecessor to anyone who writes in my genre. (By the way, the line that Mr. Izaguirre writes as his own, “Thoreau the Crude vs. Thoreau the Prude” is lifted directly from my first book, A Wild, Rank Place.)  Thoreau has had a huge and obvious influence on my work.  But what has always interested me most are the places where the nature writing tradition overlaps that of the personal essay, and Montaigne means just as much.  Throw in a dash of New Journalism, memoir, an adolescence spent reading the comic monologues of Philip Roth, and a deccae spent writing only fiction, and you get some sense of the turf  I work.  My books are first person accounts, though the importance of that first person character varies depending on the topic.  For instance when I am writing about the great nature writer John Hay (The Prophet of Dry Hill), the character called” me” grows smaller and the topic larger.  When the effect is meant to be self-deprecatory and funny, the self sometimes grows.

Perhaps the most illustrative use of the first person is in the book that is actually my best known, not, as the reviewer claims,  Sick of Nature (a favorite of masochistic academics) but Return of the Osprey.  Right from the start I faced a challenge with that book: it would be too boring for a reader to spend 300 pages learning every little detail about the lives of ospreys. I solved that by creating a character out of myself, a character who does what I really did during the course of that year: grow more and more obsessed with the birds. Sometimes, during breaks from learning everything he could about ospreys, the character would stop and have a beer.  Sometimes he would swear.  I’m not sure if he was cool or not.  I know he was obsessed.

In my above list of literary influences and traditions, I neglected one important strain.  In college I was lucky enough to study with Walter Jackson Bate, and his biographies of Keats and Johnson are as good as anything I have ever read.  Bate believed that what was most important in literature was that which the reader could “put to use” and that’s why he, like Johnson, thought biography preeminent.  I feel the same way about autobiography and self-portrait.   I like to read it, and write it, because my hope is that readers can put a little “to use” in their own lives.  But in books like Osprey and Tarball, I also use biography toward a purpose.  My hope is to pull readers in with the autobiographical story and then point toward the larger subject: birds, say, or a deadly oil spill.

Okay enough of this.  Time to stop lecturing and go drink a fucking beer.

Here is Mr. I’s review:

The Tarball Chronicles

by David Gessner

Milkweed Editions, 2011

Reviewed by Frank Izaguirre

I have a complicated relationship with David Gessner’s writing the same way he has a complicated relationship with being a nature writer. On the one hand, I appreciate his self-appointed status as a watchdog for stereotypical environmentalists, and on the other I find it a bit weird that probably his best known book was written for an audience of mostly nature writers just to notify them that they’re uncool and need to drink beer in order to stop being uncool. I enjoy a nature writer who’s at least as eager to commune with people as animals. I’m also a little worried about his drinking. Can’t tell if that’s what he wants.

Regardless, the man’s writing at an impressive clip these days, publishing a book each of the last two years. The Tarball Chronicles, his latest, is a travelogue/meditation on the Gulf oil spill and what it means for the region, our country, and even the world. We join Gessner on his haphazard and unplanned journey, meeting endearing locals and emblematic wildlife; and we get a closeup of how a corporation can shush away all problems by whispering dollars.

But the most interesting part of the book doesn’t have to do with the Gulf or oil: it’s Gessner’s internal struggle with his identity. Gessner has a similar thing going on to the Walden subplot of Thoreau the crude vs. Thoreau the prude. He awkwardly describes how he brings beers out into the field with him, chugging them rather randomly throughout different times of the day. He also frequently mentions all the meat he eats, ostensibly so he isn’t confused with one of those touchy-feely vegetarian environmentalists that are kinda lame.

There’s something in his writing that makes it seem like practically everything he does is just to make sure he seems cool. He’ll only describe his birding outings, his affection for wildlife, as long as he mentions he had a drink within three to fifteen pages. He remembers to drop the F-bomb about every fifty pages.

Gessner is so self-conscious about following his own rules on how not to be a granola that I can’t really tell who he is. He makes grand efforts to befriend everyone he meets, including those with opposite political and religious views. I get the sense he wants to be liked by pretty much everyone ever, which is a problematic quality for anyone and especially a writer. In his zeal to prove he gets along with non-nature lovers, or nature lovers that shoot everything they can eat, I find it hard to pin down his convictions. I’m not sure the things he does are truly him and not just insurance against being boxed into the stereotypes he worries make nature writing uncool.

Maybe the one thing that always remains clear is he genuinely cares about the environment, close to him and elsewhere. For me, that’s cool enough.



  1. Tundra Bum writes:

    This was more than just a defense against criticism. This was an excellent discussion on craft–particularly creating a persona on the page. The “typical” nature writer vs. the nature writer trying to show all the complexities of human life–good or bad. It’s not easy being green and multidimensional.

  2. Kristen writes:

    Frank’s review only makes me want to read it more. (Ordered it the day I read this, in fact. Sorry it took me so long, was broke-ass this summer.)
    Um, I wish Frank would have stuck more to the book than “worrying about your drinking.” That’s really for your wife or mom or BFF to do.
    It seemed like the critic had something personally against you (more than the writing). I don’t know about everyone else, but any time a critic focuses more on his personal moral agenda than the work, a huge crimson flag waves across my brain. I was astounded when I read: “He remembers to drop the F-bomb about every fifty pages.”
    Every fifty pages, huh. That means you used it six times in the whole book. My first thought was, gee, Dave, why were you holding back? I tend to drop the f (among other bombs) at least every other page. Maybe I need to re-think my own style/voice!

    • Kristen writes:

      Ok, I read a bunch of these replies the other day, and I just now scrolled down and read Frank’s reply; seems like he explains his “side” well enough. I wouldn’t say his review was an attack, either, but maybe overly focused on a too-personal critique of the persona that led to a less-than-balanced, or perhaps, less “literary” review.

  3. Richard writes:

    For the record, I’ve talked with David over at least one drink in Indianapolis, and I’ve had some good conversations with Simmons (who once attended a conference I hosted): the rest of you, I think, are new to me.

    Frank’s piece, to me, reads like a blog post rather than a review, and that’s fine by me. (After all, I write a lot of autobiography disguised as book reviews, including on two of David’s other books, here and here.) It’s not a long and thoughtful review, tightly focused on the book, and there are plenty of book reviews out there like this.

    But there aren’t many at, and I wish there weren’t any about David’s books. It’s a valuable, unusual form of nature writing, and I’d like to see more people reading it (and reviewing it thoughtfully!).

  4. Frank Izaguirre writes:

    Hi David,

    My reaction to all this was to go and reread some of Sick of Nature. In my mind, you’re still the king of roasting other nature writers, so the fact that I caused such a hullaballoo is still bewildering to me.

    This might seem like a cutesy spin on everything, but if I made a splash in the nature writing pond by being really critical of one of the genre’s most famous contemporaries, isn’t that exactly in the spirit of David Gessner?

    I completely disagree that what I wrote was a personal attack. Even if you make tremendous efforts to capture your true self in your nonfiction, it’s still a persona. At least that’s my view of nonfiction. I harshly critiqued that persona, I didn’t discuss other aspects of the book enough, fine, but I did not personally attack you.

    Also, I definitely did not mean to rip the Thoreau line from you. I tried remembering where that was from, if it was something I heard someone say or read somewhere, but I’m actually glad it was yours because I think it proves that I’ve read your stuff before and enjoyed it.

    Lastly, I like your drawing and would like to make it my facebook picture. Is that OK?


    • dave writes:

      Of course!

      And, yes, it’s a persona, but my job, as I see it, is to make it line up as best I can with who I actually am, and, more importantly, how I change and grow during the course of a book. For me Tarball was the first time I tried to grapple with some big picture things that I hadn’t tackled before. What I wanted to capture was how hard it is for the human mind, at least this human mind, to make sense of those things, but also the desperate need to try.

  5. Peter Peteet writes:

    I only wish more writers (&drivers, family members , customers) had that” problematic quality for anyone and especially a writer” of wanting to be” liked by everyone ever “. Doesn’t seem to be a big problem in my small corner of the world . If so, they might listen long enough to hear things which challenge their precious “convictions”-and with the anesthesia of alcohol perhaps they could allow at least for more complexity to their convictions. I personally see no way a tiny minority of Americans being concerned about “green issues” is gonna fix the big environmental problems no matter how small their carbon footprints or how many grids they are independent of. Unless there’s an enviro-rapture where the wasteful and gluttonous are left behind while the virtuous are taken up into a reality where overpopulation, climate change, disease, racism and war are just stories from a past reality, the problems can only be fixed once they are acknowledged by a majority. Those who behave badly in an environmental sense are the very ones who are stressed by the symptoms of these problems but can’t see the connections. If you’re offering tofu and confessionals the chance of a large percentage of the public realizing the scope and urgency of the problems-and realizing the opposite of what all the media keeps shouting as far as how all these things aren’t connected-are damn slim. Listen, talk to people about their problems to explain “what causes that” -with honesty and humor; folks will actually listen to a surprisingly long sermon if they believe it is addressed to their real problems .Minds and hearts are changing all the time but by degrees ,and the most effective sermons are preached outside of church .As far as giving the reader something useful I’d say it’s a damn sight better than the ab-useful stuff that passes for being “green “by abusing those whose focus is on other aspects of the care and feeding of the six billion or so of us teeming over the planet. It’s a stupendously complex world out there and each place and individual has problems they need some useful advice about. One of those problems in a day to day sense is finding a path towards addressing the big problems without walking away from the rest of society. My favorite of your books is the river one because it shows concrete useful actions and outcomes that don’t “save the world” but rather improve a little chunk -and do it by getting up and going to work rather than putting on a hair shirt and heading into the wilderness .As to beer, strong language and honest conversation Brother Dave Gardner got it with “Let them that don’t want none have memories of not getting any”.

  6. Bill writes:

    David, I had no fucking idea you wrote books! Congratulations! That’s so cool.

    • Debora writes:

      Bill, you are hilarious. You make me laugh. Great reply, the “had no idea you write books, you’re so cool”.

  7. George de Gramont writes:

    Fascinating. Remember Writers do & Critics, I am not sure what they do , aside from being annoying.

  8. Simmons Buntin writes:

    Well said, David.

    Without going into why I let the “review” stay on the blog — and I’ve gotten some questions on that, directly as from Nina, and otherwise — I want to offer what seems to me an interesting parallel, if not quite an anecdote. When I had the good fortune of studying nonfiction under Richard Shelton, he would tell stories every now and then about his time working with Ed Abbey at the University of Arizona. Ed would go off and write an editorial about, for example, illegal immigrants, or wax poetic on littering, and people would get all up in arms. Critics would swoop down (without beers, alas), and Richard relayed how Ed would not only lament but also not expect the criticism. The point isn’t that the criticism caught him off guard, but that one of our most iconic place-based writers got such criticism, no matter what he wrote.

    David, given your current pursuit, literally, of Abbey’s westward journey, I thought that a story worth bringing up because I think it points to the same thing: that nothing good, searing, tonally distinct, and important goes uncriticized — neither the work nor the author.

    Believe it or not, Frank is actually a big fan of your work, but as we read here he’s critical, too. Who isn’t both, really? Next time we’ll push for more review (though not necessarily less commentary, I’m okay with that because it’s relevant), but my personal hope is that the discussion helps bring more readers to the book, which it deserves.

    And for the record, David and I shared a beer earlier this summer. I hope to share another beer again before too long, as well. We’ve all got to take our lumps some time, and I’ll be ready.

    • Dave writes:

      Thanks, Simmons. As I said at the beginning of my reply, I am and remain a fan of Terrain. And I think the man has both a right to his opinion and a right to publish it.

      On the other hand, I have a right to mine. And while I spend a lot of time criticizing new technology on this site, one of its pleasure is the ability to respond quickly. It got my blood pumping, which is good. I’ve been kind of lethargic since my western trip but not anymore. So I owe Frank I. a thank you.

  9. Margaret Benbow writes:

    Dave, is this the Frank Izaguirre who recently recovered from cancer? Maybe his meds are affecting his judgment. Or his miserable experience with bad health has made him somewhat melancholic and envious when he contemplates a more established writer in crude good health. And you’re not only gargling beer and curses, you’re getting along with people! I thought one of the strangest lines in his review was his odd accusation that you “make great effort to get along with everyone” you meet.
    Izaguirre’s remark comes across as poignant. What is his own social manner, if he considers your friendliness strange? He also seems to feel you should be cudgeling those who don’t agree with you. He is perplexed because you give them permission to be human.

    I thought Izaguirre’s review showed a rather careless reading of your text, and also, his distrust of your book’s persona is sadly revealing–about him. “Dave” is too big a person for him.

    • Dave writes:


      I don’t know anything about Mr. I personally. I certainly sympathize if he is recovering from cancer. David G.

    • Kathleen Lewis writes:

      Margaret, that’s a bit harsh about the cancer.

      • Margaret Benbow writes:

        Kathleen, I meant no unkindness at all. I was taken aback by Izaguerre’s review and grappling to understand his hostility. It does seem to be a case of an insecure younger writer trying to cut someone of more substantial reputation down to size–his size.

  10. Bill Diskin writes:

    Sounds like Frank I. is just jealous.

    If he only had the chance to speak with you in person for 10 minutes or so, he’d see that your writing simply captures and reflects your personality.

    Your “voice” happens to resonate with readers in large part, I think, because it reminds us of our own internal voices — just trying to make sense of the fucking mess the world has become.

    Oh, and you happen to be damn good at translating your thoughts into engaging and insighful prose. Maybe that’s why you have published so many books.

    Or maybe all those editors were drunk when they read your manuscripts.

    Either way — one thing is true — Frank I’s review has us talking about your book again. And that’s good on lots of levels….


  11. Rick Jacobson writes:

    I’ve always enjoyed reading the articles and reviews at myself, but I was suprised by this so-called review of your book. I commented on their site and at their Facebook posting of the “review” that it seemed more like a vent on you and not much about the book. Really, there was no significant discussion of the book. In response to my comment at FB, Orion responded, “more a commentary, yes.” Well, it was posted as a review by Frank Izaguirre along with a photo of the book’s cover. This definitely wasn’t a review, but more like an attack by Mr. Izaguirre, and his “commentary” is more telling of his own attitudes, and maybe insecurities, and not at all of the quality of your writing. I read The Tarball Chronicles, and yes, the whole book was about how cool you are… Not !!! It’s a great account, and I, for one, appreciated it very much whether it was very, very, very, cool, or not.

    • Marianne writes:

      I couldn’t agree more. I haven’t read your book, and after reading Frank I.’s “review”, I now know way more about his own insecurities than I do about Tarball. Thanks for completely wasting my time, Frank!

  12. robin writes:

    You are so totally fucking cool that when you snap your fingers, osprey swoop down and give you beers.