Sunday Salon: Holy Crap Books and More

sundaysalonIt’s been ages and ages since I’ve done one of these. I got bored of writing about general bookish topics and couldn’t think of anything new. On top of that, I’ve been busier than usual this year and haven’t had time for more than reading and reviewing—and there’s been less of that in recent months! But there have been lots of interesting things happening in the book world that I wanted to talk about, so I’m resurrecting the salon for this week. I don’t anticipate it becoming a habit, but we’ll see.

Holy Crap Books

Christopher Beha wrote a particularly thoughtful response to some of Jennifer Weiner’s criticism of book coverage in the New York Times Book Review. One of the reasons this response is so good is that he addresses the issues she raises, instead of criticizing her tone. Of course, even a thoughtful response is bound to have flaws, and his does. In essence, his proposal is that the NYTBR should focus only on reviewing what he calls “holy crap” books—i.e., “books that one doesn’t know how to read, books that challenge our ideas about what fiction is supposed to be doing.” These books don’t have to be good—a review of how an ambitious book failed can be just as interesting as one about how it succeeded, and interesting reviews seem to be Beha’s goal.

One flaw here is that an assigning editor won’t necessarily know which books are “holy crap” books before assigning them for review. Relying on the publicity materials is not a sufficient solution. Better, I think , to look for reviewers who can write “holy crap” reviews even of books that turn out to be fairly mundane.

The other flaw is his contention that genre books are less likely to fit the “holy crap” category. While its true that lots of genre books are about following conventions, the same is true of many so-called “literary” books. And lots of books in both categories find interesting ways to subvert those conventions. Books worth talking about exist in all genres, a point that Beha does acknowledge. I’d rather just remove the question of genre from the conversation altogether.

Beha’s post was also picked up by Slate and given the title “Why Jennifer Weiner is Wrong About the Times Book Review.” You’ll note that I linked to Beha’s original, with the more neutral title, “Some Thoughts for Jennifer Weiner About the Times Book Review.” Beha doesn’t think Weiner is wrong about the gender imbalance problem; he’s just questioning whether books like hers should be covered by the Review. If you look back through Beha and Weiner‘s Twitter feeds, you’ll find that this was a passionate but not mean-spirited discussion about what’s the best way forward for literature, not about who’s right and who’s wrong.

For me, though, the big question behind this conversation is why it even matters. On the one hand, I can understand that what a major publication like the Times chooses to cover does matter. But for this reader, it doesn’t. It’s just not even on my radar most of time, even before I started blogging, and I’m someone who does read the types of books that end up in the Times Review. I imagine their choices have some effect on what gets published and what gets promoted in other venues to readers like me, but mostly it’s just not relevant. Heck, I’m not even that interested in reading the newest books a lot of the time—I’d rather wait and see what has staying power. (And that makes me wonder what place reviews like Mary Gaitskill’s recent piece on Gone Girl might have in publications like the Times Review. Must every review be of the latest books?)

In Other News

  • When I read The Corrections, I didn’t like it much, mostly because it seemed like the author was looking down on the characters. Now I think Jonathan Franzen looks down on almost everybody.
  • Lots of fellow bloggers of the five-years-ish generation seem to be rethinking what they’re doing and their reasons for blogging. Jeanne and Florinda have posted particularly thoughtful pieces. I’m not doing that when it comes to blog writing, although I am reconsidering the time I spend with other social media.
  • Two of my favorite writers, Marilynne Robinson and Sarah Waters, have new books coming out next year. Hooray!


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22 Responses to Sunday Salon: Holy Crap Books and More

  1. I am so excited about the Sarah Waters book. I have been whining for years about her not having any new books out. Eeeeeeeee. Maybe in advance of its coming I will finally read Affinity. (Probably not. I just cannot get on with that book.)

    I thought the Christopher Beha piece was really, really good, although I had the same reservations that you did. I love the idea that ambition should be the guiding star of book review pages — I’m thinking, one way to know in advance if a book is particularly ambitious could be something like those things NetGalley puts out where they excerpt a bunch of books coming out in a particular season, so you can read two or three chapters and see what you think. It wouldn’t be a perfect way to know what a holy crap book was going to be, of course, but it would be one way. (I wouldn’t, for instance, have picked up A Tale for the Time Being if I hadn’t read an excerpt in the NetGalley thing; but as soon as I read the excerpt I knew it was something really special.)

    • Teresa says:

      I still haven’t read Affiinity or Tipping the Velvet, but that doesn’t stop me being excited about a new one.

      I like the excerpt idea–a taste of the writing itself seems more effective than the usual marketing language and blurbs.

  2. Rohan says:

    “Better, I think , to look for reviewers who can write “holy crap” reviews even of books that turn out to be fairly mundane” – I think that’s a great way to reframe the discussion. As you say, you can’t know till you read a book whether (you think it’s) a ‘Holy Crap’ novel or not, and I agree about the interest of ambitious failures (or failed experiments, or near misses). Interesting criticism depends only partly on the book: a lot of it is about the mind and imagination of the critic.

    I have written more than once about genre fiction, so I’m not prepared to filter it out quite as cavalierly as Beha seems to — but at the same time, I think it’s not wrong to say that run-of-the-mill examples of, say, mystery fiction really aren’t that interesting to discuss (I say this as someone who surveys them with an eye to assigning them in my mystery fiction class — ‘what would we say about this in class?’ is often where I come up short, even with books I think are very well-written and clever, such as Tana French’s.) Someone made the point on Twitter that in genre fiction you might also think in terms of the ‘Holy Crap’ career or oeuvre on a larger scale: a profile piece can sometimes be richer than a close analysis of one particular novel (I can’t imagine 2000 words on any single Dick Francis novel, though I found plenty to say about Dick Francis’s novels collectively).

    And like you I’m not really preoccupied by reviews of the latest things — and though I look over what’s in the NYTBR, it’s not where I expect to find the critical writing that’s most interesting or meaningful to me, partly because it is so present-oriented.

    I am VERY excited at the news of a new Sarah Waters book. She is one of my favorite contemporary novelists.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve long believed that one of the weaknesses of a lot a mainstream review publications is the lack of a consistent stable of reviewers. I know from blogging that some books are well-nigh impossible to say much of interest about (although I try), but it seems to me that making criticism into a discipline of its own, rather than an adjunct to novel writing with novelists writing most mainstream fiction reviews, could help produce more “holy crap” critics, some of whom might be novelists.

      I love the idea of looking at a holy crap career–that could work for so many writers, in any genre! Or looking at trends within a genre, which might be a way of producing coverage of the same types of books you’d see in a round-up, but making it more interesting than “these are some books about women.” But all of that would require less of a focus on the present moment, and I suspect there are economic reasons for the current focus.

  3. If anyone wants to catch up on the Karl Kraus side of the Franzen piece – in other words, the part that is actually about literature – please visit Wuthering Expectations and Caravana de Recuerdos, where we had a big Kraus event earlier this summer.

    I have decided to be aggressive about publicizing Kraus week on social media just because Franzen says I shouldn’t. A lot of confused and confusing reviews of the FranzenKraus book are on their way. Be prepared!

    So I was thinking about the genre business, and how things have played out historically, and stumbled into 1872, where three of the five best British books of the year were (and this is not my judgment, but based on their survival):

    George MacDonald, The Princess and the Goblin
    Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
    Samuel Butler, Erewhon

    Now I admit that Middlemarch, which completed serialization in 1872, would have won the Booker Prize, but still, two kiddie lit fantasies and one science fiction. Why would you want to skip all of this for statistical reasons?

    • Teresa says:

      Love that response to Franzen. And I suspect your posts will be far more about Kraus than about you, unlike Franzen’s piece about Kraus.

      Your observation about the best books of 1872 is a good argument for not focusing so much on the new. How can we know which books will survive until they’ve had time to do that? That’s another huge advantage of blogs. We can wait and see, 5, 10, 50, 100 years to see what sticks around before deciding whether it’s worth our time.

  4. gaskella says:

    I’m all for interesting reviews. Newspapers no longer have room for many of these sadly. I rarely buy newspapers these days though … I love the Gaitskill piece – fascinating!

    • Teresa says:

      Isn’t the Gaitskill piece great? What’s interesting about it to me is that I agreed with just about all of it, except that all the things she says about the book are the things that convince me it’s a great book.

  5. Thanks for linking to my “why I blog” post–there seems to be a self-examination epidemic lately!

    I read the Beha piece in when Slate picked it up, and bookmarked it to revisit along with a couple of Jennifer Weiner’s posts that he referenced. I’ve been following this “crusade” of hers (which makes it sound more important than it probably is, but I cam’t think of a better word right now) for a while, and I appreciated that Beha took a new perspective on the *substance* of her argument, and didn’t just snark about her.

    • Teresa says:

      I was glad about that too. Whatever people may think about her or her tone (I have mixed feelings myself), she does raise some important issues that ought to be discussed. But people just seem to focus on the fact that she’s mad, not on whether she’s got good reason for being mad. A lot of her reasons are good ones and worthy of being taken seriously, which Beha does, even if he doesn’t entirely agree.

  6. Danielle says:

    Oh Hallelujah–a new Sarah Waters!! I have been wondering when her newest would be ready! Thanks for the link to the article–am already excited! :)

  7. Stefanie says:

    I subscribe to both the NYRBs and the London Review and enjoy them both quite a lot in spite of their lack of women. I’m not especially looking for new books to read, though I usually end up adding one or two to my TBR list. Why I enjoy them is because I can read long and thoughtful essays about books and I often learn about events and history and people I didn’t know about before. I also learn a bit about reading and writing. The essays I enjoy most are usually about several books on a single topic or are wide ranging because the book is a collected letters or a biography or something like that. I appreciate Weiner’s campaign and have heard rumors that there is going to be a new feature that does five short reviews of wider range of books, or something like that. What I like best about this whole thing though is that people are talking about book reviews/criticism/reading which means people care about books and how we talk about them :)

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t subscribe to any literary reviews (no time to read more than I already do), but I’ve been known to pick up the NYRB on the newsstand or to read articles online. I agree that they’re more valuable as sources for good writing about books than for recommendations. I sometimes read pieces from the LARB or Open Letters Monthly online for the same reason. And I like seeing the conversation about this focus on the books, rather than the personalities of the people raising the issue. That’s been a frustrating aspect of the conversation regarding Weiner’s complaints. People talk about her, not about the points she’s making; I’m glad Beha addressed her ideas.

  8. Jeanne says:

    Fall is the time to take stock of how nutritious your intellectual fodder has become. Some conversations on social media turn out to be nutritious, or at least keep me more intellectually honest.
    Also, social media is where I found this amusing piece:

  9. I was thinking quite seriously about the ‘holy crap’ business and then you wrote about Sarah Waters and all I’ve been able to do is squeal with excitement ever since! Looking forward to that.

  10. aparatchick says:

    A new work by Sarah Waters! Yay!!! Franzen, on the other hand …. well, let’s just say I think Dorothy Parker’s “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with
    great force” quote applies.

    I read most of the NYT book reviews every Sunday, but it’s not where I look for book recommendations. For that I turn to book bloggers. I know what their tastes and judgements are, and I know how those track with mine.

    • Teresa says:

      I think The Corrections was the only book my old book club unanimously disliked. And we liked all sorts of books.

      The trouble I have with so many newspaper reviews is that it’s hard to know the reviewers taste, unless the review happens to come from a staff critic who writes for them all the time. Some critics do well enough at explaining what they liked about a book that I can get a sense, but it’s not always as easy to tell.

  11. sakura says:

    I’m really excited about the new Sarah Waters novel too:) And your post is really interesting. I remember before I discovered book blogs how I looked forward to the Saturday Times’ Book Pages which sadly got axed. But these days I hardly read newspaper reviews unless I hear about it on a blog. But I often find it difficult to sense what the reviewer really feels about the book too.

    • Teresa says:

      I used to buy the Washington Post on Sunday specifically for its book review section, which got cut a few years ago. They still have reviews inside the paper, and I sometimes read them online (Michael Dirda writes for them, and I like his writing), but blogs have largely replaced the newspaper as far as book reviews go.

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