It’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!