Friday, October 30, 2009

THE UNIBROW OF BOOK REVIEWING

Heaven knows there little love lost between me and Jessa Crispin (something having to do with my having to endure the much-dreaded double whammy of penile frostbite and financial penury in order to read to --really!-- five folks --really, five folks!-- at a Bookslut reading), but this time she hit a nerve of a particularly raw variety. Probably because this past year I have been carrying around a big blistering lump of dis-ease about the state of the art (the art being lit), and Jessa, so it seems, wields just the lance to pierce that boil.

More later, I hope, on her plea for independence, but let me concentrate for now on one aspect of her heartfelt piece:
But the reason I have a hard time with these conversations about the decline of the review, and the death of authority, is because so many of the contemporary authors I love are often the ones being kept out of the conversation. They're rarely, if ever, reviewed in the New York Times, they don't get splashy features written about them and their night out with their friends. It's hard for me to get worked up about the decline of reviews when I didn't care much for them to begin with.
Being an empirically inclined sort of fellah, I decided to apply what I shall from now on call Crispin's Razor to the NYT's middle-unibrow to determine whether that statement holds any truth for me. Faithful readers of this blog know there is little love lost between me and the NYT too, having something to do with that whole WMD fiasco from a few years and a few hundred-thousand dead folks back, plus also no doubt some lingering ego-related resentment over never having made it into their pages, and also the strangely rigged game they play of having novelists review other novelists to admittedly hilarious yet stunningly uninformative results (recent reviews of Korean and Norwegian authors come to mind -- you know: folks who live too far away to actually come within real spitting range of Sam Tanenhaus) (can't wait, btw, to see Steve Jobs grace the NYT's pages with his review of Windows 7; and isn't it time the Merryl-Lynch CEO is given free rein to report on all that is wrong with the Bank of America?) -- but Jessa's is an empirical question: Surely my most beloved novel of 2009 -- it's about religion and death and it's funny as hell and it's dark as hell and it's entirely unexpected yet it feels as if it's always been here right with us, it's creepy, it's crawly, it hits you over the head with a bludgeon and offers no salve, it has an amputee a minute, it's dry as a bone and it'll make you chew your tongue off and it's limpid and simple as the glass of water you'll drown yourself in and it's unlike anything I've ever read and it's dedicated to me and it's Brian Evenson's Last Days and --horror!-- if I had to go by the NYT's Book section the whole genius book might indeed just never have been written: Their search engine returns nada-zip and poof. (Because not published by Random House? Because the author lives somewhere in between Manhattan and the next continent over? Because obvious precedence had to be given to a book called Eating: A Memoir?)

Well, I shall be kicked in the shin by a tiny leprechaun carrying a fleeting resemblance to Dick Cheney: Jessa is right.

Which means, perhaps, that it is time for independence, and we should all, why not, self-cauterize?

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

sorry, but what exactely is your passion? Writing? Or to be widely read? As long as you are not writing for the sake of writing, as long as you are not writing for the sake of saying something - all your writing is worthless. Regardless of anyone who might or might not review it, regardless of anyone who might adulate your work.
Just write because you have to - and everthing will be okay...
As long, as you have to say something (and you have to) - you'll do it and we'll read it.
So, what exactely is your problem?
As long as people write, other people will tell them (and us) which kind of literature is the right kind of literature to write (and to read) and which is not. Belief them or let it.I let it. You can read what you want to read, or you can read what they tell you to read. It's your choice, your brain, your mind, your writing. Nevertheless, I know: it hurts.

Paul Verhaeghen said...

W/r/t 'What exactly is your problem': My problem is who keeps the gates and how and perhaps even why they do it. Many of us (me included) rely on a few channels for our info about what we could possibly read; the NYT is such a channel for many readers; it even (I fancy) fancies itself the most important of such channels. Effectively, the NYT book review section works as a gatekeeper. My point here is that the NYT would have made me pick up 2666 (ann excellent novel), but it wouldn't have made me pick up Last Days -- I picked up Last Days because of extreme serendipity: I happened to meet Brian Evenson at some event and something clicked and so I checked out his work. That his novel is so staggeringly good, yet did not get reviewed in the most 'prestigious' of our lit media says something about the bias at the NYT, which -- face it -- is towards work by English-writing white males published at big houses (Bolano almost fits).

Ideally, I would argue, a good review strategy for any serious paper/publication would have editors reading TONS of books and then, after reading them, choose which ones to highlight. Now, the NYT strategy seems to consist in throwing the Fall or Spring or Whatever catalog of Simon & Random at whatever hipper novelist someone bumped into at a party. This bias towards -- oh, let's be blunt! -- whatever writing has been deemed by the book industry to be commercially viable is effectively destroying the NYT's relevance as a gatekeeper. One might just as well read the Fall/Spring/Whatever catalogs directly: What discoveries, I implore you, can be made by reading the NYT review section? Hence Jessa's instantly recognizable comment that the demise of the NYT book section would be difficult to mourn, because the patient is already quite dead. (I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the establishment media protect the establishment, but there you have it: I still am.) If you think it can't be done: Many of the British papers seem to do just fine in being quasi-adventurous in taste.

Put differently: It is all good and well to claim that 'you can read what you want to read, [and not] read what they tell you to read'; the problem is not resisting the reading what they tell you to read (I'm certainly good at that), the problem is finding the excellent read they DON'T tell you about, the amazing things that are out there, lurking in the shadows, in the small presses, in the backstreet alleys of publishing, in the chambers of some incredible mind unbelievably still beating heart?

Anonymous said...

I think, I understand.
But still another question: what for do we need gatekeepers?
Gatekeepers will, alas, ever exist. And as soon as there are gatekeepers - there is the danger of indoctrination. Of being indoctrinated without even noticing that we are. Even if the gatekeepers call themselves "independent". Independent of what? Of commercial interests, okay. Not independent of their own history of thinking and learning; thinking and learning about what makes literature "good" literature. Who should tell me what is excellent? Who has the right to do so?
And w/r/t "the problem is finding the excellent read they DON'T tell you about". Here, I don't agree - I think this is not the problem - this is the art. But still another point: are you sure that all of these authors who have written brilliant pieces want to be in the spotlight? Knowing that no one out there understand? Lonely and sad. Perhaps I'm too pessimistic – and you might be on a good way, because, if then there is only one person who understand – this might indemnify authors for the pain and urge of writing.

MBR said...

"Here, I don't agree - I think this is not the problem - this is the art."

What does this mean?

The issue, really, is that the NYT's book coverage is a sucky piece of junk that sucks.

Anonymous said...

What I meant was: don't see it as a problem, see it as a challenge - it's a masterpiece to find excellent literature (without relying on what others tell you). The same is true for the NYT. The NYT might not have the best strategy to report about literature. Your real problem seems to me that after you have found such a masterpiece, you want to popularize it. You want to tell others how brilliant it is (brilliant in YOUR opinion). Put differently: You want to give the unheard (but brilliant) a voice and you think the NYT should use its status to also do that. I agree*. Hopefully you'll find a way to change the NYT's books coverage policy.