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December 29, 2006

The NYTBR Version of Fiction

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Steve Weber thinks it's a scandal that the NYTimes Book Review Section doesn't even try to cover self-published books. I do too. I also think that Steve's blog is a must-visit for those interested in self-publishing, and in innovative publishing generally.

As for the NYT Book Review Section ... Well, for the last few years I've been happy doing without. No longer professionally obligated to keep up with new books, I've been thrilled to let go of the concern. (God, do I hate "keeping up" with things ... ) The other day, though, I felt a twinge of curiosity and picked up a copy of the NYTBR Section. What kind of impact has Sam Tanenhaus, the current editor, had on the Section?

Verdict: Where nonfiction goes, Tanenhaus is doing exactly what he said he'd do when he was appointed to his position in 2004 -- emphasizing newsy nonfiction and opening the pages of the Section to a broader range of points of view. It's crisp and intelligent (if over-earnest) work. Good for Tanenhaus and his staff, about time, and a refreshing pick-me-up for the Section's readers too, I'd imagine.

Where fiction goes, the picture isn't nearly so pretty. I give the Section a D-minus. "Staid," "entrenched," and "boring" about sum it up. The Section under Tanenhaus is devoting fewer pages to fiction coverage than it used to -- debatable, of course, whether this is a good or a bad thing. What isn't debatable, as far as I'm concerned, is that those pages are full of the dismal usual: over-serious people carrying on in self-important ways about a bizarrely narrow range of titles.

Does Tanenhaus not have the confidence where fiction is concerned that he has where nonfiction goes? Is the "literary" cabal really that hard to break up? (I'd clean house myself.) Or are readers -- horrible thought -- relatively content to see fiction discussed in this dreary, aggrieved, PBS-ish way? (Hey, I once made fun of what I called "The Church of PBS.")

Of my many beefs with the way the Section covers fiction, my main one has to do with its attitude towards popular fiction. To say that the Section neglects popular fiction would be to understate matters by approximately a billionfold. As far as the Times Book Review Section goes, the book-fiction that represents probably 99% of what's read in America barely exists.

You think I'm kidding? The issue I looked at was the year-ender Best-Of issue. To run the numbers: Of what were proclaimed the year's five best fiction titles, not a single one was an example of popular fiction. Of the four fiction books that were awarded individual reviews in the rest of the issue: zero popular fiction.

The big fiction-book review went to a new collection of Alice Munro stories. No complaint there -- I think the world of Alice Munro too. But what were the other fiction books that rated? One is a Very Serious Ambitious First Historical Novel about a slave in pre-apartheid South Africa; another is a Very Serious Ambitious First Historical Novel about a boy trying to survive the Irish Potato Famine. I won't speak for anyone else, but I can say without shame that I don't wake up in the morning looking forward to reading Very Serious Ambitious First Historical Novels about Great Tragedies, let alone reading reviews of such.

Let me repeat the bit I want to emphasize, though: In this issue of the Times Book Review Section, no popular fiction received substantial recognition. Thinking that this issue of the BR Section might be anomolous, I picked up and scanned the current issue. The numbers there: Two fiction-books were awarded standalone reviews, and neither one qualifies as popular fiction.

I like a certain amount of literary fiction myself, even if my own list of contempo lit faves doesn't overlap much with the standard serious-person's literary reading list. (I gave my own version of the contemporary literary galaxy here.) So please don't take me as praising popular fiction at the expense of literary fiction. May they both thrive. And if people or critics or editors or publications simply don't respond to popular fiction, that's more than OK with me. Taste is taste, and pleasures are pleasures. But where the NYTBR Section is concerned, we're to some extent talking about coverage, not opinion. And the reviewers and the editors of the Book Review Section simply have their heads -- their eggheads -- buried in the sand.

To use an analogy: imagine a movie magazine. It doesn't announce itself as avant-garde, or as niche in any way. It's just The New York Review of Movies. It purports, in other words, to be covering movies. You'd expect this magazine to have a point of view -- who would even want a publication that's indiscriminate, after all? But I think it's fair to say that you'd be surprised if all the movies this magazine gave substantial coverage to were upscale arthouse films.

You might even think of sending a letter to the editor asking what the hell is up. After all, what would the history of movies be without such popular phenomena as Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Bruce Lee, and Julia Roberts, let alone "Casablanca," "Gone With the Wind," and "E.T."? Like 'em or dislike 'em, note has to be taken. No sane movie buff, no matter how serious and intellectual, would quarrel with the idea that the popular side of movies deserves recognition, or that the popular side of movies sometimes results in marvels quite the equal of any upscale arthouse film. (Oddly, I'm probably more of a snob where movies are concerned than I am where book-fiction is concerned. I wonder what to make of that ... )

Where its fiction coverage is concerned, the absurd magazine I just described is exactly what the NYTBR Section is. I don't fully understand why more people don't recognize this. As far as I can tell, people make allowances for books and for literature that they don't make for most of the other arts. In any case, the NYBR Section chooses its subjects from a narrow, even peculiar shelf of books. It doesn't show even a lick of interest in what's going on outside its particular little hothouse. Even the recommended-paperbacks column fails to highlight much popular fiction. Where fiction-coverage is concerned, I don't know why the Section doesn't come straight out and call itself the New York Times Review of What a Small Number of NYC-Based Editors and Critics Think is Up to Their Snooty Standards. At least readers would have some idea of what they're really dealing with.

A small qualification: Both of the issues I inspected included columns devoted to popular fiction -- Marilyn Stasio's weekly Crime fiction roundup, and (in one of the issues) a column given over to sci-fi. I happen to like roundups myself. But let's not kid ourselves: Covering popular fiction by dumping all such coverage into roundup bins is a way of not-really-covering popular fiction.

Which brings me to what really made my blood boil: the review-fate of one particular book -- "Hollywood Station," the new novel by Joseph Wambaugh.

A quick word for those who haven't encountered Joseph Wambaugh and his writing. A onetime Marine and L.A. cop, Wambaugh is a wildly successful author of cop novels and cop nonfiction. Among his best-known books are "The Choirboys," "The Onion Field," "The Black Marble," and "The New Centurions."

Wambaugh is anything but a victim deserving our sympathy. He has sold millions of copies of his books, and he has made millions of dollars. All that said, he's also one amazing writer. I've read only three of his books so far, darn it. But my verdicts of these three books ranged from "Wow!" to "Wonderful!" to "Holy cow!" "The Choirboys" in particular struck me as a major novel. I read it muttering, "This is great! This is just fucking great!" My calmer, more reflective, more considered judgment of the book is, by the way, "Fucking great!" "The Choirboys" is big, profane, hilarious, and moving -- a teeming, emotional / physical, evocative heap of rousing storytelling. I confess that I read it with an annoying part of my mind chirping, "Good lord, I like this a whole lot better than I like Pynchon! Why don't the profs and the critics make more of Wambaugh?"

(I've had similar reactions reading other rowdy, accessible, moving novels too. A few that come quickly to mind: Dan Jenkins' football novel "Semi-Tough," Terry McMillan's funky and funny "Waiting to Exhale," and V.C. Andrews' Poe-for-teens classic "Flowers in the Attic.")

As if popular and wonderful aren't enough, Wambaugh has also been an influential writer. In writing-history terms, he took the Ed McBain-style police procedural and filled it to bursting with irreverence, heart and despair. He was an innovator too. He introduced big helpings of tragedy and comedy (as well as grit and strung-out high spirits) into the recipe. He's been a major influence on TV and movies -- on popular storytelling. When you watch such sprawling, mixed-mode entertainments as "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue," you're seeing shows influenced by and inspired by Joseph Wambaugh.

So it's fair to say that -- in popular-fiction and popular-narrative terms, anyway -- Joseph Wambaugh is a very big deal. In news terms, the appearance of a big cop novel from Wambaugh is a big deal too: "Hollywood Station" is Wambaugh's first ambitious cop dramedy in more than a decade. Has the old master still got what it takes? Can the new book possibly live up to his early work?

A juicy subject, no? Now here's the mind and judgment of the NYTBR Section at work. The week the new Joseph Wambaugh novel appears, they decide to give two of their glamor fiction-review slots to Ambitious First Novels about Historical Tragedies. And how do they deal with the new Joseph Wambaugh? They consign it to their Crime-roundup column.

I don't know what to say or do about this kind of judgment except to shake my head in disbelief. To her credit, Marilyn Stasio wrote a review of the book that is more-than-impressed -- Stasio knows, even if her bosses don't, what a big deal Wambaugh is. And, according to her, Wambaugh is in fab form -- his new novel really rocks. (I've ordered my copy already.) To the Book Review Section's discredit, though, Stasio's review is all of five short paragraphs long, and is merely the first review in a crime-fiction roundup. In other words, the Book Review Section is essentially saying, "This novel isn't of any import unless you're one of those -- sniff, patooie -- people who are into crime fiction, in which case you might have something here to enjoy but you aren't a serious person."

I think it's safe to say that Wambaugh's sin is that he doesn't write literary fiction. Shame on him, he creates compulsively readable, highly-charged, big-hearted, narrative cop fiction that's more than a bit rough around the edges. It isn't about ideas. It isn't gamesmanship for the critics and the intellectuals. It's simply exuberant, moving, humane, absorbing -- and, of course, completely accessible.

Is any of this of any real importance, let alone worth getting much worked up about? As I say, I'm generally more than content to avoid the Book Review Section's pomposities and simply get on with my (perfectly lovely, thank you) reading life. I think there may be a couple of senses in which the Times Book Review Section's attitudes towards fiction do matter, though.

For one thing, a surprising number of people take the Times Book Review Section to be central to the culture of reading and writing. For these readers, the Section's editors and reviewers are trustworthy arbiters of what's worthy of attention and what's not. In other words, for many people, what the Times says (and conveys) about books and publishing isn't its own peculiar take on the subject but the very Truth Itself about writing and reading.

For another, the Section's attitudes promote the wildly-mistaken impression that there exists only two kinds of contemporary fiction: literary fiction, where the true talents do their earnest best to aspire to the top rank and which demands our concern and interest; and pop blockbuster fiction, which is crap and can safely be ignored.

You think I'm joking? Here's a passage from a recent Benjamin Anastas review:

Thrillers, by convention, are the concession food of literature: their stories are formulated to inflame the senses and coerce the appetite while delivering the kind of nourishment that evaporates as soon as you turn the final page. In most cases, thrillers are a thrill only for readers with a taste for the expected.

Now that's a nose that's stuck up where the air is mighty thin! Amusing, I suppose: I'm happy to agree that there's a role in arts coverage for provocation and snobbery. But when provocation and snobbery aren't challenged, they start laying themselves down as dogma. Readers who rely on the Times Book Review Section, in other words, are likely to pick up the hint from Anastas, and to start taking it for granted that the thriller form -- a favorite vehicle for Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad, and Patricia Highsmith -- is beneath contempt.

O, the generalizations and putdowns the lit set likes to indulge in where popular fiction is concerned! In my experience, literary people often love to sneer at it even when they haven't explored the popular fiction world much. Then there are, sigh, those literary people who read more mysteries than anything else, yet who look down on what they most enjoy ...

Anyway, this false impression (worthy-lit / unworthy pop-crap) seeps into general attitudes and misleads many people. It also deprives many people of much reading pleasure, I suspect. People who might enjoy Ruth Rendell or Joseph Wambaugh (or Jackie Collins or Ira Levin) far more than the latest precious writing-school discovery or autobiographical South African may not have heard of them, or might simply consider them not their kind of thing. Meanwhile, readers who spend their time with Elmore Leonard or Elizabeth George may be going around meekly assuming that they have a weakness for the second-rate when in fact they're savoring the work of some of today's giants.

OK, OK: There's one small reason to cut the lit set a little slack. Their work is loved and read by so few that some dementia and grandiosity is to be expected from them. How else can they keep their spirits up? Still, should our mercy really extend to the point where we let snobs dictate our reading habits?

In my own dream fiction-coverage publication, people wouldn't fetishize books, let alone books from a narrow range of publishers, authors, and genres. Self-publishing would be viewed as a wonderful development, as would blogs. (Why should appearing on paper and between covers be thought to make writing special? ) Acknowledgement would be made of the skills and talents of creators in many fiction fields: TV, movies, magazines. Reviewers and reporters would sample and cover what are currently overlooked fields: humor, erotica and porn, horror and romance, YA fiction, manga, comic books.

The business of fiction-publishing would be recognized not as an unfortunate interruption in the conduct of Genius but as the dirty, fascinating process from which fiction arises, and the relations between what's written, read, and published would be regularly mused-over. Reading habits would be prodded. Regional tastes, hits, and literatures would be inspected and sorted-out. Publishers, designers, and salespeople would be interviewed.

And -- this would be the single thing I'd stress most -- it would be openly acknowleged that lit-fict and popular fiction are two different games; that both of them are perfectly legit; and that both are capable of generating equally lousy and equally wonderful work. In my dream books-coverage publication, in other words, Alice Munro and Joseph Wambaugh would both be recognized as major stars.

I guess what my recent wrestle with the NYTBR Section leaves me musing about most is the people who fall for this approach to fiction-chat. Where fiction goes, after all, the TBR is selling a fantasy. A few of that fantasy's components are: in fiction, ideas are important; literary writers are smarter than popular-fiction authors; being smart in a Harvard sense is, where fiction is concerned, always a good thing; there's a small group of serious and accomplished people, mostly located in or near NYC, who are capable of judging what's worthy and what's not worthy; literary writing is an intrinsically more important thing than popular-fiction writing. Final component: There's something of such urgent literary importance happening on a weekly basis that it must, simply must, overshadow all talk of pleasure and fun.

I confess that I'm sort of amused by the existence of an audience for fiction coverage that's this loony. What kind of idiot would fall for it? People who, despite their educations, are so credulous that they actually like being fleeced? What kind of overserious mind-space must such a person inhabit?

Slightly-related thought: In my recent posting about Charles Bukowski, I voiced a hunch that many more boys and young men would get involved in literature, reading, and writing if they were introduced to Bukowski's fiction. I think Joseph Wambaugh's fiction would turn young males on in a similar way. Keeping books like these -- earthy, propulsive stuff, as soulful and stirring as any popular music -- away from boys promotes the impression that reading-and-writing is for pussies. Is this in anyone's best interest?

Back in 2004, when the Book Review Section was looking for a new editor and before it had settled on Sam Tanenhaus, I volunteered some suggestions about directions the Book Review Section might want to go in. In that piece, I also talked about how the book-reviewing biz really works.

Check out a BookTV video documentary about the NYTBR Section here. Listen to a Don Swaim interview with Joseph Wambaugh here. Wambaugh talks to CNN about the LAPD and the current state of the publishing business here.



UPDATE: Bookgasm -- a blog that knows how to discuss popular literature -- picks the Best and the Worst of 2006. Rod Lott raves about "Hollywood Station" here.

posted by Michael at December 29, 2006


Sounds like you're right about the NYTBR. Do you have any pointers to better magazines? Blogs?

Posted by: JewishAtheist on December 29, 2006 3:11 PM

I just so totally agree with this post! And I think the same mentality just plain old spoils lots of fun in life, not just books. I think its also because reading books and writing down your opinion of them (or watching movies and doing same) is such a groovy gig that everybody could want it (everybody's got an opinion after all) that they have to make The Books and Movies One Must Worship icky and hard so that a lot of people drop out of the hunt for the job cause they are just too much fun as people to be able to stand it, thereby leaving the job to the snoots who typically pretty socially annoying. I'm not entirely kidding. Where would any of these people work otherwise?

But I must make a Not Ready For the NYTBR observation about "accessibility." I think its what someone like me finds so irritating about modernism of all forms, and the New York Times, etc. It thrives on its very "inaccessibility." It isn't "inaccessible" because its so subtle and brainy that one simply has to be sophisticated, sensitive, smart to "get it." It's like Job One is "inaccessibility" even if it requires dense stupidity to make it inaccessible. "Any dumbf*ck" can look at a Sargent portrait and say "what a beautiful painting with such amaing light." Not just any dumbf*ck can look at Picasso and figure out why the hell her arm is coming out of her ear (or, so the professors and connisseurs want to think). Or, more to the point, the exhibit at the St. Louis Art Museum which put ceramic tiles which are about five feet tall on a wall and then called it an artwork "of human dimension." A "special" dumbf*ck is required!! I actually admire certain things Faulkner accomplished in "The Sound and the Fury" but I generally steadfastly refuse to acknowledge them, just because of the impenetrable way English professors taught the book. Making it "inaccessible" allows certain dufuses to feel important (and make others feel unimportant) which is the most basic playground snobbery and therefore I just hate it.

Posted by: annette on December 29, 2006 3:30 PM

What about the other book reviews in mag newspaper form? I mean, the New York Review of Books is way beyond me. I just don't know what people are talking about most of the time.

I do better with the LA Times book section. Seems to me that when I was in and out of Powells in Portland, I would see newsprint magazine reviews of crime novels or feminist books. Is there a book review mag in the Boston papers? The Ruminator Review has more or less collapsed and the Bloomsbury Review in Denver is not what it used to be. But with the enormous need for simple sorting of the humonguous load of print in the world, there ought to be other sources of criteria than the NYTimes Book Review, though it's the only one to which I subscribe simply because it's better than nothing.

Is there an index to review mags somewhere?

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 29, 2006 3:44 PM

OK...what the heck did I do to turn the text blue?

Posted by: annette on December 29, 2006 3:45 PM

The popular fiction not covered in the NYTRB sells a hell of a lot more than the admittedly narrow range of books that are covered in the NYTRB. So you're arguing that books that are validated in almost every other way also get validated in the NYTRB. I find this phenomenon, which is not isolated to just the publishing industry, to be highly annoying. It's the status quo getting pissy that they are not being validated in every possible venue.

I think institutions like the NYTRB exist to shed light on books that are not getting the public attention of some of the books you mention in this post. For someone with a purely market-based point of view, this may seem something like cultural socialism. The market has decided that this or that book is worthy of being read, so book reviewers should take their cues and ignore the books that haven't caught the public's attention. Right?

Also, I've heard much bemoaning about the "cultural elite" around these parts. If you dislike them, why would you want them to validate the media you enjoy?

I should say that I don't even read the NYTRB, nor most of the books covered in it, as far as I can tell. I realize that the publication is seen as some kind of standard-bearer for the literary community, but so what? It's still just one publication. It obviously isn't hurting the popular writers who aren't reviewed in it. So what's the problem?

Posted by: the patriarch on December 29, 2006 4:32 PM

Jewish Atheist -- I wish there were a bunch of outlets where fiction-books are discussed with more openness and more of a sense of fun. So far as ultramainstream, squaresville stuff goes, USA Today is pretty good. The Bookgasm blog has a great rock n roll spirit. There are crime-fiction and romance-fiction blogs that are helpful. There are lots of people in the bookbiz who are pretty shrewd about what's what, but they nearly all work under the cloud of respectability. I think a lot of the most helpful yak about books is in Readers' Comments on Amazon. Many people know what they like and why they like it and aren't shy about putting it into words. Do you have sources for good booksyak I should know about?

Annette -- It's a puzzler, isn't it? The way so many profs and critics disdain anything that's straightforwardly fun, or emotional, let alone easy to grasp and enjoy? This is just a hunch, but I think one reason for this may be that profs and critics, being temperamentally intellectual people themselves, are simply drawn to intellectually-complicated work. They also want us to be impressed by their discernment -- they want us to respect their opinions. So they make the claim that work has to be intellectually challenging in order to be worthwhile. So the problem, in this view, isn't that they like what they like -- there's such a thing as literature for grad students, after all. It's that the rest of us let ourselves be overimpressed by them. Or something like that. It's a theory, anyway. That blue text was weird, wasn't it? Turned out to be because you'd started an italicized passage but didn't include the "i" in the brackets. Turned the following text blue. Odd.

P. Mary -- I'd love to know how people get their information about new books these days. From friends? Trusted bookstores? Web-surfing? Looking around at what everyone's reading while on the airplane?

Patriarch -- I'm not sure I get your point. "Validation"? Huh? And I'm part of some capitalist/populist conspiracy? But I'm advocating a broader and more open approach to fiction coverage.

Maybe part of the hurdle is the term "popular fiction." Popular fiction doesn't necessarily sell a lot of copies. It's just fiction that is narrative, is accessibly written, that often embraces (rather than defies) a genre, and that reaches out to more than a specialist audience. It doesn't necessarily make anyone a lot of money. It's like popular music in that way -- for every band that's huge, there are thousands you've never heard of.

Let's just say that there are plenty of lit-fict writers who are doing better than a lot of popular-fict writers. Trust funds and foundation grants aren't to be sneezed at. Popular fiction is generally, by the way, the literary equivalent of the working-class. Resenting popular fiction while feeling sorry for lit fict (a field propped up by parents, profs, the media, schools, family money, etc) ... Well, the sympathies could use some realigning, I think.

In any case, popular fiction is a huge swath of fiction-writing that the NYTBR pays next to no attention to. You wouldn't find it weird if the Times' music pages ignored everything but classical music? Or if their movie coverage only reviewed French and Taiwanese art movies? Developments in the field of popular fiction don't deserve journalistic and review/critical attention? Why on earth not? You're going to punish the entire field (and coddle an already overcoddled lit-fict world) because a couple of dozen popular-fiction authors are hugely successful?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 29, 2006 5:08 PM

How do I decide what to read?

Bibliographies in books I already have.

Since I read regional works as a priority, regional newspapers who carry reviews. The annual Book Festivals around the state where I don't just see the books, but also the authors.

And subject searches in Powells, Google, Abebooks, and -- if forced into it -- Amazon. This last when I'm writing and need to get a feel for the field.

And since I'm poor, I depend heavily on remainder houses, like Daedalus and Hamilton. Luckily, remaindered books are almost always books that I, if no one else, really like. I furnished myself, the Browning town library, and the Heart Butte school library with sets of about twenty Native American lit books from Powells, acquired in the years when they were being remaindered for five bucks each.

Anyway, if I sat down to read all the books I already own, I'd still be turning pages on the crematorium trolley.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 29, 2006 6:04 PM

Keeping books like these... from boys promotes the illusion that reading-and-writing is for pussies. Is this in anybody's best interest?

Perhaps it's in the best interest of, well, pussies?

Posted by: Brian on December 29, 2006 6:18 PM

"As far as I can tell, people make allowances for books and for literature that they don't make for most of the other arts."

Books and literature are a minority interest, and a very small one, at that. They are of interest to very few people, and I would contend, that most of them are highly educated, either college students going up the academic-professional ladder or over-educated professionals.

The character of the NYTBR is, I suspect, somewhat self-selecting. While there are readers of popular fiction, such as yourself, Michael, who are discerning and who would enjoy some lively commentary on pop and genre novels, I suspect that most of the readers for such fiction are uninterested, wouldn't know, care, or even notice the NYTBR even if it suddenly devoted itself to popular fiction.

I really don't understand nor do I care about the concern I see coming from you and others about how we can get young boys or any other group to become readers. Reading for entertainment is a recreational choice. Literacy is easy to acquire, as are books. I've read probably hundreds of books in my life (I'm 50 this December). I've enjoyed quite a few, loved some, but not one changed the direction or nature of my life. Books are not like amino acids and vitamins. One can lead a very healthy, happy life without them and in fact, most people do.

While you abhor the snobbish, litfic bias of the NYTBR, I think that your concerns about it and the energy you've devoted to considering it, ironically marks you as part of its intended audience.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on December 29, 2006 7:42 PM

Many popular or genre novels are simply better than the literary variety, by almost any criteria a critic may choose to employ. I am saying that from a critical standpoint, not a market one, popular fiction has the edge in these times. In half a century, literary historians will examine the Times's predilections and wonder why the NYTBR chose to commit suicide and end up irrelevant. Ideas and prejudices are powerful, and trump all else. I'm a cultural determinist in my old age, and believe the Times's reviewers will continue grimly on their course, helpless to change it. The same is true of the Pulitzer Committee and the judges of the National Book Award, who are marching toward irrelevance along with the Times. And some day soon, the whole world of literary criticism will shift elsewhere.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on December 29, 2006 9:38 PM

Oddly, last weekend the NYTBR devoted a whole page to sf writer (and blogger) John Scalzi. I think it may have been designated a genre-literature review, but it still surprised me.

As for Peter Winkler's comment above, I'm sorry to hear that no book has changed much about your life. I'm sure that several have changed mine - not least by showing me what else the world had to offer compared to where I grew up. I have a lot of trouble imagining a healthy, happy life without books, myself - how about no reading at all, then, outside of street signs and restaurant menus?

Posted by: Derek Lowe on December 29, 2006 9:45 PM

The NYT doesn't even review serious works that are best-sellers. Mark Steyn's "America Alone" is a recent case in point.

Posted by: beloml on December 29, 2006 10:47 PM

I don't follow literature, nor do I prefer popular / genre to "literary" fiction, but I still think the latter should get more coverage than the former. The simple reason is that it's much harder to create good literary fiction -- you need an elite level of brains, eccentricity, and work ethic (Nabokov). So, most attempts will be soporific failures.

Popular / genre writers can achieve their goals more easily, so "good crime fiction" should be easier to come across, as a percentage of all attempts. If there's a greater absolute number of popular writers, then it will be even easier to come across good stuff here than in literary fiction.

The only reason, then, for giving more coverage to literary fiction is the belief that the typical literary novel -- even if bad or mediocre -- is better than a good or great popular book. Again, not being into novels, I wouldn't know how warranted this approach is. But for movies, I'd say Spaceballs beats a film school snoozer.

Posted by: Agnostic on December 29, 2006 11:15 PM

Thanks, Michael, for the NYTBR update. I was a loyal subscriber to the NYT for many years -- even getting the metro edition mailed to Seattle (a 4-day delay). But I quit reading that paper around 15 years ago. It's nice to learn that someone is still allowed to carry the torch for Anthony Boucher (Sci-Fi) and "Newgate Calendar" (whodunnits) -- though you had me worried about those columns for the first half of you excellent essay.

I suspect many people (including those with college diplomas) feel intimidated by High Culture and cling to publications like the NYTBR for guidance. Why, if they tell us that pop-lit is dreck, then surely that must be so. This was the case with lit-illiterate me in my younger, fiction-reading days. And it probably suits the BR crowd very much.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 30, 2006 1:08 AM

During *mediabistro* event, panel discussion "From blogger to author" one of the panelists, a literary agent (or was she working for a marginal publishing house?) said with aplomb, "we make NYT to notice you; and everybody read NYT"

I almost laughed out loud.

Posted by: Tatyana on December 30, 2006 8:03 AM

I'm sorry Michael, but you're way off here. This is market segmentation in action. Why are the publishers of "Nature" publishing articles that most of us can't understand. Obviously they should take a page from "Discovery".

Sounds ridiculous?

Both magazines claim to cover science and they're both right. They cover it for two completely different markets, and their markets know that. I don't know too many readers claiming that Nature is elitist because most readers won't understand it.

Second point: What the heck is wrong with having both a high-brow and low-brow culture? I also expect the most insecure members of each crowd to despise the other and sling arrows (okay, clots of mud) in a desperate attempt to make themselves feel superior.

However, I don't expect reasonably secure people to care what insecure people say. Who cares what some of the literary elite think about the novels I like? Who cares that a few publications exist to serve that market? They're allowed to exist. Just because *I* don't love something doesn't mean that no-one else should love it.

I don't think this particular hobby horse makes an appropriate mount for someone whose efforts I quite admire!

Posted by: Tom West on December 30, 2006 8:43 AM

annette> Or, more to the point, the exhibit at the St. Louis Art Museum which put ceramic tiles which are about five feet tall on a wall and then called it an artwork "of human dimension." A "special" dumbf*ck is required!!

I have to disagree. While I can't imagine I'd get anything out of ceramic tiles, there are certain works of art (music/books/visual arts/etc) that I find (much to my sadness) very few others appreciate as I do. Art is multi-dimensional, and a particular piece may be appreciated only by those who have a particular set of human experience, educational background, historical knowledge, etc. thus making its appeal very limited. That doesn't make the art *I* like is good or better. It merely means that I am capable of appreciating some art that others are not. In doing so, I have to accept that I cannot appreciate the *vast* majority of art because I lack the necessary background.

Now there is *some* art that is widely accessible and requires very little in the way of background to appreciate. But I'd be lying if I said (for me, anyway), that most such art touches me as deeply as something that I appreciate because it connects to me on a vast number of different levels. I can only imagine the experience that seeing those ceramic tiles may give to others. Lucky them.

And just to make it clear, I'm a computer geek and the vast majority of art goes *way* over my head. But I can appreciate that it does touch, and touch deeply, others.

Posted by: Tom West on December 30, 2006 8:58 AM

Donald wrote, "I suspect many people (including those with college diplomas) feel intimidated by High Culture and cling to publications like the NYTBR for guidance. Why, if they tell us that pop-lit is dreck, then surely that must be so."

Actually, it's more the case that people are turning to blogs as the MSM slides even farther into obsolecence and irrelevance.

Posted by: beloml on December 30, 2006 11:16 AM

Wambaugh writes about lower middle class male white ethnic blue collar working stiffs. You expect the NYTBR to feature sympathetic work about the likes of them?! Dream on.

Posted by: ricpic on December 30, 2006 5:34 PM

Amazon's user reviews are the best and most useful reviews, bar none.

Posted by: Peter on December 30, 2006 10:04 PM

P. Mary -- Books may not be healthy but they sure can be fun!

Brian - I'd love to see someone look into the reading-and-writing world from that point of view -- as a kind of concerted effort on the part of the girls to turn it into a girls' club. They've done a pretty effective job of it.

Peter L. W. -- Yeah, I think the religious raptures people go into over books can be 'way overdone too. But the concern about boys can count a bit if you *are* into books. It's become such a cautious, over-designed, hyper-feminized field at this point ... It badly needs some irreverence, extraversion, rowdiness, daring, etc -- which guys can occasionally supply.

Richard -- It does look like slow-motion suicide, doesn't it? It seems like 110% of the energy the bookbiz is putting out these days is devoted to clinging on to what they've got. They seem to have lost the knack for reaching out and bringing new people in. Inevitable in these days of media change? Or a sign of panic?

Derek -- The Scalzi thing was a strange choice, wasn't it? And a strange piece too -- half review, half I don't know what. But sci-fi isn't anything I know anything about, so maybe it made sense to fans.

Beloml -- The failure of the American mainstream media to pick up on Steyn generally perplexes me. I think he's nuts about the war. But he's supersmart and an amazing writer. You'd think someplace like Time would see him and think, Wow, he could really bring in some new readers and stir the pot up! Do you suppose their aversion to his politics might have anything to do with it?

Agnostic -- I'm with you about halfway, mainly where the "good lit fiction is rarer than good popular literature" thing is concerned. Ain't that the case. The rest, though ... 1) I've met a fair number of lit types and popular-fict types, and I can guarantee you that lit-fict people don't by any means tend to be smarter than popular-fiction creators. More neurotic and high-strung and pretentious, maybe, but certainly not as-a-rule smarter. 2) If it's true (and I agree) that there's more readable popular fiction around than lit-fiction, doesn't that make a case for covering popular fiction more (not less)? Why ignore good work? And why deprive your readers of suggestions and tips they might enjoy?

Donald -- Anthony Boucher and Newgate Callander, I remember those names. They were big in their time. Amusingly Boucher was one of the first mainstream people to make a case for that thriller writer Charles Johnson who I was raving about not long ago.

Tatyana -- The conviction many people in the publishing biz have that everyone reads the NYT is pretty funny.

Tom -- I suspect you didn't notice my "may lit fict and popular fiction *both* flourish" angle!

Beloml -- Tough times for critics and editors! Must be hard on their egos, discovering that so many people really don't care what they think.

Ricpic -- Incisive words of wisdom!

Peter -- Right on.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 31, 2006 12:23 AM

I suspect you didn't notice my "may lit fict and popular fiction *both* flourish" angle!

Exactly where would you see lit fict flourish?

The NYTBR section is one of the only lit fict review publications that commands general respect due to its circulation. (Circulation courtesy of the NYT, but circulation just the same.)

As such, it has an importance that makes it essentially irreplacable in the lit fict world. Publishers have next to no incentive to publish lit fict books except for the prestige it generates, and losing the single most important publication for generating that prestige would basically cripple lit fict. (And let's face it, dilution doesn't really work. It simply means that your publication is half as relevant for each market.)

I ask again. What is so wrong about having *one* high profile publication that celebrates lit fict?

[And so what if some of its reviewers bad mouth popular fict? Pretty much any group whose survival is under continuous threat has many members who cultivate a "we're better than them" attitude. Cripes, science fiction conventions are filled with exactly the same attitude.]

Posted by: Tom West on December 31, 2006 9:21 AM

Tom -- I'm perplexed by a couple of things.

1) Your vision of arts journalism as a kind of extension of social-welfare agencies. I do agree that it's part of what a good arts publication should do, to have a point of view and search out and suggest under-noticed good work. But if the Times were to do more of that, they'd be reviewing more (not less) popular fiction. And I think you're overlooking the whole journalistic function of arts coverage. To some extent, the TBR is *covering* the world of fiction-writing -- yet they're almost completely ignoring 90% of what's written, and they're doing this based on bias. That's a disservice to the field they cover as well as to their own readers.

Incidentally, the only reason this matters is that, as a practical fact, the TBR represents "books" not just to the bookbiz and to the media world (many media outlets take their cue from the TBR), but to many readers around the country. The TBR is peddling as bizarre and narrow a vision of fiction-books as, I don't know, the Nation (or the National Review) is of politics. Yet it doesn't present itself as a partisan publication, and it isn't taken as such.

And 2) I'm also puzzled by your conviction that the lit-writing world is a poor frail thing in need of constant charitable ministrations. This despite the fact that lit-fict is a largely upper-middle-class activity? And despite the fact that 90% of the schools, the media, the foundations, the grant-disbursers, and the writing prizes operate in lit-fict's favor?

Look, where some of the arts are concerned (music, movies, even theater) the Times does a good job of providing coverage of high, low, roots, domestic, foreign, folk, popular, etc. They're balanced, they're open. It's all music, it's all movies. But where a few of the arts are concerned (architecture, books), they're still carrying on as though it's 1955 and as though a trustworthy, dignified elite can be assumed to be at the steering wheel. It isn't 1955, the elite was never that trustworthy, and it barely exists any longer anyway. The TBR's editors can peddle whatever approach and product they want to peddle, and it's interesting that there's an audience for something that's as fantasy-addled as the TBR is. But surely it's OK to mock 'em a bit for wearing blinders and putting on airs too.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 31, 2006 12:37 PM

TBR represents "books" not just to the bookbiz and to the media world, but to many readers around the country.

To be honest, I'd say that *bookstores* represent books to the *vast* majority of consumers. And for that, it's pretty clear that Best-Sellers and Chicken-Soup books are what books are *really* about.

I think most of the readers of the NYTBR are pretty clear about what they're getting - a rarefied look into the field that they're not likely to personally indulge in, but remain culturally attached to.

I'm also puzzled by your conviction that the lit-writing world is a poor frail thing in need of constant charitable ministrations.

Well, I'd look at poetry as an example of literary fiction's likely fate. In any real sense, poetry is dead. It has no meaning for modern society as a whole and if it disappeared, there'd be no change in society at large. This was not always the case. In the past, it certainly played an important role in (literate) society. Now, it's irrelevant and the vast majority can neither read nor understand poetry (me more or less among them).

Literary fiction is heading the same direction and I feel society will be poorer for its loss. Because of its unique position, losing an institution like the NYTBR as a supporting member of the literary fiction would be a body blow from which it would be unlikely to recover.

And it may be a little apocalyptic, but I have a feeling that popular fiction is likely to follow the same path to social irrelevance. Books are simply not lucrative enough compared to other media. Reading for enjoyment is inherently elitist and is only still as relevant as it is because the government keeps pushing it (through massive efforts in schools to keep people reading, through subsidizing libraries, etc.).

Stripped of the cultural importance that is still attached to literary books, I can easily see reading as a whole becoming less important to society. And when that happens, it means that people start looking a lot more seriously at using the money tied up in publishing books into something more lucrative. After all, if books are simply another widget to make a profit on, then there are a *ton* of better fields to enter than book publishing.

But surely it's OK to mock 'em a bit for wearing blinders and putting on airs too.

I suppose, but I see a lot of the reverse of putting on airs here (and elsewhere - anti-elitism seems pretty common all over). "Popular fiction is superior because it actually sells.", etc. Both seem to be attempts to prove they're "better" than the other.

Perhaps being part of the popular fiction crowd (my fiction tastes run to SF + Fantasy), I'm more sensitive to what I consider the ill-behavior of those I consider my peers.

Posted by: Tom West on December 31, 2006 2:18 PM

I would like to invite the doyens of literary fiction to supply me with a detailed list of the critical criteria by which they separate literary from popular fiction. Also a list of the attributes of literary fiction that they believe are missing from popular fiction. And the reasons they believe literary fiction is superior to the other kind.

I am prepared to show them, using their own criteria, that many "popular" novels are superior to what they regard as the best literary fiction. It is time for a major rethinking of literary categories, and time for a lot of mythology and prejudice to be stripped away.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on December 31, 2006 4:01 PM

As for library subsidies being a way of promoting reading, as best I can tell libraries function mostly as daytime homeless shelters, discount child care centers, and respite care for the senile elderly.

Posted by: Peter on December 31, 2006 10:08 PM

I would like to invite the doyens of literary fiction to supply me with a detailed list of the critical criteria by which they separate literary from popular fiction. Also a list of the attributes of literary fiction that they believe are missing from popular fiction. And the reasons they believe literary fiction is superior to the other kind.

As the self-appointed defender of literary fiction here, I'll take a crack at this:

First, let me make clear that the lines between lit fict and pop fict are not iron clad. It is a continuum, although the number of novels that straddle the line is not high.

The main difference between literary fiction and popular fiction can be summarized as what it demands of the reader. By definition, popular fiction cannot make excessive demands on the reader. A book that takes weeks to fully understand is not popular fiction.

However, like real life, there are some things that *cannot* be transmitted in a matter of a few hours - that take time to settle in and be understood. I've seen my wife spend an hour pondering the metaphors in a single outstanding sentence, slowly teasing out understanding of a subtle point of view foreign to her own - until now.

Likewise, appreciation of literary works may require a set of emotional experiences that are not common to the populace as a whole. It's why reading modern poetry to children is a waste. They lack the experience to be able to even understand what is being talked about. Literary fiction often describes obliquely certain aspects of life that will make little sense except to those who have experienced them (directly or indirectly) themselves. Again, by definition, popular fiction should exclude as few as possible from the enjoyment of the novel.

Lit fict can also require an educational background that few have. There are books that can only be fully appreciated by those who have a passing knowledge of Latin and Ancient Greek. There are works that only fully come alive for those who are familiar with Russian history. However, for such a readership, the work offers a richness that cannot be found in popular fiction.

So what about superiority? Garbage. You cannot reasonably measure books in a single dimension of "great to terrible". It's why book review columns don't have a star rating (or are to be avoided if they do).

However, what I can say is that appreciation of literary fiction by its audience can occur on far more levels than popular fiction. However, it is a waste of time to try to compare how deep that appreciation is on each level. Who but a fool would compare how deeply a romance reader is touched by a parting kiss against a reader who suddenly understands via a subtle analogy what it truly means to realize that one's children will never truly value the homeland left behind. They cannot be measured against each other.

Now there are fools aplenty who will argue either that 50,000,000 million people appreciating the first outweighs 5,000 appreciating the second, or that the experience of the second reader is more "meaningful" than the experience of the first reader, but it's rot.

Comparisons cannot be made except by the insecure who feel a need to put down the other, or more often, cannot let others putting them down go unchallenged.

Posted by: Tom West on January 2, 2007 8:42 AM

My last exposure to Joseph Wambaugh was my wife's satirizing his hysterically badly-written book on an arsonist, "Fire Lover." I'm taking your recommendation with a grain of salt. Sorry.

Posted by: jult52 on January 2, 2007 9:10 AM

Richard -- You get no argument from me!

Peter -- Ah, the many ways we subsidize our unfortunates, eh?

Tom -- That's a nice presentation of the theory, tks. I've found it seldom works out that way in practical fact, though, and the "in practical fact" side of things is (FWIW, of course) what I'm drawn to musing about these days.

Jult52 -- I take *all* recommendations with a grain of salt myself. Sorry to hear "Fire Lover" was a bust -- I've got a copy of it on my shelves, darn it. Maybe I'll let it continue to collect dust. "The Choirboys" is quite a novel, IMHO, but if your tastes run towards heavily-manicured prose it may not be the thing for you.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 2, 2007 12:00 PM

I still think it comes down to the majority getting pissed for being, gasp, ignored. How dare you ignore the majority!

And that's all the NYTRB does to popular fiction, as far as I can tell. Do they actually put down pop-fiction explicitly?

Also, when you think of the NYTRB as more of a trade publication, the narrowness of focus makes more sense. Those in a particular trade are always more critical of the product of their trade than outsiders are.

Posted by: the patriarch on January 2, 2007 12:33 PM

I'd like to agree with your theory, and part of me does on some level. I'm afraid, though, that my English Lit degree has left me forever with a more jaundiced view of the whole enterprise. Maybe its unfair of me to extrapolate my experience beyond the bone-headed Berkeleyans who would pat themselves on the back as 'insightful' after spewing the most inane gobbledygook imaginable. But even though I wanted to believe something like what you described, I couldn't - and still can't - help but think: If these are the esoteric sensibilities, this that enlightened worldliness, then count me out.

Further, I can't help but think you left out an ingredient or two in your recipe. Elements that seem to assure a books place in the pantheon of great LitFic artists are obfuscation and pretense. And not obfuscation in a "I am going to make my readers think" kind of way. More of a "I have no idea what the hell Im saying so I am going to shroud it in meaningless affectation and then look smugly down as these peons try to fathom my infinite wisdom."

Take Pynchon. Take away his pretense, affectation and obfuscation and what do you get? A less funny, less intelligent and far less engaging Neal Stephenson.

Posted by: Peter on January 2, 2007 2:08 PM

Far be it from me to ride into battle on behalf of the NYTBR. But your snide put-down of Peter Behrens' excellent debut ("a Very Serious Ambitious First Historical Novel about a boy trying to survive the Irish Potato Famine") didn't help to make your case. Why be contemptuous about a novel you clearly haven't read? And why pretend to be a populist, then piss on one of the most popular genres (historical fiction)? I'm with Penelope Fitzgerald: "All novels are historical novels."

Posted by: James Marcus on January 5, 2007 10:53 AM

Patriarch -- Ignoring popular literature while claiming to cover and discuss "books" is like ignoring popular music while claiming to cover and discuss "music." It's a misrepresentation of the field, no matter how you or I actually respond to popular music or popular literature. And the TBR isn't a trade magazine, though I like your idea of thinking of it as such. It's the country's central, most influential publication about books. And sure, there's a lot of mostly-implicit (but occasionally explicit -- I cited one example) putting-down of popular literature in its pages, mostly via general attitudes. Part of what the TBR is selling is, "this is what we've deemed worth recognizing and discussing," and their imprimatur means a lot to a lot of people, both in the industry and outside of it.

Peter -- That's funny: I gave up reading Pynchon once I was out of grad school. You almost had to read Pynchon in grad school out of self-defence. But once done with grad studies ... Well, what was the point? You've got me wondering how much the taste for lit-fict has to do with people wishing they were back in school ... Quite a lot, probably.

James -- You're reading a lot into what I said. I didn't claim to have read the Behrens (glad to hear you enjoyed it, btw), and I have a lot of respect for historical fiction -- where do I suggest otherwise? The point of the posting was to contrast what the TBR sells as "worthy of discussion" -- generally, lit-fict and/or dignified fiction with Important Themes -- with the popular literature that they don't (or barely) acknowledge: cop novels, thrillers, romances, heist comedies, westerns, sci-fi, erotica, etc ... There's no put-down of lit-fict and/or dignified fiction with Important Themes in there. The only putting-down that's going on around here is the TBR's put-down of westerns, sci-fi, cop novels, romances, etc. Which is what I'm reacting against.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 5, 2007 11:24 AM

Mr. West's comments boil down to a single criterion, that one must be well educated to understand and enjoy literary fiction. (He offers no other criterion in his lengthy essay.) This is not the textbook definition, which is that literary fiction explores the human condition and elucidates understanding of our lives. I would have no trouble at all finding popular fiction that meets both of these criteria; indeed, popular fiction that requires more education than most literary fiction, and does a better job of elucidating the human condition than literary fiction. That is why the dichotomy is false and it is high time that these things be rethought.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on January 5, 2007 9:33 PM

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