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January 10, 2007

The NYTBR Section and Fiction 3

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Another posting to continue my look at the NYTimes Book Review Section and its attitudes towards fiction. (As well as, admittedly, to document my own decline into dementia and obsessiveness. Hey, maybe I should rename this blog "Blogpostings From Underground.") Previous installments can be read here and here.

I promised the other day that my next posting on the topic would concern class and literary writing. But I'm feeling the need to sketch a little something else in first. Today, let's examine how accurate my portrayal of the TBR's attitudes towards popular fiction was.

* Surely MBlowhard has exaggerated the TBR's view of fiction!? Surely the TBR's editors are more open to the panorama of what's created, fiction-book-wise, than MBlowhard has made them out to be!? Surely these responsible and knowledgeable professionals can't be presenting such a warped view of things!?

If anything, I may have underemphasized how narrow the TBR's point of view on the world of fiction-book-reading-and-writing is.

I'm not about to do the comprehensive research that a topic like this deserves. But I did go to the trouble of digging up a semi-recent special issue of the TBR devoted entirely to fiction. (You can look at it, as well as doublecheck my facts and assertions, here.) Let's see how popular literature fared.

The issue's big production number is a poll to determine The Best American Work of Fiction in the Last 25 Years, as voted-on by a long lineup of writing-world dignitaries. The winner: Toni Morrison's "Beloved." "Beloved" is of course contempo lit-fict to the max. Lit-fict 1, popular fiction zero.

How about the runners-up? Now let's see ... Quel surprise! The runner-up novels are all lit-fict too. There isn't a thriller, a romance, a western (except for Cormac McCarthy's hyper-literary version of western), a cop novel, or an erotica/porn work among 'em. Humor and comedy don't make strong showings either. Lit-fict 23 (if I'm counting right), popular literature zero.

In semi-fairness, the rules of the game the TBR proposed virtually guarantee this kind of outcome, don't they? Judges were each given one vote and one vote only to name the Best. That's semi-inevitably going to mean that novels making Big Pretentious Statements will win more votes than, say, novels that are amusing or entertaining, however beautiful and moving they may also be. (Then why set such rules? Why even play such a game?)

All of which has got me wondering ... Those dignitaries awarded voting power ... Who were they anyway? You can learn a lot about a publication by inspecting who the editors consider to be People Worth Consulting, after all. So join me in eyeballing the list of the people the TBR polled here. Hmmm, onetwothreefourfivesixseven ... I count 125 voters. And -- onetwo, er, two, er, two -- as far as I can tell, only two of them might be said to represent the world of popular fiction. I'm familiar with most although not all of this list, so I could be off by a handful of names. But it seems safe to say that the popular side of the fiction-book world represents fewer than 5% of the people the Times saw fit to request an opinion from.

Proof enough that, where fiction goes, the TBR wears very big blinkers? No? Then let's set aside the whole "Greatest" thing and examine how popular fiction fared in the rest of the Fiction Issue. Onetwothreefour ... 15 new fiction-books were selected to receive standalone reviews. As far as I could tell from scanning the reviews, not a one of the fiction-books that the TBR deemed worthy of review during Fiction Week qualifies as popular literature.

Well, perhaps the TBR makes some worthwhile observations about popular literature in their "Inside The Bestseller List" column. Join me in taking a look there. Hmmmm: nope. The TBR's "Inside the Bestseller List" is entirely concerned with how a couple of the Greats have done saleswise.

Maybe I missed something. If I did, please bring it to my attention. But let me spell this out in boldface:

The NYTBR section managed to publish a special issue devoted entirely to fiction without a single mention of a work of popular literature.

I have a hard time understanding anyone who doesn't find this weird, if not downright surreal. The TBR is, after all, taken by many readers to be "covering" the world of new books. Yet the kinds of fiction-books that most writers write and that most readers read are completely (or at least almost completely) absent from its pages. That's a disservice to fiction-reading, to fiction-writing, and to the readers of the TBR too. This is exactly as if the Times published a section devoted entirely to "Music" and failed to mention any popular or folk music. Or as if the Times published a section devoted to "Television" and only took note of the higher-browed NPR and BBC productions. Or as if the Times published a section devoted to "Movies" and failed to review or discuss a single film that wasn't arthouse or indie. Or as if ... Well, you get my point.

I do understand that it's also part of the TBR's job -- and it's certainly part of what readers understand the TBR to be up to -- to choose and present what they think is worthy of note and discussion. But I think we can safely say 1) that the TBR's editors and reviewers have a remarkably limited idea of the kind of fiction that's worth paying attention to, and 2) that the TBR's editors are over-concerned with the "judging what's worthy" part of their job and dramatically under-engaged in the "covering what's actually being done" part of their job.

Repeat con exasperation: Not a single mention of popular literature in an entire special issue devoted to fiction! So no, I don't think I was exaggerating -- not even one single solitary goddamn bit -- in my description of the TBR's attitudes towards popular fiction.

As for "Beloved" ... Well, I found it powerful but awful. I hated it. But let me end on a positive note for a change by suggesting a couple of semi-similar lit-fict novels that -- although they aren't American -- I did love: "Season of the Jew" and "Monday's Warriors," both by the New Zealander Maurice Shadbolt. These novels, released in the States in 1987 and 1990, are set in the late 1800s, during the years when the British were consolidating their hold on the islands and were subduing the last of the native resistance. (The two novels are related, btw, but they work perfectly well on their own.) Part Western, part war story, they're sensational, exciting reads, full of burly and jet-propelled language; vivid characters; hallucinogenic storylines that are nonetheless based in historical fact; a distinctive sardonic / tragic sense of humor; landscape evocations that have a Shakespearean exuberance; and a refreshingly cold-blooded view of race, sex, and power. They're shockingly real and immediate, yet a sense of the primal and the mythical is never far away. These Shadbolt novels reminded me of Sam Peckinpah's best movies and of Joseph Conrad's thrillers. I confess that I liked them better than I like Hemingway's novels -- and, needless to say, several light years better than anything I've read of Toni Morrison's.



posted by Michael at January 10, 2007


(Hopefully I'll like Season of the Jew as much as The Sky Changes - you're 1 for 1 so far.)

While I admire your willingness to take on TBR, I'm not sure your essays so far have captured the real ugliness of the phenomenon.

Art and especially writing in the West today serves a primarily hieratic purpose. Being a successful writer - the TBR sort, not the Stephen King sort - carries about the highest social status obtainable. Science and (maybe) journalism are the only comparables - journalism has a little lower status, perhaps, but it is more than made up by the power factor.

But by historic standards, it is still relatively early in the rise of the journalism-education complex to full-fledged theocracy. It still produces some literary fiction and verse that you can actually read just for the sake of reading it, or at least I think so. (Claire Messud, for example. I'm sure many professors would turn their noses down at Messud, but TBR doesn't.)

For where this is going, the historical comparables you need to look at are periods of full-on clerical rule: many of the Chinese dynasties, the late Romans, etc.

Here you see writing that has entirely lost its original purpose of entertainment, and become purely a demonstration of the author's talents, qualifying him for the quaestorship, the Board of Rites, or other important administrative roles. The discipline has been reduced, very sensibly from a certain practical perspective, to an IQ test, though not without retaining the air of inspired creative mystique so essential to any theocratic state.

So, you ask: why does lit fiction want to dissociate itself from its original function of entertainment? Why didn't the Bourbons want their subjects to think of them as the decadent spawn of barbarian bandit chiefs? Dignity demands mystery.

There's also the obligatory Sailersphere note: if you abandon the distinction between (hieratic) art and (profane) entertainment, you have to ask what distinguishes Gilbert Sorrentino from Stephen King. And the idea that aristos and proles could demand entirely different forms of entertainment leads you in quite the wrong direction...

Posted by: Mencius on January 10, 2007 10:42 PM

Mr. (or Ms?) Mencius's observations are splendid. There are hieratic publishing houses such as Viking, Farrar Straus, HarperCollins, Knopf, etc. To be published by one of these automatically places one in the hieratic ranks no matter how bad the actual novel may be. The TBR rarely reviews fiction not published by these houses.

Not so long ago, the Pulitzer Committee still recognized the value of all sorts of fiction, and gave prizes to Margaret Mitchell for Gone With the Wind, Herman Wouk for the Caine Mutiny, James Michener for Tales of the South Pacific, A. B. Guthrie, Jr. for The Way West, and Allen Drury for Advise and Consent. No longer. It has become the pawn of the priesthood, and is undermining its original purpose.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on January 11, 2007 9:08 AM

One more observation: the evolution of a literary elite, a literature for the cognoscenti that is not accessible by the "unwashed," runs counter to an American tradition of democratic and universal fiction. It used to be that novelists and poets prided themselves on reaching a wide readership, notably "the common man." Among those in that democratic tradition are such novelists and poets as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, Edgar Allen Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Baldwin. There are many more. In fact, the novelist deliberately writing for an elite was rare. Willa Cather said she was one, and yet her work is as universal as others of her period. The modern TBR is really a radical departure from the rootstock of American literature.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on January 11, 2007 10:28 AM

Beloved is a fine entry in its genre - a ghost story fueled by the trauma of American slavery - but it certainly does not rate as best novel ever. (Personally, I couldn't get through it; the prose to me was more turgid and obscure than Joyce's Ulysses.) And if we're going with ghost stories, The Shining probably takes that prize. If we're going with the trauma of slavery, The Color Purple I believe is still the majority favorite. It's like Ender's Game or The Notebook getting the best book ever nod. They are both giants in their genre, but head and shoulders above the rest across genres? Of course not.

Posted by: yahmdallah on January 11, 2007 10:48 AM

I must brag that I heard of the NYTBR Best Works in the Last 25 Years before I ever read it---it was brought up at lunch by a co-worker. Without seeing the list, I immediately guessed accurately that Toni Morrison would be the leading author, and then guessed it would be "Beloved." How was I so clairvoyant? Because of all the reasons you have listed in your posting. I also guessed Philip Roth would make several appearances, and he did. I never read either "Beloved" or "The Human Stain", by the way. But both were suggested to me by a college lit professor. 'Nuff said. The NYTBR (and lit profs) are nothing if not utterly predictable.

Mencius-- "Being a successful writer - the TBR sort, not the Stephen King sort - carries about the highest social status obtainable. Science and (maybe) journalism are the only comparables - journalism has a little lower status, perhaps, but it is more than made up by the power factor."

Huh? With whom? The "highest social status obtainable"??? I have to seriously object to that statement. Higher than Tom Hanks after he won two Oscars? Higher than the latest Noble Peace Prize winner? Higher "social status" than, say, Jacqueline Kennedy occupied? Higher "social status" than Bill and Melinda Gates? In fact---higher than Stephen King? What? Is this what people who read the NYTBR actually think?

Third question---is Tom Wolfe popular fiction or literary fiction?

Posted by: annette on January 11, 2007 10:53 AM

Mencius -- Glad to hear you enjoyed the Sorrentino. I used to read a lot of him and really enjoyed three or four of his books. Let me know how you respond to "Season of the Jew." I liked it so much that I was amazed how little notice it received. I have zilch against aristocratic art or entertainment, and zilch against making distinctions between the many different kinds of art, btw. I think distinctions can enable enjoyment and are inevitable anyway. My only gripe in these postings is in the way a publication that offers itself up as (and is often taken as) one that covers American readin'-and-writin' and that makes decisions about what's of worth in American readin'-and-writin' is so blinkered in its approach and its tastes. Why not enjoy Handel *and* R.L Burnside? Why not recognize that both of them made some fab music?

Richard -- It's weird the way the lit elite has ... I dunno, strangled itself, isn't it? And it's a great and helpful image you're suggesting: the TBR as a kind of bunker for a self-selected (if in all honesty pretty banal) elite.

Yahmdallah -- I love the idea of thinking of "Beloved" as a genre piece! That's the way it should be discussed!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 11, 2007 10:59 AM


Well, of course, that depends on how you define "social status."

My definition is that caste A is of higher status than caste B if the members of A feel free (or even expected) to sneer at B. This can be checked by examining the attitude of B toward A, which will be deferential, aspirational, or resentful, sometimes even a bit of all three.

This is why I feel that intellectuals are of higher status than celebrities: because intellectuals often sneer at celebrities, and celebrities are generally deferential toward intellectuals. (And sometimes exhibit aspirational behavior - eg, Ethan Hawke.)

Obviously these are huge generalizations and immediately bring to mind all sorts of exceptions. But I feel that the opposite analysis, or even the proposition of equality (as, for instance, artists versus scientists) is much harder to explain.

I admit that my definition is slightly contentious and may not match everyone's. This too is pretty hard to avoid.

Yalmdallah: I've always favored the phrase "race opera."

Michael: it is not the differentiation that annoys me, but its qualitative and categorical nature. Without which the mythic status of the "art" side, and the glaring hypocrisy of the whole endeavor, would not really be possible - or at least would be much harder.

And it is the qualitative nature of the distinction that gives writers who challenge it - like Shadbolt, perhaps, or Tom Wolfe, or Mark Helprin - such a difficult time.

I favor a complete disestablishment of the entire hierarchy. If you translate "separation of church and state" into modern English, I think it reads "separation of information and security." The security forces are necessary, but they have no business at all in imposing their opinions on us. Until you establish the principle that the state cannot support or endorse any system of learning, whether it is called "art," "science," "journalism," or any other name, you are just pulling leaves off the weed.

I ordered some of Sorrentino's poetry and I'm interested to see how it is. He appears to be associated with the Black Mountain people, whose style never interested me much. But at least to judge by "Sky," his fiction has content, so maybe his verse does too. And that's not a common thing these days. (He also appears to be, like all reasonable people, a Flann O'Brien fan.)

As for "Season of the Jew," it's worth noting that a used copy will set you back all of 30 cents on Amazon. Which is surely worth it just to have the title on your shelf. Perhaps I'll file mine next to Carleton Putnam's "Race and Reason."

Posted by: Mencius on January 11, 2007 1:19 PM

Dear Michael:

I love your enthusiasm for this issue, though I don't share it.

I hardly read fiction of any type these days, but from the age of 12 to about 22, I read a great deal of science fiction and fantasy and discovered most of the good sf and fantasy (not just Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke & Heinlein, but Pohl & Kornbluth, Henry Kuttner, and many other good sf writers) that was available without too much guidance apart from the criticism of Damon Knight and James Blish published by Advent. Later, I read Chandler and other hard-boiled writers.

I never turned to the NYTBR. The NYTBR was irrelevant to me then and is now. I suspect that most readers of popular fiction wouldn't care if the NYTBR suddenly covered lots more pop fiction.

The NYTBR is a publication written by and for a very narrowly focused demographic of literati-intelligentsia, people who really think that Beloved is a treasurable classic.

I think it's all a labelling issue. The NYTBR's claim to cover the world of books is obviously false. They should stop pretending.

The NYTBR is a publication designed to serve a certain audience which you just aren't part of, based on your expressed concerns and reading habits. It won't change and neither will you.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on January 11, 2007 5:51 PM

Michael – Interesting stuff, though I think it misses some larger points. As Peter Winkler notes, “The NYTBR is a publication designed to serve a certain audience.” It’s not the NY Times Review of Popular Literature. Also, I think you would have to admit that a lot of popular literature does not lend itself to detailed analysis, nor are most readers of popular literature interested in analysis. What would be the point of a long string of reviews that simply read, “This was cool” and “This sucked!”

You rightfully champion alternatives like publishing on demand, but miss other trends like the rise of fan fiction. For example, a 25 year old woman from Chile who wrote a highly regarded Harry Potter fan fiction sequel recently had her first “legitimate” novel published by Random House. Her fan fiction work, “Harry Potter and The Decline of the High Elves” became a massive online smash, generating 80,000 views and positive reviews from Harry Potter fans around the world, even though it was never “published” in any traditional sense and was not reviewed in the NYTBR.

More details about author Francisca Solar can be found here

Posted by: Alec on January 12, 2007 7:14 AM

Annette -- It ain't hard to be a distinguished literary critic, is it? Once you get the hang of it (Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth, blah blah), what could be easier?

Peter L.W. -- It'd be *lovely* if the TBR just 'fessed up to being what it is. I've often thought it would lovely if the NYT generally 'fessed up to being the Upper West Side News, too.

Alec -- I'm aware of what the TBR really is, as are you. I'm afraid many people aren't, though, which is why I (perhaps quixotically) persist in these postings. The more people know what they're being sold the better, sez I. I'll differ with you a bit on a few things, though: I'm not sure that "analysis" is always (or even often) the primary thing book reviews ought to be doing. I think analysis has been overemphasized, and that that has helped contribute to a state of affairs where many books are written so that they can be analyzed, not in order to interest or entertain. They're being written to impress profs. (Which is OK, of course. But by all rights the-novel-that's-designed-to-be-analyzed should be a hyper-minor category of lit, instead of one that sits at the peak of lit.) I also think that the litcrit set has a lot to learn from popular fiction. What is it that makes an Elmore Leonard book what it is? Why do some Tony Hillermans seem to work better than others? Compare and contrast Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith. That kind of thing. The lit set is often amazingly 1) contemptuous of these kinds of questions, and 2) ignorant of how storytelling actually works. It'd do them good to be a little more humble in the face of it. And it'd do the reading audience some good to open up to different notions of quality than they're used to. Why shouldn't the TBR check in regularly with the slash/fan fiction scene, for instance? Why not assign some highbrow to review Danielle Steel? Why not assign Danielle Steel to review something highbrow?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 12, 2007 2:41 PM

I like this idea of a status hierarchy and the role that artists and scientists occupy. But I also think from that perspective you're missing out on an important trend. Because of both lit-fic and of the pomo academy, the humanities are about to be pushed off their perch. In academia, the scientists are already prepared to sneer at the artists. As their production becomes more absurd, the funding gets worse and support for the humanities -- as actually taught in universities -- gets worse. Scientists still acknowledge the value of liberal arts in the canonical, Great Books sense, but not in the "theory-uber-alles", weird narrative of the day, there-is-no truth sense. This leads to lip service in faculty meetings, but as the economists would say -- the revealed preference is decreasing funding for the feminine side of the academy. Over time, the more outrageous and pomo the behavior, the more it confirms the harder subjects that some things aren't worth funding except as luxury goods. And at some point, those with the dough -- who will de facto constitute the elite -- will take away even the semblance of support for the literary/artistic status hierarchy. Certainly in universities, the Nobel for Peace stands way lower in the status game than any of the technical Nobels -- Econ included.

Hence the literati attempt to claim some of the mantle of pop fiction, while distancing themselves. Tough game. Delicate balancing act.

Posted by: Not Gandhi on January 12, 2007 5:06 PM

I read about equal parts popular genre fiction and "serious" fiction and value both for different but equally-valid reasons. I'm a devotee of Raymond Chandler, Ross McDonald, Eric Ambler, and R.A. Lafferty, but also of Shakespeare, Dickens, Hardy, Calvino, Julian Barnes, and Margaret Atwood.

I don't bother with the NY Times Book Review; I'd rather read novels than reviews; I agree that the editorial stance is rather insular and (paradoxically) provincial

So why do you bother? If it annoys you just don't read it! The Review will never endorse and "legitimize" your reading choices, nor will it many of mine.

The NY literary world, like the NY "fine art" world, is of little interest to 99.9% of the citizens of this country.

Posted by: Larry Ayers on January 19, 2007 1:28 PM

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