Katharine the Great

Rush & Molloy reports (via Darwin Porter’s upcoming bio) that Katharine slept with the following people: Claudette Colbert, Greta Garbo, Judy Holliday, Judy Garland, Laura Harding, Irene Selznick, the daughter of Louis B. Mayer, the wife of David O. Selznick, Ernest Hemingway, John Ford, George Stevens, John Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Robert Ryan, Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, Paul Henreid, and (of course) Spencer Tracy.

AM Quickies

Maya Angelou is profiled by the Boston Globe. Several paragraphs focus upon Angelou’s effect on a crowd. There are comparisons made between Angelou and Lorraine Hansberry. In fact, the general gist is that if you haven’t read Angelou, you probably should, though without explaining why and without outlining an argument. It’s the kind of tepid summary that spells out what’s wrong with current book coverage. Instead, of inviting entree into the I’ve Read At Least Three Angelou Books And I Liked ‘Em club, the article admonishes why you should read it in a way that resembles an Atkins Diet manifesto, though without the immediate payoff.

The Age notes that spending ten minutes a day writing in a journal improves mental health. However, writing three hours a day and failing to publish a book after ten years will turn you into Laura Miller.

The new Paris Review is up. Michael Frayn offers some interesting advice: ” Let me say for a start that I don’t think it is a very good idea to write different sorts of things. If I were to give serious practical advice to a young writer about how to succeed I would say: Write the same book, or the same play, over and over again, just very slightly different, so that people get used to it. It takes some time, but if you do it often enough, finally people will get the hang of it, and get familiar with it, and they’ll like it. ”

Of course, Frayn notes that he hasn’t done this personally. I’d like to think that this revelation is a circumlocutory way of taking out the competition. But it bears striking similarities to recent quotes by Bill Keller.

Newsday interviews Ana Menendez, a Cuban exile turned novelist. She once believed that Fidel had supernatural powers. But she changed her mind after reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, realizing that just about everybody does. Millenialists are courting Ms. Menendez as a possible spokesperson.

The NYRoB has a Helen Keller pfoile up. It quotes heavily from the correspondence between Henry James and Keller and examines their relationship.

And the Post dwells upon confession, trying to find the line when a memoir or an essay becomes Too Much Information (or TMI, to use Post vernacular). Susan Shapiro notes that her memoir Five Men Who Broke My Heart has resulted in her husband writing a response, The Bitch Beside Me. And Dale Peck has responded to this memoir by writing The Bitch Inside Me.

Roddy Doyle Damns Geisel

roddydoyle.jpgIreland’s best-known writer, Roddy Doyle, has shocked the world. Just before realizing that his books weren’t selling as well as they used to, and looking for a desperate ploy, anything really, to get in the press, he decided that hate was in his best interest. “Green Eggs and Ham is a piece of crap,” he said. “Who the hell does that Seuss bloke think he is? He’s no doctor, that’s for sure.”

Roddy Doyle, a writer with a very ridiculous nose and the winner of some scrappy Booker thing that they also gave to Vernon God Little, announced that he would burn all of his Dr. Seuss books in a bonfire. “Who’s with me? I’m finished with him,” Doyle told a stunned audience in New York. “If he weren’t dead, I’d beat the shit out of him. You can dig up his coffin and I’d still beat the shit out of him. His bones aren’t so tough. I don’t care how short his books were. It’s clear to me that he needed an editor.”

Shortly after this statement, Doyle pulled out a small postcard. On one side was a photograph of his ass, his trousers draped around his legs. The words “Seuss Schmoose” were printed just underneath this terrifying image. On the other was Green Eggs and Ham, condensed to a mere twenty words.

“See? Too bloody long. I did my best to abridge it. And why did he nick Irish green?”

The timing of Doyle’s outburst could hardly have been worse, what with the recent release of The Cat in the Hat, the worst movie of 2003.

The Irish government — still guilty for the way that Doyle fulminates in public — are trying to prevent Doyle from ever addressing an audience again. Unfortunately, they allowed Doyle to slip past customs. Doyle, shortly before getting on board the airplane, offered a series of raspberries to perplexed security officers.

I Guess So

The Guardian asks Ursula K. Le Guin a few questions. She spends much time clarifying opias and isms, and, at one point, even impersonates the French.

A Canadian realtor made the find of a lifetime when she put the late Marian Engel’s house on the market. Hundreds of letters were thrown away in garbage bags, from such heavy-hitters as Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, and Margaret Atwood, many of them of a very private nature. “Dear Marian,” read one. “Robertson keeps speaking in naughty epigrams. Do you know anyone who can drown Robertson in paper and get him to shut up?”

Mark Evanier has a tribute up to the recently departed Julius Schwartz. Schwartz was a tremendous figure in comic book and science fiction circles.

Locus has a recommended reading list up for 2003’s books, along with a tally rundown, essays from Claude Lalumire and Cynthia Ward. One Locus editor has promised science fiction fans that this incredible coverage was intentional, and that “it will be impossible for any of you to keep up.”

Time, of all places, tackles the troubling new territory of dude-lit. Although in Kyle Smith’s case, perhaps monkey lit might be a better term.

Frances Partidge, the last of the Bloomsbury set and a lady who had the decency to avoid Danny Bonaduce, has passed on at 103.

Michiko compares Thoreaux’s new collection to “an embarrassing letter to Penthouse magazine.” But this may have something to do with the unrelated news that men wearing nothing but coats have been buying a lot of extra copies of Old School.

And Padma Lakshimi has been spotted with an engagement ring. Asked if Rushdie, still married to his third wife, plans to marry her, she replied, “I guess so.” However, another journalist was asking Lakshimi about her jeans. So nobody has a definitive answer.

Assault on Carpenter’s 13

It’s bad enough that Hollywood Reporter has announced a remake of Assault on Precinct 13, one of the goofiest and grittiest John Carpenter films to come out of the 1970s. It’s bad enough that Ethan “Whiny Caucasian is My Middle Name” Hawke is slated to star in it. But the true crime here is that Carpenter’s racial dyanamic has been drastically altered for a safer, reactionary age.

One of the beautiful things about Carpenter’s film is that, much like Night of the Living Dead‘s African-American protagonist (whose race was never addressed), Carpenter had the guts to cast Austin Stoker in the aw-shucks, do-goodin’ sheriff role and the white-bread Darwin Joston in the criminal role of Napoleon Wilson (whose unlikely first name was never explained, despite Joston’s repeated offers to “tell you sometime”). Beyond Assault‘s unapologetic shooting of a kid and its guns daringly prodding out of moving cars (in 1976, no less), the film improved upon what could have been just an entertaining low-budget ripoff of Rio Bravo by taking the sheriff-criminal buddy movie dynamic and casting against racial type. It was a nice way of acknowledging the camaraderie, while very subtly suggesting to an exploitation film audience that ultimately one’s skin color didn’t matter when up against a common evil. Who needed Walter Brennan for comedy relief when you had black man and white man trying to defend an abandoned outpost? (Laurie Zimmer’s presence is a side issue I won’t go into.)

Laurence Fishburne’s a great actor, but to cast him as the criminal in the remake and Hawke (any Caucasian for that matter, but especially Hawke, an actor who, let’s face it, we all needed to see bitch-slapped by Denzel in Training Day) reinforces the terrible precedent that Carpenter was working against. Did we learn nothing from the multicultural universe of The Matrix: Reloaded? Did we learn nothing from Lando Calrissian? I fear that Fishburne will come off not so much as a goofball asking for a smoke, but as a mean bastard who momentarily mends his ways, ultimately with his own interests at heart.

One other major change involves this: “As the sun sets and a long night begins, a motley crew of policemen and prisoners reluctantly captained by a cop (Hawke) must band together to fight off a rogue gang that wants to free the mobster.”

Anyone who saw the original knows that the gang simply came out of nowhere and that Napoleon Wilson wasn’t even one of their concerns. Napoleon was just the wrong guy in the wrong place.

But Hollywood, somehow believing that the audience needs explanation, has modified Carpenter’s agile balance to appease their suburban focus groups. Once again, we’ll see an African-American helping Whity, his benevolent protector, and then abdicating back to a state of serfdom.

Criminal, I say. Outright criminal.

Vote Safe, Vote Smart, Vote Crichton

crichton.jpg

For those voting in the Southern primaries tomorrow, remember that there’s only one person right for the NYTBR editor slot.

True, the NYTBR race has little to do with a boring predetermined primary race. But don’t let that stop you from writing an angry letter to Bill Keller, urging him to hire Sarah Crichton as the new book reviews editor and to keep it smart and literary. Send those letters to:

Bill Keller
Executive Waffler
NEW YORK TIMES
229 West 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036

Be sure to include the phrase, “If you let the Times book coverage go to hell, then how can you shower convincingly?”

Mr. Chris

His last name was unpronouncable. All that was known was that it had a glottal stop, six vowels in succession, and could only be uttered correctly by three living people (none of them friends or family).

This caused problems. Adopting a nom de plume was out of the question. Why betray identity? Why become a Smith or a Jones, when there were already too many of them to be found in the White Pages?

Setting up appointments and meetings was problematic. And he became known among his peers as “Chris,” which was, believe it or not, his first name. But because the receptionists couldn’t depart from surname protocol, because there were traditions and employee handbooks to live up to, thanks to the boys in corporate efficiency, he was often announced as “Mr. Chris” and, if a form field called for “Last Name” and a particular program refused to cooperate, he would often be entered as “Chris Chris.”

It is safe to say that publicity and impeccable reputation did not come to him as easily as happiness. America was a nation that prided itself on easy memory. There had been two Adamses, two Roosevelts and two Bushes as Presidents. Furthermore, it looked pretty likely that a second “JFK” would be running on this year’s Democratic ticket.

He delivered bouquets to anyone, male or female, who could spell his name correctly. This gestures were often mistaken for romantic overtures, when in fact he simply liked to reward attention to detail, something with which he was concerned about in the bedroom, both with himself and other parties.

Pay no attention to the loose slipknot or the wrinkled shirt. There’s more to Chris than appoints the retina.

Advisory

In the event that the reader has failed to notice it, dementia can be found happily within these pages. And the author has faith in the reader to discern between honest convictions and outright prevarications. However, because the author happens to like most of his readers, and because at least three of them don’t believe in evolutionary theory, the author also notes that the origin can always be found at the URLs nestled within the tomfoolery.

Lesson #1: Don’t Blow Your Wad, Cash or Otherwise

The Nanny Diaries ladies don’t seem to be hacking it with Novel No. 2. Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, despite having a $3 million publishing deal, didn’t agree with Random House’s changes and have sought other opinions. Including Kurt Andersen’s.

Updike profiles Walter Abish.

Jessa Crispin covers graphic novels for the Post.

The Guardian dares to ask Paul Auster where he gets his ideas from.

Edwardian Noises

Crackling latches reverbate down the hall. Doors opening, closing. Footfalls against hardwood aren’t the issue. Any movement you make will be upstaged by creaky hinges, the turn of a doorknob, or the slide of a lock.

In default position (doors closed), there’s no harm. Things remain relatively silent. And even a casual “motherfucker” shouted lovingly to a friend will escape without notice. But when this state is unrustled by a person’s need to move from one room to another, it’s a veritable snap crackle pop. Minus the cushy krispies.

The snap of the bathroom door is the worst. The john’s close to my room. So anytime my roommate or his girlfriend uses it, it’s a bit like an exploding firecracker cross-pollinated with the motions of a Victorian automaton. Or it could be a taut broom whacked against a jamb within millimeters of a microphone, then slowed down and amplified through a deafening home theater system. Or it’s one of those sounds nobody really knows about. A bag of popcorn crackling inside a microwave oven.

One thing is certain: It scares the bejesus out of me.

I tolerate this sound, even when it jars me from a book or something I’m revising. There’s an extant idea that somehow I can adjust to it. Get accustomed to its timbre. That hasn’t happened. I’ve been at this place for seven months and sometimes when I hear it, I jolt up half-awake from my futon ready to brawl bare-chested and bleary-eyed.

Certain sounds provoke me, some terrify me. And I know I’m not alone. My sister, for one, is frightened by the sound of broken glass. When I was a cruel teenager, I exploited this fear by blasting a recorded sound effect, howling and pretending that I had been injured by fallen shards, and then earning (rightfully) my sister’s silence for two weeks. This prank’s callousness can be further framed by the fact that, when I was nine, I collided into a sliding glass door. The idea was to jump into my grandmother’s backyard swimming pool. I thought the door was open. I bled upon the carpet, great gushing red rivulets streaming from my clavicle, howling in shock and feeling the pain later as the doctors stitched up my right shoulder in much the same way my grandmother mended loose buttons. A mere six years later, perhaps influenced by Andy Kaufman, I had no problems anesthetizing myself against this memory and exploiting the pain, the sling I donned for three months, the trauma and solicitude of my extended family, and of course my sister’s concerns. I paid a dear price.

And that’s why I tolerate these unexpected interruptions. It’s penance in a way. More than the faded scar on my shoulder. But it also keeps life around here exciting.

Update

Other things tie me up. Cool, quasi-important things. Said things may tie me up further, depending upon what happens this week. And, no, it doesn’t involving that taffeta sun dress that I haven’t told you about or becoming a born again Christian. Sadly, sex isn’t involved at all. But it’s all good, I assure you.

What does this mean to you the reader? Well, instead of being deluged with 4,000 words a day, you’ll only be hit with 500 or so. At least for the next couple of days.

So Part 3 of The Huge Response to the Huge 2 Blowhards Post will have to wait. At least for now. Though I’ll still be here to offer the usual book links and smarmy asides. Thanks, as always, for reading.

A Post With Too Many Sausage References

Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye faces school board censorship in Ohio. School administrators fear not so much the sexual description, but the sudden spike in jokes involving “one-eyed trouser snake.” Students responded by saying they were inspired more from Eric Idle’s “Penis Song” than from the book title. In one student’s words, “they had seen it all before.” The review committee, however, fears that referring to the penis in an educational setting is “dangerous for the mind.”

The Kenyon Review is sponsoring a Poetry Prize for Young Writers. Dirty limericks will not be accepted.

Germany is such a big-time lit importer that they’re determined to get it to you online. Loads of wurst, thankfully, are not involved. (via At Large)

It’s bad enough that Courtney Love is offering a tell-all memoir to the world. But apparently her proposal letter claims that her book “rivals David Foster Wallace at his best.” Love’s literary agent, David Vigilano, hoping to make this claim stick, has encouraged Ms. Love to include more footnotes and “maybe a chapter or two on game theory.”

In a recent survey by Harlequin Enterprises, Australian men were found to be low-rated lovers. It didn’t help that the men selected McDonald’s as their number one romantic restaurant. Sarah, for one, is not surprised. I’m not either, given Max Barry’s troubling photo.

Apparently, there’s a doc covering the infamous Norman Mailer-Germaine Greer debate. Laura Miller weighed in on the subject in less bitter days.

The Guardian has put up excerpts from Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World.

And for those interested, my hope is to conclude my “The State of Books & the NYTBR” series tomorrow. Michael, in the meantime, has posted a followup.

Charlize Theron: A Case in Industry Sexism

theron.jpgOne thing that disturbs me about all the attention given to Charlize Theron’s performance in Monster is not so much the plaudits of the performance (of which, not having seen the film, I cannot comment), but the fact that for an actress hoping to yield praise, it takes looking ugly or deglamourized.

Theron, who won the Golden Globe, is pretty much guaranteed to win this year. But who was she before this? A supermodel starlet in Woody Allen’s Celebrity, Keanu Reeves’ delectable wife in The Devil’s Advocate, the sweet girl trying to get an abortion in The Cider House Rules, and Robert De Niro’s doting wife in Men of Honor. In other words, Theron was thrown into roles that were unoriginal protrayals of women. The woman as nurterer, the woman as sex object, the woman as sweet and carefree.

And yet critics were astounded that Theron could actually act. Here are a few samplings of their assessments:

“The process that transforms the glamorous Charlize Theron into the haggard, homely Wuornos is nothing short of astounding. And, while a measure of the credit must be given to the makeup artists, the lion’s share belongs to Theron – not only for her willingness to play ‘ugly,’ but for the uncompromising approach she employs to become the character. In addition to gaining 25 pounds and letting her well-toned body sag in some unflattering areas, she perfectly adapts the attitude and mannerisms of a white trash prostitute.” (James Bernadelli) So it’s not really the performance that matters, but the appearance that’s uncompromising.

David Edelstein, to his credit, noted that Theron has “always been a good actress,” but not until he had already devoted a chunky paragraph to Theron’s appearance.

“But the miracle Theron performs is more than an Oscar-begging stunt. She gets under the skin of this woman whom the media called a monster.” (Peter Travers) It may be more, but there’s Travers’ implication that Theron’s acting is, in some small way, a ploy.

David Denby’s review reads like a jilted pornographer about to jism on his keyboard: “…she was unmemorable, almost decorative. She has a long, willowy body, golden skin, and a smile like a sunburst; she seemed a commercial fantasy of beautysay, a domestic goddess in a Life magazine ad from 1954, or a prettily drawn Breck girl.” What the hell does this biographical tawdriness have to do with anything?

Stephen Holden calls it “the year’s most astounding screen makeover,” but likewise avoids what makes Theron’s performance tick.

Of the major critics, only Roger Ebert concentrated heavily on Theron’s performance, going out of his way to prioritize how Theron used her eyes and body language over Toni G.’s makeup job. And Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek is perhaps the most honest about the predicament: “Part of the impact of Theron’s performance may lie in the fact that, for the movie’s first half hour or so, we’re working hard to find Theron inside the character of Aileen.”

The fascinating thing about the coverage is that not only are very few critics willing to dwell upon what makes Theron’s performance work, but very few are willing to consider Theron’s talent overall.

This dilemma for actresses is nothing new. When we look at the last four years’ Oscar winners, we have the same racket:

2002: Nicole Kidman, The Hours: Kidman, now the last word on Hollywood glamour, wore a prosthetic nose and altered her facial features to resemble Virginia Woolf, an emulation that was much debated in film and literary communities.

2001: Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball: For the portrayal of a working class mother, Berry forewent makeup and dressed herself down in a sweater and jeans.

2000: Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich: An exception to the rule. More of a token Oscar than anything else.

1999: Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry: Swank lost serious body fat for a wiry physique and cut her long locks.

So what we’re seeing here in 21st century cinema is a clear trend: If you’re an actress hoping to garner kudos for a part, then you have to look “ugly” (what others might call normal). You have to put on weight, abandon makeup, and otherwise throw your looks to the wind. But, sweetheart, if you want to keep working in this town, you better doll yourself back up for the money men. That Oscar’s just for the C.V.

Myopic Gaze

If you’re a Cure fan (or even if you’re not), you probably remember the terrible day back in 1992 when Wish came out. Robert Smith had suddenly become cheery. The band had lost its edge, and the tunes shamelessly mined previous territory.

Well, I’m extremely saddened to report that the Cure Syndrome has befallen The Beautiful South. Paul Heaton is no longer dangerous. Gone is the subversiveness of “Don’t Marry Her,” “Alone,” or “Window Shopping for Blinds.” Gone is the bleak solitude masked within cheery melodies (“Rotterdam” or “Song for Whoever”). Gone is the fundamental thing that made The Beautiful South work.

Now understand that I have loved almost everything Paul Heaton has created. Everything from the Housemartins on. I was even willing to forgive the Painting It Red‘s weaknesses. But Gaze is downright criminal in its betrayal. A fey celebration of transvestites in “101% Man?” That’s so 1987. We waited three years for this?

Perhaps the most disappointing $30 an American music fan can spend this year is on the Gaze import. After listening to Gaze, I had to listen to old Beautiful South albums just to recall what the band was about. The new album is a surprise disappointment, given the baroque lyrics and experimentation Heaton was trying with his solo album, Biscuit Boy. The Beautiful South has jumped the shark. And we we are all the lesser for it.

Round Robin

Today: Not so literary.

B is ordered to cease and desist by UFS. His crime against humanity? A link and a screenshot of that goofy Charlie Brown video.

Spike interviews J.G. Ballard.

Al Martinez on Stephen Glass’s The Fabulist: “There are some books you can’t put down and other books you can’t wait to put down. Into the latter category falls ‘The Fabulist.’ Not only is it bad, it’s embarrassing.”

“Cinema Redux” by Brendan Dawes condenses all the cuts of a film in a single image. Samplings include The French Connection, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Vertigo and Taxi Driver. (via Radosh)

Wilde’s influence in Pynchon.

The Online Video Game Atlas (via The Map Room).

Low Culture sums up Dennis Miller’s demise with a single image.

The Severity of Offensive Language on UK Television (via LinkMachineGo). [Related: John Lydon calls viewers “fucking cunts.”]

Tower has filed for Chapter 11.

Vegan porn? (NSFW, via Menlo).

The State of Books & the NYTBR, Part 2

In Part 1, I tried to ascertain the state of books before responding more completely to 2 Blowhards’ take on the NYTBR brouhaha. I concluded (and agreed with a few previously voiced perspectives) that the book was a medium that was nowhere nearly as democratized as the movie, and that, because there were so many books out there to select from, it was almost impossible for a neophyte (or even a literate type) to keep track. The additional problem, determined partially from an empirical approach, involved an outsider trying to discern “literary” books from “popular” ones — particularly, when the distinctions between these two subsets had often become blurred with crossover titles.

I feared that I was subconsciously channeling Marshall McLuhan in my last post. So I dug up my dogeared copy of Understanding Media. He had this to say:

Under manuscript conditions the role of being an author was a vague and uncertain one, like that of a minstrel. Hence, self-expression was of little interest. Typography, however, created a medium in which it was possible to speak out loud and bold to the world itself, just as it was possible to circumnavigate the world of books previously locked up in a pluralistic world of monastic cells. Boldness of type created boldness of expression.

Uniformity reached also into areas of speech and writing, leading to a single tone and attitude to reader and subject spread throughout an entire composition. The “man of letters” was born. Extended to the spoken word, this literate equitone enabled literate people to maintain a single “high tone” in discourse that was quite devastating, and enabled nineteenth-century prose writers to assume moral qualities that few would now dare to stimulate. Permeation of the colloquial language with literate uniform qualities has flattened out educated speech till it is a very reasonable facsimile of the uniform and continuous visual effects of typography. From this technological effect follows the further fact that the humor, slang, and dramatic vigor of American-English speech are monopolies of the semi-literate.

McLuhan’s suggesting that technological development of the printing press created a distinct chasm. Since books could be printed off en masse (and for the starving grad student, the invention of the copy machine assured that any given screed could be further distributed for overpriced books), nearly everything was game for distribution. The reader, by way of throwing himself substantially into books, risks being tainted by a tome’s vernacular. And, in turn, the book’s influence upon a reader’s conversation and everyday manner, likely to be an exchange with other readers recognizing bookspeak, creates an additional chasm between the average person who reads a mere three books a year and the literate person, who may read the same in a week.

So factoring in the Oprah Book Club, we may have a taxonomy along these lines:

literarychart.gif

Encouraging people in the popular camp to step up the ladder isn’t helped by English instructors who speak in literate vernacular, which involves the facsimile McLuhan was talking about. But it would be foolish to dismiss the power of Oprah. The astonishing book sales which follow an Oprah selection indicate either a desire to read, or a hope that one can read, and thus advance further up the ladder. Likewise, the spectacular profits from the Harry Potter series indicate that reading is far from dead. Humans still need their stories. There are never enough of them.

Going back to the movies comparison, there’s one major reason why I think the public is smarter than the media conglomerates give them credit for: dropoffs. When word got around that The Matrix: Reloaded stunk to high heaven, it plunged from its initial week’s gross of $91.8 million to $45.6 million. This would suggest that audiences have either developed short attention spans or that they have less tolerance for the dumb lavish movie. But when we consider “the Oscar bounce”, we see people flocking to movies almost immediately upon learning that a particular film’s been nominated. There are perceived merits in these films, or at least conscious efforts by people to be on top of the competition. Even last year’s low-key ceremony, with reduced ratings, had 37 million people watching.

Does the book world have anywhere near that kind of impact? No. At least if you’re looking at it from a commercial point of view. Sure, you could catch Stephen King’s NBA speech on C-SPAN. But it was hardly the sort of thing advertised in the newspapers, trumped up with overwhelming ads and news coverage. In fact, the whole NBA ceremony was shot with one camera.

But in long-term impact, books beat out their movie counterpart. Because while movies can be gobbled up almost immediately, books are not quite so immediate for the mind to digest. Bookpiles accumulate, bookshelves are loaded with titles that are never touched again. This is both good and bad: good in the sense that a 1998 award-winning book still has validity (by contrast, who today actually wants to talk about that year’s Best Picture winner, Titanic?), bad in the sense that a quality book (or literary book) or author is likely to go out of print, if it does not sell or even if it does.

If there is a commonality between Oprah and the Oscars, it involves television. Both reached out to their viewers, and both elicited a response. A sales spike for an Oprah Book Club in one; the Oscar bounce for the other. In fact, I’ve never understood why the publishing industry doesn’t use television more. One of the reasons there are so many Scientologists running around is because there were all those silly mid-1980s commercials with exploding volcanoes.

Most recently, television’s power was on tap in the UK, where David Brent’s quotations were more memorable than Shakespeare. More 25-to-44 year olds recalled, “Remember that age and treachery will always triumph over youth and ability” over “Brevity is the sole of wit.” While this is dismaying to say the least, I don’t necessarily believe that this means people are stupid. They are still capable of recalling quotes, but only (and this is the distinction) because the quotes were framed in a manner that they could understand, rather than the literary facsimile. Shakespeare has continued to endure for centuries, but only because compelling instructors could convey passion and speak to their students in a language they could understand. It’s quite possible that, through the power of television, the vernacular chasm has widened, with the latitude allowed by students narrowing.

Television, on its basic level, involves a person sitting in a room watching an image, and sometimes responding to it with peers. One of the DVD’s fascinating developments is a distinct rise in chatter when people go to movie theatres. The chatter goes down as the movie’s happening. Now, the theatre is confused with the Dolby Digital-enhanced living room. In fact, multiplexes have become compartmentalized to the point where a theatre may very well be the size of a living room. The lack of distinction between theatre and living room has become increasingly prominent with commercials placed before a movie — in many theatre chains, replacing the quiet pre-movie chatter.

But the television (or the movie) doesn’t involve the sense of touch that a book offers, nor does it quite offer the book’s lack of interruption. There are no ads in a book. Unlike television, a book can be taken anywhere: under a glen, within a bedroom, in a cafe. It involves a silent contemplative process that offers nothing in the way of auditory offense save the rustling of pages. Offensive to no one, unless an adjacent stranger is psychotic. (Which is more than you can say for a blaring television in a bar or a stereo blasted on the back of a bus.) And as a form, the book has remained an intact medium ever since its Gutenburg beginnings.

If anything has changed about books, it has been marketing. To dwell upon these many factors would produce another essay, and already I fear that I’m heading into chapbook territory. Needless to say, on a basic people-reaching level, the publishing industry’s answer to television has been the book tour. The author now must head out on foot, shuffling from city to city, looking and speaking well (in addition to writing well). In other words, the author must convey a telegenic image not through the boob tube, but in person. And even then, since an author signing is free, there’s no guarantee that a single book will be sold even with a full house sitting in a bookstore backroom.

So given these environmental circumstances, how does a book maintain public awareness? Where does book review coverage fit in? And will I ever get around to addressing Michael’s post? Tune in for Part 3, where I’ll try desperately to conclude this thing.

The State of Books & the NYTBR, Part 1

2 Blowhards has chimed in on the NYTBR imbroglio. I started drafting a comment, but I feel that the points Michael raises within his monumental post need to be responded to at length:

First off, Michael’s hubris (nothing new for 2 Blowhards regulars like me) gets the better of him. Not only does he single out his “mature reaction,” as if the idea of expressing passion about books is a bad thing, but he even dares to place himself in the slot. In so doing, the question of what is good for the Times becomes what one particular individual would like to do. However, he may have inadvertently pinpointed why people have reacted with such vitriol. John Keller’s statement hangs on “literary fiction” and a new editor not covering this area nearly as much as Chip McGrath. Certainly, for any serious reader of “literary fiction,” this apparent ignorance on Keller’s part came as a shock. But what is literary fiction? Is it tracking the obscure? Is it focusing in on conscious literary efforts? Is it something that eventually makes the National Book Critics Circle Award shortlist or something written by one of Granta’s 20 Young Novelists? Or is it something, like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections or Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, which splits the difference between pop and lit?

Mark tried to answer these questions in a post not too long ago. He posed a question that would, on its face, seem obvious: Why is the serious novel no longer relevant? He ended up taking a bold idealistic position that the novel could be both serious and accessible to a wide audience. But this brings us back to last year’s King-Bloom-NBA debacle: If a novel is understood by the masses, then does it willingly capitulate its literary roots? Can any reasonably literate person justify John Grisham or Tom Clancy as legitimate writers? It’s all well and good to applaud reading on any level, but it’s a no-win scenario. Promoting popular books downsizes the importance of the literary books. And finding the halfway point draws sneers from the literati. (Consider Pulitzer winner John P. Marquand, who went to his grave overlooked for his literary, though popular satires. Today, he is largely out of print.)

Dwelling upon genre ghettoization is a whole different ball of wax. Mysteries, comic books, and “sci-fi” continue to remain separate entities in and of themselves. And it’s something of a faux pas to refer to these authors among literary types, even when they write as clean as Donald Westlake/Richard Stark or as intricate and spellbinding as Gene Wolfe.

To offer some personal perspective on this, last year, I started a book club. The idea behind the book club was to unite the literary-minded with those who were simply wanting to read.

Now in this club, I’ve attempted to select books that fall somewhere within the literary but “readable for a person within a month” category. We’ve read and discussed Jose Saramago’s Blindness, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy and Richard Russo’s Empire Falls — all of which probably wouldn’t have garnered a slot back in the Oprah days, because they were just one rung up the ladder from “pure readability,” or the state that Oprah recognized in East of Eden, when she said, “the pages won’t fly fast enough.”

I received all sorts of responses. Some from people who were just coming back into reading after a long absence, some who were aspiring novelists, some who were simply looking for leads on books. Above all, there was an urge to read. Hopefully something fun and important. Even those who have yet to attend a single meeting have written in thanking me for the choices, which they have taken up on their own time. As one lady wrote me, she was overwhelmed by the number of choices she saw on the bookstores — a fact of bookstore life that we bibliophiles know so well, but that’s probably overwhelming for someone just getting started or reacquainted. She didn’t entirely trust what was selected on the tables. And she felt there was no real way to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Unlike movies, which can be experienced in a mere two hours, and then reflected upon almost immediately, books take a larger investment of time. Talk movies with anyone and, if you’ve seen enough of them, you can easily suggest a few titles (based upon their choice) and in a week or so, the person may come running back for more. Beyond its art house/Hollywood, cult/mainstream dichotomies (which, as Peter Biskind suggests in his new book, Down and Dirty Pictures, may not be as Manichean as we all believe), there are film snobs, sure. But there’s also a spirit of swapping behind the medium, much like tape-trading was for music for anyone who grew up in the pre-digital age. Above all, there is a more democratic passion which extends from the insomniac video store clerk to the highfalutin Manhattan type looking for deeper meaning within a pop film like Terminator 3.

But the book is a harder sell. Not only are a great number of them published, but the book world is, if anything, snottier about their tastes. So we’re also dealing with a medium in which the book neophyte may be up against the wall from the get-go, due to choice, time investment to finish book, and insular pretentiousness. The literary book, regardless of how “accessible” it is, will mean something different to different people. At the same time, defering to a mentality that champions only Grisham and Clancy prevents people like the book club lady from finding that proper point on the pop/lit spectrum.

(And, oddly enough, this very topic also involved posts from 2 Blowhards and Mark. The problem, again, with attempting to find an all-encompassing answer is that it too boils down to individual sensibilities and generalizations, never something that any two people can agree upon. One book lover’s passion for Franzen may be DOA banter at a cocktail party.)

So the question now is what the NYTBR should become: Should it be a place that abdicates to the popular mass market paperbacks? Or should it recapture the magic of John Leonard’s reign?

I hope to address these points in Part 2, where I’ll finally get back to Michael’s post.

Nothing to See Here

The Register (oddly enough) reports that Congress is trying to pass legislation that will force all U.S. residents to go to jail for seven years and pay a $150,000 fine if, when you register your domain name, you don’t tell the world your email, home address, and telephone number. H.R. 3754 (PDF) was introduced this morning on the House floor by Lamar Smith (R-TEX). Stalker lobbyists are reported to be stuffing Mr. Smith’s garter strap with twenties.

[UPDATE: I misreported the implications of this bill. The seven years is tacked onto a felony charge. As the bill itself states, “The maximum imprisonment otherwise provided by law for a felony offense shall be increased by 7 years if, in furtherance of that offense, the defendant knowingly provided material and misleading false contact information to a domain name registrar….” That’s what I get for falling prey to the Register’s paranoid copy.]

Pot, Kettle, Black.

Lizzie (and her auxillary first person self) is not amused by the Believer‘s dismissal of any writer deigning to scribe Sweet Valley High novels. She notes that these writers have trivial concerns: such as, oh say, eating at least one meal a day. Isn’t this kind of snark contradictory to the Julavits manifesto? I guess it’s all right to play nice and snotty when you’re talking about someone as overrated as Salman Rushdie. But when it comes to the hard realities of being a working writer, for the Believer crew, they can be rolled off as easily as a LifeStyles from a parvenu’s knob.