Book Babes Watch

The duo takes on Christian publishing — a veritable subject, though, in light of the various discussions on the Left Behind books and the upcoming Easter one, a slightly dated one. Unfortunately, the Book Babes come across as quite ignorant on the subject they’re writing about. Ellen declares that “The market for books with Christian themes has been a continuing motif in publishing for the past 10 years.” Well, that’s the understatement of the century. I could make a crack here about The Pilgrim’s Progress or the Gutenberg Bible, but instead I’ll just openly wonder about Ellen’s long-term memory. Has she not heard of Lloyd Douglas?

I also have grave doubts about The Da Vinci Code selling solely on its religious content (which Ellen herself even confesses). This was, after all, a book that Laura Bush deigned to read, published outside the Christian book industry. Likely, it was the dumbed down Umberto Eco style that captured reader interest. But did The Da Vinci Code generate the kind of born again fervor that The Passion did? Did pastors and preachers demand that their congregation buy and read The Da Vinci Code the same way that they played into Mel’s hands? Absolutely not. So why bother to include it? And beyond this, what do movies have to do with the “religious book market?”

Beyond this, there’s no mention of Jesus Christ Superstar or The Life of Brian or Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ or Jim Crace’s Quarantine. And that deserves a Special Badge of Honor for Cultural Blindness alone. If Jesus is appearing everywhere in art, it might also be helpful to mention the more subversive examples.

Ellen comes across as equally obtuse: “The millennium, 9/11, and the war in Iraq have all fueled people’s interest in books about prophecy and the afterlife.” Hey, Ellen, have you been paying attention to the raving fundamentalism going down this year? The gay marriage debate and the partial birth abortion bans? The National Park Service thing? Wake up, sister! They may have a teensy bit to do with this as well. And what’s with the “divide between liberal Christians and conservative Christians” horseshit? Next time you’re in San Francisco, I’ll be happy to sing “Ebony and Ivory” with you at The Mint. Are you coming out as a Christian or something? If so, these personal revelations have nothing to do with the state of the religious book market.

But it’s Margo who offers sui generis in the reading miscomprehension department: “Often, people who are bothered with the idea of faith — like Christopher Hitchens, they think themselves too smart to be hooked on the opiate of the masses — are fascinated by its citified cousins, philosophy and ethics.” Perhaps because they’re trying to understand it? Even so, if the Hitchens reference is meant as a disapproving flourish towards his takedown of The Passion, then Margo has missed the point of Hitchens’ essay completely. Not once in his essay did Hitchens call religion the “opiate of the masses.” He was referring to the film’s anti-Semitism.

Having failed to establish The Da Vinci Code as a centerpiece in the publishing industry, Margo then returns to it, offering an oblique reference to it as a thematic token of our culture, without offering a single example for her argument.

So what we get, as usual, is false rhetoric, empty unfocused arguments, and an inability to tie the article into previous takes on the subject.

Poynter, why are you encouraging this tautological thinking? The Book Babes have to go.

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  1. The exchange certainly seemed shallow and rather unserious. I was puzzled why The Da Vinci Code kept getting mentioned seeing how the vast majority of Christians would see it as a deceptive and heretical piece of fiction while most who read it simply wanted a good story (minus those who read it to debunk it).

    Re: Hitchens. Hitchens is fundamentally anti-religion and obviously so.

  2. “The market for books with Christian themes has been a continuing motif in publishing for the past 10 years.”

    I know exactly what she means to say by that, but, really, LOOK at that sentence. It makes no sense whatsoever. Can publishing even have a motif? And if it did, would that motif be a market?

    “Jesus is showing up in all sorts of places — in this case, as an artifact of culture, and pop culture at that.”

    Yes, imagine that: Christians make Jesus a part of their lives, and it spills over outside the church sometimes. How novel.

  3. Hitchens may be anti-religious, but that wasn’t the focus of his essay. Again, their failure to cite examples works against them.

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Book Babes Watch

I thought the Book Babes’ column was an April Fools joke, but, no, the article was filed on March 31, 2004. This week’s piece of battiness concerns W.I.T.C.H., a series of books involving various ethnicities. Margo draws a vague comparison to Barbie, suggesting that the infamous doll (whose boobs have not grown smaller over time) has

Without citing any evidence from the books, suggests that “having it all” might be a bad thing

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Book Babes Watch

Since it appears that Poynter will continue publishing the Book Babes, inspired by Ron, I’ve begun a Book Babes Watch. Hopefully, drawing attention to the aspects that most of us have found infuriating will help Margo and Ellen improve their work, or Poynter to make the right decision.

This week, the big surprise is Ellen’s honesty with regard to criticism: “What’s a reviewer to do? Well, maybe the right answer is: Do NOT defend the status quo. We may be so inside the Book Beltway that we’re part of the problem instead of the solution. We write too much about marginal books that enhance book publishing’s precious image, and too little about the form and substance of fiction that catches the popular imagination. This becomes a problem for publishers of any size.”

Well, hell, Ellen, this is what we’ve been saying all along! I’d like to think that the floodgate of comments which greeted last week’s column may have helped Ellen to start asking some solid questions. But I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and suggest that it was the close proximity of other book critics that initiate this brainstorm. I will note that mentioning Richard Flanagan’s underrated Gould’s Book of Fish is sexy by just about any standard, and a good way to live up to the “book babe” label. And in trying to determine the critic’s role in relation to the reader and the publishing industry (specifically how wide the swath is), Ellen has helped start a potential upturn in future columns.

Unfortunately, after Ellen posed an interesting Charles Taylor quote to Margo, Margo responded with yet another tired popular/literary dichotomy. Worse still, Margo fails completely to address Ellen’s issue. In light of the regime change over at the NYTBR, it’s criminal to ignore the importance of what a critic should cover or to speculate upon recent developments. Do coverage decisions enhance or alter what may influence a reading public (or the uninformed dullards like Stuart Applebaum, who base their tastes on reviews without reading the books)? Margo never addresses this and concludes that the publishing industry is one happy umbrella in which everybody is passionate about books and, presumably, all the wild animals dance together.

Margo also fails to understand the “industry” part of “publishing industry.” As unpredictable as the publishing industry is, some people go into the biz to make a profit. It is extremely naive to believe that a publisher isn’t hoping for that breakout hit like The Time Traveler’s Wife or Cold Mountain, and that they are publishing books merely out of their kindness of their purty li’l hearts.

Ellen responds to this and, rather smartly, returns to the Taylor quote unaddressed by Margo. Plus, she uses “jump the shark” and points out the hypocrisy regarding The Da Vinci Code


Much as Comrades Mark and Ron (among others) have noted, it is the opinion of this Court that the Book Babes are improving, but that ultimately Ellen is the more thoughtful of the two. She also seems to listen. This Court urges the 32-member jury to modify its petition and Dump Only One of the Book Babes. The concept of a dialogue between two bookish ladies is a good one, but a proper dialogue involves two people offering their take on topics, and Margo can’t even understand the concept of call and response.

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  1. Hey, we did say we thought Ellen was kind of cute. Seriously, it’s always been apparent that Margo is the far more egregiously shallow of the two. And we’re still enamored of our suggestion that you’d be a stimulating replacement for dear Margo.

    One can dream.

  2. Since the campaign’s modified to one, my best suggestion is to get someone who’s actually “in the industry”–editor, publisher, agent, sales rep–to talk about such things. That way it would be more of a yin/yang and have a little bit more tension in the discussion.

    As to who I’d put forward in that position, that’s a whole other story.

  3. The Court wishes to note that the mediator of this case, the dude presenting the evidence (manely me) was never a candidate to begin with. It is purely in the interests of improvement that we present the facts. Again, the Court notes that there are plenty of smart bookish babes in the blogosphere to fill the slot.

  4. And non-bloggish reviewers, like Emily Hall of The Stranger!

    Also, I think Ellen used “jumped the shark” incorrectly, taking it to mean “cleared a hurdle” rather than “began the long, slow slide to obscurity.”

    Anyway, with the Book Babes Watch underway, I’m now going to simply steer people to you on this topic and chime in here as I feel necessary…

  5. Well, it’s Saturday morning, and here’s the New York Times Book Review on my doorstep. Let’s see what fiction they deem worthy of review, so we can perhaps identify this precious marginal fiction that has stolen the hearts and minds of book reviewers to their eventual ruin, if not the decline of publishing itself. Why, here’s Tom Perrotta and Chang-rae Lee, both of whom also got reviewed in the arts section last week, and here’s Lucinda Rosenfeld, whom I suspect Michiko will soon be declaring to have failed to live up to the promise of her first novel, as Michiko so often does. None of these authors seem especially marginal, nor do their books. Perhaps Margo and Ellen find the other fiction writer considered this week, Rachel Cusk, marginal and precious; possible indicators: she’s British and published by a relatively small press here. But the Times didn’t exactly fall over itself to praise Cusk’s efforts this time around, either, so it’s hard to see how she’ll bring about the downfall of the medium… But let’s look at the crime capsule reviews. Robert B. Parker, Laurie R. King, and John Dunning: nope, no marginality or preciousness there. (Well, I find late Parker a bit precious, but in a different way than the Babes mean the term.) So maybe they want to use the precious brush for Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza? Or Olen Steinhauer? I don’t know, either, but they each only get one paragraph. Do the Babes consider that “too much” attention if a book is deemed marginal and precious? There’s a good reason to ask: the Babes are more than happy to rail against this trend of marginality and preciousness; after all, it’s easy to garner support by dubbing yourself a populist. But when they don’t pin down exactly what they’re against, perhaps so as not to offend the Entrekins and Applebaums of the biz by coming out against an actual book, they make it that much harder to engage in actual discussion over books’ merits. Instead of conversation, they serve up pontification…

  6. The Center has broke! Everyone! I will guide you out of this muck! But don’t be too smart!

  7. weekend links

    lit -The Guardian looks at Chuck Palahniuk’s new short story, “Guts,” “a cautionary masturbation tale writ large.” (And, similarly, my

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