NBCC Ethics Survey

At long last, Carlin Romano has posted the results of the National Book Critics Circle ethics survey. If there’s one thing that most NBCC members can agree upon, it’s that 98.1% of them are indeed members of the organization. Where the six stragglers and the one “other” came from is difficult to say. But I suppose a few rotten apples or contrarians are likely to find their way into the fix.

The other major consensuses are these:

84.2% of the NBCC members who took this survey believe that a book editor should not assign a book to a friend of the author.

83% believe that opinion journals should adhere to the same ethical standards as newspaper book sections.

76.7% say it’s okay for a reviewer to repeatedly review books by the same author over the course of many years.

76.5% believe that it is unethical to review a book without reading it entirely.

76.3% believe that book review sections that are paid by companies for reviews should be identified in the same way that bloggers are.

73.4% aren’t sure if the ethical standards of the United States and England are significantly different.

72.1% see no problem with an editor assigning a book known to hold aesthetic, political, or literary views close to the author.

68.5% believe that anyone mentioned in a book’s acknowledgments page should be barred from reviewing the book.

68.5% believe it isn’t okay for an author to review another book if the author has served as a major source in another book that the book’s author has published.

66.5% believe it’s okay for a newspaper or magazine to review books by current or former staff members.

66% say that it’s okay for a book section to have a podcast with the author, while the book section carries a review.

64.9% believe that someone who has written a blurb should be prohibited from writing a lengthier review of the book.

Many of Romano’s questions seem to address, rather amusingly, some of the current practices of The New York Times Book Review. And judging from the results, it would appear that Sam Tanenhaus is upholding only half of the ethical bargain. I’ll have more to say about this in depth later. But for now, I direct you to Michael Orthofer’s commentary.

A Dilettante’s Manifesto?

B.R. Myers reviews Tree of Smoke and cuts straight to the point in his second paragraph: “Having read nothing by Denis Johnson except Tree of Smoke, his latest novel, I see no reason to consider him a great or even a good writer, but he is apparently very well thought of by everyone else.”

Whether you see any reason to consider B.R. Myers a great critic or even a good critic for willfully copping to such ignorance and for blasting a writer’s work over one misfire is, of course, subject to your discretion.

[UPDATE: The Rake offers this hilarious Myers takedown.]

Sun-Times Books Section Latest Casualty

As John Freeman observes this morning, the Chicago Sun-Times books section is being cut in half, with the Controversy Section disappearing altogether this month. The five pages currently devoted to books on Sunday at the back of the Controversy section are being whittled down to two pages at the back of the Sunday Show section. And to add insult to injury, the reviews are also being chopped down to 250 to 300 words.

Janet Maslin: Abdicating Her Critical Faculties One Review at a Time

Slushpile has dug up further evidence of Janet Maslin’s critical inadequacies, as evidenced by this review of John Leake’s Entering Hades. Apparently, the fact that Michael Connelly did not give the book a blurb is reason enough to quibble with it. In fact, I’m wondering why Maslin didn’t just throw the book in the fireplace and devote her 900 words to qualities that had nothing to do with the book. What of John Leake’s pronounced fro or the fact that he sits with his arms crossed, but doesn’t appear intense enough in his author photo? (For Christ’s sake, he wears sandals! Well, that’s two strikes against the book, I’m afraid.) This is the news that’s fit to print in the dailies these days. Reading the New York Times‘s daily book coverage makes me so disheartened that I’d rather watch Michiko and Maslin in a nude mud wrestling match. That’s hardly my first choice of perverse entertainment, mind you, but I dredge this conceptual horror from my unwholesome imagination in order to make a larger point about journalistic integrity.

Edmund Wilson, Incompetent Genre Snob

In between books I have to read for work, I’ve sneaked in a few pages of the two-volume Edmund Wilson set recently put out by the Library of America. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that, when not defending Hemingway against his political critics or concluding that Intruder in the Dust “contains a kind of counterblast to the anti-lynching bill and to the civil-rights plank in the Democratic platform,” the man was a bit of a douchebag. And I say this as someone who enjoys some of his literary criticism. What’s particularly surprising is how dismissive Wilson is of mysteries.

edmundwilson.jpgStarting with the obnoxious essay, “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?,” Wilson declares, “I got bored with the Thinking Machine and dropped him.” He dismisses two Nero Wolfe books “sketchy and skimpy” and writes of The League of Frightened Men “the solution of the mystery was not usually either fanciful of unexpected,” failing to consider the idea that a good mystery may not be about the destination, but the journey. He declares Agatha Christie’s writing “of a mawkishness and banality which seem to me literally impossible to read,” but fails to cite several specific examples, before concluding:

You cannot read such a book, you run through it to see the problem worked out; and you cannot become interested in the characters, because they never can be allowed an existence of their own even in a flat two dimensions but have always to be contrived so that they can seem either reliable or sinister, depending on which quarter, at the moment, is to be baited for the reader’s suspicion.

If Wilson protests the detective story so much (as he points out, T.S. Eliot and Paul Elmer More were enchanted by the form), why did he bother to write about it at all? Should not an erudite and ethical critic recuse himself when he loathes a particular form?

It gets worse. If caddish generalizations along these lines weren’t enough, he returns to the mystery subject in the essay, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?,” written in response to many letters that had poured in from readers hoping to set Wilson straight. He dismisses Dorothy Sanders’s The Nine Tailors, openly confessing:

I skipped a good deal of this, and found myself skipping, also, a large section of the conversations between conventional English villa characters: “Oh, here’s Hinkins with the aspidistras. People may say what they like about aspidistras, but they do go on all the year round and make a background,” etc.

Aside from the fact that Wilson, in failing to read the whole of the book, didn’t do his job properly, it never occurs to Wilson that Sayers may have been faithfully transcribing the specific manner in which people spoke or that there may actually be something to these “English village characters.” Here’s the full quote from page 57 of Dorothy Sayers’s The Nine Tailors:

“Oh, here’s Hinkins with the aspidistras. People may say what they like about aspidistras, but they do go on all the year round and make a background. That’s right, Hinkins. Six in front of this tomb and six the other side — and have you brought those big pickle-jars? They’ll do splendidly for the narcissi….”

In other words, what Wilson has conveniently omitted from his takedown is Sayers pinpointing something very specific about how everyday routine, a fundamental working class component that seems lost upon Wilson despite his Marxism, leads one to disregard the fact that someone has died. Thus, there is a purpose to this conversation.

Yet this is the man being lauded on the back cover of the Library of America volumes as “wide-ranging in his interests.”

Wilson read mysteries for the wrong reasons. He saw trash only because it was what he wanted to see. Wilson’s incompetence is a fine lesson for contemporary readers. A book should be read on its own terms, and it is a critic’s job to try and understand a book as much as she is able to, reserving judgment only when she has fully read the book and after there has been some time to masticate upon the reading experience.

I disagree with Adam Kirsch’s recent assessment that “The best critics, like the best imaginative writers, are not right or wrong — they simply, powerfully are.” A critic, like any other human being, is often wrong, particularly when approaching a book with prejudgment or a fixed notion, such as Wilson did, of a mystery merely being about whodunnit. To avoid being wrong in this way, and to simply exert one’s opinion at the time of reading, requires as much careful reading and accuracy as possible, lest a great novel be thoroughly misperceived. It requires acceptable context and supportive examples. Wilson could not do this with mysteries and, if he is to be lionized, one should be aware that, when it came to Dorothy Sayers, he was no better than Lee Siegel in his tepid reading comprehension.

Panel Report: The Crisis of Book Reviewing

A good seventy people, composed of a handful of students and a majority of people over forty, congregated in the third floor lecture hall of the Columbia Journalism Building on Tuesday night. A portrait of Joseph Pulitzer hung behind the five panelists, as if to ask, “What hath Steve wrought?”

The panel, purportedly dealing with the crisis of book reviewing, might very well have been entitled “How to Interpret Steve Wasserman’s ‘Goodbye to All That.’” Wasserman came under fire from the Philly Inquirer‘s Carlin Romano and Public Affairs‘ founder Peter Osnos for an elitism that they had discerned in his piece.

“When I hear the word ‘elitism,'” said Wasserman, during one of the panel’s many heated moments, “I want to reach for my revolver.”

Every panel contending with a crisis, whether tangible or perceived, needs a whipping post. There are, after all, crises to justify. Litblogs, rarely mentioned during this ninety minute conversation, escaped the pillory this time. The venom was directed at the frequently misunderstood Wasserman. Romano suggested that there was an elitist strain in his CJR piece and declared that it was a journalist’s duty to write to as many people as possible, speaking in as many voices as possible. Responding to a point about anti-intellectualism being a part of American life, Romano remarked upon the “anti-Americanism in intellectual life,” noting that there was too much snobbery from major cities.

“Come down off your high chairs and talk in language they understand,” pleaded Romano.

Osnos declared that Wasserman was someone you wanted in your editorial foxhole, but suggested that the question that any incoming book reviews editor should ask of executives was “How much is is it worth to have people who read books read newspapers?” Osnos suggested that the answer didn’t lie in 800 word book reviews, but in word-of-mouth communities. He cited the Oprah effect and pointed out that USA Today‘s book coverage often received scant attention, despite the fact that it was designed to be read by ordinary people.

Wasserman, answering with a barely contained fury, then championed “the intelligence and avidity of ordinary readers” and perceived in Romano’s statement a condescending hubris in talking down to a readership. “Criticism is not a species of selling,” he said.

Romano then observed, perhaps in an assault upon Wasserman’s vernacular, that 1,400 word reviews written in pretentious Latinate carried a decidedly elitist strain and that real reviewing that reached the people could be found through such critics as the Boston Globe‘s Gail Caldwell. Wasserman noted that he barely recognized himself in Romano’s straw man, openly wondering how he could conflate intelligent reviewing with elitism.

This all made for great fireworks, but one of the panel’s many problems was that it was fixated upon a media environment more reminiscent of 1997 than 2007.

Elisabeth Sifton, senior vice president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, openly bemoaned the anti-intellectual quality of American culture, and then proceeded to declare the Internet’s “information” pursuit, “A very narrow goal, I may say!” I wondered if Sifton was even aware of such sites as The Valve, much less many of the countless pockets of wisdom that could be found with little to no effort.

“How many of you listen to public radio?” asked Osnos of the crowd. A good 95% of the audience raised their hands. Osnos then cited this as an example of how the media had found a way to reach a substantial and important audience through radio and how this had been an unthinkable supposition thirty years ago. I wanted to ask Osnos if he or any of the other panelists used an iPod.

At least Mark Sarvas was open about the technological chasm. He observed his nephew’s stunning dexterity with text messages, cited a grammatically mangled sentence that had appeared in a print publication, and observed the Guardian‘s audience of 23 million, positioned through its online reorganization. He had choice words to say about the Los Angeles Times‘ failure to obtain a synthesis between print and online, citing the “failure of imagination” in its execution.

Of all the participants, Osnos rubbed me the wrongest way. His efforts to reach the American public seemed more predicated upon reaching a demographic to sell them content, rather than the intelligent journalism Wasserman was calling for. While maintaining any journalistic outlet certainly involves reaching an audience and maintaining a business, I was glad to see Victor Navasky remind the panel during the Q&A session that nearly every op-ed journal was losing money.

I was more in the Wasserman camp than I realized. But then the idea of underestimating an audience’s intelligence has never particularly appealed to me. (Earlier in the evening, I had a conversation with a marketing person who kept referring to a book’s readership as a “customer base,” and I felt compelled to remind this person that these customers were considerably more than that — thinking and feeling human beings who were readers and individuals first.) None of the panelists suggested that lively or engaging prose (although the subject of James Wood came up and this might be a similar qualifier to Wasserman’s “intelligent reviews”), or the considerable disparity between the books covered in a book review section and those that appeared on the bestsellers list, might be components to the problem. The latter issue came up briefly with Sifton, but she considered that it would be something of an abdication to corporate interests, who had spent a good deal of money to purchase these slots, for a reviewing section to follow the bestselling list.

During the Q&A session that followed, a student rambled on at length and made the astonishing claim that none of his friends read books or knew who Barack Obama was. But as I looked up to the panelists, it was Wasserman — not Romano or Osnos — who was the one smiling. Perhaps he had a few ideas on how to reach this kid.

[UPDATE: James Marcus also has a report, with a few video clips.]

An Author’s Hubris Can Be Yours for the Low, Low Price of $1 Million!

Hari Kunzru: “Literary critics will never grow up. Luckily for me, these days, people seem to be more interested in talking about my work than about money.”

Gee, that’s odd. Adam Mars-Jones, Daniel Mendelsohn, David Kipen — to name just three critics — didn’t mention the advance at all in their reviews, although all expressed some quibbles about The Impressionist. Nithya Khrishnaswamy promised not to talk about the advance and only about the work. Could it be that the work in question isn’t nearly as spectacular as Kunzru believes it to be? Maybe it’s the author here suffering from a Peter Pan complex.

In Defense of One-Sentence Book Reviews

A book review should be composed of one sentence; ideally, only a handful of words.

That’s my response to all they hysteria now in the air concerning the death of the book review. These critics have nobody but themselves to blame for failing to get that most people would rather open up their book review sections and see “Great read!” or “Dude, cool!” or “Boooooooooooooooooring!” (In fact, I would recommend that newspaper web sites simply link to an audio clip of Homer Simpson saying “Boooooooooooooooooring!” and not even feature the sentence in print.) Lazybastard81, whose wonderful LiveJournal I Can Never Finish a Book, Motherfucker! I enjoy daily, makes the same point: “Why should I think? Why should I finish a book? I’ve got a new episode of Grey’s Anatomy on my TiVo!”

couchpotato.jpgDon’t think I’m undermining the book reviewers and critics who work long and hard to write 800 word reviews or even, if they are lucky, 1,200 word or 2,000 word reviews. I’m sure they mean well, just as Don Quixote meant well, even when they use ponderous sentences and put me to sleep. In fact, nearly all book review sections put me to sleep. Then again, I’ve been told by close friends that I’m a cultural narcoleptic.

Even though I’ve contributed only a handful of reviews (some of them, I’m afraid, longer than one sentence) for the PennySaver, I feel that I’m expert enough to demand a new revolution.

I’m a busy guy. I have a full-time career working for a deeply unpleasant man, and am well on the way to purging myself of the few joys I have left in life. I am miserable and underpaid because I spend sixty hours a week looking at corporate boilerplate. And I foresee an immediate future in which I might file for bankruptcy.

So give me one sentence reviews or give me death — preferably the latter.

Michael O’Dullard is a Level II Accountant who works without any hope of upward mobility. His reviews have appeared in the PennySaver and he is also a copywriter for many one-sentence coupons that can be found in the middle of the Sunday newspaper.

Say It Loud (I’m an Innovator and I’m Proud)

There is now a literary crisis. Irony, once declared dead, may not be quite as interred as it was six years ago, when we were all still debilitated from Yamasaki’s shrapnel. But it is certainly viewed as a cheap trick, a low literary tactic akin to kicking a ruffian in the nuts. Never mind that, assuming the complaints against irony are legitimate, the ruffian is, with this savage stroke, disarmed in an effective manner. Never mind that cheap shots, however you may identify them, are well within the boundaries of regular human behavior. Irony is now viewed as the kind of literary device that only a snark-spouting scoundrel writing for an alt-weekly or a blog is likely to use. Allegedly real writers — that is, those who are comfortably tenured or otherwise securely employed at an institution or who hack themselves out to outlets without valuing their material — regularly abjure themselves from such playfulness, from not questioning their own instincts, from not changing their minds. Irony may be a helpful tool to the contrarian thought process, but it is apparently the stuff of tots. Basic human skepticism and healthy chicanery are now beneath the current elite.

When it comes to books, one must say simply what one thinks, and justify it and justify it again until the critical piece becomes something akin to a cadaver dismembered beyond recognition. The critic’s scalpel — the one commonly accepted in the mainstream operating room — is held with a humorless hand, its fingers frequently failing to turn even one page with passion.

This lengthy post jumps off somewhat from Cynthia Ozick’s criminally underread essay “Literary Entrails,” and is in response to a literary climate in which the top-tier critics are people like Daniel Mendelsohn and James Wood — both fine critics, but both remarkably reactionary about what literature is and can be.

Let us consider their critical work in relation to two recent volumes that are arguably contemporary masterpieces. Here’s Daniel Mendelsohn’s dismissal of Richard Powers’s The Time of Our Singing. Mendelsohn writes, “His weakness as a writer is the weakness of all conceptual artists: you may admire his elaborate installations, but you sometimes find yourself missing the simple pleasures of good old-fashioned painting.” Beyond the later conclusion that Powers’s writing is “unresolved” (the lack of resolution may very well have been Powers’s point), Mendelsohn here seems reluctant to dive into a more expansive novel of ideas, much less the antecedents before DeLillo. (And if this is the case, why bother to assign Mendelsohn the review in the first place if he’s such a classics man?)

Or consider Wood’s extraordinary nitpicking of Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days, one of the most ambitious novels to come along in the past decade. Indeed, in Wood’s case, he has failed to consider that there may actually be something to the Whitehead sentences which he declares atrocious. But instead of attempting to understand Whitehead’s patois or considering the possibility that a sniper, literal or metaphorical, may very well view his task to be “euthanasiac” in an effort to justify his continual murders, he nukes Whitehead from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.

In both reviews, Whitehead and Powers are admonished because they are followers of Don DeLillo. Must we aver then that anyone who follows a major postmodernist influence must, by necessity, be bad? And why has this environment been allowed to fester? Because there is no longer any room for irony? Because there is no longer any room for the bold claim that declares a different type of literature something magical?

These are admittedly quibbles that go back to Heidi Julavits’s inaugural essay for The Believer, which was apparently misread after its publication — by me included — as a war against snark and therefore a war against objection. But it has been four years and the issues demand to be revisited. Indeed, they have been most recently explored by Garth Hallberg and Traver Kauffman, who both locked James Wood in their crosshairs.

But I blame B.R. Myers for all this. In “A Reader’s Manifesto,” a 2001 article in The Atlantic Monthly, Myers started the trend of looking to the innovators (including DeLillo, no less) and declaring them bad through an ignoble nitpicking technique, slightly presaging Fisking but no less lackluster in intellectual rigor. Because these innovators did not fulfill Myers’s personal view of what literature should be, he proceeded to unfurl his so-called “manifesto” — and, as nobody noted, it was not issued by a sovereign or a legitimate organization of any sort (unless you count a magazine editorial staff as a legitimate source for manifestos). This was, in short, a declaration of war against novelists who dared to issue “affectations” to their prose.

Because of this, eyebrows were raised and critics like Mendelsohn and Wood found new careers taking down stylistic innovators when assigned to review their books. For those who still championed the New Criticism that came before, outside of perhaps Sven Birkerts, Tom LeClair, and Ed Park, it was a fairly lonely world. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to name any newspaper critic actively writing in a non-dismissive manner about authors who fall outside of literary realism. Mark Z. Danielewski came along in 2006 with a new volume that dared to subvert the novel’s form and, instead of critics closely examining Danielewski’s eye-opening experiments, they proceeded to declare willful misunderstanding, with — if we count general newspapers — perhaps only the Washington Post‘s Steven Moore going out of his way to understand Danielewski’s subversion of the form. (“Still here?” sneered Troy Patterson, a television critic assigned to review the book by the New York Times Book Review.)

Here was a novel — perhaps as ambitious and as misunderstood as Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew, William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, John Barth’s LETTERS, or B.S. Johnson’s Albert Angelo — that was left to rot because it was too hard for Joe Sixpack, or rather the critical establishment’s approximation of Joe Sixpack, to grok. Thankfully, the judges of the National Book Award saw fit to honor Danielewski last year among their nominees.

To the critical world — largely composed of the self-imposed gatekeepers who purportedly knew damn better than those litblogging upstarts operating in basements in Terre Haute — Danielewski was dismissed as a conceptual artist. Never mind that the man had combed through obscure pamphlets and the like for years to find arcane words that nobody knew about.

So what is the acceptable standard? Let us consider Roxanna Robinson’s dismissive NBCC post on Lydia Davis, yet another literary innovator thrown, as a matter of course, into the “it’s not realism” dust heap. The NBCC has regularly eluded responsibility for whether its blog, Critical Mass, represents the NBCC, the NBCC Board of Directors, the John Freeman Appreciation Society, or the NBCC Committee to End All Committees and Keep Things Staid and Humorless. But I think it’s fair to say that if the blog is regularly featuring such outbursts like Robinson’s, which fail to cite a specific textual example from Davis’s work, then it must, as a matter of course, reflect the NBCC.

It’s Jack Green’s “Fire the Bastards” all over again. The current environment is one in which critics not only fail to read the whole of a book, but like Malcolm Jones, boast about their lack of intellectual vigor in a major weekly news magazine!

This is the literary criticism we want to preserve? These are the book reviews we need to save? This is the abject environment that is permitted to go on, but without that glorious “ba de ya” one should damn well find in September.

If you want to get a true sense of what literary criticism is missing, consider John Barth’s The Friday Book, and the manner in which he updated his controversial essay, “The Literature of Exhaustion.” Barth had written in 1967, “Our century is more than two-thirds done, it is dismaying to see so many of our writers following Dostoevsky or Tolstoy or Balzac, when the question seems to me to be how to succeed not even Joyce or Kafka, but those who succeeded Joyce and Kafka and are now in the evenings of their own careers. Barth updated this sentence with the following footnote:

Author’s note, 1984: Did I really say this remarkably silly thing back in ’67? Yup, and I believed it, too. What I hope are more reasonable formulations of the idea may be found in the Friday-pieces “The Spirit of Place” and “The Literature of Replenishment,” farther on.

Can one imagine such a helpful critical clarification today? Today’s titans would rather be right than wrong. Dave Eggers reviews Infinite Jest with mixed results in 1996 and critically flip-flops without a helpful explanation.

Was it really that much of a surprise when Dale Peck turned heads with one simple sentence? The critical establishment has no desire to give itself a swift kick in the ass, much less exhibit the kind of playfulness and inclusive expertise that makes for good criticism. If the critical establishment cannot effect these qualities, then it deserves to die a lumbering and painful death. This monster has only itself to blame for ignoring so many passionate qualities.

Small wonder then that the litblog is considered to be the upstart competitor. And if it has to be this way, if the two sides in this apparent print-online war cannot cooperate and cannot learn from each other and cannot settle upon a detente by the end of the year, then the time has come for the litbloggers to break away and stand firmer on their feet. They must shout, “I’m an innovator and I’m proud!” and not let anyone get in the way of what they do. They must become more serious. They must generate better content. They must figure out a ways to apply better editing standards and inject more life into what they do. They must organize events. They must unite together and be more inclusive. (Bud Parr had the right idea with MetaxuCafe.) They must constantly question themselves and the Establishment and not get too cozy. They must remain clued in to tomorrow’s William Gaddises or Gilbert Sorrentinos.

And they must not make the same mistakes that the old guard did.

Presumably, This Explains the NBCC’s Contempt for the Bloggers

Steve Wasserman: “The real problem was never the inability of book-review sections to turn a profit, but rather the anti-intellectual ethos in the nation’s newsrooms that is—and, alas, always was—an ineluctable fact of American newsgathering. There was among many reporters and editors a barely disguised contempt for the bookish. Even for those few newspapers that boasted a separate book section, book reviewing was regarded as something of a sideshow. It simply wasn’t at the beating heart of the newsroom. Careers were advanced by shoe leather, not by way of the armchair. The suspicion was strong among reporters and editors alike that anyone with enough time could read the pages of a book and accurately report its contents. Such a sedentary activity, however, was a poor substitute for breaking news and getting scoops.”

Sven Birkerts and “Literary Life”

The reputedly intelligent Sven Birkerts has entered into the print vs. online fray in today’s Boston Globe. He very kindly cites me, as well as Mark Sarvas, as a litblog that he has investigated. I can’t speak for Mark, but in the interests of conveying to Mr. Birkerts that litbloggers and print journalists are not necessarily on opposite sides of the coin, I should also observe — and this is quite important in responding to Birkerts’s argument — that Mark and I also write regularly for print, and that Mark indeed has a novel coming out next year. I know that Mark and I have had previous lives as journalists in the pre-digital era and that we are both on the cusp of gradually graying ourselves. (As a matter of fact, I snipped a thin gray strand from my reddish beard this morning.) Hopefully, this will quell another regrettable round of “Who’s the bigger old fogey?” and concomitant declarations of Terre Haute residency.

First off, I must commend Birkerts for not only being honest about his own print biases, but for at least going to the trouble of investigating blogs in this supposed “war.” But while Birkerts brings some interesting ideas to the table, of which more anon, I think it’s important to correct some of Birkerts’s assumptions about the litblogosphere.

As was abundantly pointed out by Colleen Mondor last month, it’s not so unreasonable to aver that the litblogosphere could exist on its own terms if it wanted to. When one discounts links and roundups, much of the content generated by litbloggers is as original as the content generated by newspaper writers. And with many figures straddling both sides of the fence, it’s unfair to call litblogs “in vital ways still predatory on print.” (Speaking for myself, I have never had any interest in being predatory. I have only wished to encourage the continuing discussion of literature, which sometimes involves a few necessary subjective assaults.)

But let’s examine this “predatory” rap. A litblog merely links to a piece — in the best of cases, with accreditation and generally with some one-sentence context. Dwight Garner’s “Inside the List” column for the New York Times (and later the corporate blog Paper Cuts) has confirmed Garner’s status as a print-based pettifogger considerably more predatory than the blogosphere. “Inside the List” is, more or less, a blog transposed to print form. Of course, it took the blog form of Paper Cuts to reveal Garner’s incorrigible character. He saw fit to steal an idea from Largehearted Boy and, with a graceless stooge shuffle eerily reminiscent of Carlos Mencia’s dunderheaded dance in front of Joe Rogan, pled ignorance when the notations were closely compared.

So why does Garner get a largely unobserved slap on the wrist while the bloggers get the stiff sentences? And what business does Birkerts have calling the blogosphere supplementary when book review sections are likewise supplementary? Take away the many books that are published each year and the book review section abdicates its contemporary thrust, transforming into white space.

Birkerts asks the question:

I’m hard put to repudiate these virtues of the blogosphere. But can it really compensate for losses in the more clearly bounded print sector? The bigger question, if we accept that these are the early symptoms of a far-reaching transformation, is what does this transformation mean for books, for reviewing, for the literary life?

So here at last is the real concern. The literary life. A codeword for whether or not the literary print journalist makes a modest living or is able to maintain a sideline. To my mind, “literary life” is more of a semantic powder keg. The print journalist may depend on freelancing paychecks in part for a “literary life” rooted more in paying the rent; the litblogger may hope to fulfill a “literary life” predicated on a love of books.

Nevertheless, I do believe Birkerts is right to point to “literary life” as the two words that sum up why book review sections, which naturally cling to overly conservative critics and overly conservative books under review, are dying and litblogs are thriving.

Certainly Birkerts is a man who clearly loves literature. His critical work reflects this. And I can likewise confess that my reading, whether done for a professional assignment or an amateur project, is initiated because of an enthusiasm or a curiosity. (Yes, even with Ron Jeremy. I offer no apology for my brow stretching high and low, or for my reading stretching across literary and genre.) If I did not have either or both of these two qualities, then I would recuse myself from the work. For there could be no way that my response would bristle with the life I try to inject into it. I don’t know Birkerts personally, but I suspect he is cast of similar character.

If we accept “literary life” as an emotional preoccupation with books or something that truly comes from the heart, can we find this “literary life” in the work of Joe Queenan, Leon Wieseltier, or the non-NYTBR writings of Rachel Donadio? Do any of them truly care about books? How did the strange newspaper world shift these bores (and sometimes boors) to their current stations? Can one open up a newspaper section and read a lede in which the reviewer actually gives a damn, pro or con, about the book under review?

Birkerts likewise laments “the emergent maturity that constrains unbounded freedom in the interest of mattering.” Well, for all of its talk about preserving the future of book criticism, I do not see the National Book Critics Circle instituting a mentoring program to help out younger critics. I do not see them receptive to the idea that people under the age of thirty do, in fact, read form time to time. I do not see some of the humorless NBCC board members attempting to reach out to perspectives or voices that are different from their own — particularly, if it involves politics. This is the “emergent maturity” that Birkets champions in print critics? If print critical culture wishes to remain this vanilla, then give me the comforts of polymorphously perverse bedsheets any day of the week.

What’s not to suggest that the litbloggers — who might just present a more comforting anarchy than a “self-constituted group of those who have made it their purpose to do so” — can’t “matter” in the way that Birkerts describes? If the norms of print culture have refused to shift over the past twenty-five years, as Pat Holt has suggested, maybe it’s high time for these norms to be shaken up. Maybe the centrifugal proliferation that Birkerts bemoans is the very impetus that will “define, or prompt, or inspire, or at least intuit” in that way that Cynthia Ozick pined for. (And if Birkerts can twist Ozick’s argument to suit his purposes, then I suppose I’m entitled to do the same.)

It’s also necessary to note that the “hopscotch through the referential enormity of argument and opinion” that Birkerts quibbles with is largely what he, as an interested party, brings to his blog-reading experience. (And Sven, if you’re feeling swallowed up by all the content, you may want to check out this thing called Bloglines.) I doubt every person reads blogs in the same way that Birkerts does. Thus, is this likewise a legitimate gripe?

Nonetheless, I do think that Birkerts’s lengthy essay is a more judicious response to a scenario that is likely to be unresolved for quite some time. I only wish that Birkerts could understand that the two “sides” are more similar than he realizes.

[UPDATE: There are now additional responses from Prairie Progressive, who notes that “the essay seems predicated on an elitist approach that seems prevalent among many established print reviewers.” Meanwhile, Mark Bernstein observes, “It’s not the link’s fault, anymore than it’s the sunshine that keeps our young scholar staring out the window toward that sunny ballpark.”]

Finally, Someone in the NBCC Who Plays Doubting Thomas

Considering all the hysteria that transformed Critical Mass in mere months into one of the most laughable blogs professing to concern itself with books, I must nevertheless commend the NBCC for offering Kansas City Star books editor John Mark Eberhart’s thoughtful and quasi-contrarian post, which offers the most plain and humble argument on the situation so far. In self-effacing words devoid of the off-putting and humorless self-importance seen before, Eberhart observes that the hue and cry to save books coverage may very well be encouraging top tier editors to initiate the death knell. As Eberhart puts it:

And I just hope the NBCC is successful in making things better. I have to ask, though: Did the campaign change any minds, really, in Atlanta?

Things change. Societies evolve. The Internet is not going away, barring some catastrophic event (I’m trying not to grin right now; I confess I sometimes have a rather twisted imagination). And as things change, journalism reflects those changes. There is an old, old tension in this business: Are we supposed to be a catalyst for what is “right,” or are we supposed to be a mirror or reflecting pool, showing society its true nature?

I certainly hope Eberhart’s realistic considerations of what is now happening in media and his call for sanity initiates a more constructive conversation for this very important issue.

Update on San Diego Union Tribune

Arthur Salm informs me that yesterday’s Books section was indeed the last one. The books coverage will now be “two pages inside Sunday Arts, plus daily reviews once or twice a week inside the Currents section.” Salm also indicates that a Books website will be launching on July 1.

John Freeman offers suggestions on what can be done about this. Meanwhile, Ron Hogan is more skeptical, noting, “Might I humbly suggest that preserving the legacy of serious literary criticism in American letters, if that’s what the ‘battle for the book review’ crowd is actually doing, demands a slightly different approach than the one used to ensure a second season of Jericho?”

Why Settle for Cornflakes?

From John Freeman:

Several years ago, I had an editor at a newspaper who liked to go over copy by the phone. His edits could be brutal, but he always circled around with a palliative comment to remind me it was all in service of a bigger need. “Remember, John,” he would say, “this is for the guy out in the suburbs eating his corn flakes. He has about five minutes before it’s outside for some Sunday yard work. So you want to tell him something important.”

From Anthony Burgess’s You’ve Had Your Time:

John Coleman in the Spectator said: ‘Not the best of Burgess’s books. Mr. Burgess might curb his inventiveness: he’d be a first-rate comic novelist if the camouflage of another little joke were down and he looked his subject squarely in the face.’ R.G.G. Price in Punch wrote: ‘I do not quite understand why everybody refers to Mr. Burgess as a funny man. He is as accurate and depressing as Gissing, though I agree that he is a Gissing with a sense of fun and an eye for any comedy to be found in his ruined world.’ Do reviewers ever consider that novelists are desperate for help, that they are anxious to be told where they go wrong and what they can do to put things right, and that, before they achieve the dignity of solus reviews and academic dissertations, they have to rely on these lordly summations in the weekly press?

Rachel Cooke: It’s the Author Photo, Not the Book

Rachel Cooke writes: “It wasn’t the hype that turned me off, nor the stories about how she’d been ignored as a novelist for years (Kevin was published by the small independent publisher, Serpent’s Tail); it was more that whenever she appeared in the newspapers, she seemed to be so… belligerent. Her book reviews were bordering on the vicious and in her byline picture, she wore a sleeveless denim shirt and matching frown that made me think I wouldn’t want to meet her late at night in a dark alley.”

When I talked with Lionel Shriver for an hour last month, I didn’t find her belligerent at all. She just doesn’t suffer fools gladly and is unafraid to speak her mind. I found her to be sharp, acerbic, and among one of the most fascinating people I’ve talked with this year. And I should also note that she answered every provocative question I put to her, even some of the half-baked ones.

Even so, I’m appalled that Shriver’s looks or manner would have any bearing upon whether her novel is any good. I don’t see book critics applying this kind of criteria to men. Why then should they dwell upon what an author photo has to do with an author’s work?

Then again, Rachel Cooke is the same person who was content to sling generalizations about bloggers. That Cooke is more willing to devote two paragraphs to being “Lionel Shriver’s number one fan” instead of offering specific examples on why The Post-Birthday World is an “unreadably plodding and obscure novel” says more about Cooke’s vapid literary standards than any sufficiently critical take on the book. If this is the kind of flimsy flummery that Cooke wishes to spew into the world, then she should be writing for Metro instead of The Observer.

(via Bill Peschel)

Print vs. Online

Motoko Rich interviewed me on Monday morning for this article. While my larger points about convergence between print and media and my call for unity were both overlooked (and apparently I wasn’t the only one on this score), I can’t complain because it’s good to see many of my fellow litbloggers well represented — even if Richard Ford displays his ignorance by badmouthing a medium he has never deigned to read.

If you’re new here, please feel free to leave a comment and say hello. Check out the podcasts. Check out the other litbloggers under the links section on the right.

As to the issue of numbers, yesterday, there were 43,865 unique requests for this site. That’s easily matches the circulation of a midsize newspaper. And, like my colleague Mark Sarvas suggests, they came here strictly for the books.

Also, I have the greatest respect for people who write in basements in Terre Haute.

Katie Roiphe’s Critical Inadequacies: A Case Study

While it’s good to see the ever reliable Liesl Schillinger offer a quirky and personal take on the new Clive James book, Schillinger’s pleasant review (as well as an appearance by the witty and dependable Lizzie Skurnick, regrettably reduced to capsules) is offset by the disastrous employment of Katie Roiphe, who, in her review of A.M. Homes’s The Mistress’s Daughter, demonstrates the troglodytic level of insight regularly witnessed in her Slate Audio Book Club appearances.

Roiphe gets so many things wrong about A.M. Homes that it’s hard to know where to start. She claims that A.M. Homes has “made a minor specialty of luridness,” only to contradict herself paragraphs later by characterizing Homes’s books as “sleek, violent cartoons.” Roiphe writes of Homes’s heightened reality as if ignorant of the relationship between realism and surrealism that has long been at the center of much of contemporary fiction from Flann O’Brien onwards, perhaps best epitomized by John Cheever’s “The Swimmer.” In fact, Homes herself has stated repeatedly in interviews that her m.o. is to to continue her work along the lines of this novelistic tradition.

Of course, auctorial intention, as revealed through interview answers, only takes us so far. So let’s ignore the idea of a narrative being only as realistic as an author’s ability to make it believable and dwell upon Roiphe’s limited perception of reality. Roiphe appears truly astonished that a husband and wife would “not only have affairs but smoke crack and set fire to their suburban house with a grill.” If Roiphe truly believes this moment, uncited but clearly referencing the first moments of Music for Torching, to be so unusual, I’m wondering why she was assigned this review. In a world in which a man pours gasoline on his girlfriend after she breaks off the engagement and crack cocaine has been in use in the Washington suburbs for many years, I think it can be sufficiently argued that Homes’s fiction is drawn from these darker and quite real aspects of the human condition. Describing this book then as a “sleek, violent cartoon” is thus inaccurate, more so because Roiphe prefers generalizations to concrete examples from the prose. Also resultantly wrong is Roiphe’s assertion that “the figures in Homes’s life often behave as if she had invented them.” Could it be that Roiphe is simply incapable of understanding that Homes’s fiction and particularly her memoir are, in fact, drawn from reality?

Of The Mistress’s Daughter, she writes, “the prevailing mood is that of film noir.” Never mind that Roiphe offers no examples. Perhaps she felt that any book containing a DNA test or detectives tracking down individuals, both inescapable aspects of Homes’s story, is intended to be categorized in the mystery section. Or maybe “this book is really about a wild goose chase.” Again, Roiphe appears unable to stick with an assertion. Maybe the book is just plain “false,” because the book “veers toward the sentimental, concluding with an unusually straightforward tribute to her inspiring adoptive grandmother.” Of course, any memoir involving two unexpected parents entering an author’s life is bound to unleash a torrent of emotions, particularly when the author is as fiercely protective of her private life as Homes is.

However, it never occurs to Roiphe that Homes’s “straightforward” memoir might just be an effort to come to terms with the private and the public. Sven Birkets, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, certainly understood this and limited his cogent observations to the book in question. Roiphe, by contrast, wishes to contrast this memoir against the ferocity of her fiction.

While this comparative approach is certainly an interesting critical exercise, in Roiphe’s hands, it’s quite catastrophic. While Roiphe can at least see that Homes’s memoir as “a document of a flawed, incoherent self” and is able to pinpoint the memoir’s tendency to invent rather than confront, she opts not to dwell on the most interesting example of this — a moment in the book’s second half in which Homes imagines how her biological mother must have lived decades ago — but with the deposition testimony near book’s end.

Roiphe writes, “How can the ruthless author of ‘Music for Torching’ and ‘The Safety of Objects’ allow herself this easy way out of a story that can have no easy way out? It feels false.” Maybe false to Roiphe, because she seems to have no clear understanding that Homes is writing about reality. Birkets and others have understood this, and a careful reader can see what Homes is up to.

As Maud Newton observed last week:

The memoir in its contemporary iteration seems to demand a Triumphant Conclusion. Homes, to her credit, mostly sidesteps this trap, focusing on her adopted grandmother. The result is a muted finale honoring the mystery of family.

While I’m glad that Sam Tanenhaus has granted space to A.M. Homes’s The Mistress’s Daughter, I’m troubled by how poorly analytical these results are. I believe this book to be an interesting turning point in Homes’s career: an effort to confront aspects of her life that have hitherto remained private and a fascinating expansion of her concern for the existential moments that seem larger than they are and are often confused with surrealism.

But Roiphe lacks the critical chops to consider these questions, much less place them within the trajectory of A.M. Homes’s oeuvre. Thankfully, Birkets and Newton do. While Sam Tanenhaus may shy away from the kind of nuanced criticism I am suggesting should be the norm of any weekly book review section, at least there are other editors happy to devote their pages to these more serious questions.

In Which I Join the Fold

Since I’ve amassed a tidy arsenal of reviews over the past six months, and, since my litblogging colleagues Mark Sarvas, Lizzie Skurnick, Sarah Weinman, Michael Orthofer, and Jessa Crispin were members, I figured that the time had come to join the National Book Critics Circle and participate in the ongoing critical conversation.

I’m honored to report that I’m now an NBCC member.

There were several reasons why I joined. For one, we’re in the middle of an interesting convergence point, a confused nexus of print and online media in which both parties sometimes wave scolding fingers at each other instead of communicating or meshing with the “other” side. It seemed only natural to join the organizational body that was attempting to put current literary criticism into perspective — particularly as some perspectives are misunderstood, some genres and books are needlessly dismissed, and the future of literary criticism remains somewhat inchoate as layoffs and buyout offers assault working journalists and the remaining column inches devoted to book reviews.

While it is true that I have taken the NBCC to task from time to time (and I certainly don’t exculpate myself from some of the aforementioned finger-waving), I figured that understanding the NBCC from a member’s perspective might permit me to form a more informed opinion and understand where many of its members were coming from.

We’ll see how this all works. In the meantime, I’d like to thank Jane Ciabattari, Rebecca Skloot, and John Freeman for having me on board.

Philly Inquirer Books Section in Danger?

Yesterday, Philly Inquirer books editor Frank Wilson declared that he was unwell. I was concerned that this may have meant something more. And this morning, I checked out the Philly Inquirer books section, stunned to find only five reviews appearing online instead of the usual seven. Cecil Johnson’s review was picked up from the wires. So aside from Frank’s review, there appears to be only three new reviews.

I certainly hope that this dip in column inches is a momentary aberration. While I offer the disclaimer here that I have contributed reviews to the Philly Inquirer, I believe that Frank Wilson is one of the hardest working and forward-thinking book review editors in the country. He was one of the first editors to investigate the media ecology that exists between newspapers and litblogs and he’s the only book review editor, aside from the Albany Time-Union (in which the blog serves as a surrogate to a book review section), who actively maintains a blog. It would be terrible to see his great services diminished, particularly after surviving the massacre that went down earlier this year.

More on the LATBR

I’m not in New York. So I haven’t been able to confirm or deny earlier reports directly with top brass. Thankfully, Publishers Weekly reporter Jim Milliot has some concrete information, now that some of the Los Angeles Times staff is in New York promoting their yearly book awards:

Both LAT editor James O’Shea and book editor David Ulin said the paper is committed to providing extensive book coverage, including reviews. But while O’Shea said he had rejected a suggestion from his predecessor that he kill the Sunday book review, he hinted that it may not remain a stand-alone section.

Milliot has determined that the Saturday option is still being seriously considered, but that O’Shea is “looking for a way to make the section part of the main paper.”

So the good news is that books remain something of a priority for the Los Angeles Times, but the bad news is that the LATBR may very well be folded in with another section, the newspaper equivalent of the B-movie on a double bill. Some priority.

If books really matter with the Los Angeles Times, does it not make sense to find a way to bolster the stand-alone section? If it is a matter of advertising revenue, then why not devote resources to selling ads that aren’t just literary. Literary people aren’t bookworms who never leave their apartments. They don’t just buy books. They also go to restaurants, attend concerts, and spend money in other non-literary ways. And yet, as Milliot reports, the only ads in the February 25 LATBR were “a classified ad for a ghostwriting service and a tiny Borders ad for a signing for David Mamet.” I’m wondering, given this advertising paucity, whether the advertising people at the Los Angeles Times are truly busting their humps here. Or are they trying to kill off the LATBR by ignoring non-literary advertising potential? Have they, for example, considered talking with the people attending the upcoming Festival of Books to find out what their non-literary interests are?

Perhaps the answer here is to launch a campaign to save the LATBR as a stand-alone section. This worked several years ago when the San Francisco Chronicle canned its stand-alone book section and readers responded with 400 e-mails and phone calls. The stand-alone section was revived.

Having written a few reviews for the LATBR, I can tell you that the staff there is seriously committed to turning out a quality book section. Hell, they’re smart enough to catch my bullshit and have demanded that I do better. Because of this, the editing I’ve received there has been among some of the best I’ve received as a writer. While certain East Coast editors named Sam have treated speculative fiction as mere baubles, I should point out that, where Steve Wasserman turned the LATBR into a stifled and pretentious rag, David Ulin has, after a little more than a year on the job, found his sea legs, regularly turning out a pleasant medley of informed and occasionally quirky reviews that puts some of his East Coast contemporaries to shame. (But the NYTBR devoted last week’s section to Tom McCarthy’s Remainder! Surely, it’s turning a corner! Well, Ulin was there two weeks before and he was smart enough to assign it to Tod Goldberg.)

The Los Angeles Times was the first American newspaper to devote column inches to China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun, allowing the reviewer to treat the book seriously (well, the hack writer involved here also cracked jokes, so perhaps this isn’t the best example). He’s interested in quirky pair-ups, such as having Glen David Gold covering Anders Nilsen’s Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow. And he’s even smart enough to enlist the Other Ed to cover Philip K. Dick’s lost novel.

In other words, the LATBR is everything the NYTBR isn’t, clued into the latest books (many of them a bit off the beaten track) and actively recruiting fresh voices to cover them (instead of, like Tanenhaus, disparaging them), standing proudly with Washington Post Book World, the Boston Globe, Newsday, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Philly Inquirer for some of the best review coverage in the country. It would be a great shame to see these accomplishments marginalized.

Wait a Minute: Michiko Actually LIKES Fiction?

It’s quite possible that the folks at the New York Times were sitting on this obit for a while, waiting for Styron to kick the bucket. After all, Vincent Canby’s infamous Bob Hope obituary appeared three years after Canby himself had expired. Even so, it’s something of a shock to see that Michiko actually liking a novelist. Go through her archives and you’re not going to find a rave for a fiction book until her February review of Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document.

So what are we to make of this? Is this a critic who can no longer feel the thrills of ficitve immersion? I’m not against negative reviews (far from it). And Michiko has had no problems these days passing plaudits for nonfiction books.

I’m not asking for Michiko to turn into a Harriet Klausner. But when a critic goes nine months without actually liking anything, one must ask why she bothers to cover fiction in the first place. Sure, there are a lot of dogs out there right now. (Lisey’s Story, I’m looking at you!) But this being the autumn publishing season, there are any number of books to be enthusiastic about right now.

Devil on Devil

I normally depsise Joe Queenan’s preening reviews, but his takedown of Joe Eszterhas’ The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood is pretty funny:

Heavily influenced by Plato’s pedagogic masterpiece “Critias,” “The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood” is constructed as a sort of open letter to an imaginary neophyte who wishes to learn how to write scripts about blast-furnace ballerinas and cold-blooded murderers who refuse to wear underwear, even though by doing so he shall lose his very soul. A lengthy series of axioms, anecdotes, exhortations, accolades, admonitions and insults, the book does not need to be read in the order in which it was written. Rather, much as in the case of the Old Testament, which it greatly resembles in its stylistic delicacy and unquavering jeremiadic tone, the reader can dip in anywhere.

A Spot Where Nobody Really Bothers?

Mark Haddon received savage reviews for his poetry collection, The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village, which followed his amazing novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. But does Haddon’s next novel, A Spot of Bother, atone for this misstep?

You wouldn’t know it from the reviews.

The Independent‘s Rebecca Pearson says Bother is “a superb novel, and I was shocked when it didn’t make the Man Booker longlist.” Meanwhile, the Guardian‘s Patrick Ness notes that it’s “a perfectly readable yet strangely undemanding novel of familiar domestic drama.” No starred review from Publishers Weekly, but the PW review insists it’s “great fun.” The Voice‘s Alexis Soloski gives it a lukewarm if positive review.

Like Fade Theory, I find it a bit difficult to gauge the book’s qualities with the current review coverage. Pearson’s review features plenty of ecstatic praise, but it doesn’t attach these plaudits to anything specific in the text. Likewise, the other reviews I’ve cited resort the majority of their space to summarizing the plot. If the reviewers are understandably jaded after Haddon’s poetry chapbook, I can understand. But The Curious Incident wasn’t exactly small potatoes. And if the reviewers can’t be bothered to follow Haddon’s career trajectory, I’m hoping more comprehensive heads might be employed to do so.

Ed Park Axed

Terrible news from Kathy Daneman: Ed Park has been fired from the Voice. This is a foolish move and a great loss to the Voice. Aside from having a pretty agreeable first name, Park is one of the more gleeful and idiosynchratic young voices currently working in literary criticism. One need look no further than his thorough review of Black Swan Green or his compartmentalized coverage of the Megan McCafferty scandal to be attuned to his talents.

[UPDATE: More from Jenny D and Gwenda. Confirmation from the Gray Lady.]

Stephen Thompson: Racist Reviewer?

GalleyCat reports on this Stephen Thompson review of Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games. The opening paragraph reads:

There are certain books that are so similar to one another they almost beg to be grouped together. This is largely true of Indian novels. Look closely at the ones published in the past, say, 25 years, and you’ll see that they’re virtually identical, in theme if not in style and content.

Aside from the racist assertion here that Indian novels are “identical,” Thompson also suggests that Midnight’s Children and A Fine Balance are “indivisible.” This, despite the fact that the former contains a protagonist with a highly sensitive nose and the latter does not, the former chronicles Indian history from 1910 to 1976, while the latter takes place during The Emergency between 1975 and 1977. There are infinite differences in language, characters, and plotting. But don’t tell Thompson this. So long as those brown-skinned people are banging out those novels, there isn’t a single distinction in his eyes.

This isn’t the first time that Thompson’s pen has applied troubling generalizations to ethnic literature. While reviewing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, a book concerning itself with Nigeria, Thompson decried “the destructive effect of colonialism on Africa and its peoples” as “conventional” and “clichéd,” as if simply dwelling upon this cataclysmic shift of cultures was somehow devoid of complexities. (Maud noted this earlier this month.)

Case for a Natural Alternative

London Times: “Small independent publishers are rarely reviewed in the broadsheets even though their books are frequently as good as those from the big publishers. It is hard, often impossible, for you to find out which books are coming soon and whether they are good, bad or indifferent. This dearth of support from the established media has led to some wonderful resources on the internet as disgruntled readers take it upon themselves to debate, discuss and enjoy new writing.”