BEA 2013: All’s Fair? Book Reviews & The Missing Code of Ethics

I was fully prepared to ignore the National Book Critic Circle’s latest effort to organize a confab parroting prefab guidelines for how to review books, influence the few, and otherwise eat your own tail. But when I espied a Great Publishing Professional sitting on the floor in a secret access area that I am not at liberty to reveal, I abdicated my seat to this valiant soldier and proudly cried out to the Great Publishing Professional (and others), “You, sir, have decided my fate. I shall cover this panel so that you, good sir, have a physical seat to do your work!” It’s possible that I left the room with a spin on my heel, my arms gliding with the desire to hold an umbrella and leap into the air. But I must confess that the opportunity to ridicule that mendacious puffball Carlin Romano was also too ripe to decline.

But here’s the big surprise. While the panel got off to a lumbering start — ten minutes of introductions (Romano’s, of course, being the longest), reiteration of NBCC wonkery, business serving in lieu of sleeping pills — I was surprised by how smooth it ran. Indeed, it would have been drastically improved had Carlin Romano, a man so in love with himself that he seemed to think the panel was entirely about him, been rolled into the Hudson River, attempting to deliver his gant-inducing gasbag banter with his nose just above water. America the Philosophical indeed!

The panel sprang from the froth of an uncooked souffle concerning whether a universal code of reviewing ethics should be adopted to combat the “Wild West” feel of outlets that were online and offline, print and digital, short form or long form, missionary or doggy style, coffee or tea, and any other dichotomy that comes to mind when overthinking an insoluble problem in needlessly complicated terms. NPR’s Maureen Corrigan seemed to flail against this right out of the gate.

“Why would you want to read a review that was so flensed of bias that it was almost written by an automaton?” she said. She pointed out that the late, great critic John Leonard accompanied Toni Morrison to the Nobel Awards and that seeing how an interesting mind reacted to a book outweighed issues of partiality. “I certainly wouldn’t want to sign on to any kind of contract that required me to leave my biases at the door. My biases have made me worthwhile as a critic.”

After Carlin Romano rattled off points he had delivered in 2007 (and, as a source informed me, reportedly identical to a recent Romano appearance at a biographer’s conference and thus not particularly reportable here), New York Times Book Review editor Parul Sehgal stepped in to rescue the discussion from these unnecessary displays of narcissism. Citing Virginia Woolf’s reviews, Sehgal pointed to the idea of a critic creating a shared space for newer writers. Sehgal was not only the sharpest panelist, but she also valued criticism as a passionate place for expressive possibilities.

But The Paris Review editor Lorin Stein looked to criticism as a place for bright iconoclastic writing. He bemoaned “when a book review editor assigns a novel to a young novelist. I think that creates an impossible conflict of interest.” He stood against what he deemed “tepid, polite reviews.”

I am not entirely sure why agent Eric Simonoff was on the panel, but he did feel that readers of book reviews and blurbs were “pretty smart.” And he agreed with Stein that the “logrolling in our time” that has crept into a few recent publications needed to be avoided. Because this was precisely what a smart reader would detect. “When you feel the tepid poetry of someone who doesn’t want to give offense, you’re reading between the lines.”

Sehgal seemed surprised by much of this. She saw criticism as its own pleasure. “To miss the chance to write an interesting piece of writing for its own sake is what’s done.”

I have neglected to note the contributions of moderator Marcela Valdes, who I really wanted to hear more from. But she was obliged to read back recent responses from an NBCC survey on ethics. Two starkly different responses provided a conversational starting point. The first: “I think that even a very casual acquaintance can inspire undue generosity or vitriol.” The second: “I think the idea that there can be a permanent hermetic seal between author and reviewer is an ideal.” (To be clear, an impossible ideal.)

Addressing these points, Sehgal saw no problem with biases or connections, provided they were explicitly stated in the review.

Romano then raised his impatient finger, beckoning for attention like an impatient five-year-old talent show contestant who wanted to play his violin first.

“There’s one feeling I have after years of thinking,” said Romano. “Literary ethics don’t take place in a vacuum.” He pointed to “the very short memoir about the Sri Lanka woman who lost her family.”

“Sonali Deraniyagala’s The Wave,” cried out the more informed majority in the audience.

“How do you review a book like that if it’s bad?” asked Romano, who clearly had not considered the plentiful finesse established by countless critics over the last few decades. But Romano wanted to matter. He had played his violin. Now he hoped to inveigle the crowd with a few bluntly thrown Molotovs. This was BEA! This was Romano’s Moment!

“Any biases can be overcome by ruthless honesty,” said Romano. “A best friend could write a devastating review of a friend and lose that friend.” Thus, in Romano’s view, objectivity was not possible.

This led Maureen Corrigan, bless her heart, to push back against this hogwash.

“You’re not reviewing the Holocaust,” replied Corrigan. “You’re not reviewing the tsunami. We’re reviewing the book.”

Romano, clearly not listening to Corrigan, then tried to pull himself out of the choppy waters he had created for himself by suggesting that a reviewer might write that the author of a tsunami memoir “should have gone under the waves also.” It was telling how swiftly such blunt asininity sprang from the Great Carlin’s lips.

Lorin Stein had more interesting things to say about being provocative: in large part because his finger appeared more firmly on the pulse of recent newspaper developments. He and Simonoff both noted how outlets had declined in recent years. But Stein saw an equivalency between a blurb and a tepid review. “There are bad books that need to be shut down and that seems to me a very important service to do,” said Stein.

But I think Seghal best comprehended why a review’s identity was so important. “There are some reviewers I read,” said Seghal, “because I want to know how your mind works. I want to be in a space with you.”

Valdes then asked the panelists if there were any hard and fast rules. “You really have to read the whole book,” said Romano. Stein disagreed with this, suggesting that better reviews might be honed if the reviewer wrote about why she didn’t read the whole book. He wanted to avoid writing performed by people who clearly weren’t critics. Seghal was committed to getting the facts right. Corrigan wanted a review to consider a book on its own terms.

“Actually,” added Stein, “a black author said to me, ‘Goddammit, you have to stop reviewing bald white guys. If you keep doing that, you’re going to drive away readers.'”

“In some ways,” said Corrigan, “writing the short review is writing poetry.”

With that sentiment in mind, here is a haiku devoted to Carlin Romano:

Vested man falling
Ground below, boiler plate, ouch
Can’t repeat the past

Critical Ass

From the latest National Book Critics Circle newsletter:

Eric Banks then spoke about the blogging committee. Our blog visitor numbers, he said, are down sharply. We’re getting only 10,000 visits per month, with an average of 250-500 each day. One of the problems is that Google is misdirecting people to the old blog which is no longer forwarding reliably to the new one. It was suggested that we create a wikiprofile and Jane Ciabattari underlined the importance of blog visits when it comes to our application for NEA funding. Everyone, Eric Banks urged, needs to help by thinking of ideas for new posts, even if they are only a few sentences long. One idea in the works is a series of interviews with editors about the move toward on-line reviewing. Laurie Muchnick suggested a sort of six-question template for editors, the answers to which we could post periodically.

How do I put this delicately? Perhaps the numbers are down because the content put up isn’t exactly scintillating. Perhaps the failure to link and include other bloggers, whether NBCC or non-NBCC, might be one of the reasons why nobody cares to visit the site. Perhaps nobody really cares about what stuffy and humorless book critics have to say about $27 hardcovers that regular people can’t afford to read because the unemployment rate is rising and the job market now sees 200 people applying for a busboy job and there are pedantic matters such as figuring out which relative you can ask to loan you the money to pay the rent and keep food on the table. Assuming you are even that lucky.

There are endless possibilities here. And it’s certainly not going to be remedied by a six-question template for editors or a wikiprofile. I don’t believe that James Wood has ever required a six-question template for editors or a wikiprofile. But if decent blog stats can get you NEA money to survive, just where in the hell is the bailout money for the bloggers?

BEA 2009: Book Reviews 2010 Panel Report

Panel: Book Reviews 2010: What Will They Look Like?
Participants: John Reed, The Brooklyn Rail (Moderator); Ben Greenman, The New Yorker; Otis Chandler, Goodreads; Bethanne Patrick, The Book Studio; David Nudo, Shelfari; Peter Krause, Tactic Co.

I certainly went to this morning’s NBCC-sponsored panel with an open mind. Alas, with stiff moderator John Reed reading word-for-word off of his list of questions and the question of whether book reviews were even worth saving largely ignored, this was, as you might expect, business as usual, with Ben Greenman and Otis Chandler offering the only real substantive commentary. The rest was buzz words and bullshit dichotomies. Expert content vs. user-generated content, book reviews versus book recommendations, Coke vs. Pepsi. While Bethanne Patrick was very careful to ask everyone not to contain their silent fury, I kept my hand raised during the Q&A and was not called upon. I presume that they found out about the cherry bomb I planted in the boys room toilet.

You knew that something was off with this panel pretty early. But the question percolating in my mind had more to do with whether these people even loved books anymore, or even cared about lively writing. And I suppose it was answered when Reed asked the question, “Is there anything that you’re looking forward to leaving behind?” There was uncomfortable silence from the quintet, before Bethanne Patrick replied that she was very interested in leaving behind the idea that there were plenty of places for authority.

(It is worth noting that as I type these words in the BEA Press Room, I am listening to a robotic-sounding author talking in a very stilted tone about the “emotional charge” in his book. I have no idea who he is, but that’s part of the problem. Yes, this is the mechanical level of excitement here. Dare to express even the slightest feeling and you will be dragged away by Jacob Javits security.)

I think the fact that these five people don’t have any value or excitement for what they are offering — or are diffident about expressing such value or excitement — should say it all. Don’t sit there in silent fury or anything. Except that there’s really no place for you here.

“What is authority?” asked Peter Krause, who offered several dollops of generalized Gladwell/Anderson-style terminology for the crowd, including some of the silly dichotomies I have described above. How does Twitter give you authority? Does it come when somebody follows you? Or is it the way in which you link?

I wanted to get the panel discussing the all-important question of whether one should tweet in one’s underwear or not. Or perhaps they might consider the side effects of drunk tweeting. Or how you might lose a few followers if you tell an off-color joke that offends a few people. That seemed a far more intellectual discussion pertaining to “Book Reviews 2010” than anything presented at this joke of a discussion.

At least Ben Greenman was wise enough to suggest to the crowd, “You should probably listen to yourself.” He cited John Leonard as a critic whom he disagreed with 70% of the time, but who wryly pointed out the benefits of adversarial writing. Yes, I thought to myself, if only we could have some of that right now to counter all this groupthink bullshit.

“We do need a guide to navigate through the wilderness,” said Otis Chandler. “Who are the experts?” All well and good, but it all seemed comparable to some rich guy hiring a guide to hack his way through a jungle. It also seemed to me that Chandler’s position — despite the apparent egalitarian nature of Goodreads — was very much rooted in discounting the audience’s intelligence. Part of the success of Goodreads, as I ranted and raved to a few gracious listeners after the panel, is because there is no longer a place for enthusiasm or excitement in the newspapers. While I did agree with Chandler that people are more inclined to listen to their friends, what Chandler (and the other panelists with the possible exception of Greenman) missed was the possibility that critics never present themselves as trusted friends to the readers. They dictate rather than get people excited. And the hoary heads stuck up the sad ass of this industry seem to misunderstand and underestimate the ability for people to find an alternative when they’re talked down to as if they’re wearing dunce caps.

Forget about Book Reviews 2010. What about Book Reviews 2009? Or Book Reviews 2004? These are the real questions these people should be asking. But they won’t. Because I don’t think they really have any answers.

NBCC Announces Exciting New Panels!

nbccpanelsThe National Book Critics Circle has announced a number of exciting new panels that should keep literature alive and exciting in this age of declining newspapers.

Why You Should Be Jane Ciabattari’s Bitch
April 9, 2009, 7:00 PM-10:00 PM.
Three-hour worship service

This exciting seminar, which will feature Powerpoint presentations and canned coffee donated from a homeless shelter, will explicate in great detail why all NBCC members should send their tithes to NBCC President Jane Ciabattari. Participants are expected to supplicate to Ms. Ciabattari at every minute, sacrificing their children at the designated altar and nodding their heads in agreement. If you have an independent thought, rest assured that you will conform to the NBCC’s philosophy at the service’s end. (Special Kool-Aid will be provided for those who have difficulty capitulating to NBCC philosphy.) The doors will be locked so that nobody can leave.

Those Fucking Bloggers
April 10, 2009, 3:00 PM to 5:00 PM
Two-hour lecture

We’ve scheduled this lecture early, because we realize that most of the people who loathe bloggers are over sixty and go to bed early. But if you don’t know why those fucking bloggers are evil, then we will explain to you what your role will be in the upcoming media jihad.

The Entitlement of Book Critics
April 10, 2009, 6:00 PM to 7:00 PM
One-hour panel

The NBCC has gathered together some of its smuggest critical voices in the country under one roof. At this enthralling panel, we will discuss why the established book critics should be entitled to any and all gigs. We’ll also demonstrate how to keep some of the more emerging critical voices out of the newspapers. Books editors will show you how to create a blacklist and how to recognize contributors who may bring an iota of passion to their pages.

The Importance of Panels
April 11, 2009, 2:00 PM to 4:00 PM
Two-hour discussion

If you don’t yet understand why panels are important, well then you will by the end of this discussion. We’ll show you how to keep a panel dry and uninteresting. We’ll also demonstrate what you can do to keep the crowd snoozing. Standing room only.

Does The End of Washington Post Book World Mean the End of Books Coverage?

Even though there has yet to be an official announcement, the NBCC is once again unofficially “reporting” “unofficial” and unsourced news that Washington Post Book World will print its last issue on February 15, 2009. Efforts to reach Marcus Brauchli to clarify answers have been unsuccessful (the man does not want to talk, even though it is claimed that he’s the only one who can answer), but perhaps a clue to Washington Post Book World‘s possible demise might be found in this blog entry at Short Stack, whereby specific links to “hard times” and “good news” suggest a tenable connection.

Conjecture, however, is hardly journalism. It still strikes me as journalistically irresponsible to report unconfirmed and unofficial rumors, particularly after Maureen McLane’s embarrassing array of bread pudding posts over the weekend. While this approach may work for Harry Knowles or Perez Hilton, it’s a bit dismaying but not particularly surprising to see that it likewise works for Jane Ciabattari.

[UPDATE: Thankfully, Motoko Rich has done some reporting, getting some interesting quotes from David Ulin, Steve Wasserman, and Douglas Brinkley, and talking with sources inside the paper. As Ulin notes, the death of a Sunday stand-alone section does not necessarily translate into an end for robust book coverage. It apparently hasn’t occurred to some of the NBCC’s inflexible fulminators that merging books coverage into general cultural sections may actually get more people reading books coverage. Is not such an approach better for the long-term health of literary journalism? And does it not attract a broader readership who otherwise may not have known about a specific book or author?]

[UPDATE 2: Terry Teachout also has thoughts, adding, “Why tear your hair because the Washington Post has decided to bow to the inevitable? The point is that the Post is still covering books, and the paper’s decision to continue to publish an online version of Book World strikes me as enlightened, so long as the online “magazine” is edited and designed in such a way as to retain a visual and stylistic identity of its own.”]

[UPDATE 3: Sarah Weinman notes, “Instead of passive intake, this is a world of active consumption and discussion, where people seek out what they want, when they want it at their own discretion. Looking for guidance and seeking things out aren’t mutually exclusive, but readers should be – and are – suspicious of entitlement and suspicion that comes with books coverage being wholly separate from the larger world.”]

[UPDATE 4: To jump off from Terry and Sarah’s thoughts, one advantage that a print-based newspaper has over a blog is the manner in which a reader can discover an article adjacent to another, much like the way in which you discover an unexpected book next to another in a library or a bookstore. Given this exploratory reading tendency, does it even make sense for any newspaper today to maintain a stand-alone books section? I’m wondering if the time has come for newspapers to stop segregating books coverage. A naturally curious reader, interested in the many pressing issues of her day, might very well find a newspaper book review to be of value. Hell, the reader may not even know that the newspaper features books coverage. Maybe the time has come for newspapers to stop considering how a newspaper’s house style dictates the tone, and think more about how individual voices bring life, passion, and informed arguments to a newspaper. The gatekeeper may no longer be the outlet; it may very well be the individual reporter herself. Authority may now arise from an individual’s reputation and voice, rather than the trappings of institutional newspaper culture. And given how rigid, gaffe-ridden, and humorless many of these institutions are, this development may not necessarily be a bad thing.]

[UPDATE 5: A contrarian print-partisan take from Lizzie Skurnick, whose mind is in the toilet.]

[UPDATE 6: The Post itself offers a report, with quotes from Brauchli. According to Rachel Shea, three quarters of the roughly 900 reviews each year will be shifted over to the Style section. Shea herself invites comments from readers.

Carolyn Kellogg: “A lot of effort has gone into bemoaning book review changes and it’s hard for me not to think that, coming from book critics, it’s both self-serving and a little cheesy. And it’s certainly less interesting than engaging with books.” Meanwhile, Scott Esposito calls out newspapers for not getting “with the 21st century and [figuring] out how to sell bookpage adspace to entities other than publishers and bookstores.”

Orthofer: “[M]an, do we miss paper coverage.” And to address the print sentiments of Elizabeth Foxwell and Joe Flood, it’s worth observing again that there will still be a print section that you can curl up to. It’s just going to be merged into the rest of the newspaper. Flood observes that the review was “printed on the cheapest paper available – the CVS coupons are on much better stock.” Maybe the time has come for newspapers to adopt POD as a viable curling up option.]

[UPDATE 7: I’ve located an article from 1973 depicting the then closing of Book World. The pertinent parallels and details can be found here.]

The “Save Gary Coleman” Petition!

Even though I have yet to hear back from Marcus Brauchli concerning the future of the Washington Post‘s book coverage, and not a single journalist or NBCC board member has confirmed a specific decision, I believe that the time has come to blame what nobody really knows on actor Gary Coleman.

Coleman, who once ran for California governor and is therefore thoroughly qualified to know about the Washington Post‘s internal decisions, needs to be saved. The information needs to be extracted from Coleman’s seerlike skull. And the action needs to happen now. Before Friday, January 23rd. By email. Because we all know how email gets lost and caught in spam filters. But a campaign like this sure beats sitting around and speculating. One suspects that Coleman can handle the pressure. And besides, everybody needs a scapegoat. And perhaps Coleman knows something that not even Marcus Brauchli knows. Let us always consider our strangest hunches.

Here is the plea to Gary Coleman and his editors:

“As chronic speculators and worrywarts, we write to implore you to go to Washington, DC, and kick a few asses. There are bloggers writing in Terre Haute basements who actually love what they do, and they are apparently being read and hired by some newspapers. The only solution is to beat a few people around and prevent these upstart bloggers from having the same prestige and influence of newspapers. As book critics, we have earned the right to write reviews that we believe enriches culture. Yes, it may read like the equivalent of castor oil sometimes. But it is our God-given right to pollute books section with bland and humorless drivel.

“We believe that you have important information about the newspaper business contained within your head, and that you have been rather selfish about sharing your vital data with the elitist book critics. We therefore wish to save you, so that we can save ourselves. The anemic discussion of books is vital to an elitist society. ‘James Wood defected to the New Yorker! What the fuck are we going to do?’ wrote an editor of The New Republic last year. And it is safe to say that since we do not know what the fuck we are going to do, then you will likely be in a better position to do something about it. We checked in our spines with our coats at last night’s book party.

“We call on you to preserve the Washington Post‘s books coverage, and to give it all to the dullest critics now working in America. We also call on you to ensure that not a single idiosyncratic voice or blogger will ever write for its pages again.”

(Photo: Eek! Online. For more petitions of the “Eek!” variety, go here.)