The State of Books & the NYTBR, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  1. I will never understand why it’s necessary to draw a line in the sand between good writing and good storytelling. If the Literati would only get over their smug dislike of plot and their unconditional love of form above all else, the twain might just meet, someday, and the discussion of what books are being reviewed might actually become constructive.

  2. Sara: I think it works both ways. What’s also disturbing is that a lot of popular fiction (such as Kyle Smith’s “Love Monkey”) seems to be adopting vague literary stylistics to the popular form. Personally, I think both camps may have something to learn from each other. No less a lit demigod than David Foster Wallce expressed his admiration not long ago for the way Tom Clancy could describe the workings of a nuclear bomb in simple language.

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