Monday, September 20, 2010

To love thyself...

A subsection of the gender debate that arose following the raving New York Times review of Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom" is a small aspect of the New York Times bias: the tendency to love - and glorify endlessly - novels that embody the alleged "New York" attitude and frame of mind. It is not surprising that the New York Times unabashedly loves books about itself, books that fit its own view of life. Unfortunately, this does not always pan well for readers. Setting aside the whole discussion of whether or not the NYT dislikes female writers, I have to wonder why exactly it is that they actually like New York authors. Oh, there are the obvious reasons. People like books they can relate to and presumably New Yorkers have some kind of shared experience that makes them more likely to relate to books about... well, themselves.

I recall something I kept encountering in reviews of "Olive Kitteridge" - that the book embodied the "small town" attitude well. Furthermore, this was often mentioned as one of the possible reasons it won the Pulitzer, which states in its mandate something to that extent. The need to have a book actively identify with a certain group of people is not a new concept, but recently I've noticed that with New Yorkers, it's significantly more pronounced, perhaps simply because the NYT carries a lot more weight than most other newspapers. But what does this say about us as readers, if we simply like what is familiar to us in attitude and mindset? Shouldn't we be broadening our horizons?

This is not to say that the NYT (or any publication, for that matter) is exclusive in liking books only from its own region. As Teresa of Shelf Love so eloquently wrote on the matter of the gender debate: "Imbalance may exist, but it’s an imbalance, not an automatic shunting to the corner." In the case of authors like Franzen (and Lethem, and others I don't want to list now because it'll make my head pop), the NYT displays, yes, its absolute bias for books about itself - books that the reviewers can relate to, that speak to them, that they like. Because when a newspaper reviewer raves about a book, it's not actually the paper that loves the book, but the reviewer - a person who clearly has some kind of attachment to the book.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons I like books that don't take place in our modern world - sci-fi, classics and the like. I invariably find myself reading books that do not have defined Anglicized characters. The problem seems much less pronounced with other countries perhaps because I am less familiar with them, but when reading a book like the decidedly mediocre "The Emperor's Children", so highly praised by the NYT back in 2006 I find myself seeing exactly how a NYT reviewer will love the book, even as I - a non New Yorker, amateur (ahem) reviewer - don't.

I have read very, very few books about my own hometowns. The few books I have read have always thrilled me with the sense of self-reference (Hey, that's my high school! I live off that street!) but also turn me off a little. Why should I read about my own existence? I'd much rather see someone else's. I suppose the NYT doesn't agree with that idea.


  1. I never really thought about it but you have a point. So much for the professional reviewer complaint that bloggers' reviews are too personal.

    I admit that I do tend to like books set in my area.

  2. I love NYC and have spent a lot of time there, but there is a sense of exceptionalism among those who live in the city. And it is pretty narrow at times.

    I have liked other books by Claire Messud but I thought The Emperor's Children was quite a disappointment.


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