Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Things that are also ruining literature: me

When I read articles like this Huffington Post take on the NYT Book Review (via A Momentary Taste of Being), I'm at once fascinated, in agreement and completely annoyed and frustrated. The article rambles a bit, but Anis Shivani focuses a sharp glare in the direction of what he views to be: "an incestuous system of backslapping and mutual admiration, rather than any independent judgment of the quality of books under review." Ouch.

Shivani throws out examples easily and angrily - why was Franzen so praised? What is this publication that so likes A Visit From the Goon Squad and Room? Most of the article is composed of example-tosses like this and it's hard not to feel like Shivani is jealous of the powerful, influential review. Some of his hits fall flat - if the NYT Book Review feel like focusing on fiction (and a dash of popular non-fic here and there) as opposed to poetry... that's allowed. It may not be a popular choice in Shivani's mind, but it suits the majority of readers and if the NYT staff realized that discussing poetry doesn't draw in readers, so be it. It may suck, but this is how it goes.

Shivani also disparages the popularity of the books that the NYT choose to review, what he calls "safe consensus books". This is possibly his strongest point. He also discusses political takes and reviewer bias (irrelevant for the sake of this post). And then there's Shivani's annoyance with hype.
Commercial interests conveniently merge with political bias to create a propagated landscape of erosion and waste, hiding the real vibrancy of books in America. The books that end up in the Times's Top 100 or Top 10 every year are simply the ones with the most advertising muscle and public relations hype behind them. This year, as always, these lists were utterly predictable[.]
Here Shivani is at once completely right and also completely wrong. On the one hand, he has a point - the NYT Book Review looks a lot like a publishing magazine or Amazon's bestselling list or the galleys I might be offered by publishers. On the other hand, he's wrong - this is not at all exclusive to the NYT. We're all guilty. Allow me to explain.

Much as I tell myself that I'm a reader of varied tastes and have broadened by horizons, that's absolute nonsense. If I look over the books I've read, most of them fall into the "standard" category - popular book-of-the-moment finds. Now, I don't assume that all readers are like me. In fact, I presume most of you guys have your niches and the books you want to read, but are probably better than me when it comes to reading different books. Or not. That's okay too.
The thing is, even if we don't all read the books-of-the-moment because they're super popular, we're aware of them. Most of us - readers, reviewers and bloggers - can't pretend that we haven't heard of most of the books that Shivani mentions in his article. Many of us have probably read a few, here and there. Some because they received an ARC, others because they read a great review and others still because they kept seeing the name and wanted to form an opinion of their own. As upsetting as it may be (why do no small presses make it big?), it's the normal way of things. Good advertising -> leads to lots of reviews -> leads to lots of sales -> leads to bestseller status -> leads to more sales. Read: the way publishing works.

Shivani isn't wrong to question and challenge this. I entirely agree that the over-exposure of a select few books as opposed to complete radio silence regarding most is frustrating. I agree even more that the link between massive hype/publicity and well-publicized gushing reviews is rather disgusting. But to throw all the blame on the NYT Book Review is as stupidly generalized and wrong as it is to say "the book is dead". Dramatic statements like his sound like whiny finger-pointing when a large portion of the blame lies on most of us - the consumers who put up with it and even benefit from it, gaining a reasonable amount of quality literature even as it's mixed with the bad. Before crying foul, we should take a long, hard look at ourselves.


  1. Interesting!! I have kind of a general distaste for book reviews (even though I write some of them) . . . but the problems are much more complex than shoddy book review practices (as you point out) and I agree that some of the blame must rest with the consumers (which also includes me :). Fascinating post.

  2. Biblibio -

    I did not have the opportunity to read Shivani's article, but I do agree completely with your comments on ubiquitous nature of some books and titles. There are times when I personally feel like just another cow being skillfully herded by the marketing departments of the publishing houses – but how to avoid it? I’ve tried to read “outside of the box” by looking at books being published outside of the U.S., but in the global book economy (and the fact that I can only read English translations) I’ve had mixed results. When Jonathan Safran Foer released Eating Animals it seemed like even the BBC was interviewing him every 15 minutes.

    I think publications like the NY Times are in a tricky situation. They can’t afford to ignore the latest bestsellers and big authors because their readers go to their pages expecting to find information on these books. The question is: do they also have an obligation to introduce the next big thing? It’s been years since I’ve read the Sunday Book Review, but I always thought it would be worthwhile for them to have at least one column/page dedicated to new authors or indie presses.

    I think Shivani forgets that there is a greater time investment in reading a book than in watching a movie or listening to an album. A certain amount of curating is necessary. I think the decisions made by the NY Times as to what they include are more defensible than our own (meaning the blogging community). Most bloggers do not answer to advertisers or generate revenue through readers/subscriptions. Which brings me to the question: what’s our excuse?


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