Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post book critic, has named his best books of the year and – you’re not going to believe this (I can hardly believe it as I’m typing this) – he singles out John Grisham (The Broker) and Michael Connelly (The Closers and The Lincoln Lawyer) for praise. Those three books mentioned above are officially on his “best books” list. Connelly I can understand, but Grisham? That’s a huge surprise. I think it’s great. For a critic of Yardley’s stature, giving high praise to Grisham takes serious balls. Don’t believe me? See for yourself.
In less than a fortnight, Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel Laureate in literature, made headlines in Turkish newspapers not once, but twice. It would have been an ordinary thing a few years ago when Pamuk, commonly perceived as one of Turkey’s major political dissidents, would make news with his comments on the killings of Armenians in 1915 or the Turkish state’s heavy handed treatment of its Kurdish minority. But this time newspapers seem to have discovered a new aspect of Turkey’s most famous writer: his private life.
When Pamuk, who has a daughter from his first marriage that ended a decade ago, started dating Indian novelist Kiran Desai in 2010, photographs of the couple walking on a Goa beach in India were published by a mainstream newspaper edited by one of Pamuk’s old political enemies. Pamuk and Desai were quickly named as a power couple, one journalist calling them Mr. Nobel and Miss Booker. But after two books (Museum of Innocence and The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, both containing Pamuk’s words of gratitude to Desai for helping him with the final English texts) and numerous interviews accompanying the Turkish edition of Desai’s Booker prize-winning Inheritance of Loss (all of them focusing on details of their relationship rather than Desai’s novel), Turkish media seemed to have lost interest.
That was until this December, when a young Turkish artist was photographed alongside Pamuk in New York’s Columbus Circle mall. The following week, newspapers were covered with pictures of her paintings and a full page interview in the daily Sabah, whose American version first published the photographs, had the very Flaubertian headline: “I am Füsun from Museum of Innocence!” This was a reference to Pamuk’s latest novel where the protagonist, engaged to be married, begins an affair with a younger girl, who journalists were now eager to identify as having been inspired by Pamuk’s new girlfriend. Among readers of the interview were Pamuk’s loyal fans who hoped to learn bits of information about his new novel which will reportedly be published in Turkish this year. It tells the story of a street vendor who sells “boza,” a traditional Turkish beverage, and there was speculation as to whether the cover of the book would be produced by Pamuk’s new girlfriend, who has painted portraits of boza sellers in the past.
The latest piece of news, the most surprising to date, was published on the last day of the year. It alleged that Pamuk had an “illegitimate son” from a German professor specializing in Turkish literature. Pamuk is claimed to have never seen his son, who is now five years old. These dramatic claims were made by “an old girlfriend of Pamuk,” whose name was carefully left out of the piece.
Turkish newspapers made life very difficult for Pamuk in 2005 when he was turned into a hate figure by the ultra-nationalist Ergenekon gang which is claimed to include, alongside retired generals, solicitors, and politicians, a number of journalists who orchestrated campaigns against Turkey’s dissident figures, labeling them as traitors and enemies of the country. During 1990s right-wing newspapers were notorious for their portrayal of Kurdish and socialist intellectuals: many artists, like the singer Ahmet Kaya, were forced to leave the country after editors made a habit of picking on them. Last year a Kurdish MP was forced to resign after photographs showing him with a girlfriend were published in the papers.
With their newfound “private” methods, editors seem to have inflicted a deep wound as they turned the famously reserved Orhan Pamuk, whose political views continue to disturb the ultra nationalists, into a playboy figure in just a few weeks. It looks like an attempt by editors to exact revenge by hitting him below the belt. For Pamuk’s loyal readers, all this surely reads like one of Pamuk’s own novels which always feature him as a character, but the serious point to be made here is that Turkish media’s attempts to trivialize dissidents by focusing on their private lives has a touch of the News of the World scandal about it, and this new tactic will probably be a new cause of concern for Turkey’s dissidents this year.
The discussion about the future of book criticism can seem like a bubble sometimes, but I was reminded, in A.O. Scott’s charming tribute to Roger Ebert in Sunday’s New York Times, that book reviewers and their readers should not feel singled out in these challenging times. Scott noted the disappearance of movie critics as well at papers across the country, due to layoffs, buyouts, and cutting costs, adding:Such attrition is hardly limited to movie reviewers, and it has more to do with the economics of newspapers than with the health of criticism as a cultural undertaking. If you spend time prowling the blogs, you may discover that the problem is not a shortage of criticism but a glut: an endless, sometimes bracing, sometimes vexing barrage of deep polemic, passionate analysis and fierce contention reflecting nearly every possible permutation of taste and sensibility.I noted a year ago that the this same issue of the “economics of newspapers” had more to do with the demise of newspaper book coverage than anything else:The important thing to remember, I think, is that the disappearance of book sections isn’t a book section problem, it’s a newspaper industry problem, and the solution to book section woes will come with the solutions to the larger newspaper industry problems.Scott also takes umbrage at the notion that Ebert’s famous TV career (which first brought him recognition with a show called “Sneak Previews”) was somehow damaging to film criticism as a whole:It seems to me that “Sneak Previews” and its descendants, far from advancing the vulgarization of film criticism, extended its reach and strengthened its essentially democratic character.The same, perhaps, could be said of the role of personal publishing in film and book criticism which revels in the “essentially democratic character” of these pursuits.I also noticed at one point in Scott’s profile that he describes Ebert as an “enthusiast.” This word can be derogatory, comparing the “amateur” critic to the professional one, but Scott uses it in a different sense, making clear a difference in attitudes and aims – enthusiasm versus criticism. This isn’t to suggest that an enthusiast blindly loves every film he sees and that the critic is filled with disdain, it merely describes two different approaches, both useful and neither mutually exclusive and each speaking to audiences in certain ways. Part of the tension felt right now, perhaps, is that blogging and the internet have allowed for enthusiasm to encroach upon the terrain of criticism at a time when the arts landscape itself seems to be shrinking. Ebert (and Scott in his praise for him), however, provide a useful reminder that audiences perhaps gravitate most towards unique voices that are able to offer both enthusiasm and criticism rather than attempt to demarcate the boundaries between the two.
Initially I found yesterday’s announcement of Philip Gourevitch’s hiring as editor of the Paris Review to be odd. I know him best for his journalism in the New Yorker and his much praised works of non-fiction, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families and A Cold Case, but he didn’t seem to have the proper pedigree to head a magazine that is so prominent in its championing of short fiction. However, a look at the press release accompanying the announcement reveals that “Gourevitch holds an M.F.A. in fiction writing from Columbia University, and has published a number of short stories in literary quarterlies. He worked as cultural editor of the Forward in the early nineties, before turning to writing full time,” which would indicate that he does indeed have experience both as a writer of fiction and an editor. Beyond that, perhaps from his experience with the New Yorker, Gourevitch may have inkling of what it takes to make an unabashedly highbrow publication both a critical and financial success. Many were dismayed, or at least apprehensive, when former editor Brigid Hughes was forced out, but I think that Gourevitch’s appointment should leave Paris Review devotees cautiously optimistic. For more details and background on Gourevitch, visit Galley Cat.
The new British quarterly, The Book, is kicking things off with a poll to determine, by popular vote, “the Greatest Living British Writer.” As Gordon Kerr writes in his essay introducing the poll, “Now, there’s a question! It’s such a big one, in fact, that it requires capitals at the beginning of each word!” Indeed. If you’ve got an opinion on the matter, cast your vote. I couldn’t decide – how does one pick in polls like this? – so I selected John Le Carre, who seems to be sufficiently influential and popular while at the same time a little bit outside of the literary box. Thoughts?
A quote from Steven Erlanger, the cultural editor of the New York Times on the changes afoot at the Book Review: “To be honest, there’s so much s—. Most of the things we praise aren’t very good.” This, I suppose, is a rather blunt way of saying that things are changing at one of the most influential and widely used repositories of book reviews in the world. (Imagine that: people using book reviews. More on that later.) The charge leveled against the Book Review by its new keeper is that it has become formulaic in its style and perhaps a bit arcane in choosing which books to review. First to go will be the lengthy reviews of literary fiction, which will be replaced by an increased focus on non-fiction and popular, or mass-market, fiction. Furthermore, a concerted effort will be made to publish reviews that are more controversial with hopes, ultimately, of injecting enough hurly-burly into the Book Review that people will flock to see the literary wars waged on its pages. This practice of intentionally soliciting vicious, opinionated reviews in order to draw publicity and readership to a publication is probably almost as old as the book review itself, but recently, as the reviews have become more outrageous, the backlash has become louder. Early in 2003 the people behind McSweeney’s rolled out The Believer, a magazine more or less dedicated, as outlined in Heidi Julavits opening piece in the first issue, to combating the pointlessly mean review. The results have been mixed, but they continue to fight the good fight, even maintaining a “Snarkwatch” on their website. Yet the “snarkiness” has continued unabated. Last spring all of literary Britain was up in arms over Tibor Fischer’s unceremonious dressing down of Yellow Dog, a new novel by one of Britain’s favorite sons, Martin Amis. The review, which appeared in the Telegraph, was entitled “Someone needs to have a word with Amis” and included the line “I won’t tell you anything about the contents of Yellow Dog, but what I will tell you is that it’s terrible.” (LINK) Then, last summer a truly offensive review of Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs was penned by a gentleman named Mark Ames for a publication called NYPress. This review included the line, “I cannot ever recall reading a book as toxic, disingenuous and stupid as Klosterman’s new collection of essays.” (LINK) Ultimately, the review served its purpose, and, as it made the rounds via email and blogs, Ames and the NYPress put their names on the map. And now the New York Times Book Review is joining the fray, straddling that blurry line between entertainment and information; strange bedfellows indeed. There is certainly nothing wrong with trying to engage your readers nor is there anything wrong with entertaining them or titillating them so long as it is done within the framework of advising the reader on the merits or deficiencies of a particular book while at the same time taking on the responsibility of being the first word on a book whose ultimate importance has yet to be determined. The New York Times Book Review is a household name, but, until I worked in the bookstore, I had no idea how many people use the Book Review, really use it. They walk into the store clutching clipped reviews like life preservers in a sea of books, trusting that those reviews will not let them drown. If book reviews don’t serve that purpose first, what purpose could they possibly serve. For more on the topic, check out this column at Poynter Online.
I wasn’t a big fan of Joyce Carol Oates’ story “Landfill” in last week’s New Yorker. It felt to me a little too obvious, this story about an insecure college student’s drunken and accidental death thanks to the carelessness of the brothers at the fraternity where he was a pledge. It seemed too “ripped from the headlines,” too after school special, and on top of all that it was emotionally cheap – designed to provoke outrage with little complexity. So, it was interesting to discover that Oates’ story was indeed ripped from the headlines. The death of Hector Jr. very closely resembles that of a young man who had attended The College of New Jersey, so much so that Oates was compelled to apologize “for any offense she caused.”Obviously, quite a lot of fiction is drawn from real life events, but I think in this case, because Oates’ story was so one-note and so geared toward generating disgust, the connection was simply to stark to ignore. (via Jeff)