Yesterday my friend Yakut emailed me the article “Federer as Religious Experience” by David Foster Wallace, which appeared in the New York Times’ Play Magazine on August 20, 2006 (available here). Wallace penned an immaculate piece on Roger Federer, who also happens to be my favorite tennis player these days. As per his custom, Wallace resorts to 17 footnotes, provides detailed accounts of what he terms “Federer Moments” from the Nadal v. Federer Wimbledon Final of 2006, comments – in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, of course – on the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum and the tournament’s rules. It is a great ode to Federer, and contains a healthy rebuke of Nadal – who happens to be my least favorite pro these days. If you’re a tennis – and DFW – fan, enjoyed his essays in Consider the Lobster, and do not have the guts to restart Infinite Jest just yet, but would like to continue reading some brilliant prose, you should definitely check it out.
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.
At first I couldn't tell if Janet Maslin's review of James Frey's novel Bright and Shiny Morning was a joke or not. I guess she liked the book, but her homage to Frey's style is so terrible, the start-stop prose so laughably bad, that I assumed she was making fun of the poor guy:He wrote a big book. He wrote about a city. Los Angeles. He made up a lot of characters, high low rich poor lucky not, every kind, the book threw them together. It was random but smart. Every now and then he would pause the story, switch to the present tense and throw in an urban fact.David L. Ulin at the Los Angeles Times had a different reaction to the novel, calling it, "one of the worst I've ever read." Ouch.At the Vroman's blog, Patrick has an exclusive interview with the author himself. Frey discusses, among other things, his future as a memoirist, the city of Los Angeles, and, of course, his new novel:Ultimately, though, I tried to write a book that was unlike anything that has preceded it, that is devoid of any real influence, and that's singular in its composition and voice, but also immediately recognizable as my work. I have tried to do this with each of my books. I want to tell stories in new, fresh ways. I want my writing to reflect the age in which we live, which is fast, contains vast amounts of information, and uses new ways to present the information. I always read while I write, but for pleasure, not inspiration or influence.I wonder if this is really possible. Frank Conroy reportedly once said, "Voice is the amalgamation of books read," and I tend to agree. But I suppose Mr. Frey lives by Ezra Pound's famous dictum: "Make it new." It'll be interesting to see how readers react to Frey's latest endeavor. Will they agree with Maslin or Ulin, or somewhere in between?
When you go to journalism school (or start out at most traditional journalism jobs), you are issued a style guide as a soldier might be issued a weapon. Quite a few places have their own in-house style guides, reflecting the vernacular peculiarities of the publication or its region. For all others, the default tends to be the AP Stylebook, a utilitarian volume compiled by the AP and meant to keep all of its reporters' language consistent. Its influence, of course, has spread far wider.As an avid AP Stylebook owner, I read with interest last month, Editor & Publisher's account of the changes in the latest edition of the Stylebook. In a way, the AP's regular shuffling in and out of new words and disused ones is not unlike the exercise played to great PR effect by dictionaries every year. The sometimes silly neologisms added to dictionaries make for easy news bites. Seeing "e-mail" or "LOL" printed on those thin pages seems to inspire amusement, dread, and maybe a little bit of pride. But ultimately it feels inconsequential as we watch our vocabulary race ahead of dictionaries, and dictionaries seem to have minimal influence on how we actually communicate.An adjustment to the AP Stylebook, on the other hand, is a writ-in-stone change to what millions of people will read in publications around the world, and it will further influence the style guides at publications that use their own style guides. Certainly the AP is forced to, as the dictionaries do, catch up to trends in the spoken and written word - according to E&P, "'WMD,' 'iPhone' and 'anti-virus' are in, while 'barmaid,' 'blue blood' and 'malarkey' are out." - but the authority of the Stylebook would seem to bury the words that are being removed and give birth to those that are added.
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In the Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley writes a glowing review of Edward P. Jones' All Aunt Hagar's Children and has high praise for Jones as well:Now there can be no doubt about it: Edward P. Jones belongs in the first rank of American letters. With the publication of All Aunt Hagar's Children, his third book and second collection of short stories, Jones has established himself as one of the most important writers of his own generation -- he is 55 years old -- and of the present day. Not merely that, but he is one of the few contemporary American writers of literary fiction who is more interested in the world around him than he is in himself, with the happy result that he has much to tell us about ourselves and how we live now.Perhaps Yardley (and I) are just rooting for a hometown hero. (I grew up in the DC area.) But after reading The Known World and many of Jones' short stories, it's hard to deny that he's one of the best writers working today.In the NY Times, Dave Eggers is similarly admiring of Jones' work. He writes that The Known World "is considered by many (including this reviewer) to be one of the best American novels of the last 20 years. It's difficult to think of a contemporary novel that rivals its sweep, its humanity, the unvarnished perfection of its prose and its ultimately crushing power. The book's narrative force is so steady and unerring that it reads as though it was not so much written as engraved in stone. It became a classic the moment it was finished.""Bad Neighbors" is a story by Jones that recently appeared in the New Yorker.
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