Ed Champion has a nemesis, Time magazine book reviewer Lev Grossman, as we discover in Grossman’s latest column. Though somewhat tongue in cheek, Grossman is basically asking bloggers to use their power for good. All in all, it’s far more civilized than Steve Almond’s pathetic attempted takedown of Mark Sarvas in Salon from a year ago, which read like a laundry list of Almond’s insecurities. Grossman’s essay and Ed’s response make it clear that Grossman is an altogether more pleasant person than Almond and that the relationship between book bloggers and the literati has matured. As Ed notes in his brief response to Grossman, he (and other book bloggers) are regularly paid to pen book reviews in major newspapers. The lines are blurring. Oh, and I’ve met Ed. He’s not that scary.
This morning, when I finished reading George Packer’s long article in this week’s New Yorker, I felt like crying. Not out of sadness so much as out of frustration. Reporting from Iraq, Packer discovers yet another in a seemingly interminable series of managerial and moral failures: the U.S. government’s failure to support the Iraqis who have risked their lives serving the occupation as interpreters and administrators. I hope to have more to say on this article, and on Packer’s book, The Assassin’s Gate, sometime soon. In the meantime, I wanted to point out an area where similarly frustrated Americans might be of service.Packer introduces us to a U.S.A.I.D. official named Yaghdan who has been exposed by extremists as an aameel – a collaborator – and threatened with beheading. His request to be moved to a post outside of Baghdad is ignored. And so he flees on his own. Having amassed years of U.S.A.I.D. work, he ends up working for a United Arab Emirates cleaning company. Yaghdad’s U.A.E. visa expires; Qatar rebuffs his request for a visa; the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has no personnel in the Emirates. “Yaghdan had heard that the only way to get a U.S. visa was through a job offer – nearly impossible to obtain,” Packer tells us,or by marrying an American, so he didn’t bother to try. He had reached the end of his legal options and would have to return to Iraq by April 1st. “It’s like taking the decision to commit suicide,” he said.It occurred to me that there may be well-placed Americans at various firms who might be willing to tender job offers to Yaghdan or to other qualified Iraqis in Yaghdan’s position. A young American U.S.A.I.D. named Kirk Johnson has, Packer reports, compiled a list of current and former occupation staffers who have put their lives on the line for us, and now that they face death at the hands of militias, would like to live here in safety. Packer argues convincingly that this is a growing crisis, and that American leadership lacks the political will to deal with these invisible refugees. I have no way of knowing if job offers do indeed lead to visas, but perhaps some enterprising person looking for an administrative assistant will, after reading Packer’s article, want to get in touch with him or with Kirk Johnson. Perhaps the sense of helplessness might, however briefly, abate.
The Paris Review, long recognizable for its fat, little, bookish profile, has been redesigned under the watch of new editor Philip Gourevitch. Also gone is the practice of emblazoning the cover with an abstruse piece of art (as opposed to, say, the New Yorker) and nothing else. “Maybe no one thought it before Mr. Plimpton died, but the venerable old magazine did need an update.” says Bud, who’s got a full accounting of the venerable literary magazine’s new look (and contents).
A recent Wall Street Journal story (I’ll summarize here if you can’t access it), is reporting that Borders intends to “sharply [increase] the number of titles it displays on shelves with the covers face-out.” It is hoped that this move will increase sales, but “the new approach will require a typical Borders superstore to shrink its number of titles by 5% to 10%.”The article goes on to note that “Reducing inventory goes against the grain of booksellers’ efforts over the past 25 years or so. Chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble Inc., the nation’s largest book retailer, became household names with superstores that stocked as many as 150,000 titles or more. The rise of Amazon.com Inc., which offers a vast selection online, made it even more important for stores to offer deep inventories.” A little later, the reporter concludes, “With the book market facing unmitigated gloom, Borders has little choice but to experiment.”I’ve talked about chain stores and how they do and don’t satisfy the avid reader: In “What Makes a Bookstore?“, a golden oldie from about four years ago, I granted that “when it comes to hanging out, it’s hard to beat the chains.” But I relish and much prefer the relevance of a good independent bookstore, which should allow one to “walk into the bookstore and be able to grasp, based upon which books are on display and based upon conversations with staff and fellow customers, what matters at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood.”In this framework, putting ever more books face-out and thinning inventory is exactly the opposite of what I want a bookstore to do. The failure of chain bookstores is that they try to make the bookstore experience like any other retail experience, placing the merchandise just so in the hopes that it will entice the shopper. Indeed, according to the WSJ, “The new display strategy is the brainchild of CEO George Jones, who says he learned when he was a buyer at Dillard’s Inc. early in his career that dresses sell better when the entire garment is shown rather than hung sleeve-out.” John Deighton, editor of the Journal of Consumer Research, has a similar point of view. “‘Breakfast cereals are not stocked end-of-box out,’ he says. ‘You want to your product to be as enticing as possible. It’s a little bizarre that it’s taken booksellers this long to realize that the point of self-service is to make the product as tempting as possible.'”And who knows, tests have shown that “sales of individual titles were 9% higher than at similar Borders stores.” Still, further down this path lies the ultimate in bookselling vapidity, the airport bookstore, where all the books are face-out, and the desperate traveler is forced to choose between bad or worse.As I thought about turning books into so many boxes of Froot Loops, the article left me with a final question. Many bookstore regulars may not be aware that bookstores, from chains to indies, accept what’s called “co-op” from publishers. Ostensibly, this is money that is meant to help market certain titles. In practice, co-op money dictates display areas, what ends up on prominent front-of-store tables, and, yes, face out placement on shelves. The article doesn’t mention co-op explicitly, but I wonder if this is another motivation for Borders. If so, putting books face-out may lead to incrementally more sales, but it may also bring in more marketing cash from publishers, and the end result is an ever more pre-packaged, market-tested, one size fits all experience for readers.Edit: Thanks to F.S. for the correct spelling of “Froot.”
August 6th marked the 64th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and today marks the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki. As part of its op-ed page this weekend, the Los Angeles Times offered several firsthand accounts of the bombings by survivors, taken from a documentary made by the Hiroshima Peace Cultural Center. You can find the complete, translated transcripts of these testimonies at this link.Here is an excerpt from the testimony of Akihiro Takahashi who was 14 at the time of the Hiroshima bombing:That was the moment when the blast came. And then the tremendous noise came and we were left in the dark. I couldn’t see anything at the moment of explosion just like in this picture. We had been blown by the blast. Of course, I couldn’t realize this until the darkness disappeared. I was actually blown about 10 m. My friends were all marked down on the ground by the blast just like this. Everything collapsed for as far as I could see. I felt the city of Hiroshima had disappeared all of a sudden. Then I looked at myself and found my clothes had turned into rags due to the heat. I was probably burned at the back of the head, on my back, on both arms and both legs. My skin was peeling and hanging like this. Automatically I began to walk heading west because that was the direction of my home. After a while, I noticed somebody calling my name. I looked around and found a friend of mine who lived in my town and was studying at the same school. His name was Yamamoto. He was badly burnt just like myself. We walked toward the river. And on the way we saw many victims. I saw a man whose skin was completely peeled off the upper half of his body and a woman whose eye balls were sticking out. Her whole baby was bleeding. A mother and her baby were lying with a skin completely peeled off. We desperately made a way crawling. And finally we reached the river bank. At the same moment, a fire broke out. We made a narrow escape from the fire. If we had been slower by even one second, we would have been killed by the fire.
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.
This week’s New Yorker is already on newsstands, but before last week’s issue is a distant memory, I wanted to praise it for being one of the best issues I’ve read in a while. Calvin Trillin’s piece on an episode of vigilante justice in Canada was engaging and well reported and David Owen’s profile of the Arup structural engineering firm was an interesting departure from the magazine’s usual coverage of cultural luminaries in the architecture field (neither article is available online.)The issue was anchored by Seymour Hersh’s most important article since he helped break the Abu Ghraib story in 2004. In this follow up, Hersh delivers compelling evidence that responsibility for Abu Ghraib goes well beyond the handful of soldiers who were said to have acted on their own.But what really capped off the issue for me was Helen Simpson’s refreshing story “Homework,” which had a startlingly different tone from the typical New Yorker short story. Instead of brooding and cereberal, the story is almost joyful from start to finish, augmented by a wry undercurrent of second meaning. Whereas many contemporary stories are played in a minor key, thriving on disfunction, “Homework” is built on a healthy relationship between mother and son as she helps him complete an assignment to describe a “life-changing event.” Rolling her eyes at the silly assignment, the first person narrator mother dictates a made up life to her son, one that includes divorced parents and in particular a globe trotting, carefree mother. There are a few subtexts below the surface as she crafts the story for her son: her own difficult childhood, her desire for a more exciting, less domestic life. But the story is also about imagination and being a kid. I thoroughly enjoyed it.I hadn’t read Simpson’s work before, but I’ll keep an eye out for it now. She’s penned several short story collections over the years, including In the Driver’s Seat, which came out last month.
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.
For some weeks now, in a pretense to professorial hipness, I’ve been using the TV show Gossip Girl as a sort of all-purpose pop-cultural referent with my students. Whenever I’m at a loss to explain a concept, I say something like, “This would be like on Gossip Girl, if Blair Waldorf told Serena van der Woodsen…” The ugly truth, however, is that I’ve never seen the show.My students seem to take this in stride, and to find it both hilarious and tragic that I imagine it to be a cultural touchstone for their generation. In fact, they tell me, it is more of a cultural touchstone for mine. Other teachers apparently share my delusion that Gossip Girl is the central televisual event of the lives of undergraduates. Meanwhile, the undergraduates order Six Feet Under from Netflix.So where, one wonders, did the Gossip Girl meme gain traction? I can’t answer for my colleagues, but Gossip Girl got my own attention through two roundabout connections with The New Yorker magazine. First, Janet Malcolm (of all people) penned an essay on the literary merits of the book series on which the show is based. Malcolm was critical of the TV adaptation, but noted, of the books, that adolescence is a delicious last gasp (the light is most golden just before the shadows fall) of rightful selfishness and cluelessness… I would like to go on telling Blair stories until they are gone.Then, Wallace Shawn – a great playwright and actor and the son of the late New Yorker editor William Shawn – landed a recurring role as Blair’s mother’s boyfriend. “The life of an actor can be very enviable,” Shawn told the New York Times this week. “If the phone rings and somebody says, ‘I see you as the leader of a group of aliens with enormous heads… I think that’s fantastic.”That its glancing acquaintance with these two writers was enough, in my mind, to establish Gossip Girl’s centrality to the zeitgeist probably says more about The New Yorker’s role as a taste-maker for the thirtysomething set than it does about the CW’s role as a taste-maker for teens. Still, the primetime hours have not been quite the same for me since The O.C. went off the air. Janet Malcolm, literary to the end, would have me fill them with Gossip Girl books, but with Wallace Shawn joining the cast, I’m tempted to brave her disapproval and start watching the show.