I’m not really one to analyze the New York Times Book Review, but I noticed that the section got a couple of mentions in the journalism industry magazine Editor & Publisher. The first points out that the section’s online version has introduced a new bestseller list, one devoted to politics. The usefulness of such lists aside, the introduction of a politics list highlights how important these books – often little more than lengthy screeds coming from the Left or Right – have become to the bottom line for the publishing industry. From the New York Times’ point of view, it’s “‘The more best-seller lists, the better,’ Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the Book Review, told E&P.”Separately, E&P published a piece about the glowing review that the Times gave to The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina by its own columnist Frank Rich. As E&P puts it: Ian Buruma, the well-known author, in a front-page review, offers enthusiastic praise both for the book and most of Rich’s commentary, which is extremely critical of the media for shirking its watchdog role in the runup to the Iraq war. The Times itself gets hit by its own columnist.So, to recap, the Times praises a book which is critical of the Times but is written by a Times columnist. It’s a small world, no?
For those who stay abreast of such matters, the last few months of the Atlantic’s forays into fiction have been positively nail-biting. In November, the magazine announced it would be offering a subscription of two stories a month exclusively on the Kindle. As if to quell a possible uprising of the deviceless, they turned around and released the yearly print fiction issue to the entire subscriber base. This June, they’ll convene two panels on the topic of Fiction in the Age of E-books at Toronto’s Luminato Festival—presumably, one hopes, to settle the matter.
How far we’ve come since 2005’s dark days, when Atlantic editors winnowed fiction down to a yearly newsstand-only digest! The now-quaint rationale was, “Reporting consumes a lot of space.” But in fiscal year 2009, when book review sections shriveled and houses purged editors and authors alike, dreamy fabulists, note: the Atlantic moved forward to find space for fiction again. And we should watch what they do closely. Because, in the past five years, while other news mags stumbled to find a way to get readers to consume their space—the Atlantic’s so-sensible-it’s-revolutionary strategy has made them a model for how print and online can survive side-by-side.
You may by now have noticed I have a little Atlantic problem. By this I don’t mean I have a problem with the Atlantic. (Though I often have a problem with the Atlantic.) My problem is more along the lines of the New Yorker enthusiast who wallpapers his bathroom with covers, or the public radio supporter who accepts the free tote though clearly informed this has diminished her pledge. Like these other fans, my outlet of choice has passed beyond pastime: it has become manifest as some previously inexpressible part of myself, one best revealed through a convenient duck hat or fashionable messenger bag—though part of the Atlantic’s appeal is that instead of redesigning its tote bags, it convenes a panel discussion.
How well I remember each small but strategic move! First, there was 2006’s “tech” column, in which James Fallows gamely chin-stroked over such wonders as Microsoft OneNote (“What makes some software ‘interesting,’ as opposed to merely usable?”). Next came “Print” and “Send to a friend” options. (Standard now, of course. But they were on it.) They linked subscriber accounts to an online profile, and, when blogging began its rise, immediately hired five famous bloggers—and let them blog.) Harper’s continues to plague us with subscriber-only PDFs—annoying in hard copy, unusable by device—and the New Yorker’s doorstop of a CD-ROM has become a series of clunky scans one must select page-by-page to print. (If one can read the hazy type at all.) Meanwhile, the Atlantic has had its Twain and Nabokov up and accessible to all for years.
Now, while the New York Times futzes around with photo galleries and “followers” and Slate piles still more boxes into its ancient maroon masthead, the Atlantic (excuse me—AtlanticWire) is on its umpteenth web redesign, a go-to online entity that has, if anything, cannibalized the magazine. While bloggers Megan McArdle and Ta-Nehisi Coates crank out high-concept cover pieces, P.J. O’Rourke and critic Mark Steyn, the golden mean of the magazine’s original libertarian readership, have been gently phased out. Welcome to newer hires Sandra Tsing Loh and Caitlin Flanagan—the original Tipsy Belden and Nancy Shrew—who duel it out almost every issue, the better to draw women everywhere by offending all of them.
Immediately hiring bloggers when blogging began its rise seems like an obvious way to stay above water – but it was so obvious almost no one else did it. (See Conde Nast’s Flip.) Until recently, numerous publications that will remain nameless still preferred to push their reporters into blogging rather than hiring reporters who already blog. But the Atlantic has never been saddled with delusions of grandeur. Even their poetry—it’s “poetry”!—rhymes.
Now that e-publishing has hit even the books world with the online equivalent of a sucker punch, I am poised to absorb what the Atlantic sees to come.
The cover of Fiction 2010 offers, to say the least, a provocative vision. To our left glides a gentleman in pegged red pants holding an honest-to-God—positively florid—paper-and-ink book. To our right saunters a young lady fixed on the lambent square of her Kindle. They are shortly to meet cute—heads bent, dogs lightly leashed—near a mailbox at the corner of Publishing 3.0. The attractive pair is surrounded by blooms, sunlight, even a deli’s beckoning door. Their future is plentiful and bright—and there is not an iPad in sight.
If you are swayed by certain unimpeachable sources, this vision is akin to blasphemy. The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta recently depicted that same future as a battle epic and brutal, the upstart iPad flashing its pretty UI and 60,000 titles against a staid Kindle, its inkless jabs a pathetic defense. Acknowledging that Amazon got a jump by getting Kindles into readers’ hands first, Auletta reasons that device-based argument is nonetheless is limited: “The analogy of the music business goes only so far. What iTunes did was to replace the CD as the basic unit of commerce; rather than being forced to buy an entire album to get the song you really wanted, you could buy just the single track. But no one, with the possible exception of students, will want to buy a single chapter of most books.”
That’s two assumptions, both incorrect. (This is why you don’t listen to writers whose publications slap up stories in teeny Times Roman.) 1) That all readers read alike, and 2) that whatever device prevails will accommodate books—not that books will change to accommodate the device.
Because, while a chemistry textbook or history of Rome must eventually be delivered somehow in entire, readers of fiction have been buying “tracks” of books for centuries. They’re called short stories – coincidentally, exactly the item the Atlantic is currently offering in an exclusive curated series on the Kindle. It’s just a start, but it’s a nod to an important distinction between fiction and other kinds of writing that must hew more closely to their form of delivery. Even poor poetry is hampered by its linebreaks, but fiction is the original mutable source, one that encourages authors to flex their muscles and tackle it in different media, now deliverable anywhere in any form. Forget your weekly Dickens. Fiction in variant array has bloomed on the internet from the beginning, from Darcy Steinke’s blind/spot to Rick Moody’s Twitter story to Japan’s booming mobile-fiction market.
Of course, your average person sometimes likes to just sit in the bathroom and read a real-life book, too. (Kindles don’t play well with the Charmin.) When it came to news, the Atlantic was the first to realize that, though online news would change to accommodate its new host into blog, comment, tweet, and update, that didn’t mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater. This means, when offering fiction, it’s wise to partner with someone who can deliver it in a dog-earable form, too—like, I don’t know, Amazon. “Neither Amazon, Apple, nor Google has experience in recruiting, nurturing, editing, and marketing writers,” Auletta argues. I’m not sure if Auletta has been on Amazon since 1997, but it actually owns every title, reviewer, reader, crank and author online. His claim makes sense only if you define Amazon’s actions against those traditional publishers—and I think even then most authors would tell you their publishers don’t really recruit, nurture, edit or market their writers, either.
I don’t know how the Atlantic, Apple, Amazon, or Auletta’s collected works will fare in the coming years (though they will certainly be called on first in class). But it seems important to check the hype when a newbie goes up against the mightiest bookstore in the land and a publication that’s remained robust in print, set the pace online, all while trying to see how fiction can fit in the mix. Steve Jobs is banking on my wanting to read on a prettier screen. But fictive folks read in different ways, and I don’t mean being able to turn my screen around and have the type adjust 180 degrees. An iPad is pretty, but it only has 60,000 titles, I can’t take it into my bathroom, and it doesn’t seem to be delivering the Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest. So it’s not that Amazon and the Atlantic got there first. They have always been here—figuring out how to deliver their authors to readers in every conceivable form. Looking at the cover of Fiction 2010 again, I might go so far as to say the real reason they’re the future of fiction and the iPad isn’t is that, unlike Apple, they both have a dog in this fight.
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.
Stephen King, once a favorite target of critics, has been embraced by at least some in the literary elite in recent years. He was awarded the National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, his fiction and non-fiction have appeared in the New Yorker, and now he is the subject of an “Art of Fiction” interview in the fall 2006 issue of the Paris Review, a distinction that might as well elevate him to canonical status.I’m a big fan of Stephen King’s books because they’re unflaggingly entertaining, but I also enjoy King’s work because of his close connection with his readers and his unwillingness to put himself on a pedestal. King’s exuberance can be found in his book On Writing. Part of the book is a common sense writing guide, but On Writing is worth a read for the funny little autobiography that the guide is paired with. He casts aside the notion of the writer as tortured soul and replaces it with the idea of the writer as a showman, serving his audience.What interests me, though, is how King has graduated from the bestseller list and moved into literary limbo. In the Paris Review interview, King talks about writers like John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Danielle Steel, and James Patterson. While King has some kind words for Grisham, he recognizes that he’s not really in competition with these perennial bestselling scribes any more, nor does his ego need the lavish advances that they receive. At the same time, he is reluctant to embrace the literary elite, because, I think, he believes that doing so would break his contract with his readers. Now, though, he seems less orthodox on this point. It’s not that he is embracing the literary world, far from it. It’s more like, coming back from an accident that nearly killed him – he was struck by a van near his home in 1999 – he has turned inward, and is writing mostly for himself, having previously done it for fame, money, and his love of entertaining. Of his forthcoming book, Lisey’s Story, which PW calls “a disturbing and sorrowful love story,” King tells the Paris Review:To me it feels like a very special book. To the point where I don’t want to let it out into the world. This is the only book I’ve ever written where I don’t want to read the reviews, because there will be some people who are going to be ugly to this book. I couldn’t stand that, the way you would hate people to be ugly to someone you love. And I love this book.The interview ends with King wondering aloud if he can “do something that’s even better.”Links on King: Only a small snippet of the King interview is available online, but, if you’re interested in King, it’s worth picking up this issue of the Paris Review to read the whole thing; King’s National Book Award speech; King’s account of his accident from the New Yorker.