Last year we had fun comparing the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of a sample of the Rooster contenders, so I decided to do it again with this year’s batch. There are all sorts of marketing considerations behind these designs, and it’s interesting to see how designing for these two similar markets can result in very different looks. The American covers are on the left, and clicking through takes you to a larger image. Your equally inexpert analysis is welcomed in the comments.
As we’ve done for several years now, we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover art is an interesting element of the literary world — sometimes fixated upon, sometimes ignored — but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. And, while some of us no longer do all of our reading on physical books with physical covers, those same cover images now beckon us from their grids in the various online bookstores. From my days as a bookseller, when import titles would sometimes find their way into our store, I’ve always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another. This would seem to suggest that certain layouts and imagery will better appeal to readers on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other. These differences are especially striking when we look at the covers side by side.
The American covers are on the left, and the UK are on the right. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.
Neither of these is especially appealing to my eye. The U.S. version uses a travel poster-type image, but at least the bold font and title placement are intriguing. The U.K. goes for realism and the result is pretty dull.
Another pair that I don’t love, though the U.S. version has an appealing painterly quality to it. The U.K. version feels a bit slapped together.
I like both of these a lot. The U.S version is bold and somehow feels both vintage and very current. The LP label motif in the U.K. version is clever, yet subtle enough to avoid being gimmicky.
The U.S. version does a great job of setting a mood, but my nod goes to the U.K. version. The black dog is eerie and sculptural and the receding landscape is haunting.
These covers are very different and I have loved them both since I first saw them. The tents on the U.S. cover are both magical and, in the context of the subject matter, unnerving. But I love the bold, poster-art aesthetic of the U.K. cover too.
Sometimes simpler is better. I like the mesmerizing quality of the U.S. cover, with the tantalizing golden apple peeking from its center. The U.K. version is clearly trying to capture the mad tumult of the book’s plot but it is somehow too literal.
The U.S. cover is clever and intriguing, with those circular windows on repeated words, but I love the U.K. cover and the subtle suggestion of madness in its Jenga/Tetris puzzle. Update: I had initially posted the paperback U.S. cover, but looking now at the hardcover design, I agree with our commenter Bernie below that it is very striking.
The cropping of the sculpture gives the U.S. cover a compelling look. I like the U.K. cover but it doesn’t feel quite fully realized.
With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award last week, the 2008/2009 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners.
Though literary prizes are arbitrary in many ways, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up batting titles and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the “canon” and secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come.
Most notably, after being named to the IMPAC shortlist, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz has joined the ranks of the most celebrated novels of the last 15 years, making it, along with the other books near the top of the list, something of a modern classic.
Here is our methodology:
I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to “compete” with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.
I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here’s the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year’s “Prizewinners” post
*Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year’s IMPAC shortlist nods added to point totals from last year in the case of three books.
11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones – C, I, N, P
9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – C, I, N, P
8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo – C, I, N, P
8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz – C, P, I
7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow – C, N, P
7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – B, C, W
7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – I, N, P
7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan – B, C, W
7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – C, I, P
7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift – B, I, W
7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace – B, I, W
6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai – B, C
6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson – C, P
5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry – B, W
5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – C, P
5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – N, P
5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy – C, P
5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers – N, P
5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann – C, N
5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith – B, W
5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin – B, I
5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – I, N
5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – B, I
5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – C, P
5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – B, I
5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin – N, P
5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee – B, C
5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace – C, W
5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott – I, N
5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – C, P
5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – B, W
5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser – N, P
5, 1995, The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – B, W
5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – B, W
5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford – C, P
5, 1995, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth – N, P
4, 2008, Home by Marilynn Robinson – C, N
4, 2008, The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon – C, N
4, 2007, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid – B, I
4, 2007, Animal’s People by Indra Sinha – B, I
4, 2005, Veronica by Mary Gaitskill – C, N
4, 2005, Arthur and George by Julian Barnes – B, I
4, 2005, A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry – B, I
4, 2005, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro – B, C
4, 2005, Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie – I, W
4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – B, C
4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali – B, C
4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor – B, I
4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut – B, I
4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins – N, P
4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry – B, I
4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor – B, W
4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry – B, I
4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – I, N
4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead – N, P
4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller – B, W
4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins – B, I
4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro – B, W
4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates – N, P
4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O’Hagan – B, I
4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn – B, W
4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin – B, I
4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid – C, I
4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty – B, W
4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan – I, W
4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick – I, N
4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood – B, I
4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright – B, W
When I started writing seriously — by which I mean that I was serious in my intentions and commitment, which seem to me the main things a writer can control — I started by writing sentences. I spent a lot of time, sometimes a day, sometimes the better part of a week, on each one, moving its parts around, weighing the thing in my hand, struggling to achieve balance and shapeliness, waiting for all the pieces to click perfectly into place.
Paul Valéry once told André Breton that he couldn’t be a novelist because he refused to write, “The Marquise went out at five o’clock.” Fiction writing, Breton and Valéry agreed, relies too much on sentences written in this “purely informative style,” sentences of a “circumstantial, needlessly specific nature” — why five o’clock? why not five thirty? and why not a princess? In those early days of writing, I thought often of Valéry’s remark. I wanted to write fiction, but I didn’t want to write that kind of bluntly functional sentence. I wanted each sentence to be a thing unto itself, self-sufficient and entire. Needless to say, these sentences were all a long way from “The Marquise went out at five o’clock.”
Each sentence necessarily represented an end point, since it’s precisely the nature of self-sufficient things that they don’t have needs that must be met beyond their own borders. They don’t make demands that bring new things into existence. So I always felt, after finishing one, that I was starting from scratch. Naturally, I’d write another sentence, but it wouldn’t bear any relationship to the one I’d just completed. Again, necessarily so: self-sufficient things don’t have relationships.
This was in college, when I was taking writing workshops. What would happen is that I would go on in this way awhile, until I had perhaps a dozen such sentences. It would then occur to me that I had to turn them into a piece that I could submit to class, so I’d lay my sentences out and write a bunch more to connect them into something that could reasonably be called a story. These connective sentences were written much more quickly, with far less care.
If this doesn’t sound like a very good way to go about writing stories, it isn’t. And the stories I wrote in this way weren’t very good. This was as obvious to me as it was to anyone who was forced to read them. But things weren’t completely hopeless: my professors and classmates sometimes picked out isolated sentences that they believed contained enough life and interest to suggest some promise on my part. You may have already guessed that the sentences they picked were never — I’m not exaggerating: not once — those I’d labored over.
There was obviously a lesson to be had here, but I wasn’t sure what it was. For a while, I thought it had to do with spontaneity. The sentences I’d spent all my time on felt mannered, uptight. The sentences I’d written quickly had a breezy vitality. I tried to write entirely in this breezy way, but I couldn’t do it without already having those more carefully constructed sentences — the “real” sentences — to link up. And I couldn’t trick myself into writing my “real” sentences like throwaways, though I experimented with various approaches to get over this barrier. On the advice of one teacher, I tried “free” writing — first thought, best thought. On the advice of another, I attempted self-hypnosis. On my own initiative, I drank before sitting down to work. In all cases the results were a mess.
Eventually, I just went back to laboring. I decided I had to work harder, but that part of my work would be making the writing feel less worked over. I thought of it as the literary equivalent of stonewashing jeans or building with distressed wood — creating pleasing imperfections by first polishing and then artfully tarnishing. I built an entire novel this way. It took me a long time to do it, and the novel wasn’t any good.
This might have gone on much longer than it did except that, while working on that novel, I began writing nonfiction. Mostly I wrote book reviews, but also some essays and long-form journalism. After I’d finished the novel that wasn’t very good, I wrote a memoir. Among other things, this memoir was about the illness and death of a person I loved. When writing all this nonfiction, I labored over my sentences, but it was a different kind of labor. If you write about actual people and you are a halfway responsible human being, the mandate to account accurately for your subject is going to take precedence over everything else. So I spent a lot of time on my sentences, but I did so with a greater end in mind, which was making sure that those sentences captured the truth as I understood it. The results were better than anything I’d written before, and better than the fiction I was writing at the same time.
Once again there was a lesson to be had, and once again I didn’t know what it was. If the lesson was that I wrote better when I felt an obligation to the truth, I wasn’t sure how to apply it to my fiction writing, which was the writing that mattered most to me. More than one person suggested that the lesson was that I simply wasn’t a very good fiction writer, that I should be grateful that I could write nonfiction that people would pay to read, which put me ahead of most aspiring writers, and that I should stop driving myself crazy doing something for which I had no demonstrable talent. That wasn’t a lesson I was willing to accept. I was going to write fiction no matter what, so I might as well try to figure out how to do it properly. In fact, even knowing that the novel I’d spent six years on wasn’t any good, as I finished my memoir, I was mapping out a new novel in my head.
When you map a book out in your head, you don’t build it with sentences, since you can’t fit that many sentences in your head at once. You build it with images or scenes. Or you lay out the structure, or you outline the plot. I do some combination of all these things. In any case, the very day I sent my publisher the final changes to my memoir, I started writing what would become my first published novel. By then, the book already existed in some inchoate form in my head, and my job was to get it onto the page. There wasn’t the same kind of moral imperative that comes with nonfiction: I’d made everything up, so I didn’t owe it to anyone other than myself to render it truthfully, and I made changes to the initial conception whenever they seemed justified, many of them quite substantial. But I had finally learned the lesson, and it applied to my fiction as well as my nonfiction: Whenever my sentences had a function outside themselves — whether that function was connecting up other sentences, honoring the truth of a loved one’s life, or setting down an imagined world already existent in my head — they could in time be made to work. Whenever my sentences were built to be beautiful yet self-sufficient objects of attention, they collapsed.
It’s long been my experience that after I learn a valuable lesson through a lengthy and costly period of trial and error, I will quickly find that lesson stated in the most explicit terms in all sorts of places where I might easily have found it before. So I should not have been surprised, while I was working on the second novel, to come across the following passage in one of my favorite books:
These things I then knew not, and I loved these lower beauties, and I was sinking to the very depths, and to my friends I said, “Do we love any thing but the beautiful? What then is the beautiful? and what is beauty? What is it that attracts and wins us to the things we love? for unless there were in them a grace and beauty, they could by no means draw us unto them.” And I marked and perceived that in bodies themselves, there was a beauty, from their forming a sort of whole, and again, another from apt and mutual correspondence, as of a part of the body with its whole, or a shoe with a foot, and the like. And this consideration sprang up in my mind, out of my inmost heart, and I wrote “on the fair and fit,” I think, two or three books.
This comes from Augustine’s Confessions. It’s a minor passage — the actual volumes Augustine wrote “on the fair and fit” have been lost — but I couldn’t believe I’d taken so little notice of it in the half dozen previous times I’d read the book. Augustine is describing precisely the distinction I’d been failing to make all that time: there is a beauty to be found in a well-made whole, a body itself; then there is the beauty of a part in the whole, which is the beauty of a thing that elegantly serves its purpose. When it comes to writing stories or novels, sentences are parts, not wholes. They need to be both fair and fit. They can’t be treated as bodies themselves.
Finally, it’s not a limitation but a virtue of the novel that it demands its author to write, “The Marquise went out at five o’clock.” Within the context of the novel, such a sentence can even be beautiful, because it can be made necessary. This is the truth that another poet, W.H. Auden, gets at when he says that the novelist
Must struggle out of his boyish gift and learn
How to be plain and awkward, how to be
One after whom none think it worth to turn
Become the whole of boredom, subject to
Vulgar complaints like love, among the Just
Be just, among the Filthy filthy too,
Another bit of advice I’d read half a dozen times and didn’t understand until I’d learned it in my own way.
People can disagree, and have, over whether a novel or a story must itself have a “purpose” apart from being beautiful. But it seems to me inarguable that the parts of a novel or a story must have a purpose within the whole. These days, when I find that a sentence I’m writing isn’t working, I don’t think about what I want that sentence to look like or to be; I don’t pull it from the page to weigh it in my hand; I don’t worry over its internal balance. I simply ask myself, “What do I need this sentence to do?” I ask myself what role the sentence plays in its paragraph, what role the paragraph plays in its scene, the scene in its story. If I can’t answer these questions, even in some inarticulate and intuitive way, then I’ve got a problem, and that problem is bigger than this one sentence.
If this bit of hard-won knowledge sounds fairly obvious, I can only say in my defense that nothing about the academic creative writing complex as I experienced it encourages this attitude. The problem goes as deep as the very name of the discipline. I suspect that the perpetual debate about whether “creative writing” can be taught would cease if we just had a moratorium on that unfortunate moniker. No good teacher thinks that creativity can be taught; no good teacher doubts that writing — in the sense of a set of tools with which a writer can tackle literary problems — can be taught. Yet how often are beginning writing students who are not yet up to putting together an entire story placed in front of an object and asked to describe it in writing, in the way that students of painting and drawing are asked to render still lifes or the human form? Instead, they are simply told to write something that is in turn given to other students who are asked to judge it without any reference to what the piece of writing is supposed to be doing, what part it might play in a larger whole. The result, I suspect, is lots of students doing as I did, tirelessly perfecting sentences that serve no purpose, forever chasing the fair without ever considering the fit.
My own experience as a teacher has been that students are initially resistant to writing exercises, which they see as an infringement upon their self-expression. They are likely to be impatient if you suggest that these exercises will actually give them the tools necessary for self-expression, let alone that great writing might not even have that much to do with self-expression, in the end. But if you push them on it, if you set them to specific tasks, they will see improvement almost immediately and thus be encouraged to persist. I have had students admit to a great feeling of relief at being given an assignment at which they could succeed because even though they were certain that they wanted to write, they didn’t yet know what they wanted to write, and learning both the how and the what of writing at once is an overwhelming task.
There is another way that creative writing workshops at almost every level contradict the functional view I’m proposing. In most creative writing workshops, you will be encouraged to write short stories, even if your ambition is simply to write novels. (Once you’ve “graduated” from workshops, of course, you will be encouraged to write novels, even if your ambition is simply to write short stories, but this is another matter.) The idea is that stories are easier in some way, if not to write, then to discuss in class. But if it’s true that sentences and paragraphs need to be judged as parts of a whole, then it follows that the sentences and paragraphs of a short story — which is quite obviously a dramatically different form from the novel — need to be judged on different terms than the sentences and paragraphs of a novel. Treating short story writing as preparation for novel writing suggests that a good sentence is a good sentence, irrespective of its fitness to a particular task.
Here is what I’m not saying: I’m not saying that writing ought to be transparent, that language that draws attention to itself is an extravagance. I’m certainly not saying that a novelist must have a “purely informative style.” Nor am I saying that style should be of only secondary concern. In fact, I still more or less think that style is everything. But style, as Proust said, is just a way of looking at the world. It emerges from the effort to express something other than itself. You don’t develop a style by writing sentences that have no purpose other than to be stylish, sentences that seek to be self-contained works of art.
Admittedly, some truly great novelists, like Joyce and Flaubert and Nabokov, went a long way with the belief that every sentence should be a work of art. To this observation I have two responses. First, if you have the talent of Joyce or Flaubert or Nabokov, you should immediately cease listening to anything I have to say about writing. But second, if we’re being honest, even Joyce and Flaubert and Nabokov were in their ways harmed by this belief, achieved what they did more in spite of than because of it, and did their worst work when they were most committed to that aim.
Finally, the advice to make your sentences do something doesn’t rest on a particular attitude about the function of literature. It applies equally to traditionalists and experimentalists, to realists and to metafictionists. In a way, it doesn’t matter what you ask your sentences to do, as long as you ask them to do something. But my own experience has taught me that sentences have the best chance to fit their purpose elegantly when the work they’re being asked to do is fairly modest. One of the biggest surprises of my writing life so far has been the questions that occupy my thoughts when I’m writing. When reading great literature — the kind that made me want to write in the first place — I ask questions like “What is my attitude toward death?” or “How can meaning persist in the absence of God?” Because I want readers of my own work to be provoked into asking similar questions, I had long assumed that writing would involve my spending a lot of time on them. But when I write I am occupied by narrow questions specific to the work at hand, like “How do I get from this scene to that scene?” or “How do I make this character’s frustrations clear?”
If I’m lucky, my answers to these questions will implicitly suggest a relationship to all the persistent questions that I want my writing “really” to be about. I think this is what Annie Dillard means when she says that a writer must aim for the chopping block and not for the wood. But in the meantime, one advantage to the more modest questions is that they have answers. Those answers may not always be easy to find, but I long ago moved past the idea that the solution to my problems is to work less hard. At the very least, finding the perfect answer to a simple question seems feasible enough to get me started, to get me doing something.
“Sentences” by Christopher R. Beha will appear in The Writers Notebook II, which Tin House Books will publish in November.
Image Credit: Flickr/tjshirey
This week at The Millions, we’re attempting to gather some of our thoughts about the ongoing transformation of literary journalism. Today, Garth looks at the death of the newspaper book section. Tomorrow, Max considers revenue options for literary websites, including affiliation with online booksellers. And on Friday, Max will hazard some early guesses about the next possible upheaval in the economy of literary journalism: the e-book.
The spring of 2007 now seems like a lifetime ago. A promising U.S. senator named Clinton was a prohibitive favorite in the Democratic presidential primaries. The Dow-Jones Industrial Average stood just over 13,000 points. And, in light of this last number, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s decision to stop publishing its weekly book review supplement seemed like some kind of weird aberration. In the best little-“d” democratic tradition, the National Book Critics Circle decided to protest the AJC’s move via a “Campaign to Save Book Reviewing.” The weapons it selected for this campaign – a petition and a series of panel discussions – may have appeared quixotic, but during a weeklong symposium in the fall, its basic premises became clear:
1) The stand-alone newspaper book review is vital to the health of literacy, and thus democracy.
2) The corporate overlords of the newspaper industry undervalue all three.
3) Newspaper book coverage is in imminent danger.
4) Therefore, so are literacy and democracy.
It should be added that, by the time of the symposium, obsequies over the loss of column-inches for book coverage had shaded into alarm about proliferating book coverage on the Internet. We at The Millions, who attended several of these panels, bit our tongues. Despite our lowly station as bloggers, we looked upon the participants as colleagues. And we didn’t want to prove media pundits right by rushing to judgment; after all, our material interest in the print vs. online debate may have colored our thinking. Now, though, we can say with some confidence (and some disappointment) that, by its own lights, the “Campaign to Save Book Reviewing” was a failure.
In the last two years, stand-alone book review supplements including several of the country’s most prominent (The Washington Post Book World, The Los Angeles Times Book Review) have ceased publication. The parent newspapers insist that the lost review space has been offset by increases in coverage in other sections, but frankly, we don’t believe them. If the health of book reviewing is to be judged by what happens in the print editions of newspapers, the patient is doomed.
One need not detail at this late date the basic economic mechanisms that have led us to this pass. We may merely condense them to an easily graspable equation: growing number of books + dwindling time to read – advertising revenue + market meltdown = flawed business model. And yet, the Death of Book Reviewing narrative – a boom-era tale in which the high priests of print defend literature against both corporate bad guys and the vulgarians of the Internet – elides several contentious, and important, questions. To wit:
How good were the newspaper book review sections, anyway?
How inevitable was their demise?
How did those in power respond to the digital revolution – surely the biggest upheaval in the distribution of the written word since Gutenberg?
Does the Internet really spell doom for literary discourse?
By way of investigating these questions, we might consider the evolution – and fate – of book coverage at the nation’s most widely read print reviewing organ: The New York Times. For book reviewers, as for the larger (and equally endangered) world of newspaper journalism, the Paper of Record already serves as a sort of metonym. To paraphrase E.B. White, If The New York Times were to go, all would go. And so an analysis of the Times’ assets and liabilities, and of its response to upheavals in technology and the economy, will likely have something to tell us about the future of book coverage – and perhaps media – as a whole.
First, there is the begged question of the quality of newspaper book reviews. Almost since its inception (lo, these several years ago), the literary blogosphere has been asking this question of the Times, in particular. However, perhaps because bloggers’ animus toward the Times has been too easy to grasp or to dismiss (depending on one’s point of view) the attacks have had little effect on how the Gray Lady goes about her business. Devotees of the weekly New York Times Book Review and/or the daily “Books of the Times” column can write off Ed Champion’s efforts to save the NYTBR from its editor, Sam Tanenhaus, or Tao Lin‘s concise “Michiko Kakutani, Fuck You” (published in an online magazine Juked, but representative of web-wide sentiment) as products of ressentiment.
Meanwhile, from the vantage point of bloggers, whose reputations are only as strong as their most recent posts, the Times‘ authority appears, if not unearned, then largely heredity. Somewhere in mists of our pre-digital past, writers and editors worked to make the Paper of Record the first and last word on the U.S. book market (a favorable blurb from the Times, when available, will generally be the most prominent on a paperback jacket), but the enterprise has been coasting on its reputation ever since.
In defense of the blogs: the Times offers fodder for criticism on a schedule you can set your watch by. An edition of the NYTBR may contain a half-dozen or more of the sort of synoptic non-reviews that fail to interest the uninterested, while giving incautious or hurried readers the impression of an endorsement. Ledes of the “If writers were candy, writer X would be Smarties” variety proliferate. And though Michiko and Maslin, the Punch and Judy of the daily “Books of the Times” column, sometimes rise above their good cop/bad cop routine (see, e.g. Kakutani’s recent review of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned), they seem, in the main, to shoot first and ask questions later. (We will pass over in silence the tendency of the respective editors of “Books of the Times” and the NYTBR to split the difference: the frequency with which a weekday hatchet job will set up a B+ review on Sunday, or vice versa.)
Nor are bloggers the first writers to find the Times‘s book coverage lacking in luster, or representative of newspaper book reviewing as a whole. The origin story of The New York Review of Books, America’s preeminent literary-critical publication, dates back to the 1963 printers’ strike, when Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein realized that they didn’t miss one jot or tittle of the Times’ book coverage. They set out to create a literary supplement that would be missed were it ever to fold, and succeeded brilliantly. Around the same time, Jack Green published Fire The Bastards!, an account of the reception of William Gaddis’ The Recognitions. Bloggy avant la lettre, Fire the Bastards! amounts to a catalogue of the ills of reviewing in general (as does, come to think of it, Balzac’s Lost Illusions), but Green singles out the Times for special derision: “the worst bookreview [sic] section in the world,” he calls it.
On the other hand, it must be said, the mission of the Times differs from the mission of a literary blog, or even of The New York Review. The latter venues address smaller audiences, and so can afford parochialism, partisanship… and passion. The Gray Lady’s authority, by contrast, derives in no small part from its commitment to subjecting the broadest possible sample of new books to an objective gaze, or at least to give the illusion of doing so. Reviews of romances, memoirs, and political tracts sit cheek by jowl with reviews of midlist literary fiction. (One can imagine La Kakutani opening an envelope to discover yet another debut novel, and despairing. One can imagine, sometimes, La Kakutani deciding that she hates books.)
It likewise bears saying that, within the parameters of its mission, The NYTBR and “Books of the Times” do certain things quite well. The front-page NYTBR reviews, with their more generous length and more engaged writers, often succeed in being thoughtful as well as comprehensive. (See, e.g. David Leavitt on Henry James). The back-of-the-book essay often succeeds at diagnosing some tendency within our literary culture. The bestseller lists and their appendages offer an index to what’s going on in the culture at large. And, in “Books of the Times,” Dwight Garner and Richard Eder have been known to tackle books far from the beaten path – even books of poetry.
But when some recent research sent me to the late John Leonard’s 1981 review of Rabbit is Rich (one last mark in The Times’ favor: vast archives), it seemed, in comparison with today’s offerings, an 800-word masterpiece: stylish, contentious, erudite, risky:
Huck Finn, after all, didn’t have to grow up. Ishmael, lest we forget, came back too. Rabbit has to compromise. “Outward motion” can mean “inner dwindling.” Freedom hurts. Only in Toyota commercials do we rise and hang suspended; the Flying Eagle sinks. After the death of God – after the chilling discovery that every time we make a move toward “the invisible,” somebody gets killed – we require a myth of community, something, as Felix put it in Coup [sic] that “fits the facts, as it were, backwards.”
Held up against the current offerings at the Times‘ “Books” page, it is also an index of how far we have fallen. Implicit in the “Campaign to Save Book Reviewing” is the notion that newspapers set an unimpeachable standard; that some ineffable quality would be lost were “the largest remaining stand-alone Sunday tabloid section” to surrender the field of literary journalism to magazines and the web. But even if we’re willing to accept, pace Green and Balzac, the campaign’s more explicit premise – that book reviewing is vital to the health of literacy and/or democracy – the conceit that newspaper book coverage is indispensable appears to be just that: a conceit.
Meanwhile, the hypotheses about “Grub Street 2.0” tendered at the NBCC panels have proven testable faster than anyone could have imagined. As dramatic as the loss of print book review supplements has been in the last two years, the transformation of online reviewing culture has been more so. Even more surprising: the direction of the change has largely been positive.
To be sure, mind-bogglingly vast plains of chaff are still only a keystroke away; someone is always willing to shit on Dante!, as N+1 put it, in its dismissal of the literary blogosphere. Yet the more venerable lit-blogs – some of them, anyway – have consolidated their reputations as critical organs. Newspapers have even launched their own competing blogs (Dwight Garner’s Papercuts and Carolyn Kellogg’s Jacket Copy deserve special mention.) And beyond the constraints of the blog, venues as multifarious as Open Letters Monthly, The Quarterly Conversation, Bookslut, and, in the last two months, N1BR, The Second Pass, and The Rumpus have mobilized resources of design and prose that frequently surpass what is to be found in newspapers. Web magazines such as Slate and Salon continue to offer inventive and high-quality book coverage.
Even more consequentially, in an era of rising unemployment, the economics of reviewing have shifted radically. For years, a good, professional newspaper book review was worth about $400, or 50 cents a word. Now, even as the number of column-inches available in print diminishes, online venues are starting to meet or exceed that threshold. Rumor has it that The Barnes & Noble Review pays nine times as much as a reputable newspaper for which one of our contributors has reviewed. In early 2007, other critics might have leaped to review for that newspaper; now it recommends itself mostly as a nice line in the bio. Even ad-supported blogs (like this one) are forcing freelancers to rethink their strategy. Although the per-word pay rate of such blogs will likely never match, say, Slate, the number of words available is, theoretically, unlimited. Prolific bloggers, by writing four reviews a month rather than two, quickly compensate for the loss of income from book review sections.
This is not to mention the less fungible forms of remuneration. As has been widely noted, one of the hidden pleasures of publishing work online is the ability to hear responses from readers, and sometimes to engage in debate. Reviewing online feels like a lively thing, where the Sunday newspaper supplements sometimes read, as a colleague put it, as the place “where book reviews go to die.”
The nexus of advertising and contentiousness and minimal editorial supervision raises important questions about standards, as partisans of print are quick to point out. Transparency is, at best, a vexed question on the Internet. What is to stop a blog that profits from Amazon links from promoting books it doesn’t believe in? Yet, at its best, there is a self-policing quality to the maintenance of online authority that has, for better or worse, begun to professionalize the blogs. Comparing the relative performance of newspapers and the web in assessing a couple of the most challenging books of recent vintage, 2666 and The Kindly Ones, we discover a leveled playing field. And as readers increasingly take their news online anyway, such a comparison becomes the work of a few seconds. (Some of the best coverage, of course, was to be found in print magazines such as The Nation and The New York Review, whose role in the reviewing ecology I won’t attempt to assess.)
Under these circumstances, the fate of our last freestanding weekly book review supplement would appear to be in doubt. With readers and reviewers jumping ship, publishers are the only ones left with a compelling interest in its continued existence. (Who else will supply that big blurb? Who else will, if nothing else, announce to the masses that a book exists?) And in a conglomerated publishing industry, the shortsightedness of upper management has tended to trump long-term interests; one can reasonably expect that publishers will continue to shell out less and less money for the advertisements that support the NYTBR. (Such is the logic of capitalism. An enterprise trims away the nonessential until it becomes, itself, inessential.) Given the stakes – and the broad array of tools available in the digital age – what has the Times done to ensure its longevity? More importantly, what should it do?
As with newspapers in general, the books editors at the Times and elsewhere have attempted to meet the challenges of the age from within the proverbial box. That box can be imagined as a collection of rigid lines: between print and online, between daily and weekly, between blog and non-blog, between delivery platforms, between backlist and frontlist, and even between one newspaper and another. Any media theorist worth her salt will tell you that these superficial distinctions matter less and less as time goes by, yet the main Times “Books” page is, at present, an orthogonal warren of content subdivisions: news, Sunday Book Review, “Books of the Times,” Papercuts… (I know we don’t really have a web-design leg to stand on here at The Millions, but still.)
As a first principle, the Times‘ books editors should accept that their book coverage, in the future, will be consumed largely online. This may seem like a downer, but in fact it opens up the section to previously unavailable advertising revenue. The print section may be sustained by book ads, but online, NYTBR can theoretically learn much more about its readers, and can pitch space to advertisers beyond the world of publishing. And, almost immediately, the editorial distinction between the weekly and daily book coverage begins to look both redundant and counterintuitive, in that it creates a weekly rather than a daily traffic pattern for the Books page. The Times might profitably subsume all of its coverage, from every section, under the NYTBR umbrella.
Such a re-branding, we can imagine, might shake up the currently moribund tabloid-supplement format. Rather than a predictable weekly slog through fifteen reviews in a peripheral grid of book-chat, a web-driven NYTBR might lead, for example, with Wyatt Mason’s terrific Times magazine profile of Frederick Seidel, or with an article on AIA Guide guru Norval White. It was refreshing, recently, to see Bret Anthony Johnston reviewing the new Cheever biography… on a Friday! A weekday review by someone other than Kakutani or Maslin signals urgency, rather than obligation. Why not do something similar with Jonathan Lethem’s 2666 review, or David Gates’ take on The Kindly Ones, and give poor Michiko a break?
Nor should video and audio content and blogs be tucked away like ugly stepchildren. Instead, they should be treated with the same editorial rigor and attention to quality that any other content is… and should be accorded the same dignity. Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation has offered this advice before, persuasively. Nextbook would be an example of a site that puts it into action.
Another, related, refinement might be (counterintuitively), for the NYTBR to review less. As Scott Esposito has noted, The New Yorker’s decision to dispatch with the two aforementioned doorstoppers in short capsule reviews was its own kind of critical gesture; one that redounded to the authority of the publication. To eliminate the daily/weekly divide is to eliminate redundancies. Readers expect The Times to cover Jonathan Littell… but two take-downs is one too many, and axing the second review might give the Times room to surprise us with a long treatment of a less-hyped book.
There is also an opportunity for the NYTBR to fulfill one of the most valued functions of an online book site: to aggregate. Readers are still waiting for the must-read site that will authoritatively collect the best writing about books from across the Internet – a kind of quantum version of The Complete Review. The job is still open, but won’t be much longer, and the NYTBR, with its resources of time and personnel, should jump in.
Finally, no reimagining of the NYTBR will succeed without more rigorous attention to the quality of the writing. With its privileging of print, the NYTBR has tended to assign books to authors rather than to critics; if the NBCC is to be believed, however, there’s now a great untapped pool of the latter out there, just waiting for the next call to arms.
These are by no means the only solutions to the dwindling potency of newspaper-based book reviewing. They may not even be the best. However, they represent a willingness to reimagine the enterprise that papers have thus far resisted. Barring such efforts, newspaper book coverage will doom itself to failure, on one hand, or irrelevance, on the other; the loss of the NYTBR, when it comes, will be largely sentimental. Web-based literary outlets face their own structural and economic challenges, as Max will discuss later this week. But, with apologies to the National Book Critics Circle, the die has been cast. The future of book reviewing is online.