It was October of 1966 and John Barth had just published Giles-Goat Boy, a 700-page postmodern comedy, and a New York Times Bestseller. Barth was starting the stories that would eventually make up Lost In The Funhouse, a seminal work of metafiction. He was teaching at the University of Buffalo and was busy putting together a week-long reading series for the following spring. He had already secured writers like Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and John Hawkes – author of the spectacular surrealist Western, The Beetle Leg. The series would feature some of the most powerful literary figures of the time. But Barth was working to finish the line-up with one more writer, a man he admired and sought to befriend; he wanted to get John Updike.
“I’ve been told you don’t make public appearances, and I sympathize,” Barth wrote to Updike. Updike had won the National Book Award for The Centaur three years prior, and Rabbit, Run was only half a decade old. Updike was 34. Barth was 36. Barth wrote to Updike, “…as one who respects your work, and suspects it would sound excellent to the ear in the author’s voice, and has agreed to read something of my own to help out, and wants to meet you better anyhow than I did at the Academy last Spring, I’d be honored, and we all delighted, if you’d bend your admirable policy once and lay some of your prose on us out loud.”
Barth was genial with many alpha literary fiction writers throughout his career – eventually even men like Philip Roth, Italo Calvino, and Salman Rushdie. But Barth was an alpha writer himself, in the mid-60’s, a literary artist and intellectual who was both wildly innovative and popular. Barth largely associated with other experimentalists – people like William Gaddis, Donald Barthelme, and William Gass – but then he was especially drawn to Updike. Updike was a realist, and this genre discrepancy served as a sort of important buffer to literary bitterness and jealousy, especially as time went on.
Other writers knew about Updike’s aversion to public speaking. Updike had only ever taught one course, in the early 1960s, at the Harvard Summer School and disliked the experience so intensely that he vowed to never do it again. Updike covered a single additional class session in the Fall of 1966 at Boston University – after John Cheever called him, too drunk to stand up – and that was his final appearance in the classroom.
Barth wrote to Updike anyway. Updike responded, “I don’t ‘read’ much, but such a generous and engaging letter from the author of Giles Goat-boy would be hard to resist. By next April I should either be insane or substantially through a novel that is presently tormenting me, so let me accept, on the assumption that I’ll be reminded as the date approaches.”
Updike went to Buffalo in 1967. Barth stood at the front of a crowded auditorium and enumerated the ways that Updike’s writing was distinctive in a time of high postmodernism and experimentation. “His materials and methods remain essentially realistic, straightforwardly if subtly representational, as opposed to the diverse anti- and irrealisms of most of his contemporaries.” Barth said, “He’s non-apocalyptic, a highly unfashionable attitude – one suspects he may not even be a nihilist.”
Barth certainly thought of himself as one of those irrealist writers he mentioned in Updike’s introduction. He had begun writing Lost In The Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice. The book begins with a note from the author, in which Barth writes that many of these stories aren’t actually meant for the page. Barth says “Glossolia,” for example, “will make no sense unless heard in live or recorded voices, male and female.” Despite finally limiting some of those ambitions to the printed word, a story like, “Night-Sea Journey” – a sperm’s existential reflections on its swim to fertilize an egg – is brilliant. Stories like “Lost In The Funhouse”, “Autobiography”, and “Title” are, too. Some of the others – “Echo”, “Menelaiad”, “Anonymiad” – really stumble.
Six years after the Buffalo reading, and around the time Barth published his National Book Award-Winning trio of novellas, Chimera, Barth moved back to Baltimore to teach in the writing program at Johns Hopkins, his alma mater. He was put in charge of another speaker series. He again sought John Updike.
In October 1974, Updike wrote back and accepted that invitation. Updike then shared some unhappy news: “You and [Barth’s wife] Shelley will be sorry to hear that Mary and I seem to be undergoing that American, or is it menopausal, experience called separation. Hence the urban address below. I work, eat, sleep, and read all on the same head of a pin-sized apartment, and seem happy in a way, or at least less asthmatic.”
Barth conveyed his distress and sent his best wishes to Updike and his wife. He hoped Updike was able to write in his “diminished physical plant.”
Updike furthered the intimate tone of the exchange with his response. He wrote, “A curious bit of etiquette – having no wife to bring, might I bring someone else?… The substitute would be, I would think, a mature American female, quiet and mannerly, not apt to embarrass any proceedings. I haven’t invited any yet, just wondering, way in advance.”
Barth wrote to Updike that he would set him up in the Nichols House, which would be comfortable “with or without mature American female, whom by all means, bring.”
On Friday, April 18th, 1975, Updike arrived in Baltimore with, in his words to Barth, “A Martha Bernhard (37, une autre séparée, onetime student of Nabokov at Cornell).” Leslie Fiedler, the book critic, had a campus event that same day. The group of them went to Updike’s afternoon reading, then Fiedler’s evening lecture, then out to dinner.
The next morning, Barth and Shelley and Updike and Martha went on a literary tour of Baltimore. They visited Edgar Allan Poe’s grave. They went to the H.L. Mencken House. They got soft-shell crab for lunch. Then John and Martha got on a plane back to Massachusetts.
Gracious letters from both Bernhard and Updike followed. Bernhard wrote, “Dear Shelley and Jack, You were dear to let me tag along to watch John enchant your students, a pleasant occasion for me of course. Beyond that, I was moved by your graciousness and acceptance in what could have been an awkward situation. But it was charming, really, because of your gentleness. Lovely of you.” She added that the Barths were fortunate to have seen Updike in a “role he shies from but does beautifully.”
Updike, for his part, said, “Martha was greatly touched and cheered by the lack of awkwardness in an adventure, a venturing forth, that was a touch barefaced for us. You were both most kind.” Then he goes on to ask Barth if he can get him a Johns Hopkins University sweatshirt for a souvenir, “with as it happens [his] initials on it.”
Updike and Martha got married in 1977. They were married for 31 years, the rest of Updike’s life.
After Updike died, Martha told Barth in a letter that this first trip was not only the beginning of her relationship with Updike, but also the occasion on which Updike changed his mind about readings. “He took to it,” Martha wrote, “as he didn’t to teaching, and thus began a modest, but consistent, reading schedule that he truly enjoyed.”
Following the Baltimore visit, Barth and Updike’s communication continued primarily through the mail. Letters of mutually generous appreciation of each other’s work were frequent, and they sustained the friendship.
The differences between the two writers, meanwhile, grew more marked. In 1982, Updike published Rabbit Is Rich, the story of Harry Angstrom inheriting his late father’s Toyota dealership and living through prosperous days in which he worries about his wife’s drinking, his son’s hostility, and his own libido. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Barth, meanwhile, published an opus of a novel called LETTERS. LETTERS is not only entirely about itself and its author, but also about Barth’s first six novels, which you need to have read in order for LETTERS to make any sense.
The critical state of their respective careers diverged. After the publication of Rabbit Is Rich, Barth wrote to Updike, “Congratulations on ‘Rabbit’ sweeping the field—and what’s more, on the book itself. Shelly has asked me, “are you envious?” And I have answered, “yes,” especially as the first negative advance reviews of my new one [The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor] trickle into the clear stream of our life like acid mine drainage.”
Updike published the well-received Witches of Eastwick. He again won the National Book Critic Circle Award and Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with Rabbit at Rest. Barth meanwhile published sprawling navel-gazing novels like The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor and The Tidewater Tales – books that were increasingly long form concentrations on the mechanics of storytelling.
Barth and Updike complained to each other of certain writers’ underappreciated brilliance, and griped of others’ successes. “The Pynchon—,” Updike wrote, “I got a hundred pages into it, and wondered if the next several hundred would tell me anything I didn’t already know. He can coin wonderful phrases, and does prodigies of homework, but there isn’t a lot of flesh to nibble on. Still, I must get back to it, and then read every word of Underworld, as penance or pleasure, who knows?”
Barth grew sensitive to critics and reviews, and counter-productively more stubborn in his methods. In 2001, Barth wrote Coming Soon!!!, in which he attempts to spoof his own position in the pantheon with two protagonists: one’s a retiring novelist (quite clearly John Barth) setting out to write his final masterpiece. The other’s a young, aspiring writer (quite clearly a young John Barth) in the midst of his first novel. The two protagonists are tangled up together in a competitive literary reprisal of The Floating Opera, the writer John Barth’s first book. Despite his admirable pursuit of fun and experimentation in fiction, Barth often seemed to want to make things hard on himself. Like with a lot of artists, he tended to be his own worst enemy.
In a 2002 Salon interview, critic Leslie Feidler was asked which of postmodern writers would survive and endure. Feidler said, “I used to think Barth and Hawkes had a chance. I’m not so sure now. Barth’s most recent book was terrible. And he sorta knows it too, I had a note from him which mentioned the reviews.”
Updike wrote to Barth in November 2008. He said he had only read the first story in Barth’s new book, The Development. He wrote, “I needed to pluck up my courage to continue, especially since. I have just emerged from testing the waters of mortality in three days at Boston’s finest, MGH. Your description of the hectic banality of retirement havens almost makes mortality look good.”
Updike had just been diagnosed with advanced stage lung cancer. Eight weeks later, on January 27th, 2009, he died.
Barth immediately wrote to Martha, and she responded, “He began writing the final verses of Endpoint in that hospital bed and continued at home where he finished before Christmas…He died eight weeks after his diagnosis, at the end of January.”
Updike had some faults – most notably a nonchalant misogyny – but there was much more that was miraculous about his writing. Rabbit, Run, in gritty lyric detail, conveys the American dream as the American nightmare in the way it renders young Harry Angstrom stumbling after happiness in a place like Brewer, Pennsylvania. Updike once described his own style as “an attempt to give the mundane its beautiful due,” and he did do just that. He also published an incredible number of books – 24 novels, 16 books of nonfiction, 14 collections of short stories, and 10 books of poetry.
John Barth, too, wrote more than most readers would be likely to get through. Yet there are moments in his catalog that are wildly inventive, strange, and brilliant; the influence of certain Barth stories and novels ripple conspicuously across the works of writers like Nicholson Baker and David Foster Wallace, who went on to generate monumental influence on their own terms. Barth’s story “Lost In The Funhouse” is metafiction at its peak. Ambrose’s anxious journey through the story’s funhouse becomes a perfect metaphor for the reader’s passage through the story itself. In certain places, the plot pushes forward and the story gains momentum. In others, it gets stuck in mirrored corners. “The important thing to remember,” Barth writes, “is that it’s meant to be a funhouse; that is, a place of amusement.” Barth’s embrace of this principle – as he considers funhouse architecture and simultaneously inspects the mechanics of storytelling – transforms the piece into something sinisterly buoyant and incredibly smart. The writer, narrator, and reader experience all the joys and setbacks of the journey together. The story is passionate, angsty, and a bit existentially terrifying. “For whom is the funhouse fun?” the story opens. “For Ambrose it is a place of fear and confusion.”
Barth’s early success in metafiction inspired him to continue in that vein, and it eventually led to the surge of negative criticism for the books that came later in his career. “Metafiction’s real end has always been Armageddon,” David Foster Wallace once said in an interview. “Art’s reflection on itself is terminal.” Barth, though, kept fighting to mine life from his metafictional flights, writing longer and longer books to do it.
In their later letters, Barth continued to express admiration and respect toward Updike. Updike returned the praise, though more often with soft mentions that he hadn’t quite finished Barth’s most recent books. As was always the case, Barth took solace in the discrepancies between their respective genres, but it got more difficult for him as the state of their critical acclaim split. The thorniness of the relationship begins to show as the letters go on.
Updike never abandoned Barth, though. Updike and Barth rose as important literary figures around the same time, and largely behaved as compatriots until the very end. In the 1990s, Updike spotted a news clipping featuring Barth in which Barth had been quoted saying, “Just now, I’m completely enthralled by and engrossed in John Updike’s book. There’s a writer who’s very unlike me who I admire enormously for his productivity and his talent.” Updike underlined the passage and wrote, “I do thank you for the generous words. But I don’t think we’re very unlike. We’re both sons of the hard-working, temperate Middle Atlantic region, twice married, depression-conscious, and stuck with the belief that there is such a thing as American littrachoor.”
Images courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center at Johns Hopkins University. A physical exhibition on the writer John Barth will be mounted in the Johns Hopkins George Peabody Library in Fall 2015.
Marcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie is one of those books that came to my attention through the chatter of the booksellers with Twitter accounts who make my life so expensive. When it comes to following the ecstatic recommendations of career booksellers, I’m admittedly a bit of a sheep; I have a perpetually evolving list of books to buy, because these people never stop reading and recommending things. This almost always works out well. They’ve only failed me once. They are, generally speaking, readers of impeccable taste.
By last week I’d heard about Bad Marie a half-dozen times or so and I’d mentally placed it on an unwritten “books to buy after next month’s royalty check comes in” list along with Aurorarama, A Geography of Secrets, How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and two or three other no-doubt-brilliant titles, but then the author went and friended me on Facebook.
I didn’t recognize my new acquaintance’s name, but there in her bio was the title of the book I’d heard so much about. Also, she seemed friendly. The next day I had some time to kill in Grand Central Station, and found myself browsing in the station bookstore. There was Bad Marie staring up at me from the table for the fourth time in as many bookstores, so I threw caution to the wind and scored a copy. It felt a little illicit, because there are months when fifteen dollars is a not-insignificant sum. I find this actually fitting, because everything about this book is illicit and the heroine is frequently strapped for cash.
Bad Marie describes a time that might be a pivotal moment in the life of Marie, or might, just as likely, be the beginning of the end. Marie is thirty years old, employed as a full-time nanny to her uptight and controlling friend Ellen’s two-year-old daughter. The two-year-old, Caitlin, is the light of Marie’s life, her “better half”, her darling. It’s a dead-end job, but Marie is more or less content. She is without ambition. Impulse control is a problem. She spent six years of her twenties in prison for accessory to murder and bank robbery.
The arrangement crumbles when Marie, who enjoys taking baths with Caitlin and doesn’t think it’s such a big deal to drink on the job, passes out in the bathtub. Ellen and her dashing French husband Benoît come home early that evening, and Marie wakes to find the two of them staring down at her; Ellen aghast, her husband with evident appreciation. By the next day she’s been fired, and within a week she’s en route to Paris with Caitlin and Benoît.
I started Bad Marie at the beginning of my morning commute. By the end of my return trip home that afternoon I wasn’t done yet and it wasn’t really possible to enter my apartment and get on with my life until I found out how the book ended, so I holed up in a café for forty minutes until I’d finished the last page. I’m filled with admiration for the work.
It’s a fast, fearless little book about a woman who does very bad things. Marie is supremely conniving. “I gave you this job against my better judgment,” Ellen tells her in a restaurant, the day after the bathtub-and-whisky incident.
“I’m really busy at work, Marie. I have an important job. I have a career, Marie. I swear to God, I don’t have time to look for a new nanny right now.”
“I’ve inconvenienced you,” Marie said, wondering what the fuck Ellen was talking about. Ellen was worried about her job. Marie was going to wreck her marriage. Marie might have held off, had she been allowed to keep her job.
By any rational measure, this is not a pleasant person. Marie is vengeful, and she’s unsophisticated—her main complaint about France is that they speak so much French over there—but she has a talent for survival, and I found that I adored her. More than that, I found her refreshing.
Authors are too timid, it seems to me sometimes, in the face of the demand for conventionally sympathetic characters. “I didn’t like any of the characters” is a common Amazon reviewer’s refrain—or, I don’t know, maybe that’s just what they say about the books that I write. They say it like it’s a bad thing.
I’m not entirely unsympathetic. I read John Updike’s Rabbit is Rich recently, and was so thoroughly disgusted by Rabbit’s son Nelson that I had to keep cheating on the book in order to get through it. This speaks volumes, I think, about Updike’s brilliance in character development. It’s rare to encounter a character so maddeningly real.
Nelson is a whiner, and nothing’s ever his fault. I found it impossible to spend extended periods of time in Nelson’s company, so every few dozen pages I’d put the book down and take a break with another novel, read something else til I was ready to come back again. It wasn’t until Nelson’s wife echoed my thoughts in the text—“You’re spoiled and you’re a bully”—that it became possible to read on without reservations.
On the other hand, deeply flawed characters are interesting. I will never forget Nelson Angstrom, which is more than I can say for most characters I encounter in fiction. One of the most memorable books from my early teens was Ruth Rendell’s Live Flesh. I read through a great many of my mother’s mass market paperbacks, and this one stands out in memory. I don’t have a copy now, and I don’t remember if it was good or not. What I do remember is that the book’s narrated by an ex-con who, in the years before he went to jail, raped several women and crippled a police officer. Making your first-person narrator a serial rapist is a shockingly bold choice, and it’s one of the few books from that period that I remember clearly.
In her new novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me, Edan Lepucki (a Millions staff writer) takes on a more conventionally distasteful narrator. You’ve met girls like Joellyn, or at least, I’ve met girls like Joellyn. She’s pretty, superior, and a little heartless, an entitled young woman who hasn’t, one senses, had to face the consequences of her actions very frequently: when she can’t pay her phone bill, she just sends it to her mother. She’s playing at adulthood. Her mother will catch her if she falls.
“But what’s pathetic about us also makes us human,” Lepucki writes, and that rings as true as anything I’ve read. Perhaps it isn’t that Joellyn is heartless, exactly. Perhaps the problem is one of misplaced energy, the wrong heart for her profession, a freelance graphic designer with a warrior’s soul:
When I was a kid, I wasn’t sure what kind of woman I would become, but I had a hunch. I dreamt of Valkyries, warriors. I stole the belt from my father’s bathrobe and used it to tie saucepans to my chest so that no sword could pierce my heart. I used the saucepan lid as a shield. I imagined that my fingernails were weapons, and my teeth too. On long car rides, I saw myself running along the freeway shoulder, or in the brush, barefoot but in full armor. I assumed the woman I’d become would be vicious and beautiful, the roar of some exotic animal made physical. It’s not so strange, to have high expectations.
This is a girl who requires an arena for combat. It seems to me she’d have been a natural at roller derby, but she turns instead to the dating world. When she meets Zachary in a coffee shop—“bland, invisible in the way certain men in their thirties are”—she pursues him more or less for sport. The consequences, depending on how you look at the matter, are either lucky or disastrous. It’s a sharp, accomplished work.
In a recent book club discussion of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom on Salon.com, Laura Miller raised the likability issue. Readers have called Franzen’s characters unlikable, and “I confess,” she wrote,
I’ve grown to hate such remarks. It makes me feel like we’re all back in grammar school, talking about which kids are “nice” and which kids are “mean.” It’s a willfully naïve and blinkered way to approach a work of literature.
I can’t get behind this statement in its entirety, because the implication is that the practice of dividing people into “nice” or “mean”, or “kind” or “unkind”, or “friendly” or “unfriendly”, or whichever set of labels you wish to use, belongs exclusively to the world of grammar school. We’re all flawed, of course, all of us both nice and mean, but I’m only really interested in spending time with people who manage to remain consistently kind. There was a time in my life when I was impressed by sheer genius, sheer talent, and would seek out people based on this alone, but that was a while ago. At this point I find myself uninterested in spending extended periods of time with interesting people if they aren’t also somewhat nice, if they don’t also comport themselves with some measure of honor.
But as for the rest of it, I hate such remarks too. The point is that these characters aren’t real, even the ones wrought by a master like Updike. What is naïve and blinkered is the insistence that fictional characters be held to the same moral and behavioral standards we expect of our friends. It seems to me that part of the point of literature is to enlighten and expand, and there are few pleasures in fiction that expand our consciousness further than getting to observe the world from the perspective of characters so different from us, so thoroughly flawed, that if we were to encounter them in real life we wouldn’t like them very much.
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.
Which is better?Reading a series slowly, savoring each book by separating it from its ilk, dividing and conquering and drawing the series out over the span of several years, as if reading them real time the way they were released.Or…Devouring a series at once, going from book to book as if the separate entities were truly one bound volume, not allowing the characters to rest but letting them progress, from their early days until their final words.I used to be in the former.Now I’m in the latter.This sudden change of heart is thanks, in most part, to this month’s Book of the Month – John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels. Or, as most know it: Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit is Rich; and Rabbit at Rest.Breaking away from my typical pattern, where I found myself reading one book, then steering away for a while until coming back to the next in the series (see: Roddy Doyle’s Henry books and the Lord of the Rings trilogy), I decided to read all of these books at once. I came to this decision in two parts.First, I had to actually decide to read one of the Rabbit books. I did it in order to see what the big deal was about. So I asked around. I had heard from several people that Rabbit Redux was the best of the four. I found out that the final two books won the Pulitzer. That left three of the four books with a decent pedigree. Then, I thought, “Well, if I was going to read the last three, shouldn’t I start with the first one?” In days, I had created a viable argument for reading each one of the four books.Second, at Common Good Books in St. Paul (Garrison Keillor’s great little basement bookstore), I made a grand discovery. Having never looked for any of these Updike books before, I never realized they had been published together. They had been. It was reportedly the way Updike had meant to have them published after finishing the fourth installment: as Rabbit Angstrom. The collection shed its four names and took the name of its protagonist, the utterly despicable yet strangely endearing man from Brewer, Pennsylvania.With that, I found my mind made up for me. I’d just read all of them.So I did. And here’s what I found.1. Reading a set of books like this keeps everything fresh. Nothing is missed. Vague remembrances to scenes in past books are still top-of-mind, making every allusion memorable. You also start to see patterns more readily. There’s no time taken trying to figure out where a character or an odd turn of phrase, or a symbol or reference to earlier foreshadowing first appeared. You know. You encountered it just a few days prior.2. In completing the set, I discovered I intimately knew everything about the character – more than any character I’ve ever encountered. And I have to believe that, if read apart, I wouldn’t have made all of the connections. I wouldn’t have been able to predict what Rabbit was going to do. It would have been impossible – I’d have spent part of my brain thinking back to whether an event was worth remembering, not processing each flaw, each trait.3. I saw each character grow, amazingly, over a thirty year period, in a way that only a 1,500 page novel can do.The Rabbit books are pretty simple, actually – just the chronicle of one man’s life over thirty years, each book taking place ten years after the one before it. It’s, to use the overused Rabbit cliche, a series about an “Everyman.” It’s the tale of Everyman’s rise from dirt to riches, complete with all of the warts – the infidelities, the misguided choices, death, life, hate, family relations, everything that makes real life interesting.I know. I know. Many actually find the Rabbit novels to be very uninteresting. Many find Updike to be a little too pretentious, especially in these books. Many find these to be boring, unnecessary trifles that have done no more than elevate Updike to a literary position he may not deserve.I liked them. I liked them because, over the course of the four books, I truly got to know Harry Angstrom. I knew what he was going to do, felt his every pain and struggle. When he was in the hospital, I developed a sympathy chest pain. When he was watching his home burn down, I was smelling fire in the distance. When he hurt, or was hurt, I wanted it to stop – I wanted to do something to steer the characters in the right direction, to grab them by the shoulders and remind them of what had happened in the past – where the destructive nature was going to lead, why they were making mistakes that they should have learned from in years past.I enjoyed the decade-wide time capsules and the growth of the characters and the references to past seemingly inconsequential events. And Updike, despite all that he did to make Rabbit Angstrom completely sex-crazed at times, is a great writer. You’ve got to hand him that.So yeah, I tended to grasp the characters emotionally. In everyday life, I’d find things that reminded me of Harry Angstrom, simply because he seemed so real – so ordinary and so knowable.I’m not sure I’d have had the same effect if I read them spread out over a long time. I’m not sure I’d have even finished the collection. But I’m sure glad I did.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC 2006, 2007: Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr.