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John Updike, and the Curious Business of Sustaining Literary Reputations

Toward the end of his life, John Updike was fond of musing about how little the world would note his passing.  He suspected that “a shrug and tearless eyes / will greet my overdue demise; / The wide response will be, I know, / ‘I thought he died a while ago.’”

The John Updike Society, which held its first conference last month, is dedicated to proving the author wrong.  The event, held near Updike’s hometown of Shillington, Pennsylvania, started the society’s work of sustaining and growing a literary reputation. The weekend included academic readings, panels of friends and family, and tours of the author’s two boyhood homes and the environs of Shillington and Reading where much of his fiction was set. The mission of the Society — along with creating opportunities to enjoy the fellowship of Updike devotees – is “awakening and sustaining reader interest in the literature and life of John Updike.”

No detail was too small for discussion. Attendees wanted to know if Updike did the dishes at home, whether he liked Sinatra, if he was handy around the house. On bus tours, attendees pondered the department store where his mother worked, the restaurant where he’d lunched as teenager, the old movie theater featured in his non-fiction.

Much of the attendees’ interest, understandably, focused on discovering if their idol was indeed the man they knew.

During the testimony of family and friends, Updike held up pretty well. He was described by classmates as bookish, popular and enduringly responsive; by his children as a present if occasionally distracted father; and by his first wife Mary Weatherall as an author who valued his spouse’s opinion. There were a couple of surprises – he might not have written as many words each day as he claimed and according to his children, he inexplicably struggled to connect with his father, Wesley, a man Updike’s children seemed to adore.

Then of course there were the conference papers, all intended to continue the critical discussion that will be so important to sustaining the Updike reputation long-term.

“Can an author survive without authorial champions?” Society President James Plath asked when I interviewed him after the conference. “I don’t think so.”

The evidence supports his claim. In one of his last interviews, in October 2008, Updike cited the curious case of Emily Dickinson, who was not well known upon her death and who required the help of critics decades down the road to lift her to her current place in the canon. “There is a whole raft of poets contemporary with Emily Dickinson,” Updike said. “None of them would have imagined that she would have become one of the defining names of American letters.”

The most famous of the exhumed luminaries — the example often cited to convey the cruelties of literary reputation — is Herman Melville, who died at age 72 in relative anonymity after several literary disappointments and 19 years working in a customs house. His obituary in 1891 in the New York Times looked, in its entirety, like this:

Herman Melville died yesterday at his residence, 104 East 26th Street, this city, or heart disease, aged seventy-two. He was the writer of Typee, Omoo, Mobie Dick, and other sea-faring tales, written in earlier years. He leaves a wife and two daughters, Mrs. M. B. Thomas and Miss Melville.

Bummer.  Melville apparently was the deceased writer Updike worried he would become — dead before he‘d died.

It took 30 years for what is now called the Melville Revival to commence and for Melville to ascend to his rightful place in the American canon. This was accomplished by the only people capable of doing it — scholars, historians, writers, publishers. In Melville’s case, it was biographers Raymond Weaver and Carl Van Doren and author and critic D.H. Lawrence. Without them, Melville’s historical significance might have diminished beyond even the four lines devoted to him in the Times obituary.

Updike seemed to understand as much. In that late 2008 interview, he said literary reputations are “strange things,” left often to the whims and tastes of future generations. He noted that 19th century readers were often concerned with order, meter, and plots in which good triumphs over evil – qualities less important to today’s modern and postmodern readers. He lauded Norman Mailer for not pushing too hard in his lifetime on behalf of his literary reputation, since it was an issue largely beyond his control.

Society President Plath, of course, likes Updike’s odds. He suspects future scholars will be wondrous of Updike’s capacity with metaphor, happy to find his descriptions of sex, thrilled at the number of other texts that Updike works off of in his oeuvre — including three novels written in homage to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. “I think he’s in pretty good shape,” Plath says.

Updike’s sometimes editor at the New Yorker, Charles McGrath, also liked Updike’s odds of enduring. During that late interview with Updike, he said, “If those of us in this room had to bet who would last, you’d put your money on Bellow, Updike, and Roth.”

And yet Updike knew even he could be forgotten. There was the fear, very real, Updike thought, that reading of any kind might wither away, as well as the possibility that future generations will not be concerned with the perspective of a white, middle-class male from the Mid-Atlantic region who wrote primarily in a realistic mode. He said:

These piles of books that all of us writer are piling up [could] become just as burdensome as Latin writing in the Renaissance. There was a lot of that, and who reads it now except a few scholars? So, yes, it’s not something you should stay awake at night about, you should, my theory is, do your best, try to be honest, in your work, and amusing…. Beyond that it is out of your control

And, on a weekend devoted to John Updike, there were signs of the struggle to endure any author faces. His children, though admiring and laudatory of their father’s work, admitted to not always getting through it – daughter Miranda has tried to read Couples a few times. Daughter Elizabeth Cobblah said her father had decades ago suggested she read his African novel, The Coup, in anticipation of her marrying a man from Ghana. She hasn’t yet gotten around to it, but she plans to.

Trouble also lurked in the center of the Updike universe, the Shillington house where he grew up, and which he lovingly described in short stories, novels, and his memoirs, Self-Consciousness. The house is now occupied by the advertising agency Niemczyk/Hoffman, whose employees graciously allowed the Society members to tour their offices. In one room, formerly the guest bedroom where Updike watched his mother write fiction, the agency’s principal, Tracy Hoffman, was asked by a Society member if he read Updike.

“I’ve tried, but the descriptions …” Hoffman said, his voice trailing off, suggesting the descriptions were … um … too much.

“Have you tried Pigeon Feathers?” the Society member asked.

“I did,” Hoffman said, wincing.

In his memoirs, Updike said, that one of his great lifetime joys was watching the world going on without him, “ the awareness of things going by, impinging on my consciousness, and then, all beyond my control, sliding away toward their own destination and destiny.”

In that respect, too, Updike might have been gratified by this first weekend held in his honor – the world, as he suspected, will continue to roll on happily both with and without him.

The Future of Book Coverage, Part I: R.I.P., NYT?

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.

I.
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.

II.
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.

III.
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.)

IV.
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.

Part 2: Max considers revenue options for literary websites.
Part 3: Max hazards some early guesses about the next possible upheaval in the economy of literary journalism.

[Image credits: Matt Callow; Ginny Robot, Cliff1066, Daniel Swan]

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