Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

Will We Ever Bring Democracy to Book Reviewing?

When the latest fracas over the New York Times Book Review's privileged and privileging coverage of "white guys living in Brooklyn" erupted, I reflexively rolled my eyes and sighed. Oh, great, I thought, another go-round in the perpetual media battle between so-called commercial and so-called literary fiction, and one that promises, once again, to regard a genre like Romance as "something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention." Yawn.

Then I read a piece by in the Huffington Post by Lisa Solod Warren, who insists that

One benefit of reviews in mainstream, influential publications like Time and the New York Times is to introduce readers to writers who may not be on the average reader’s radar. Stephen King didn’t need the press. Weiner and Picoult, among others, don’t need it either: they sell and sell and sell. And one reason, I argue, is that their books are far “easier” to read than Franzen or a host of other more literary writers like Paul Auster, Philip Roth, Marilynne Robinson or Margaret Atwood. No one needs to convince a reader to pick up the new Picoult in the airport or order the latest Weiner from amazon.com. But readers of those books might benefit from reading something slightly more challenging, something that pays as much attention to the writing as the plot and subject matter. And that’s where the critics come in. PIcoult doesn’t like the Times devoting so much space to Franzen, but there are now, thanks to the internet, dozens of reader review sites where people can weigh in. Those populist reviews can balance out the critics if one wishes them to. But I think it’s still important for real critics to write real reviews.

*Blink Blink*

Underneath this breezy dismissal of who knows how many books, authors, readers, and reviewers, I think Warren managed to hit on a couple of core issues, namely what is the real purpose of book reviewing, who should be doing it, and why the hell do we care about the NYT Book Review, especially when so many insist print media and stand alone book reviews are "dying."

Last Question First: Why do we continue to care about the NYT Book Review?

At one level, the answer is obvious: we care because the NYT Book Review is pretty universally regarded as the gold standard of influential and literate book reviews. I know that many genre readers profess not to care about the NYTBR, but I agree with Jason Pinter that "with few exceptions, writers are not recognized by the mainstream population or media" and that we live in a time where "reading and intelligence is presented as overrated or unimportant" and where "[t]oo few know the importance of the written word, how important letters are, how important thinkers are, how important books are.” And by extension, the respected position enjoyed by the NYTBR is evidence that books are still valued and worthy of respect, and this respect is good for every book, author, and reader, regardless of genre.

The problem is which books get such respected and respectful coverage, and here the perception — true or not — that the NYTBR seems to norm the same cultural authority as our society as a whole (the urbane white male) should not surprise us. Just read the comments to this NYTPICKER blog post, including statistics an examples from the NYTBR and compare them with this survey indicating that 95% of political authors reviewed by the NYT are white men, along with this analysis of sexism in reviewing and an extremely disturbing piece by THE NYTPICKER on the astounding and troubling exclusion of women in the NYT obituaries section. Even if it’s not 100% white males being reviewed, authors of color and women are still more likely to be doing the reviewing than being reviewed in the pages of the NYTBR.

So what about Jennifer Weiner’s suggestion that the NYTBR should,

have something for every reader, whether it's the fourteen-year-old who stood in line for MOCKINGJAY, the Oprah-watching housewife who can't wait to get her hands on FREEDOM, the guy (yes, they're out there) who loved Jodi Picoult's THE TENTH CIRCLE, and the guy who picked up Steig Larsson after not reading a novel since college and needs to know where to go next.

An Argument for Democratization of the NYTBR

As I said earlier, I think the viability of the NYTBR benefits all books, authors, and readers, because it sustains the assumption that books and reading are important – that cultural literacy isn't just a topic on Jeopardy or a future version of Trivial Pursuit. Combining the prestige of the NYTBR with a broader array of book reviews – inclusive of Romance, YA, horror, and other genres and authors currently ignored or accorded secondary status – would, necessarily, boost the prestige of a wider array of genres.

Because it's not just a question of "good books" being reviewed; it's also a question of good book reviewers, and what that entails. I don't think it's seriously arguable that the reviews in the NYTBR aren't literate. Even if we disagree on the quality of books and reviews in that publication, I think we're doing so at a relatively advanced level of taste quibbling. Unfortunately, because there is such an entrenched hierarchy of literatures implicit in the respect afforded the NYTBR, there is a simultaneous diminishing of certain genres of books and their reviewers. These so called "populist reviews" are seen as reflective of the books themselves, which have already been deemed not serious ("easier") or not worthy of important critical attention. And, sadly, we even see this reflected in genre readers and authors, who sometimes argue that they only read/write for "fun" or "escape" or "entertainment," and some of whom disdain the idea of focused critical attention on genre books.

In a larger context, there seems to be a devaluing of "entertainment" when it comes to reading, a sense that if one consciously reads for "escape" that indicates a certain debased quality of book – one that, quite frankly, neither requires nor supplies much food for thought. And there is also the sense that books must be "good" in a specific way to be worthy of attention in the NYTBR. So for me, democratizing the NYTBR would mean a change in how we value "good" in books, and in reviewers. Because while the NYTBR is unequivocally giving reviewed books serious critical attention, there are plenty of reviewers giving the same to genre books, not only in blogs, but in other book review sections (i.e. San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post – just check out this book review site for the range). How well does the storytelling cohere; is there thematic depth and integrity; how strong is the narrative voice and POV; how well does the book meet its own terms; is it compelling and enjoyable — all of these things and more are relevant to reviewing regardless of genre.

Consequently, I'm less swayed by arguments that the NYTBR needs to "give the people what they want" than I am by the fact that there is brilliance in every genre that deserves to be equitably recognized. Because no matter how democratic a reviewing venue is, there is still a measure of exclusion and exclusivity and the certainty of criticism from people who do not jibe with the particular exclusions of any reviewing arena.

Why I Fear We're A Long Way Away From A Reviewing Democracy

In fact, it is the very prestige awarded to the NYTBR that I fear makes a more democratic reviewing venue of that level of respect unlikely in the near future. It is troubling that more democratic stand alone book reviewing sections have folded (LA Times, Wash Po). That so many criticize and loathe the exclusivity of the NYTBR hasn't seemed to diminish its prestige; in fact, a perverse part of me wonders if that's the core of the stubborn respect it still enjoys.

And I frankly worry that the current literary hierarchy is so entrenched that even those who despair the most of its inequities would be hard-pressed to accept bold democratization of the NYTBR. For example, how would authors like Picoult and Weiner feel if the publication passed over their work for that of Joanna Bourne, Nalini Singh, Susan Napier, or Julie James? Even in the genre communities there are hierarchies that operate in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to create “levels” of perceived quality (category v. single title, comedic v. angsty,   short v. long, etc.). Despite the artificiality of these distinctions, I fear that revolutionizing the NYTBR might scare even the likes of Weiner and Picoult.

That isn't to say we shouldn't work for change – that we shouldn't, for example, work on valuing genre fiction more democratically, even and perhaps especially within and among genre communities. I also think we need to avoid generalized dismissals against any type of fiction as hierarchical and exclusive thinking, even if they disdain a privileged category. But as for what is going to make the changes necessary to democratize book reviewing, I just don't know, and frankly, I suspect it's more evolutionary than anything.

But what do you think?

ETA: I forgot to mention that Joan/Sarah F. has written an excellent and somewhat related piece on m/m Romance at Teach Me Tonight.

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

70 Comments

  1. Amy @ My Friend Amy
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 04:31:13

    Man I love this post. You are speaking my language.

  2. blodeuedd
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 04:53:48

    Great post.

    There is one thing bothering me in that article, real critics to write real reviews. I guess that means mine are just mindless chatter then, not liking that. They never makes me wanna read the book, I so hate analyzing

  3. Elyssa Papa
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 05:01:21

    Great post. The LOLcat photo indeed made me lol. But maybe that is due to my lack of sleep, too.

    Honestly, I would love to see NYT review all genres of fiction. There are many times I’ve read a romance I normally woudn’t because of a review on DA or Smart Bitches. And I think that there would be some readers of the NYT who would pick up a book because of a review s/he read. But I don’t know if their review policy will change anytime soon; however, I do hope that they do and others.

  4. Isabel C.
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 06:34:07

    I’m so with you. I read and write both fantasy and romance (plus a little horror), so I get to be surly at Howard Bloom types on multiple fronts. And as a reader, I like to see analysis of books I’m thinking about reading, or have read: at the moment, I mostly get it from sites like this or Smart Bitches, or from TV Tropes. (And sometimes from Hathor Legacy if the book touches on feminist issues.)

    This, I think, is a particularly key point for reviewers, and perhaps for trying to avoid the hierarchy: How well does the storytelling cohere; is there thematic depth and integrity; how strong is the narrative voice and POV; how well does the book meet its own terms; is it compelling and enjoyable -’ all of these things and more are relevant to reviewing regardless of genre.

    Particularly important is the question of how well the book meets its own terms. What I see as the problem with a lot of the NYT-ish attitude toward genre fiction is an assumption that all books are aimed at achieving the same effect, or that books with some goals are more worthwhile than books with others. Which…no.

  5. Shiloh Walker
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 06:47:20

    Well said…er… written… *G*

    I stayed away from the latest debacle because my head didn’t need the drama.

    Last Question First: Why do we continue to care about the NYT Book Review?

    As you said, the NYT is considered the ‘gold’ standard by many. Perhaps if we could more genre books in there, maybe more people would understand that ‘genre’ doesn’t mean inferior.

    However, I don’t see it happening any time soon. Their current reviewers, frankly, I just don’t see them being very likely to give genre fiction a fair shake but are they going to open the doors to those who would like to see genre fiction reviewed? Don’t see that either.

  6. farmwifetwo
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 07:17:28

    Considering, I don’t write a proper review at any time – not enough time and have no urge to become a “professional” reviewer – Some could say I’m doing the industry a disservice due to the shear volume of books I read and my blunt “Yes, No, and Why”.

    Truth is, who cares. The people that read the NYT book reviews, that truly care what they say, are the one’s that read less than 10 books/yr and call themselves readers.

    Those like us that read a book every day or 2 read everything and anything as long as it’s a good story… We aren’t as many in number, but we make it up in sales. The first group doesn’t understand the 2nd, and the 2nd doesn’t care about the first.

    Let them have their “elitism”… the true money comes from you and I… and if publisher’s haven’t figured that out yet… and there are days reading your blog I truly don’t think most of them have… Then they go under with no sympathy from me.

    I had an interesting conversation with another blogger… and I like her have discovered that out in the real world most people don’t have e-devices to read books on. It’s still this group of “book-a-holics” that you find online, that do. Interesting…

  7. Estara
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 07:55:32

    I don’t have much to add except two other voices about this which I’ve just come across on my reading list at LJ that see a different aspect.

    Ann Leckie: and close up these my weary weeping eyes
    Michelle Sagara West: Literary Reviews (she picks up the aspects she doesn’t find in the Leckie post).

    As a genre reader who isn’t from the USA, I can’t and don’t want to judge a review tradition I’m not really familiar with. I’ve only discovered English reviews when I got the internet ^^ and Amazon.de

  8. J L
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 08:25:39

    I had a similar debate with my college professors ::mumble:: years ago when I did my Master’s work on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next which at the time was considered ‘popular fiction’ and not worthy of literary criticism.

    I do take (mild) offense to the idea that authors should make readers work for their pleasure. This line really jumped out: ‘something slightly more challenging, something that pays as much attention to the writing as the plot and subject matter.’

    I’m sorry. I pay attention to my writing, in all my books. This offhand dismissal of authors who aren’t considered ‘literary’ is exactly like what I went through when I butted heads with my professors lo, those many years ago.

    My offense is (mild) because I know the world will forever be in at least two camps: those who read & believe the NYT and the rest of the world, out there in the Big Beyond, who don’t read it and don’t care and frequently laugh at it because it is so out of touch with reality.

  9. joanne
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 08:37:40

    Democracy in anything is more hoped for than achieved so to find it in reviews in one publication -particularly one that is long set in it’s ways- is probably never going to happen. And of course there will always be those that dismiss romance books or Westerns or horror or Sci-Fi and fiction in general as not ‘literate’ enough. Shrug.

    I admit to looking at the NYTs bestseller list but not because it’s important to me.
    It’s important to the authors and the genre I love to see romance authors on that list.

    The point is that the reviewers can review whatever they want but they can’t change the sales stats. Consistant NYTs bestselling list appearances by Nora, Danielle Steele, Evanovich (is she romance?) Gabaldon, J.D. Robb, Sophie Kinsella, Stephenie Meyer (and I bet her dominance of the list pisses a lot of people off!), LKH, Chistine Feehan and others tell me that it’s readers and sales that make a book a success even though the NYT reviewers continue to ignore the entire genre. Romance is not ‘important’ so it’s not reviewed. Whatever.

    These articles (not your coverage of them Jane, that’s important) just make me go yawn.

    To romance authors and their reviewers I say one thing: Rock On!

  10. JenD
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 08:46:50

    If I want a book about a white male’s experience, that’s highly rated, then I go to the old-fashioned “Bestseller” lists.

    This doesn’t happen often.

    If I want to read a book about POC, women, GLBTQA, romance, science fiction, fantasy, class struggles in Victorian London, witches, ghosts, graphic novels, comic books or anything “other” then I go to the internet. The “easy” books give me more food for my brain than the so-called literature of today does.

    The reviews I rely on may not be paid, they may not come from an office building replete with cubicles- yet they offer me the same (sometimes better) level of critique, dissection and emotional feedback as I find from any literature-focused best seller list in old media.

    Perhaps it would best suit them to create a separate section/review/list for genre books- yet a part of me doesn’t want them to bother. I’m not sure how well they would be able to cover books that I would actually like to read- as apposed to what I “should” be reading.

    Putting a hierarchy on books, which ones say the reader is smart/backwards/boring/overly sexed, is one of the reasons people are afraid to pick up a romance novel- let alone be seen reading one. We even have the same issue within our community, so I wonder if this more points to our society using books- still- as a means to say “better than” rather than “reads books”.

    With the ubiquitous availability of books nowadays- one would think that we could move beyond using printed words as a measure of wealth, class and taste. They are simply books- stories to be read and hopefully enjoyed. Gone are the days of printed media only being for those who are titled and/or wealthy. At least in the US, I would hope that we could turn the wheel forward, instead of whinging about and trying to move it backwards.

    I have no idea how this could be done- but old media would be wise to look at how voraciously genre-readers enjoy spending time reading about their hobby/passion. So, perhaps, it would be in their interest to expand their definitions a bit and get over their elitist attitude.

  11. Gwynnyd
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 09:27:19

    My blink, blink moment was this one:

    Not only was (Dicken’s) craft exemplary but over a hundred years later readers can still delight in both his themes and his writing. Whether today’s popular, commercial writers will stand that test of time is, I suppose, arguable. Jonathan Franzen’s work will.”

    I’m a bit short of time to do research at the moment, but does anyone have any statistics on critically acclaimed NYTBR literary picks from the, oh, last fifty years whose readers still “delight in the writing” to the point where they are becoming “classics”? I can’t think of any offhand, but I freely admit to being out of the literary loop.

  12. dick
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 09:42:50

    I both agree and disagree. I do believe that there’s a hierarchy in literature, just as there is a hierarchy in nearly everything mankind or womankind or humankind produces. A difference between “lit fic” and “genre” does exist, even in the minds of those who prefer genre. That doesn’t mean that one is better than another. It just means they are different and fall in different places in the hierarchy, just as whole wheat bread and croissants stem from flour but are different and fall into different places in the hierarchy; a hierarchy cannot exist without at least two positions being on it, after all.

    But I agree that reviewers should treat both what is termed lit fic and what is termed genre fiction. At the same time, I think it’s very difficult to look at a genre such as romance fiction in the same way that one looks at lit fic. That, in fact, may be the problem. Personal taste, I think, plays a much larger role in assessing books in the genres than it does in assessing lit fic. One reviewer finds a heroine TSTL; another thinks she reacted in the right way. As well, one has to have read a far greater number of books in genre fiction to adequately assess that genre than one has to have read to assess lit fic, simply because there is so much of it and often many sub-classes as well. One couldn’t, for example, assess paranormal romance in quite the same way one would assess an historical, except perhaps in the basics of plot and characterization. So perhaps reviews of genre fiction don’t appear often because the task of knowing a particular genre well enough is daunting?

  13. Sarah Frantz
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 09:55:49

    @Gwynnyd: Jesus Christ, Dickens was a hack, who puffed his stories with extraneous detail because he was literally paid by the word. He wrote for serial publications, the lowest of the low. This does not mean that he was not an exemplary writer whose themes and craft we can still exclaim over, but that’s beside the point.

    Shakespeare was a hack too, making quite a lot of money off his writing.

    Sigh. I hate this argument. It’s so ridiculous. These critics look back to the canonical authors and coo over them: look how brilliant they were, look how much we care about them now. And it’s a self-perpetuating cycle of wankery. You care b/c you’ve been told they’re brilliant, so you work at figuring out exactly how and why they’re brilliant, thereby justifying your own existence. I should know. I do it.

    As for “something that pays as much attention to the writing as the plot and subject matter”. Whenever I see that, I just want to give whoever says it a copy of Beecroft’s FALSE COLORS or Laura Kinsale’s SEIZE THE FIRE and defy them to devalue the writing in those books, let alone the themes and plotting.

  14. Mary Lamb
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 09:57:13

    “I don't think it's seriously arguable that the reviews in the NYTBR aren't literate. Even if we disagree on the quality of books and reviews in that publication, I think we're doing so at a relatively advanced level of taste quibbling. ”

    Perhaps not “seriously arguable,” Jane, but any review that gives a thousand word plus summary of a book concluding with a three sentence paragraph indicating whether or not the books was any good, frankly is not even a true book review, INMHO. The New York Times is full of such sloppy reviewing. Though it has come in handy if I want to talk about a “literary book” which I haven’t read (and have no intention of reading!) and sound like I know what I am talking about! Heh. I think it functions as a “cheat sheet” for people that are kind of required to “know” this kind of fiction and yet really don’t want to read it. I intend to read the Franzen review (both of them!) for this reason. Have no interest whatsoever in his book.

    I don’t know why its become de rigeur (sp?) in books reviews to do these intense wordy summaries (see it everywhere including blogs!) but I wish it would stop. All I want to know from the book review is if the book is worth my time and I think reviewers can find ways of talking about books using specific examples to back up their points without giving long summaries.

    Blogs are better at reviewing because they a) deomcratize literature and b) give lots and lots of attention to genres and c) any blog review that reviewed books ala NY Times would be unreadable and unread.

    And Gwynyd, I just have to respond to your blink, blink moment. I don’t know how many of you have read “City Boy” by Herman Wouk. It’s a kind of Tom Sawyer adventure set in 1928, Bronx New York. A true classic of its kind and well worth the reading. Laugh out loud funny and poignant. But anyway, the arch nemesis of our hero Herbie Bookbinder, is Mr. Gauss, a penny pinching school principal who makes life difficult for 11 year old boys. There’s a funny scene wherein Mr. Gauss reads a NY Times book review of a now forgotten author whom the reviewer compares favorable to Charles Dickens. The book takes place in 1928.

    So in answer to your “blink blink” moment, this kind of hyperbole has been going on a long long time. And wouldn’t it be interesting to go back to 1928 to read a NY Times book review section and see what these Dickens’ like writers were writing and how many are remembered today?

  15. J L
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 09:58:14

    This is, I believe, a list of best sellers culled from PW. I have no idea how many were reviewed (or if the review was positive, if it was reviewed).

    The sad thing, I think, it the repetition of names in the last few decades.

    http://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~immer/booksall.

  16. Sunita
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 09:59:03

    does anyone have any statistics on critically acclaimed NYTBR literary picks from the, oh, last fifty years whose readers still “delight in the writing” to the point where they are becoming “classics”?

    The NYTBR back issues are not easily available (at least I can’t google them easily). But the NYT bestseller lists are. For the 1950s and early 1960s, the following authors had bestsellers that I would predict received good reviews from the Times: JD Salinger (Franny and Zooey), Saul Bellow (Herzog), John Le Carre (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold), Boris Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago). I’d add John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicles (1950s and 1960s) and of course John Updike (Rabbit, Run). All still in print, all taught in the academy but also read outside the academy.

  17. Scorpio M.
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 10:02:11

    The NYTBR is guilty of all the points Jennifer Weiner & Jodi Picoult have raised. But that doesn’t mean they should stop doing what they are doing.

    Book reviewing should never be democratic because what does that mean? You give a guy who has no interest in historical romance a Lisa Kleypas and see if he could be objective? Books are subjective. A book should only be reviewed if it picques the interest of the reader is some way and then you see what the response is, good or bad, but if you give a reviewer a book just to be pc it already isn’t a fair review.

    Another point, just because an author sells millions of books doesn’t mean he/she is a good writer. It usually just means they are good storytellers. I admit to cringing at certain bestselling names because the quality of their writing is so mediocre. That’s not to say there aren’t amazing writers with commercial success but popular, commercial success carries a stigma in the writing world.

    The divide between “Commercial” and “Literary” fiction goes beyond the MFA toting white guys living in Brooklyn (there is favoritism there, let’s not kid). But like Clinton’s favorite slogan…
    it’s the quality of writing, stupid.

  18. Sunita
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 10:04:44

    @J L: Your google-fu is much better than mine this morning, what a great list! And how could I have forgotten Naipaul and Greene?

    John O’Hara and Nevil Shute are two of those middle-range lit fic writers who didn’t stand the test of time to become “classics”, although I think they are both immensely readable and worthwhile. At least they were when I read them, decades ago.

  19. Lynn Raye Harris
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 10:33:09

    @Sarah Frantz: OMG, what you said. This is it exactly:

    And it's a self-perpetuating cycle of wankery. You care b/c you've been told they're brilliant, so you work at figuring out exactly how and why they're brilliant, thereby justifying your own existence. I should know. I do it.

  20. Kerry Allen
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 10:44:09

    Scorpio M.: “Another point, just because an author sells millions of books doesn't mean he/she is a good writer. It usually just means they are good storytellers.”

    I don’t care what a “good writer” someone is—if he’s not a good storyteller, he deserves to starve in a garret while [insert "bad writer" of choice] does the backstroke in a pool filled with hundred-dollar bills cascading from the waterfall of ill-gotten commercial success. A fancy turn of phrase is worthless without a story that grabs readers.

  21. Courtney Milan
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 11:12:21

    One benefit of reviews in mainstream, influential publications like Time and the New York Times is to introduce readers to writers who may not be on the average reader's radar.

    You know, this alone gave me a *blink* *blink* moment. This is me talking with my author hat firmly on. But not all genre fiction writers are at the Stephen King/Jodi Picoult level.

    There are plenty of us out there who do feel like we could benefit from more exposure, thank you very much. And I don’t just mean me. I dare them to review a book by Sherry Thomas–someone whose writing I believe rivals the best of the so-called literary darlings. Or Joanna Bourne. Or N.K. Jemisin.

    This is such a disingenuous argument, because it pretends that all you have to do to get ahead in genre fiction is write a book, and then millions of fans will instantly adhere to you and buy your books. But literary fiction–by God, that’s different!

    Nobody’s saying they can’t review their pet literary people. But if their goal really was to introduce Franzen to the masses, wouldn’t it make sense to also review books that the masses want to read, so that the masses found their book review section marginally relevant?

    I just wish they would be honest. A truthful answer would be, “Yes, we do review more white males. We do it because we placed this particular stick up our ass years ago. If we removed it now, our white male subscribers would revolt. We would rather be irrelevant than risk that.”

  22. Scorpio M.
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 11:22:00

    @Kerry Allen:

    I agree, a fancy word in a bad story is not worth squat but the NYTBR and “literary” book reviewers DO pay attention to language, linguistics, Latin-roots, etc. More often than not, the story is almost an afterthought.

    My point was in response to Weiner’s quote (or maybe it was Picoult’s) that NYT should review books by bestselling authors because that is what people are reading & buying.

  23. Elizabeth Burton
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 11:32:36

    The concept that genre fiction is somehow less literary than literary fiction is so deeply engrained that people discussing the subject aren’t even aware of their bias.

    To even suggest that writers like Ursula Le Guin or Dan Simmons haven’t written some of the best-crafted, beautifully written prose on the face of the planet just because said prose was in novels listed as “genre” is both arrogant and specious.

    However, let’s not let the publishers off the hook. Sometime in the last century, they have been subsumed by the belief that this dichotomy between “literary” and “genre” actually exists, with the corollaries that literary fiction is a hard sell and they are the guardians of culture.

    So, literary fiction gets the bulk of the marketing and promotion, based on the first of those corollaries, since everyone knows genre fiction will sell itself. As a result, the truly superb writers whose work falls into genre categories are never recognized for their craft by the literary world at large.

    If I ran a review magazine, and I knew the vast majority of the books I would receive would be literary fiction and nonfiction, I would of course hire reviewers whose tastes ran to those categories. This, then, becomes self-perpetuating. Genre books aren’t reviewed because no one on the staff has sufficient knowledge of the genre to adequately address them. So, publishers don’t send genre titles but literary ones.

    Because let’s think about it for a moment. Reviewing romance or SF or fantasy or mysteries in a way that will provide the necessary information to prospective readers requires a thorough knowledge not just of the craft of writing but the tropes of the genre

    Far too often I’ve seen truly excellent genre titles slashed by someone for the sole reason that someone wasn’t familiar with the accepted ways in which that genre is allowed to deviate from the norm.

    To bring this back to the subject of the original discussion, making changes to an established organ like the NYTBR is a vaster undertaking than might at first seem. And, to be fair, they do employ knowledgeable genre reviewers; they just bury them in their own little ghetto.

    So, maybe what’s needed isn’t so much democratization as a more equitable distribution of page space, where a well-crafted genre book is just a book and isn’t defined by a label.

  24. katiebabs
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 11:35:29

    What happens when the NY Times goes out of business? They almost did in 2009. Then will their precious book reviews matter? They have until 2012 to find a new backer for their paper. If they don’t they will stop printing and go exclusively on-line. Then will the NY Times have that much influence?

  25. Joy B
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 11:41:48

    I dare them to review a book by Sherry Thomas-someone whose writing I believe rivals the best of the so-called literary darlings. Or Joanna Bourne. Or N.K. Jemisin.

    Not to leave off others, but I would definitely add Meljean Brook to this list. I admit I mostly read for "fun" and I read alot. However, I remember gushing to people at work about Demon Angel because it was dense/smart/layered and required me to fully engage. I think this should be required reading for all that diss genre books.

  26. Mireya
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 11:56:31

    Honestly, I see that sort of mentality among the romance communities as well. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read terms such as “froufrou reviews” about reviews that aren’t “literary-ly” detailed enough or that are deemed to be too short. Yes, there are reviews out there that have 3 paragraphs worth of extra “blurb” and two sentences as “review,” and which make me go “huh?”; but it is brandished as a gross generalization against pretty much any reviews that are not “smart” or “literary” sounding, and it’s neither cute, funny (well, it’s funny among the romance snobs crowd I guess) or appreciated.

    Things are not bound to change any time soon. A literary snob is a literary snob no matter what genre he/she fancies, and until those attitudes change, don’t expect an overall change in anything, and much less at the top of the literary food chain.

  27. Sally
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 12:02:43

    @katiebabs Do you live in a major US city? The New York Times has amazing power. People around the world read it. You may not agree with them, but that are a force to be reckon with.

  28. katiebabs
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 12:06:01

    @Sally: I live right outside of NYC and it would be a shame if the NY Times did fold, but they have been having major issues staying afloat for years. They were ready to declare bankruptcy last year. What if they came out and said they were no long producing newspapers and going exclusively on-line?

    It’s telling when a site such as Perez Hilton has over 30 million people a month coming to his site when the NY Times barely has 2 million subscribers for their paper.

  29. Ridley
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 12:44:56

    I would argue that the NYT focus on literary fiction hurts reading rates.

    This focus on “good” literature and on reading books you can “benefit” from makes reading solely for pleasure out to be something lackwits do. If you’re smart and that liberal arts degree you’re paying loans on wasn’t a waste of money, you will like literary fiction. If you read genre, you’re a failure and your college education was a waste of time and money. Your identity as an intelligent college graduate means NOTHING if you don’t read lit fic. NOTHING.

    I’ll admit that this is why I didn’t read for pleasure. I graduated undergrad in 2002 and may have read 3 or 4 books for pleasure between then and when my husband gave me a romance novel as a joke for Christmas 2008. Every time I picked a book to read – always some trade paperback with a tasteful cover out on a table at an indie bookstore – I’d fall asleep before I finished the first chapter. So, I concluded that I didn’t like fiction and stopped reading.

    Now I read 4 or 5 books a week. For a while I felt like a failure. All those years at a liberal arts school for grad and undergrad and I’m a romance reading intellectual lightweight. Fetch me the hemlock.

    Eventually I realized that it was my history degree itself standing between me and lit fic. Years of reading materials on a mission, seeking out the facts, taught me to all but ignore the language. The words were merely a means to an end. Since I read for content, not prose, literary fiction does nothing for me.

    My rambling point is – I shouldn’t have a frigging identity crisis over what I read for pleasure. How many other people like me, with insecurities like mine, avoid the fiction they might truly enjoy because they don’t want to feel stupid? How many educated people out there read nothing rather than read beneath them?

  30. Isabel C.
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 12:56:49

    Scorpio: Oh, I also cringe at some of the writing out there. The thing is, though, neither bad nor good writing is restricted by genre. There are certain kinds of bad writing more endemic to genre fic than lit fic and vice versa–and to specific genres, at that–but a romance or fantasy novel has as much potential to be well-written and valuable as something by Salinger or, as someone mentioned above, Dickens.

    (Admittedly, all I got out of Salinger was a deep and abiding hatred for Holden Caufield, but hey.)

    And since I prefer both romance and fantasy, I’d like to read substantive reviews about books in those genres, so that I can find the ones that *are* well-written and compelling.

    Me, I majored in English lit and–contrary-minded thing that I am–had the opposite reaction to Ridley: I spent four years reading the stuff other people thought was great literature* so I’ve put in my time. Now I read what looks entertaining: if it also improves my mind somehow, great!

    *Some of which was great, some of which was painful.

  31. Lynnd
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 13:43:10

    @Sarah Frantz: Exactly! The reason that the works of Shakespeare, Dickens and others have survived is because they wrote good stories that appealed to the masses. I would bet that neither of Shakespeare nor Dickens would make it into the NYTBR if they were writing today.

  32. Janine
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 13:44:21

    Great post.

    While I would also love for the NYTBR to review books across all genres with an open mind, I think Picoult and Weiner are tilting at windmills.

    IMO @Courtney Milan has it right. The perceived snobbery of publications like the NYTBR and The New Yorker gives them a certain cachet with their subscribers.

    For some people, displaying the NYTBR on their coffee table is a way of proclaiming their erudition to the world. If the NYTBR were to relax their so-called standards enough to (gasp!) review every kind of fiction, including category romances and comic books, their subscribers (some of whom, I bet, don’t read most of the NYTBR) would cancel their subscriptions because if the NYTBR didn’t represent elitism, it would no longer be of use to them.

  33. Holly
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 13:57:24

    Librarian confession time. I HATE literary fiction.

    It may be written beautifully. It may have tons of levels of meaning. But it NEVER ends well. You either get the Shakespeare tragedy truism that everyone ends up dead, or if they aren’t dead they’re unhappy. I loathe reading an unhappily ever after work of fiction.

    Now having gotten my Masters degree in Library Science I know I should like literary fiction. It’s good writing – or so we’re told. But I don’t like it. I force myself to read it sometimes, but I rarely enjoy it. I can appreciate that it’s beautifully written but I sigh when I set it down. Literary fiction is like the medicine you take when you have the flu. It’s good for you but it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Basically, it tastes terrible. Bleh.

    I’ll take a happily ever after book in almost any commercial fiction genre EVERY time. In a romance the H/H get together and live happily ever after. In a mystery, the bad guy gets caught and ends his/her killing spree. In a western, the guy in the white had gets the girl, justice is served, and he rides off into the sunset. In SF and/or Fantasy the evil empire (medieval or technologically based) is overthrown by a ragtag band of interesting characters with right on their side. Not that’s my kind of story.

    Yeah, someone you really like in the story might end up dead, all might seem lost, tragedy may strike, but genre fiction authors write through that and get you to a triumphant ending. Something uplifting that makes you feel GOOD about the characters. Good about the story. That’s what I want when I sit down to read a book.

    One of the reasons readers advisory was started in libraries was to help readers find their next book. Betty Rosenberg who compiled the first edition of Genreflecting used the following quote as the centerpiece of her book, “Never apologize for your reading taste” and I wish the NYT would get with the program, but they probably won’t.

    Sure, there’s a place for literary fiction and those that enjoy it but it isn’t inherently better than genre fiction just because it may be “beautifully written.” Genre fiction is beautifully written too – but as we all know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

  34. EGS
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 14:03:49

    It may be written beautifully. It may have tons of levels of meaning. But it NEVER ends well. You either get the Shakespeare tragedy truism that everyone ends up dead, or if they aren't dead they're unhappy. I loathe reading an unhappily ever after work of fiction.

    I totally agree – that’s why I generally avoid literary fiction. I don’t really understand why tragedy is seen as a higher art than comedy or a happy (or hopeful) ending. And it seems like most contemporary fiction these days almost always kills off one or more characters by the end of the story.

  35. EGS
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 14:04:19

    Borked my html trying to quote Holly!

  36. Isabel C.
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 14:25:41

    Holly: Damn straight.

    And honestly, even *horror*–in most novel-length works–ends with the good guys defeating the Thing from Beyond, at least for now. Stephen King and Clive Barker leave me feeling a lot less depressed than most litfic. Genre fiction also usually involves characters I actually like, rather than walking heaps of dysfunction.

    Which isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with liking the depressing stuff either. I don’t get the appeal, but I also don’t get why anyone eats olives; tastes are different, and that’s cool. But for me, y’know, literary fiction seems like the kind of thing that should come with a side of Xanax.

  37. Lindsay
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 15:08:07

    I’m with Ridley, in that when I tried to make my taste in reading conform to my idea of what an intellectual read, I nearly stopped reading books at all. That is why I have a problem with literary snobbery – people who are full of doubt and self-judgement over their reading will read less and enjoy less, and that doesn’t do anyone any good.

    As an aside, picking up my first romance novel as an adult scared me, not just because it threatened my “intellectual” cachet, but also because it threatened my identity as a “good feminist.”

  38. R. H. Rush
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 15:10:22

    I find this conversation fascinating, and I keep wanting to contribute to it…but every time I try to write out my thoughts, they always end up circling back to “literary snobbery takes the oddest forms.” I’ve had someone tell me that her college English class was assigned to read Wuthering Heights, and she remembered telling her professor later how much she hated that book. His response was to sneer, “Why don’t you just go read something like Middlemarch, then.” (She did, and loved it.)

    Being part of the literary canon doesn’t mean an author should be worshipped blindly. It doesn’t mean the author is incapable of bad prose (I don’t recall any specific author offhand, but I know I’ve read a “classic” in which a 10 or 20-line paragraph consisted of one very long sentence), or immune to structural flaws (didn’t Dickens once have a character spontaneously burst into flames, because he’d written himself into a corner?).

  39. Jane
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 15:26:01

    But I think that Weiner, particularly, is a literary snob. She thinks her work is good enough for the Times and doesn’t want to be classified as a romance novelist or a beach read.

    So Robin’s question seems to be does Weiner want the democratization of the Times for everyone or just for her because she is not complaining about coverage in the Washington Post or the Chi Tribune which, as Robin points out, are publications that are already very small c catholic in their reviewing tastes.

    There are a number of issues here. One) Does the NYT have some moral obligation to be more diverse in its offerings?
    Two) does diverse mean diverse in terms of author, subject matter, or genre? Three) does democratization of book reviews really eliminate the hierarchy of books by categorization? Four) Would Picoult/Weiner’s cries for greater acceptance be heard differently if they came from say a category author like Caitlin Crews (new to me author that I have been loving) or an epublished author like Anne Calhoun (Liberating Lacey, best erotic romance I’ve read in a long time). Are these the authors that Weiner/Picoult are trying to achieve acceptance for or are these authors beach reads and romance books that belong in some different, lower class of writing?

  40. Joy
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 15:27:23

    I was an English literature major. I can analyze a book to death. If the book is complex and interesting enough, maybe I will do it just for fun. Maybe I will read it twice (or more!), hoping to pick up on subtleties I missed the first time around. What is really motivating this character? Is this narrator reliable? Do I *care* what happens to this character? Is the prose style transparent or charming or curl-your-toes gorgeous (or revoltingly purple or awkward)? Does the storyline draw you in and rush you toward the climax, so to speak, or are you savoring your time in deep pool of water?

    I read _Les Liaisons Dangereuses_ earlier this summer. I am still re-reading it and mentally analyzing it. I had a similar reaction to Sherry Thomas’s _His at Night_.

    I read reviews for 3 purposes.

    1. Is the topic or plot situation of this book interesting?

    2. Will I probably like this book?

    3. To enjoy the reviewer’s cleverness and/or snark, as applicable.

    I’m not sure the NYT book review is set up to answer the second question for me, because I mostly enjoy genre fiction (though I love love love Atwood). And genre fiction is so under-represented in newspaper book review sections as to be useless in helping me select a good book– because even when the WaPo did review genre they were very likely to pick a book of a subgenre I didn’t have much interest in.

    I adore Florence King’s book reviews, btw. There are very few who can match her for wit and snark. She mostly wrote them for Newsday.

  41. Jorrie Spencer
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 15:31:35

    I can enjoy litfic. At times I find it cathartic, sad ending and all. (Though they’re not ALL sad endings.) But a little goes a long way, and I couldn’t read it all the time.

    I prefer genre fiction. And I know there’s snobbery about genre fiction and people are affected by it, including me at one time when I had to rediscover romances.

    But I also don’t really like being told there’s something wrong with my head if I enjoy litfic–not that people are saying that here. Or something wrong with my tastes if I enjoy something where not too much happens. And I probably run into that more these days simply because of places I frequent on the internet.

    But I’m straying from the original article.

  42. Sally
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 15:34:37

    @katiebabs I don’t think that 30 million people looking at P. Hilton’s website is a good thing! I’m not an intellectual by any means, but the fact that more people are interested in P. Hilton, Tiger Woods’ problems, etc. and don’t know who the Vice President of the US is, couldn’t find Iran on a map if a gun was pointed to their heads is to my mind quite chilling. Sorry for the rant. You pushed some buttons.

    Reading is fun and I can lose myself in a good romance or mystery. I also belong to a book club that reads mostly things on the NYT bestseller list or some award winner and for the most part, I’m glad that I read it.

  43. Laura Vivanco
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 16:44:41

    Are these the authors that Weiner/Picoult are trying to achieve acceptance for or are these authors beach reads and romance books that belong in some different, lower class of writing?

    Jennifer Weiner’s certainly mentioning romance as a genre which should be reviewed by the Times:

    “If the paper covers the big-boy heavy hitters – if Stephen King and John Grisham can count on a review – than Jodi Picoult and Nora Roberts should be treated the same way. If the paper's going to do the occasional round-up of science fiction, it wouldn't kill them to do the occasional round-up of romance.” (from a recent post on her blog)

  44. Julie James
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 17:21:35

    “In a larger context, there seems to be a devaluing of ‘entertainment’ when it comes to reading, a sense that if one consciously reads for ‘escape’ that indicates a certain debased quality of book”

    Exactly. And this genre bias doesn’t just apply to books. Think about how many dramas win the Academy Award for Best Picture over comedies and Action Adventure movies. I would guess this is reflective of the notion that if you’re watching a movie primarily to be entertained, it’s not a “serious” film. Of course, this overlooks the fact that such films can be poignant and insightful and/or have well-written characters and dialogue while still providing entertainment (e.g. “As Good As It Gets”). But heaven forbid that we come out of the movie theater (or close a book) feeling–gasp–happy.

    That’s not to say I don’t read literary fiction, or ever watch dramatic films. But making someone laugh, or providing them with a literary or cinematic means to escape IS an art to be valued.

    Okay, end rant. : ) And thanks for the insightful post.

  45. Deb
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 17:48:30

    The Book review section of NYT is a popular section, it helps sell the newspaper.

    NYTBR has a responsibility to it’s readers, those who keep the NYT viable. I wonder what the stats of the circulation are. More Middle Aged White Guys, I’m guessing. If they start appealing to the great unwashed (us) and if we don’t support the paper, why should we complain?

    That’s not to say I agree with the wankery, just that I understand why they review what they do. If you want more democracy in this area, you need to speak up by subscription along with public discussion.

  46. Lynnd
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 18:13:20

    @Deb: the corollary to this is that if the NYT wishes to sell more newspapers in order to be financially viable, it may have to broaden the scope of its reviews. At the end of the day, it may be that the democratization of book reviews will happen because the NYT (and other newspapers) will have to try to broaden their appeal to a broader audience so that they can remain in business.

  47. Jane
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 18:39:01

    @Laura Vivanco Right but before that in her Pinter interview, she said that if a man writes about a certain topic its lit fic and if a woman does, its a beach read or romance. Right there is a hierarchy of books in her mind as to what is of value and what is not because why else is it an insult to be considered a beach read writer or a romance writer?

  48. Laura Vivanco
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 19:09:34

    I can see how you’d reach your interpretation of it, but I read

    I think it’s a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance, or a beach book – in short, it’s something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention.

    as being all about the “serious critic’s” assessment of the “hierarchy of books.” In other words, I read it as saying that it’s the “serious critic” who thinks a “romance, or a beach book” is “something unworthy of [...] attention,” with the implication being that Weiner herself thinks that books labelled “romance or a beach book” are victims of what she’s describing as a “deep-seated double standard” which refuses to recognise the value of much of the fiction produced by women.

    I think that reading of her initial comment is backed up by her later comment about the hierarchy of what popular fiction does, or doesn’t get reviewed:

    The examples you cite reinforce my argument that women are still getting the short end of the stick. If you write thrillers or mysteries or horror fiction or quote-unquote speculative fiction, men might read you, and the Times might notice you. If you write chick lit, and if you’re a New Yorker, and if your book becomes the topic of pop-culture fascination, the paper might make dismissive and ignorant mention of your book. If you write romance, forget about it. You’ll be lucky if they spell your name right on the bestseller list. I think I remember seeing one review of Nora Roberts once, whereas Lee Child can count on all of his books getting reviewed. This strikes me as fundamentally unfair.

    Again, I’d read that as a critique of a hierarchy which exists in the minds of the “serious critics” and which she thinks is “fundamentally unfair” to books in genres associated with women. Later on, she seems to consider the non-reviewing of romances to be a particularly strong indication of gender bias:

    As it stands, thrillers and mysteries and speculative fiction can get daily reviews, or considered in the NYTBR round-ups. Chick lit gets ignored, unless it gores one of the paper’s sacred cows (note to self: don’t mess with Anna Wintour!). Romance gets ignored completely…and that, I think, is the most damning argument about gender bias at the Times.

  49. Liz
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 19:48:29

    I read the NYTBR. Thanks to its reviews, I have discovered books I loved, and books perfect for friends and family. Some were funny, many had hopeful or even happy endings, they pretty much all had plots and characters I cared about. Most were not written by guys from Brooklyn. (Also, really good non-fiction reviews, even if also biased towards men).

    I think this critique of the Times’ sexist and elitist reviewing practices is well deserved, but could we make it without the kind of sweeping, overgeneralized, inaccurate dismissals of whole categories of fiction that we hate when they are directed at romance?

    Many romance readers have a list of go-to books they use to “convert” non-romance reading friends. In the same way, “literary” fiction comes in so many flavors, I think pretty much every reader could find some books to love. (Not that I think she must).

  50. Sunita
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 22:07:16

    @Liz: Hear hear. I realize there are depressing, impenetrable, and badly written books in lit fic, but there are also funny, wise, optimistic, and soul-enriching examples.

    The repeated insistence that lit fic is depressing makes me think of On The Beach, by Nevil Shute. Everybody dies in it. And I do mean everybody. Hey, it’s about the aftermath of nuclear war. And it’s not lit fic, Shute was considered a popular author. But with this devastating scenario, he does a wonderful job of showing human spirit, grace, and bravery. He also shows pettiness, cowardice, and venality. Is there some rule that a book should only show one or the other? (BTW, there’s a Hollywood film based on the novel which is pretty faithful in word and spirit, and has Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire to boot).

    I think David Lodge qualifies as lit fic. His early books are funny and warm-spirited and no harder to read than your average Thomas or Kinsale, and much easier than some romance authors praised for their style.

    Thanks to the internet, I stopped reading the NYTBR years and years ago. I found the reviews of books I knew something about pretty unsatisfying, which made me worry about the reviews for the books I didn’t. I think it is very good on books that are set in the US or deal with US subjects. The rest of the world, well, it correlates with the NYT’s substantive coverage of the rest of the world. I tend to go to the Guardian/Observer and other non-US sources for non-US books.

    Even if the NYTBR doesn’t become more inclusive, between blogs and competing journalistic sources, its monopoly is eroding. And I doubt its status value will hold into the next generation. The NYT needs to either move forward or die, and I’m not sure it knows how to move forward successfully.

  51. Suze
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 22:41:15

    I’m finding reviews to be more and more useful as a gatekeeping function. Now that I’m buying e-books instead of paper, I’m finding lots and lots of authors who are new to me (because the ones I already know are geographically restricted or some such thing), and I’m relying on reviewers to help me decide whether to buy.

    If publishing is moving to democratize (or monetize) the slushpile, then reviewers are potentially going to become more important to readers.

  52. Janine
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 23:57:11

    @Sunita: Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino (one of my favorite books) is hilarious lit fic.

  53. SonomaLass
    Sep 01, 2010 @ 00:03:26

    I think Julie James makes an important point. There’s a LONG tradition in Western literature and theatre (later extended to film) that puts comedy and happy endings in a separate category, usually inferior, to tragedy or serious drama. Combine that with a history of dismissing or trivializing that which is of importance to women (their entertainment choices, their jobs, their other interests) and it’s no surprise that the genre most read by women is considered inferior to other genres, not just to lit fic.

    I’d be interested to see how the NYTBR reviewers responded to romance, but I suspect they wouldn’t appreciate it. I’d rather they ignore it than denigrate it.

    I read a wide variety of fiction, literary and other genres. There are books I like and books I don’t in pretty much every genre; I don’t much care what label is on it, as long as I know where to find it in the bookstore. I am grateful to the internet for the places I can find intelligent, well-written, insightful reviews of books I might want to read. And I can go back and discuss them afterward — never got that from the NYTRB.

  54. Isabel C.
    Sep 01, 2010 @ 06:28:29

    Liz and Sunita, good point. I’ve certainly read lit fic I *have* enjoyed, and I was overstating the “it’s all depressing and dysfunctional” thing. Sorry about that.

    But, Sunita, to respond to your example…I believe that On the Beach is all the things you say, and a terrific book. I still don’t want to read a book where everyone dies. I don’t want to read a book where the main characters die, or are doomed at the end, or end up unhappy. I think those can be great books, but I have no desire to engage.

    On the Beach in particular is famous enough, and the blurbs are probably obvious enough, that I know in advance to avoid it. However, I think a more accurate reason why I don’t read lit fic as a rule is that I can’t *count* on a happy ending. In romance, I can. In fantasy, I usually can. (As long as I stay away from books that get compared to Song of Ice and Fire . Heh.)

    I’d absolutely love a list of happy-ending literary fiction.

  55. Jane
    Sep 01, 2010 @ 07:09:34

    @Laura Vivanco This isn’t Weiner’s first go around at the rodeo, further, she has shown herself to be a lightweight in terms of her own writing consciousness. Have you ever read Steve Almond’s Not That You Asked? He has a scathing recount of an incident in which Weiner sat on a writer’s panel with Kurt Vonnegut and when she was asked a question about whether she had a more hopeful message than Vonnegut on the state of US addiction to oil (or beyond that topic). And when she had none and was criticized for it, she turned it into an attack on Vonnegut himself.

    Almond goes on to recount how Weiner’s contribution to the discussion was how much she liked being on the set of In Her Shoes and meeting Cameron Diaz. Weiner had an impassioned defense of Ann Patchett and Elizabeth Gilbert chatting like girls at a slumber party at a literature lecture.

    But she fails to see the irony here. If all the public sees of prominent authors are how much they love shopping (which I love too), and male authors are talking about America’s guilty addiction to oil, it’s easy to see how critics from whom Weiner wants to have validation, shouldn’t female authors be trying to portray a more thoughtful mein about literature and writing at these lit fic tours?

    Weiner’s voice is discordant with her actions. It would be like a romance blog constantly showing pictures of man titty and claiming the genre isn’t all about man titty. I always struggled with that dichotomy with Michelle Buonfiglio’s blog. (almost wrote big name blog here but I am pretty tired of people making swipes at blogs under cover of anonymity). Of course it is not, but if you perpetuate that view, you have to forgive the public for making certain assumptions.

    I do think that Weiner has a certain hierarchy of literature in her mind, even unconsciously. Is she really advocating for complete democratization? I.e., the inclusion of every kind of book published? Or is she advocating for some democratization which would allow the inclusion of her books within these hallowed halls.

    Maybe I’ve totally misread her and she is truly advocating for eliminating barriers for every work.

  56. Laura Vivanco
    Sep 01, 2010 @ 08:11:25

    I don’t know much about Weiner at all, Jane, so I was just basing my opinion on what’s written in the recent posts linked to above.

  57. Jill Sorenson
    Sep 01, 2010 @ 08:35:21

    @Laura Vivanco: I’m a fan of Weiners books and I read her posts the way you did, Laura. She is defending romance and beach reads, not putting herself above them in a genre hierarchy.

    @Jane: So…women have to talk about politics in order to be taken seriously? Doing so would be discordant with Weiner’s views, IMO. She’s saying that books don’t have to be deep, depressing, or male-authored to deserve recognition.

  58. Jane
    Sep 01, 2010 @ 13:12:46

    @Jill Sorenson: No, I don’t think that you have to talk about politics at all, but if you want your literature to be taken seriously then you have to treat it seriously. I think there is a big difference between having your subject matter taken seriously v. having serious subject matter.

    Weiner’s defense of Pratchett and Gilbert isn’t based on a serious discussion of their literature. Nor is her response to own literature serious. Instead her defense is that someone else isn’t taking the literature seriously.

    I think you can’t expect something like the NYTBR to treat commercial fiction seriously and with respect if the authors of those works don’t start treating their work with seriousness and respect. This doesn’t mean that the subject matter has to be serious in any way.

    Oftentimes comedy can take us places where serious fiction cannot (or perhaps take us to serious/darker places easier because it’s through laughter).

    But respect starts at home, so to speak. If the public face of popular women’s fiction ala Weiner, Pratchett and Gilbert spend their time at literary readings and salons discussing shopping and movie stars, isn’t it hard to expect NYTBR to treat their commercial fiction seriously.

    It’s hard for me to expect people to take romance seriously when you have someone promoting a Princeton academic symposium on romance next to a picture of a guy dressed in boxers with “I love princeton” photoshopped on there.

    One time, maybe it is ironic, but a pattern of behavior suggests that all we are about is the superficiality, the sex, or the man titty.

    I’m not saying books need to be deep, depressing or male authored to deserve recognition and I do think that the NYTBR could do a better job of at least increasing the diversity of the gender of the authors it covers and the subject matter it covers.

    However, it also requires the authors who desire that serious attention to talk about their works in a serious fashion and not just say pay attention to me, I deserve it, but to say why.

    Romance doesn’t deserve respect because it is a genre that many women read. It deserves respect because there are authors within the genre who bring acute insight into human behavior, because their crafting is magical, because they touch a deep human emotional chord even if it is in sexual or lighthearted or micro basis.

    In other words, let’s hear why authors deserve the attention of the NYTBR beyond the argument that is gender based.

  59. Janet/Robin
    Sep 01, 2010 @ 14:24:54

    Wow, so many good points being raised I didn’t want to interrupt the discussion. Thank you, everyone, for such thoughtful comments. For everyone who believes that this issue has only generated name calling and professional insults — well, they apparently aren’t reading this discussion (I will, with difficulty, restrain myself from speculating on the various facets of that).

    Anyway, I have just a few things I want to share in response to comments.

    First, the backlash against literary fiction – this has frustrated me for a long time. I understand the defensiveness that comes from feeling excluded or disrespected, but there’s a point at which I think we’re talking out of both sides of our mouths — that is, if pubs like the NYTBR are so out of touch that they don’t matter, then why waste the time criticizing them?

    For example, Jennifer Crusie says of the NYTBR on Jennifer Weiner’s blog:

    Jon Stewart sells more books than a rave review in the NYT. Nora Roberts and Stephen King reach more people than Franzen ever will. There's the real world full of a multitude of readers with a multiplicity of reading tastes, and it's thriving and alive and interacting on the net, changing and growing and exciting because of its fluidity and passion, and then there's the New York Times Book Review which is born ceaselessly back into the past by the literary version of the Tea Party who keep moaning that they want their America back, oblivious to the fact that their exclusive white, male America died with Gatsby. I'm much happier being part of the “All right then, I'll go to hell” bunch. That's where the party is.

    And Tess Gerittsen says this:

    You know what, Jodi and Jennifer? They're absolutely right. You really don't need the New York Times. You don't need Michiko Kakutani or Janet Maslin or three whole fricking pages in the Book Review. Because you have something far, far better: readers who actually buy your books.

    Now if the NYTBR really is so irrelevant, so out of touch, etc. why the need for Crusie’s anger and Gerritsen’s defensive dismissal? If they REALLY don’t matter, then they really don’t matter, right?

    I really can appreciate the fact that authors are more likely than readers to explicitly link reviews with book sales, but this whole ‘nya nya nya we’re writing real books with real readers’ strikes me as indicative of exactly what’s being complained of to begin with (i.e. snobbish, ‘I’m better than you are’ attitudes). That it’s a reverse snobbery doesn’t IMO change the fact that it’s still the same type of thinking and a perpetuation of disrespect that doesn’t get so-called commercial fiction any closer to the critical respect and attention it deserves and IMO desires.

    Which brings me to the whole issue of pitting “readers” against “respect,” something I find equally problematic and counterproductive. I would like for people interested in breaking down these barriers to begin a discussion about the comparative “goods” in books and reviewing. That is, what are the different types of goods in books and how many of those are dependent on genre. Dick suggests that “personal taste” is more important in genre fiction reviews, but I would argue that it’s merely a vocabulary issue. That is, when Romance readers, for example, may judge a book based on whether or not it was romantic enough, that’s merely a function of whether a book meets its own purpose, which IMO is relevant to all books and all reviews, regardless of genre.

    HOW these various goods are measured is IMO both general and specific to genre, but it doesn’t mean that because genre fiction may have more overt purpose conferred through various formalistic boundaries that means it’s inherently inferior than so-called unfettered literary fiction. No text is completely unfettered because it must be comprehensible to readers at certain levels to be meaningfully discussed and reviewed. And I just wish we were all talking more about that, especially those who are arguing most vehemently for diversification in the NYTBR.

    And I had one more thing I wanted to mention, but that rant surprised even me in its pitch, so I guess I’ll have to wait until my brain comes back online.

  60. Sarah Frantz
    Sep 01, 2010 @ 19:28:13

    Wow, @Jane: I think I love you.

  61. Laura Vivanco
    Sep 02, 2010 @ 03:29:46

    No, I don't think that you have to talk about politics at all, but if you want your literature to be taken seriously then you have to treat it seriously. I think there is a big difference between having your subject matter taken seriously v. having serious subject matter.

    As I said, I don’t know anything about how Weiner has behaved in the past, but it strikes me that the Smart Bitches have always made serious points through humour. It would be difficult to think of their cover snark as serious commentary on the genre, for example, yet the SBs are sometimes making serious points as they snark. And similarly, use of terminology such as “The Mighty Wang” may get a laugh, but it’s actually been very useful to me in my academic work.

    So it seems to me it’s possible to be serious in a very humorous way. I don’t, however, know if that’s what Weiner’s ever been striving for in her behaviour on literary panels etc. I don’t know enough about her to be able to form a judgement on that point.

  62. dick
    Sep 02, 2010 @ 11:34:25

    @Janet/Robin:
    Two points:
    1)That some romance readers prefer Cassie Edwards to say, any of the top tiers of romance authors, indicates pretty clearly, I think, that personal taste is a basic issue in genre fiction. (In that regard, I think it would be instructive to hear Edwards’ and Connie Mason’s views on not being reviewed by the NTY.)

    2) Isn’t it exactly the greater number of “fetters” which make the purposes of genre fiction suspect and thus denigrated by some? If one knows the end before reaching it, how can what precedes that end really tell us much about anything that occurs before it? Hasn’t that end (purpose) already determined what occurs?
    Don’t most readers of romance fiction, e.g., read romance because of the fetter of the HEA?

  63. Danielle Monsch
    Sep 03, 2010 @ 12:29:32

    I have two words for any critic who doesn’t think a romance author is a *real* author…

    LAURA KINSALE

    Just saying…

  64. Links of the week: September 3, 2010 « A Modern Hypatia
    Sep 03, 2010 @ 12:56:14

    [...] pieces on publishing, books, genre reading in general, and all sorts of related topics) has a great post up about democracy in book reviewing, both how to have more reviews from wider perspectives, b… Fascinating [...]

  65. Beth Kery
    Sep 03, 2010 @ 14:18:45

    Well done, Jane.

    I guess it wouldn’t be surprising that sexism and racism still exists in the ‘gold standard’ of book reviews. After all, who regulates them? Who tells them, you have to quesstion this or that stereotype?

    I’m asking in earnest, by the way. Do advanced programs in say–Master’s of Fine Arts–pose that question academically in a challenging fashion? I know I had it in my field…a lot.

    For the time being, I have to agree with Shiloh. It’s going to be a long time coming. Maybe the NY Times book reviews is equivalent to the Augusta National.

  66. Beth Kery
    Sep 03, 2010 @ 14:58:42

    Hi Janet/Robin,

    Now if the NYTBR really is so irrelevant, so out of touch, etc. why the need for Crusie's anger and Gerritsen's defensive dismissal? If they REALLY don't matter, then they really don't matter, right?

    I think it’s a very normal reaction on their part. Ever had someone from a position of power say you weren’t worth considering? Might get a bit tetchy.

    NYTBR=power.

    I always remember one crucial thing: any’ISM-experience, whether it be classism, racism or sexism…whatever, implies majority plus POWER. If you have one without the other, it’s not really an ‘ism. It’s a stereotype. Stereotypes are bad, don’t get me wrong. But they aren’t the same thing as an ‘ism.

    As a woman, I always internally roar if someone says women aren’t a minority. They ARE, even though statistically speaking, we are 51% of the population and men are 49% (or whatever). (In the US)

    But back to the point, it doesn’t surprise me when authors roar at not being allowed into the gates. Especially when they deserve the meat inside the gate, as a Sherry Thomas, Megan Hart or Julie James do.

  67. Monday Morning Stepback: Teaching Romance, Blogger Fragmentation, Kitchen Redo « Read React Review
    Sep 06, 2010 @ 12:18:11

    [...] focus on book covers, titles, and marketing in general (via @redrobinreader, who weighed in herself here): When my novels are packaged as exclusively for women, I’m not only cut off from a vital [...]

  68. Robin/Janet
    Sep 12, 2010 @ 12:47:17

    @dick: I think personal taste is an issue in any kind of fiction. In terms of reviewing, IMO it comes down to how the reviewer interacts with the book on its own terms, and then details his or her response to those terms, intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, etc. While one of the components in Romance might be whether a book was “romantic” enough for the reader, I don’t think that makes responses to the genre any more or less about personal taste than for any other genre.

    As for the genre’s fetters — same thing. That Romance dictates a happy ending (HFN is also a valid Romance ending, and we see more and more books ending that way) does not, IMO, make it unsuitable for review with the same level of opinionated literacy as any other genre of fiction, including lit fic.

  69. Janet/Robin
    Sep 12, 2010 @ 12:55:11

    @Beth Kery: I think you’re kind of making my point for me here. That they are getting so angry and defensive completely belies the “we don’t care” meme and IMO undermines the credibility of those statements.

    Clearly they DO care, and IMO the ‘we have readers, nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah’ refrain strikes me as monumentally unproductive and even contradictory to the entire issue here — i.e. the ghetto-izing of fiction produced by women, especially if it’s categorized as Romance.

    If having more readers (presumably!) were enough, no one would be complaining. But even more importantly, IMO, that perpetuation of the divisiveness keeps the focus off the real issues here, which is that there is no type of fiction that is more or less inherently worthy and capable of thoughtful and literate reviewing.

    Also, FWIW, I wrote the op-ed piece. ;D

  70. Who Can Protect The Best Interest of The Reader? - Dear Author
    Nov 29, 2011 @ 10:00:29

    [...] while I have read, enjoyed, and recommended several of Weiner’s books, I have long found her a problematic spokesperson for mainstream media’s neglect of women’s fiction. I should probably be grateful that in her [...]

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