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.
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.