Book Criticism: The Great Migration?

I’ve been thinking about book reviews and criticism. Back in May I was in the audience for a panel held during Book Expo of America (BEA) called The Crisis In Reviewing, Disappearing Space and Disappearing Pay.  Whenever a panel is listed at a conference or festival I’m attending on this general topic I always make an effort to sit in… because I love books, I love book criticism and I love panels. But, as a whole, these tend to be rather depressing affairs which focus on the past and bemoan the present.

Regardless of the name they almost always touch upon the same key points:

  • The newspapers which traditionally ran book reviews no longer have book sections due to lack of public interest, advertising, etc.
  • Many of the book review outlets which still exist, particularly those that exist online, do not pay. Or pay very little.
  • The general reading public sees book critics and reviewers as gatekeepers – an over-intellectual (and possibly out-of-touch) elite.
  • Reader reviews on Amazon, Goodreads and on blogs (though blogging, itself, is considered in decline) have replaced/assumed the role of traditional book reviews.

Personally, I think time would be better spent looking towards the future.  And with that in mind Fran Bigman and I have started a series on the National Book Critics Circle website called The Craft of Criticism. Because I believe that book criticism is a very niche area of interest, one I like to equate to people who buy/collect vinyl records. There is still a demand, still an interest, but perhaps not as large an audience as – say – 20 years ago. And, yes, the internet changed everything. As did streaming. But I don’t believe that the internet was an extinction level event for readers and reviewers. And if I am correct about that, then the question we need to be asking (and the more exciting topic of conversation) is how will the form adapt and evolve going forward?

We already have some of the answers. Community building is happening online at sites like Goodreads, Litsy, Book Riot and The Washington Post’s Book Party. And offline, in the form of book clubs, author readings and festivals. Libraries and independent bookstores still play a huge role. In-depth criticism and reviews, formerly the purview of newspapers, still exists at online magazines like 3:AM Magazine, Asymptote, Necessary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, and The Millions. There are also more than a few print journals and sections that have survived (and thrived) in this brave new world – The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, The Paris Review, Tin House, The Sewanee Review, Book Forum, TLS, A Public Space, The LA Times Book Review and The Wall Street Journal book section. I want to stress that these are incomplete lists. And I haven’t even mentioned book blogs, vlogs, podcasts and Instagram (#bookstagram) – all fascinating and full of possibilities for the future and a subject for another post.

Good book criticism today isn’t a pronouncement, but the opening line of a conversation. The goal remains to place literature in a cultural context, but the way of doing that has changed drastically. There are enormous benefits to this. The rise of the book community (versus the academic community) as a critical force has occurred in tandem with demands for diversity in adult and children’s fiction. Self-published romance novels on Amazon have shown that there is a market for romance novels featuring characters of color, LGBTQ romance and polyamorous relationships. Ask yourself, would the VIDA count and the demand for gender parity have been possible without the connective tissue of the internet? And I sincerely believe that the increased attention to translated literature is due to, not the traditional media outlets but, the dedication of a relatively small group of independent publishers and bloggers. One of the most interesting new literary prizes launched this year – The Staunch Prize for thrillers written and plotted without any physical violence against women – and I don’t think it would have been possible if the guards were still fixedly positioned on either side of the gates (in fact, the Guardian article and follow-up articles announcing the prize contain far more negative responses than positive from critics and authors).

As a rule, it is no longer realistic to make enough money to live on by reviewing books (of course there are always exceptions to the rule), but that is not the same thing as the end of book criticism. Rather than the extinction level event I mentioned earlier, I like to think that we are in the midst of a great migration.

What do you think? I’d love to know.

Hello 2018! Some News & Reading Resolutions (shhhh!…. don’t wake Emma)

I began a post on my 2018 reading resolutions a few days ago.  It was so boring I fell asleep. Hell, it was so boring it put my dog to sleep. Don’t believe me? I began with a section on time management. TIME MANAGEMENT. And while that might be a very worthy endeavor, and there are quite a few very good books that tackle the subject, why would I ever inflict something like that on anyone nice enough to visit here?

But I understand why these beginning of the year posts are so popular. I, too, enjoy listening to other readers talk about how they plan to organize their bookshelves, set up their libraries or (my personal favorite) how long they hope to maintain the delusion that they will not be purchasing any books for the next 12 months. I also get a surprising amount of pleasure from reading about all the different challenges, whether my favorite blogger will be spending March reading Japanese or German literature, and marveling at how many books someone will read in the upcoming year. I don’t understand why I find these things so fascinating, but I do.

AND YET…. when it comes to writing about my own goals… I don’t know… if I can’t summon the interest how can I expect others to?

It’s not that I don’t LOVE making lists.  My goal setting usually gets done during slow periods at work in one of the softcover notebooks I carry with me at all times. These notebooks contain lists of review ideas, improvements I want to make to the site, posts/articles I promised to write for other sites, books I want to read, and general non-reading-to-dos. I also like to make diagrams – flow charts with lots of bubbles connected by arrows . Part of what makes this format appealing is that it’s messy and visually interesting.  And how do I duplicate  on a website?

But goals are being set and this is the time to share them  So below are a list of a few I hope to complete in 2018.

1. I’m a judge for the Best Translated Book Award this year, so for the next six months that is going to dictate what I read. But even without my consciously curating, I am still finding connections between seemingly random books.  I like it when the books I read inform each other – when patterns develop. For example: one topic that keeps coming up, perhaps because it is on my mind, is human migration. So many stories in translation are about refugees, expatriates, asylum seekers, immigrants, Diasporas – all pretty words describing a terrible thing: people forced to find new homes. The reasons why men, women and children leave their home countries and what happens to them is a big topic, but I think an important one. And I find myself understanding it better thanks to some great writers. So, while I don’t really like reading by country, I do like reading (and reviewing) books clustered around a specific topic.  I hope to do more of that in 2018.

2. You may have noticed that a Bookwitty affiliate badge has been added to my sidebar. Bookwitty is a website designed to help readers discover books through personalized recommendations and member generated content. You can buy books directly from the site and Bookwitty will ship them to you anywhere in the world for free. (I suppose they’re a little bit like Goodreads, but with a simpler interface and minus the evil corporate overlord).

Today, 98% of books published go completely undiscovered, with major marketplaces focusing only on the 2% that turn into best-sellers. We believe that there is a vast wealth of knowledge, ideas and entertainment in the books that go undiscovered, and it is our goal to help people find the right book for them in that vast catalogue. – Bookwitty

I’ve been keeping this blog since 2009, and in that time I’ve received other offers that would have allowed me to “monetize”. Everything from hosting blog tours and ad content, to setting up an Amazon affiliate or Patreon account. I’ve always said no because I felt it might compromise the quality and integrity of the blog. But I like Bookwitty – I like the site and I like their message. For those who would like an opportunity to support the site financially, they offer a non-intrusive way to make that available, which is nice too. So…in addition to the nifty new badge, book titles in my reviews will include links that takes you to a page on Bookwitty where you can buy the book and I will receive a commission on the sale.  And that’s it.  There is never any expectation on my part or obligation on yours to do so. Just the fact that you come here for your book recommendations means the world to me. Thank you, as always, for your support.

3. I’ve never participated in an official reading marathon before. But this year I have a hella-lotta books to read and too little time to read them. So on January 27th & 28th I am attempting to read for 24 out of 48 hours as part of the 24 in 48 Reading Marathon,  inspired by Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon. I’ll be posting my progress on social media all weekend long – so check back on the blog, my Instagram account and twitter (it may be the most I’ve ever posted to social media EVER – another marathon event, I guess).  As we get closer to the date I will start putting together my TBR stack, discuss strategies, maybe even train.  It’s all incredibly silly and ridiculous – which is why I am IN.

4. WRITE EVERY DAY – whether I post it or not, I need to get back into that routine.

5. And, finally, for those of you who came here with a burning desire to read about my time management strategies for 2018 and now feel cheated – below are some of the books that are currently rocking my OCD-world.

Check back in the next few days for my first fiction review of 2018 (spoiler: it’s a good one)!

 

 

 

 

 

 

2017 In Review

2017 was not the best year. I am very aware that may be the understatement of the decade, but there it is.  I med an old blogging friend at this year’s Brooklyn Book Festival and tried to explain to him why I’d retreated from Social Media (and the world) – which amounted to a list of the same reasons that everyone who eventually retreats from, and leaves, Social Media (Twitter) gives. So I won’t bore you with the details. Enough to say that I spent most of 2017 on the couch watching television or hiding behind a book. A lot of reading got done but not a lot of writing.

Looking back, though, I see that I accomplished more than I realized. But isn’t that always the way?

I’m still contributing over at Book Riot. You can find links to everything I’ve written for them on my Book Riot Contributor’s Page. I’ve also reviewed for Foreword Reviews, The LA Review of Books, Quarterly Conversation and The Rumpus. Below are 3 which I am particularly proud of:

A few other highlights:

  • In 2017 I read 60+ Books, over half were translations.
  • Books by Women Authors – 10.  This is roughly 30% of the books I’ve read in translation…  to be honest I thought there’d be more. Which just reinforces the fact that unless I make a conscious effort to read women authors, it’s just not going to happen.
  • Languages – 9 (not including English). French, Spanish & Japanese novels made up the bulk of my reading in Translation.  I also read books translated from Yiddish, Italian, German and Korean.
  • Surprise of the Year –  Return to the Dark Valley by Santiago Gamboa, translated by Howard Curtis. I’d never heard of Gamboa before picking up this book and I don’t understand why. I’ll definitely be reading more of his work in 2018.
  • Disappointment of the Year – I really didn’t like The Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo, translated by Janet Hong. There’s a whole list of reasons I go into in my review of Han Yujoo’s novel at the Rumpus, but for those looking for the hot take:  the book relies on a series of literary gimmicks and clichés rather than substance and structure.  The shame of it is that she is talented enough to almost pull it off, which is saying a lot.
  • I attended both the 2017 PEN World Voices Festival in New York City & AWP in Washington D.C.
  • I’m also a judge for the 2018 Best Translated Book Award, which is something I’ve wanted to be a part of for a long time.
  • And for the first time EVER I managed to complete my GoodReads Challenge for the year!

So that’s it for 2017. I didn’t want to spend too much time dwelling on this past year – I’d rather look to the future.  Check back soon for my post on goals, news and resolutions for 2018.

Book Reviews In the Wild

20170415_174812-e1492299406699.jpgSo far, 2017 has been a good reading year. I’m even a few books ahead on my Goodreads Reading Challenge.

I wanted to post links to some reviews I’ve written for other sites in the past few months (in case you all missed me).

Cockroaches, written by Scholastique Mukasonga and translated by Jordan Stump, is a memoir from of a survivor of the Rwandan genocides.  What makes her account so moving is that Mukasonga was living in France when the majority of her family was massacred, and so her story is as much about surviving having your loved ones violently taken from you as it is about the years leading up to and surrounding  the horrific event.  You can read my review of Cockroaches at The Quarterly Conversation.

I wasn’t that impressed with South Korean writer Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale (translated by Janet Hong), but I have a pretty low tolerance for performative, avant garde literature.  The story which superficially is about abuse and violence in children devolves in the second half of the book into a meta-fictional hodge-podge. Such Small Hands by Spanish writer Andrés Barba (translated by Lisa Dillman) is a more powerful, and less pretentious, novel that deals with similar themes. You can read my review of The Impossible Fairy Tale at The Rumpus.

I’ve also been writing fairly regularly over at Book Riot about translations – mostly lists of book recommendations organized by themes, though there are some essays in the mix. There you’ll find recommendations of Japanese novels, French feminist writers, micropresses or – if you’re feeling political – an essay about hearing Masha Gessen give the Arthur Miller Lecture at the 2017 PEN Festival in New York which shaped my reflections on the current U.S. president’s lack of literary background and inability to articulate clear thoughts.  I’ve been writing at Book Riot for a few months now and am trying to keep my Clippings Page (see the menu above) updated with links.

Hopefully I’ll have more to share soon.

 

In Defense of Reviewing Mediocre Books #WITMonth

On Wednesday I posted a review of The Case of Lisandra P., a thriller written by the French writer Hélène Grémillon and translated by Alison Anderson. I began the review with a paragraph defending the position that while I felt it was a mediocre book, even mediocre books deserve reviews. That it was unfair to demand that women to produce only amazing books which are worthy of being reviewed when we do not hold male authors to the same high standard.

One of my favorite bloggers, Lisa from ANZLitLovers, called me out on that introductory paragraph, and rightly so, in the comments of that post. You can read her entire comment here. I started typing a response into the comments section as well but realized I had a lot to say on the subject and… well… it is my blog. 🙂

Lisa always pulls me into these conversations – I think that’s how we first “met”. I want to thank her for that. She’s very thoughtful about what she reads – and the comments she leaves force me to be more thoughtful about what I write.

So I’d like to start by saying that I initially agreed with many of the points she makes. We perceive women as tending to do well in genre categories, both financially and in online reviews.  Val McDermid is a writer that comes immediately to mind. But since I began analyzing my reading habits I’ve been made painfully aware that what I perceive to be true is not always actually true. So I did a quick , completely unscientific survey of the genders of the authors who made it onto two of the major crime/mystery awards shortlists before typing up my response.

Next I googled “Top Paid Mystery Writers” to see what turned up… just because. I found a list on the Christian Science Monitor website of the Top Ten Best Paid American Mystery Writers.  9 were men.

Again, the above is an entirely unscientific survey which has almost nothing to do with translations (the CWA Dagger Award does have an International category). But it does illustrate my point – these were NOT the results I was expecting.

This might also be a good time to mention that Hélène Grémillon probably doesn’t consider herself a genre writer.  Her first novel was widely praised and nominated for the prestigious Prix Goncourt due Premier Roman (past winners  included Laurent Binet for HhHH and Kamal Daoud for The Meursault Affair).

The truth is that Grémillon does not need my help to sell books or gain any kind of critical attention.  She is doing just fine and in many ways she’s proof to Lisa’s comment.  So if The Case of Lisandra P. is not a good book why bother reviewing it?  Well, mostly because I can’t definitely say that it is any worse  than The DaVinci Code, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or any number of thrillers that find their way into airport bookstores and onto the beaches every Summer.

And because I think any review makes a difference. Stephen King, Grahame Green, Simenon, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan have written a lot of books, individually and combined. Not all of those books were good, but their authors are still considered good (even great) writers in their spheres. What was the one thing all these men had in common? Most of their books got reviewed regardless of quality.

Books don’t exist in vacuums. The truth is we would never be able to identify good books if we (or someone else) hadn’t slogged through the bad ones. (Even the bad ones can still be a lot of fun.  I still smile when I think about the ridiculous over-the-top contrivance that passed for a plot in The Absent One by Jussi Adler-Olsen). To achieve true gender equality we need to review men and women with the same consistency. Women writers need to play a bigger part in the literary conversation, whether that be in print reviews or online.

In the end it’s a numbers game.

A review is an opinion. Hopefully a well thought out opinion by someone willing to spend the time to build an argument which backs it up… but an opinion nonetheless. And we need more reviewers expressing their opinions about Women In Translation… hell, according to the VIDA Count we need more opinions out there about women’s literature in general. Which has me believing that there is still some merit in reviewing and bringing attention to those mediocre books, if only to establish a space we can eventually fill with the great ones.