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.

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.

 

The Reader’s Toolbox

ReadingTackle2
Clockwise from top right corner – a Circa Jotlet, Field Notes Byline Limited Edition, generic 5-1/2″ x 8″ softcover journal, Field Notes Sweet Tooth Limited Edition, Levenger business card magnifier, variety of wood pencils (including highlighter pencils), 2 pencil sharpeners, eraser, 3 x 5 Levenger index cards, pencil case, Book Darts, Gimble (hands free reading tool).

 

When I was in art school I discovered a deep love for the materials out of which art is made: the brushes, the differences in brands of paint pigments, pens and pencils and the cases made to store them.  Hours would go by at Pearl Paint on Canal Street spent looking at different types of paper. This passion for tools has crossed over into my reading life and I’ve accumulated a bunch of little accessories, completely unnecessary, which somehow make reading even more fun. My husband gave me a book bag last Christmas and I’ve taken to carrying it everywhere.  Of course there’s always at least one book (or three) tucked inside, but there are lots of other things too.  Below is a list of my reader/reviewer toolkit –

  • An assortment of notebooks. Of course you probably only need one but, as a friend once said to me, if you’re going in then go in big. I usually have at least two Field Notes notebooks on me at all times.  I like them because 1. – the small, booklet held together by three simple staples and 2. – I’m a bit of a label whore. The Byline Limited Edition is fantastic. It’s a departure from their standard notebook format and was designed with the help of John Dickerson of Face the Nation. I also keep a small Circa Jotlet in the side pocket of my bag. Both it and the Byline are bound at the top, so they flip open and can be held in one hand. It makes it easier to take notes reporter style. I tend to jot down a lot of notes during the day, mostly things I hear or thoughts I might have for a future post. I keep a larger, softcover journal for longer sections of writing, the drafts which will be eventually be incorporated into reviews. All of the notebooks I’m currently using are softcover. I’m less precious about using them and if they get roughed up or filled with scribbles it doesn’t bother me. Whereas there’s something about a hardcover journal that feels like everything recorded in it is for Posterity.
  • Knickknacks
    Clockwise from top left: Book Darts, Gimble (hands-free book opener), KUM Masterpiece Sharpener, M+B Double Hole Brass Sharpener, Staedtler Black Rubber Eraser
    Wood pencils, a handheld eraser & (2) sharpeners. Yes, completely analog. Eventually I hack it out on the Chromebook, but all my initial thoughts and early drafts are put down in longhand using old-school wooden pencils. The benefit of writing by hand is that it forces you to slow down to choose your words and structure your sentences. I also stop more frequently to read over what I’ve written.  To this end I have accumulated a collection of several dozen pencils. Japanese are my favorites. I like softer leads, which generally means shorter point retention, so I’ve also invested in two quality metal hand sharpeners. The KUM Masterpiece Longpoint is a German-made sharpener. It’s a two-blade system, which means you sharpen your pencil in part 1 to extend the lead, and part 2 to shape it into a point that could be used to shank someone. I keep a second, brass sharpener for the fatter, less lethal highlighter pencils that don’t fit into the Masterpiece (no bleeding through the page like markers). Add a colored pencil for editing drafts and at least one rubber eraser and my pencil case is complete. The Erasable Podcast and CW Pencil in NYC have been invaluable resources for putting it together.
  • 3×5 notecards. Ever since reading that Nabokov used index cards to draft his novels I’ve been trying to find a way to incorporate them into my writing routine. The best use I’ve found for them is as bookmarks.  I also jot notes on them, usually nothing more exciting than quotes and page numbers. The Levenger cards are nice because of the vertical format, but pricey. Mine were a gift and I probably won’t replace them once they’re gone.
  • A magnifier. I haven’t needed one yet – but it seems like a good thing to have.  Another gift.
  • Magnifier2
    Magnifying Card
    Book Darts.  I am a Book Dart evangelist. These smooth, sexy, pointed metal clips that slide onto the edge of a page are fantastic for marking passages & quotes you want to reference later. IMHO the darts are vastly superior, and more environmentally friendly, than post-it-notes (which fold and become ragged over time). I cannot live without them.
  • Something to keep the pages of my book open. For those times when you need a page open and your hands free, like when you’re typing out a passage from a book.  The Gimble, which is what I use, isn’t aesthetically pleasing but it gets the job done for a fraction of the price of one of those fancy leather book weights. Plus it fits into my pencil case!

That’s it! Well… except for a confession: I’ve written this post for purely selfish reasons. As I was thinking about my own book bag I couldn’t help wondering if I’m the only one.  I am genuinely curious….do YOU have a favorite bookmark, or write on a vintage typewriter (or have a vintage typewriter sound app for your laptop)?  Do you collect fountain pens? write on stacks of yellow legal pads? put notes in the margins of your books? Please share what is or isn’t in your reading toolbox in the comments.

A Case for Diaspora Writing as a Literary Movement

I’m in the midst of writing a review of Memory At Bay, a novel by Evelyne Trouillot translated by Paul Curtis Daw.  As I was writing an idea became stuck in my head – relevant to the book and the review, but too large and unformed at this stage to actually use.  The only way I can think of to move past it and get back to work is to do a massive data-dump…  plus I’d love to put it out there to hear what everyone else thinks of it.

My question is:  can diaspora writing be considered a literary movement of the late 20th- early 21st- centuries? And if so, what would be its defining characteristics?  Here’s what I’ve found so far.

A Google search brought up both the terms “diasporic literature” (which is a horrible name) and “exile literature”, but I think diaspora and exile are two different things.  Modern diaspora is a kind of expatriation associated almost exclusively with people of the developing world who leave their home countries for socio-economic and political reasons: war, famine, poverty and corrupt governments. But they aren’t necessarily refugees or exiles.  The implication is that refugees are fleeing ahead of something.  That they are leaving against their will and that when the region they are leaving stabilizes they will try to return.  The word exile, on the other hand, implies a specific individual (or race or religious group) forced to leave because they are being targeted.  In contrast, members of a diaspora leave in search of better circumstances, better opportunities and (yes, this too) for safety. They plan and prepare.  It is a kind of immigration (though members of a diaspora do not always come through legal channels). Ultimately, they are looking for a new home where they and their loved ones can thrive.

Puerto Rico (though not a country), Haiti and other Caribbean Islands, African nations (particularly Eastern, Western and Central), India, Bangladesh… these are all countries I associate with diaspora.*  Countries, the majority relatively small, whose citizens have dispersed throughout the world in large numbers.  Diaspora writing is about the transition between one country and another, about resettling and rebuilding of lives, and is often multi-generational.  Another important characteristic of the literature is an attachment to memory and an underlying sense of guilt – for having left and for building a new life somewhere else.  Displacement.  Diversity. Navigation. Perhaps diaspora writing is about coming to terms with voluntary exile.

The writers who are a part of the diaspora tend to settle in the wealthier Western countries. English language countries like England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.  They write in English or write in another language and are translated into English. Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri, Salman Rushdie, Alain Mabanckou, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Evelyne Trouillot, Jean-Euphèle Milcé and maybe Valeria Luiselli and Bolaño (Mexico and Latin America is somewhat tricky for a number of reasons) – they are some of the writers whose work I would put in the category of diaspora writing.

The immediate result of diaspora writing is that it brings a fresh perspective to English literature. It is a reexamination of Western culture, described by someone who is simultaneously embedded and detached, and gives voice to a huge segment of Western society that is too often marginalized and ignored.  At its best it explores the fusion of two cultures, allowing for endless variations.

One last piece of information I found interesting: the word “diaspora” entered into the English language as recently as the late 1800’s.  A graph generated by the Google Ngram Viewer (which tracks the usage of a word or phrase in books) shows a jump in its usage between the years 1980-2008 of approximately 250%.  I can’t embed the chart into this post, but you can follow the link to it below.

https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=diaspora&case_insensitive=on&year_start=1800&year_end=2015&corpus=15&smoothing=7&share=&direct_url=t4%3B%2Cdiaspora%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3BDiaspora%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bdiaspora%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BDIASPORA%3B%2Cc0

That’s all I’ve got at the moment.  I hope I haven’t bored everyone to death.  My final question is – what do you think?  Is diaspora writing a real thing or have I over thought it? (I’m really not sure 🙂 ).  And are there other countries and authors you’d include in the category? I’d really love to hear what everyone thinks.

 

*For some reason I don’t entirely associate diaspora with most Asian and Latin American countries, though at the moment I can’t explain why.  

A Quick Post On A Day Spent Reading, Fake Fireplaces & Sergio Pitol

I’ve set aside today to read.  My usual routine for days like this is to make prodigious amounts of tea, put the “fireplace” video on the television and pretend I’m stranded in a Scottish Inn. The video operates under the same concept as the Yule Log.  Which, for those who haven’t had the pleasure, is played during the holidays on public television – transforming television screens across America into burning fireplaces. Classical music plays as the logs burn down, though why they (by they I am of course referring to the visionaries who recognized the market demand a video of burning logs fills) can’t just use the crackling sounds of an actual fire is beyond me. The particular video I have access to also includes artistic close-ups of portions of the fire, further destroying the illusion of your-tv-as-fireplace.  We can only assume this (along with the music) is a balm to the filmmaker’s artistic integrity, or perhaps a way to pacify the Gas Fireplace Manufacturers of America who might view televised fireplaces as a competing market.

As usual there’s a stack of books I want to get to.  At the moment my focus is on finishing Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight. He has a remarkable authorial voice – and his personality shines through this and the first book of his Trilogy of Memory: The Journey. What I wanted to talk about, though, is the wonderful supplemental material Deep Vellum included with each book.  Two Introductions  – written by Enrique Vila-Matas (for The Art of Flight) & Álvaro Enrigue (for The Journey).  Álvaro Enrigue’s is your standard overview: explaining the author’s work and its importance in an essay called Sergio Pitol, Russian Boy.  Vila-Matas’ introduction is a bit more personal. He draws a wonderful portrait of Sergio Pitol in his own, very brief, essay entitled Pitol in the Rain.  The two men (Vila-Matas & Pitol) are friends; and Vila-Matas mentions the little details, the small quirks of personality, which true friends treasure. Thanks to Vila-Matas we discover that Sergio Pitol is a bit of a hypochondriac and is continuously losing (and recovering) his eyeglasses.

‘I remember the day because there was a pounding rain and Sergio was constantly losing his glasses; the latter was not at all unusual, his penchant for losing and then finding his glasses being legendary. That day he lost them several times, in various bookstores and cafes, as if that were the perfect antidote for not losing his umbrella. I recalled the day that Juan Villoro had found in Pitol’s tendency to lose his glasses a clue to illuminating new aspects of his poetics:  “Sergio writes in that hazy region of someone who loses his eyeglasses on purpose; he pretends that his originality is an attribute of his bad eyesight…”

Pitol in the Rain is only a few pages long, but every word is full of affection and friendship.  Readers are left in no doubt that Pitol is a man much loved by those fortunate enough to know him personally.

How often can biographies, let alone introductions and afterwards, make that claim? I often find that the more I learn about an author the more disillusioned I become.  But, from what I’ve read so far – The Journey in its entirety and a good portion of The Art of Flight – Pitol is far from a bad boy or glamorous member of the Literati.  Though he seems to have come in contact, and frequently developed lasting relationships, with some of the most important writers of the times his writing is amazingly scandal and gossip free.  His anecdotes are amusing because he finds them amusing, and always good-naturedly so. I get the feeling the members of the Algonquin Round Table would find him a bore and he would feel the same of them.  He lacks their sting, yet is as charming as any one of them could wish to be.

George Henson’s translation captures the author’s lightness and guileless enthusiasm for life and literature. He’s also done an admirable job of keeping the strand of Pitol’s prose from becoming tangled in the author’s convoluted labyrinth of memory. Henson, too, seems to have succumbed to Sergio’s charm despite their having never met.  In the translator’s note Henson describes the pressure of translating without an author’s collaboration.  Particularly when the author is a much celebrated translator, himself.   He explains the reason for the absence of authorial input (which I won’t go into) and ends the paragraph with an email he received from Pitol (which I will) – “Your interest in my work fills me with happiness and gratitude. I would love nothing more than to see my Trilogy of Memory translated into English, a language I adore and in which none of my books exist.”

I found those two sentences incredibly touching, – particularly the words happiness, gratitude and adore. The more I read the more it becomes apparent that Pitol possessed a rare and self-effacing intelligence. Those three words are representative of the author, or at least how I’ve come to think of him through the his books. Many things seem to have filled Sergio Pitol with adoration, happiness and gratitude.  We can all be grateful that he took the time to write some of those things down.