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.

Ode to the NYRB

In 2002 I received a subscription to the New York Review of Books (NYRB) as a Christmas gift.  I’d never read it before. In fact, when my first issue arrived I was expecting the New York Times Book Review.  I was surprised with what actually showed up in my mailbox.  But it was a pleasant surprise.  In the years since I’ve religiously renewed.  Not that I’ve always agreed with what I’ve read.

For example:  J.M. Coetzee’s review of Philip Roth’s Nemesis in the most recent issue;  Coetzee’s interpretation that the main character *spoiler alert* is actually a healthy polio carrier in my opinion gives waaay too much credence to the character’s interpretation of events. (I’ve been DYING to get that out!)

Anyway… my obsessive and argumentative nature aside… the NYRB always leaves me with something to think about.  Years ago it was a great article on patents and pharmaceutical companies that I forwarded to all my friends.  Or there was John Banville’s lacerating (and awesome) review of  Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday.  Recently I read a surprisingly unbiased look at the Tea Party Movement by Jonathan Raban (3/25/2010 issue) which, while not changing my vote, definitely opened my eyes.  The NYRB political coverage isn’t always even-handed (they definitely lean towards the Left), but its writers are thorough.

At this year’s Book Bloggers Convention one of the speakers joked that the war between book Reviewers and the book Bloggers was over.  The Bloggers had won.  I’m not sure how much of a victory that is.  Too many newspapers are dropping their book review sections.  The one’s that remain are even more important than they were before.   Not only for readers, but as a resource for Bloggers.

Individual issues of The NYRB can be pricey, so I recommend visiting the website.  (OH! and of course they have a BLOG).

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Beware the Ides of March

Every month I try to group the books I read & review around a theme.  Sometimes the theme is obvious, sometimes  it’s a bit esoteric.  March, in the end, was an easy one –  mysteries. Here is a re-cap of the books featured:

Just because you’re wonderful  –  below is the  link back to another mystery novel I loved and reviewed all the way back in 2008:

And here’s the New York Times review of the book I didn’t finish in time.

Pride & Prejudice & Zombies by Jane Austen & Seth Grahame-Smith

P&P&Z (a.k.a. – Pride & Prejudice & Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith & Jane Austin) is more of a novelty item than a novel – like a rubber chicken or glasses with googly eyeballs.  Those who are expecting Monty Python’s (even Quentin Tarantino’s) version of Jane Austen will be disappointed.  The novel (i.e. – the text) is no longer funny.  The book, as an object, has become the joke.

Jane Austen’s original Pride & Prejudice is a very funny novel.  That sometimes gets lost in the endless “sequels” and Colin Firth fan clubs.  It’s filled with great lines, smart humor and manages to feel contemporary despite being the mother of all period costume pieces.  It’s not a book to get you a date, but it’s become a comfort book for a lot of women.

Yes, I said women.   Normally I’d fight gender stereotyping a novel, but….it is a truth universally acknowledged that the reading demographic for Jane Austen novels is scewed pretty heavily on the side of females.  (Sorry, it’s mandatory to misuse that quote ).  So, when Seth Grahame-Smith took Pride & Prejudice and added the “& Zombies” a lot of hopes were raised.  Finally the crossover book that Austen lovers had been waiting for.  It was an opportunity to convince skeptical partners to try Jane Austen with an open mind.  Zombie lovers – a seemingly growing demographic of which I am a part – would think they were reading about… well… zombies and before they knew it they’d be picking up copies of Persuasion at Barnes & Nobles. Jane Austen would infiltrate the hipster ranks.  Chaos would ensue.  People would actually watch that horrible Keira Knightly adaptation, waiting with bated breath for the hair dye to run down her face.

An added plus was that P&P&Z just looked funny.  Which I guess was the actual point.

Who, then, would have anticipated that the zombies, cleverly referred to as “Unmentionables” (the first and last clever thing I encountered in this book) could change the character dynamic of an entire novel?  Characters like Mary Bennet & Lady Catherine are given a purpose  – even worse employment! – fighting zombies and protecting the surrounding countryside.  The result is surprisingly boring.  The addition of a purpose makes reasonable all the puffed-up self importance, pride, and class prejudice that was funny in the original.  It renders characters all but unrecognizable.  Look specifically at what has happened to Mary Bennet, a complete bore as imagined by Austen, by comparing this passage to the original.

They were not the only objects of Mr. Collins’s admiration… The dinner too was highly admired; and he begged to know to which of his fair cousins the excellency of its cooking was owing.

Briefly forgetting her manners, Mary grabbed her fork and leapt from her chair onto the table.  Lydia, who was seated nearest her, grabbed her ankle before she could dive at Mr. Collins, and, presumably, stab him about the head and neck for such an insult.  Jane and Elizabeth turned away so Mr. Collins would not see them laughing. (pg. 52)

If Mary met Sarah Connor in a dark alley, my money would be on Mary.  Which leads me to ask, what is the point of her character in this new version?  When later on  Elizabeth & Jane find Mary “as usual, deep in the study of human nature”  (pg 49)  I rolled my eyes.  Jane Austen’s Mary was ridiculous… for Mr. Grahame-Smith she is intense.

Pride & Prejudice was not meant to be intense.  One would think P&P&Z even less.  Literary critics have  commented on the lack of historical events and context in Jane Austen’s novels.   For example:  Pride & Prejudice, like most of her books, is set during the Napoleonic War.  The only hints of this are references to the comings and goings of the regiment stationed in Meryton.  This was most likely on purpose, as I think Mr. Grahame-Smith’s version inadvertently demonstrates.  His zombies, like the war would have, somehow add gravity to a novel not intended to be grave.  Pride & Prejudice is at its heart a romantic comedy.  In Mr. Grahame-Smith’s book that is lost.  His Elizabeth Bennet is no longer bright and light heart-ed.  She, like the rest of the characters, has become preachy, sermonizing and in danger of taking herself waaay too seriously (much like the original Mary Bennet).  Take this enchanting little speech by Elizabeth to Mr. Collins after encountering zombies on their walk to Meryton.

…Elizabeth took the pipe from Mr. Collins’ mouth, blew on the glowing tobacco, and threw it over the side.

“That was a gift from her ladyship!” he cried, loud enough to draw the attention of the zombies below.  They looked up and let loose their terrible roars, which were cut short by a violent, fiery explosion as pipe and oil met.  Suddenly engulfed, the zombies staggered about, flailing wildly and screaming as they cooked.  Jane raised her Brown Bess, but Elizabeth pushed the barrel aside.

“Let them burn,” she said.  “Let them have a taste of eternity.”

Turning to her cousin, who had averted his eyes, she added, “You see, Mr. Collins…God has no mercy.  And neither must we.”

Though angered by her blasphemy, he thought better of saying anything on the matter, for he saw in Elizabeth’s eyes a kind of darkness, a kind of absence – as if her soul had taken leave, so that compassion and warmth could not interfere. (pg. 58)

So much for her fine eyes.

If the characters in a romantic comedy are not light & ridiculous then what’s the point?  I suppose there are the zombies and ninjas.

Um… about that…

Mr. Grahame-Smith never quite pulls it off.  His zombies and the Austen world never mesh.  They lack authenticity.   The book degenerates into a kind of Mad Libs where instead of random words “Unmentionable”, “ninja” and “the deadly arts” are inserted into the blanks.  Ultimately he isn’t in love with the material.  As a result he continuously misses the point, as well as the humor, and goes for the easy joke of introducing zombies and ninjas directly into the original prose.  But it’s only one joke.  One joke that gets old quickly when it’s stretched for 320 pages.

What to Do with Your Copy (instead of reading it):  Mix it in with some books on the guestroom nightstand.  Use it on your coffee table as a coaster.  Display it like the conversation piece which it is.

What to Read Instead:  I think I prefer my zombies in films and video games.