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Book Critics Diss and Dish

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I spent this St. Patrick’s Day and the following Friday at the New School in New York’s Lower West Side in the company of the National Book Critics Circle, a group of literati large and small, known and would-be known. Like 700 others, I’m a dues-paying member of the NBCC, an association dedicated to furthering fine literature. Each March, the NBCC gathers to present awards in general nonfiction, criticism, biography/autobiography, poetry, and fiction. The 2004 winners in those respective categories were Diarmaid MacCulloch’s “The Reformation: A History”; Patrick Neate’s “Where You’re At: Notes from the Frontline of a Hip-Hop Planet”; Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan’s “De Kooning: An American Master”; Adrienne Rich’s “The School Among the Ruins”; and Marilynne Robinson’s unusually long-gestating “Gilead.” You can see pictures of these books, along with some other candidates, on this entry.

Besides the awards – and selected readings by finalists – the event featured “Ax-Grinders, Score-Settlers and Pattycake: The Politics of Reviewing and The Reviewing of Politics,” a panel featuring Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review and as such, one of the country’s key cultural gate keepers; Rick Perlstein, author of “Before the Storm,” a book about the rise of the conservative movement in the ‘60s; Dennis Loy Johnson, editor and publisher of the blog mobylives.com and publisher of the Melville House Publishing; Jim Holt, a prominent science writer who writes for the Times, the New Yorker and Slate; and Liza Featherstone, author of “Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Worker’s Right at Wal-Mart.” Free-lance critic and NBCC board member Art Winslow moderated.

The key issue was whether book reviews are ideologically driven. The conclusion was they are, and that may be OK. Occasionally obscuring the discourse: the preening and stroking by the panelists, particularly Perlstein, who spent much of his opening statement telling Tanenhaus how wonderfully he has modernized the Times Book Review. Tanenhaus broadened the field by praising Steve Wasserman, the highly tailored editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, for raising the reviewing bar.

Tanenhaus also said that the Times Book Review is designed to be opinionated. “Rather than try to create this false, ‘objective’ middle ground,” he said, “we’ll cover the spectrum.” He cited his publication of Slate’s Michael Kinsley’s disemboweling of David Brooks’ specious “On Paradise Drive,” suggesting his section isn’t afraid to tread on a “colleague”: Brooks is the Times’s latest conservative columnist. “Our mantra at the Times is that books matter and the reviewer has to have something at stake,” said Tanenhaus, a ringer for ‘40s actor Van Heflin. He said he’s trying to publish reviews of all lengths in the Times, where pages actually have increased.

If only that were more generally the case. Johnson, citing recent cutbacks in space and budget for book reviews at the Orlando Sentinel (and, as is common knowledge, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Sun-Times and numerous other newspapers), suggested the blogosphere is the next growth area. But, he added, the writing in the blogosphere leaves much to be desired. Nevertheless, its growth and refinement will be spurred by writers alienated from the mainstream.

Johnson suggested that books still represent a cultural force. Richard Clarke’s “Against All Enemies” and “The Report of the 9/11 Commission” bookended a highly volatile political year, he said. In 2004, such books “drove the conversation,” and in late 2001, after the attacks of Sept. 11, the “book industry reflected the culture.”

Tanenhaus, too, cited the political situation, saying that the secrecy of the Bush administration has proved a bonanza for books, giving them new value. He also praised Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” (a NBCC award-winner) as the novel with the most to say about the ‘90s.

Featherstone, who also contributes to the Times and Rolling Stone, agreed that books are a cultural force. “TV is so stupid now,” she said. “Even public radio has been dumbed down.” It’s heartening when “Perfect Madness,” Judith Warner’s book about motherhood, generates huge media coverage, she said.

The discussion occasionally detoured into dicta, like Tanenhaus saying it’s “harder to write a good novel than to write a good non-fiction book,” and dispute. Philadelphia Inquirer Book Critic Carlin Romano’s suggestion that book editors match what they want reviewed with experts in the field met with disdain, largely because, as San Francisco Chronicle Book Editor Oscar Villalon said, experts can’t write. Like so much else in this stimulating panel discussion, that’s open to discussion.

Among the disappointments: Bob Dylan, a finalist in biography/autobiography for his “Chronicles, Vol. 1,” didn’t show, but that was to be expected. Among the surprises: a claim by John Freeman, a critic whose work seems to be published everywhere, that American fiction is inferior to continental (the LA Times’ Wasserman vigorously disputed that; I do, too).

Among my favorite readings and presentations: “Windfall,” an astonishing, mesmerizing poem by finalist Brigit Pegeen Kelly, who was up for her book, “The Orchard”; “Queen of Scots” author John Guy’s discourse on the biographical process; “Blue Blood” author Edward Conlon’s wonderfully expressive homage to the policeman’s career; and Patrick Neate’s disarming comments on his hip-hop book, both before the award and, particularly, when he won it. The other criticism candidates, spanning veterans Richard Howard and James Wood and relative newcomer Craig Seligman, seemed far more orthodox than British “bloke” Neate. Other than Neate, the criticism candidates also seemed in excessive thrall to the recently deceased Susan Sontag.

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  • John Freeman


    I think you misunderstood my point — I don’t believe that American fiction is inferior. I was simply pointing out to Johnson, who *did* argue it was a weak moment for American fiction, that believing that shouldn’t prevent you from expanding the circle of books you think might affect American life — from Orhan Pamuk’s “Snow” to say Monica Ali’s “Brick Lane.” I mean, we had books by Joy Williams, Annie Proulx, Philip Roth and Russell Banks last year for starters. Not bad.

    The bigger question I wanted to think about was how do we allow fiction the space to remain fantasy when it seems more and more that a novel has to Say Something Important About Right Now to be successful.


  • John, But is it possible for a novel to not say something important about right now? It hardly seems go, given that every book I’ve picked up lately tries. I’m not sure if that’s because authors have trouble leaving that out, or because publishers pick up on that, or if maybe it is the fault of we the readers, seeking out and spending money on the things which affirm our own views.

  • Nice roundup, Carlo, sounds like it was a good meeting — and I especially like what Tanenhaus said. Just recently I reviewed this really awful book for a newspaper, and the editor has apparently freaked out for good about running it when he heard from someone else that the book was actually good. It’s good to see an editors who aren’t neccessarily bound to conventional opinion.

    I do tend to lean toward Romano’s view about experts in the field reviewing (presumably non-fiction) books — I’d be interested, for example, in what Henry Kissinger might have to say about Jared Diamond, to cite only one expert who can write.

    Regarding Mr. Freeman’s remarks: it’s interesting that the novel of the year, Gilead, didn’t really Say Something Important About Right Now. Of course, I guess you can argue than any book is relevant at some level, but that one really went against the grain — this story of a dying preacher in the 1950s writing a letter to his son, pondering at length the nature of grace and forgiveness. The book has no little messages about George Bush or 9/11 or multi-culturalism; the thing that’s weird about it, more than anything else, is that it’s a great book that comes from a frankly devout point of view that is almost unthinkable among the literati. It’s a very lonely kind of book when you look at it in the sea of American fiction of the past twenty years; it’s the one novel I can think of that none of the other novels would much want to play with, which is what makes it such an exciting, bracing, unsettling read. There’s nothing else out there lately (in my experience anyway) like it. It’s a novel by a Christian that isn’t, thank God, “Christian fiction.”

  • Very cool, very interesting gathering and review, Carlo.

    Big Picture question: was there any discussion of literature versus genre fiction, or was concentration more on non-fiction and political writing?

    Random question on a small point: Is there a Lower West Side in Manhattan? I’ve never heard of that before. Are you sure you weren’t in the West Village? Is the New School located in the NYU buildings near Broadway and 4th St.? That’s pretty much the Village or NoHo then. Just some NYC semantics for you.

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Carlo, super report from live on the scene, much appreciated!