Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Book Sense Announces Best Books: The Best of Book Sense From the First 5 Years

Book Sense -- the campaign that embodies the passion, personality, character, community, and knowledge of independent bookstores -- announced today the Best Books: The Best of Book Sense From the First Five Years winning titles. The list is the result of voting by independent booksellers across the country, who cast ballots for the titles they most enjoyed handselling over the past five years.

"Independent booksellers, because of Book Sense, are once again being recognized as a vital way of identifying and connecting great books and passionate readers," noted ABA Vice President Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Coral Gables, Florida.

The Best Books ballot included 223 adult and 148 children's titles culled from the Book Sense 76 lists of the past five years, as well as any Book Sense Book of the Year winners not already included. The final list consists of 10 Adult fiction, 5 Adult Nonfiction, and 10 Children's titles:

Adult Fiction:

-- Atonement by Ian McEwan (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday)
-- Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (HarperPerennial)
-- The Da Vinci Code: A Novel by Dan Brown (Doubleday)
-- Empire Falls by Richard Russo (Knopf)
-- Life of Pi by Yann Martel (Harcourt)
-- The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (Little, Brown)
-- Peace Like a River by Leif Enger (Atlantic Monthly)
-- The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (HarperPerennial)
-- The Red Tent by Anita Diamant (Picador)
-- The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (Viking)

Adult Nonfiction:

-- Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson (Crown)
-- Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller (Random House)
-- Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser (HarperPerennial)
-- Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich (Metropolitan)
-- Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand (Ballantine)

Children's:

-- The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket (HarperTrophy)
-- Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick)
-- Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters From Obedience School by Mark Teague (Scholastic)
-- Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Harry Bliss (Joanna Cotler Books/HarperCollins)
-- Eragon Inheritance: Book 1 by Christopher Paolini (Knopf)
-- The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (Del Rey)
-- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein (Houghton Mifflin)
-- The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (HarperCollins)
-- Olivia by Ian Falconer (Atheneum)
-- The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares (Delacorte)

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

'The part I liked best was when...'
Amateur reviewers gain clout


By Renee Tawa
Tribune Newspapers: Los Angeles Times

April 6, 2004

In the courtship of Rebecca Johnson -- who's No. 4 on Amazon.com's list of top customer book reviewers -- publishers and authors are told upfront how to land a spot on her dance card: Don't send novels or unpublished manuscripts, and please no books that include violence, nudity or swearing.

Not if you want to bedazzle Johnson, who gets 40 to 60 free books a month, along with checklists from publishers asking her to mark the upcoming titles she's interested in receiving at no charge. Play along, and your shot at a rave review is far better than it would be with professional critics.

No one is saying that the Harold Blooms and Dale Pecks and other literati should be looking over their shoulders, but professional critics are no longer the only game in town. These days, as the Internet continues to reshape our notion of community, amateur critics are posting reviews across the cultural spectrum -- from film to books and more -- on discussion boards, blogs and other sites.

"It's all part of this culture we're now seeing where, `My opinion is just as valid as the guys at the L.A. Times,' " said Thomas Kunkel, dean of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism. "It may not be as informed or educated and is maybe wrongheaded, but there's no question that a reader has as much right to publish their own opinion."

Everyday readers also have a shot at building a potentially huge following of their own. On a mega-site such as Amazon, where amateur reviews are packaged with bells and whistles, the collective voice of the consumer sometimes is powerful enough to help sales soar or sputter. In fact, the opinions of people such as Johnson on Amazon and other sites are cutting into territory that once was the province of mainstream critics alone.

Johnson, 36, is a freelance writer from Yakima, Wash., with a master's in education. She is known for her relentlessly sunny reviews and once even provided a blurb on a book jacket; she'll send a book back to a publisher rather than write a bad review. In the realm of criticism, there's room for both Amazon reviewers, who weigh in with impunity, and the somber voices of professional critics, Johnson said.

"I tend to be able to analyze books really efficiently. Authors say I'm insightful and I have a gift for extracting the essence of a book," she said. "I feel like I'm part of the reviewing community."

Amazon readers provide early and almost instant signs of breakout success; writers tend to obsessively check up on their reviews and ranking.

Quirky small-press books, ones that rarely get any media attention, have a chance on Amazon, where readers love to hunt for and pluck out overlooked page-turners. In 1999, writer M.J. Rose landed a contract with Pocket Books after the publishing industry noticed the reader buzz on her self-published novel, "Lip Service."

And Amazon readers loved the offbeat, tender sensibility of Danny Gregory's "Everyday Matters," an illustrated memoir. The raves from customers, as well as blog readers, "definitely affected sales" following the book's release in January, said Katharine Myers, spokeswoman for the Princeton Architectural Press, the book's publisher.

By the same token, first-time novelist Allison Burnett watched his book ranking plummet last year after Amazon readers suddenly began panning "Christopher." Until then, the book consistently had received five-star ratings, the highest rank, and good press. Burnett, like many authors, regularly was checking his rankings and reviews. He began to notice a pattern in the anonymous, negative postings, which often used the same words or phrases. After complaining to Amazon about what appeared to be a coordinated attack, the posts were removed. But sales never fully recovered.

Flame campaigns notwithstanding, reader reviews on Amazon are "so much purer," said Caroline Leavitt, a book columnist for The Boston Globe. "They're really from the heart. It'll be, `Oh, I stayed up all night,' or `This is a piece of garbage.' It's a true response."

Leavitt, author of eight novels, including "Girls in Trouble," takes in both professional and amateur criticism. "I absolutely want and prize and love and revere every single media review I get, but if I got 50 reviews from major newspapers and one review from Amazon, I still would feel a little weird: `What's going on? Why aren't people responding?'"

A backlash

The site's customer feedback is taken so seriously by readers, writers and publishers that a recent glitch on the company's Canadian Web site triggered a backlash against the entire reviewing system and made headlines around the world. (The site accidentally revealed the names of anonymous reviewers who, in some cases, raved about their own books or those of friends.)

In a backhanded compliment to Amazon, Kunkel, the University of Maryland professor, noted that "authors wouldn't be forging reviews if they didn't think it would be doing some good."

Lack of credibility

By the same token, customer reviewers don't have the credibility of book critics at mainstream publications, said Kunkel, who is president of the American Journalism Review. "You have no real guarantee that the person is bringing any kind of knowledge or expertise to his opinion."

Since its launch in July 1995, Amazon has spun itself as a cyber-community, fueled by the notion of we-are-the-world democracy. Following its lead, other booksellers, such as Barnes & Noble, also post reader reviews, as do sites for book fans such as www.readerville.com and www.bookreporter.com.

Publishers are beginning to solicit reader opinions as well. Simon & Schuster posts both signed and anonymous comments on its books. Bantam Dell, a division of Random House, sponsors a regular contest in which randomly selected entrants receive an advance copy of a book. The winners' reviews are posted online.

In October, HarperCollins began a monthly contest called First Look, which offers readers the chance to receive and critique books before publication. "We thought there were probably a lot of people out there who want to get involved, who want to feel like they're participating rather than simply going out there and buying the book," said Andy Khazaei, the publisher's senior vice president of electronic media.

Excerpts from the reviews, edited for "clarity and accuracy," are posted on the publisher's Web site alongside blurbs from media critics. So far, it's hard to tell whether the reader reviews are influencing sales, Khazaei said, but "there were a couple of instances where I thought, `Wow, these reviews are saying this, maybe we should reconsider how we position a title.'"

Status differential

The fact that amateur reviewers are on publishers' mailing lists doesn't necessarily give them more credibility, said Laura Miller, a book columnist for The New York Times Book Review and a book critic at Salon.com.

"There have been so many cutbacks on coverage of books in the mainstream press, they're probably desperate for any coverage they can get," Miller said. "Ask an author, would they rather have positive reviews on Amazon or a positive review in The New York Times Book Review. The status is not the same."

Yet writer Beth Lordan took to heart the HarperCollins winners' opinions on her new novel, "But Come Ye Back." She listens to professional critics, but "I wanted to know from readers who aren't doing literary analysis: Does the story itself hold? Do you care about the characters?

"I was literally in tears that all these people in the middle of regular, ordinary, demanding lives took the time to read the book and respond to the characters and then say so. And they said, `This is a good story.' It's not about networking, or you give me a good review, and I'll give you a good review. It leaves all the parts that are a little bit tainted out of the mix."

Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune | 'The part I liked best was when...'

Crass Act

A dirty book is back in print with a timely reminder of how decades before Jayson Blair, 25 ‘distinguished’ journalists once hoaxed the publishing world.

by Tim Appelo
From a humble, one-room schoolhouse in Lilliwaup, Wash., on Hood Canal, Mike McGrady attained the very pinnacle of the writing profession by aiming for the pits, giggling all the way. Today, he’s a retired newsman living in his hometown, who just finished a book about an actual opera singer turned double agent during the Cold War. But McGrady’s real fame came from a book that was fiction with a vengeance. In 1966, appalled by the best sellers of Jacqueline Susann and others, he challenged his colleagues at Newsday, where he was a distinguished editor and writer, to perpetrate a book so mindlessly crass it could not fail. “There will be an unremitting emphasis on sex,” he warned. “Also, true excellence in writing will be quickly blue-penciled into oblivion.”

Though his Newsday publisher, Bill Moyers, refused to write a roman-√†- clef chapter about his sexy ex-boss, Lyndon Johnson (who once boasted, “Ah had more women by accident than JFK had on purpose!”), two dozen Newsday men and women rose (or sank) to the occasion. Using the pseudonym Penelope Ashe, an imaginary “demure Long Island housewife,” they cranked out a chapter apiece of what became Naked Came the Stranger, a fiction rife with ice cubes applied to prostates and couples flagrante delicto at the Throgs Neck Bridge tollbooth.

Published in 1969, the book was a sensation, selling an estimated several million copies. (Gonzo publisher Lyle Stuart is an eccentric who refuses to divulge sales figures.) This January, the book was reissued in paper (Barricade Books, $12), offering new readers a chance to acquaint themselves with its satiric smut. Stuart—the publisher of the original and the reissue— remains coy about its dollar gross: Up to $1.2 million (in today’s dollars) was subsequently split 25 ways. The contributors missed out on the bigger money in film and paperback revenues. “We signed the worst contract in world history,” says McGrady. Still, the wage wasn’t bad. “If you did one hour’s work, it was very good pay.”

More important, they made shit-lit history. “It was on The New York Times best-seller list for 25 weeks or so,” says Stuart. “[It] probably got as much publicity as any book I ever knew.” Partly, it was the sex: Few books had any back then, and America’s airwaves were yet to inundate the citizenry with images of nipples and naughty talk. In 1969, everybody was suddenly starting to have sex like crazy, and the news was bound to escape into print any minute.

Naked happened at the right minute. Though the book’s sexual adventures were invented, Billie Cook, the sexy young Jacqueline Susann look-alike hired to pretend to be author Ashe, said its faux revelations sounded much like what she’d heard when she worked for a maid service. The book’s sales were partly the result of the same sort of lascivious curiosity that made The Nanny Diaries hot more recently. Naked wasn’t so much erotic as deliciously indiscreet.

Then, the paperback sales (and revenues) swelled even higher when glamorous Ashe was exposed as a hoax by a couple dozen grubby newshounds. The news media went berserk. McGrady juggled his fellow journalists more vigorously and skillfully than the book’s heroine did her numerous boxer, doctor, gangster, and rabbi inamoratas. “He kept promising everybody an exclusive,” cackles Stuart. “Newspapers were calling from all over the world. Walter Cronkite flew out in a helicopter to do interviews. You couldn’t spin the dial without seeing or hearing one of the 25 authors.”

The timing was right for a more melancholy reason, too. “It was the tenor of the times,” says McGrady. “Vietnam was being drummed into us every day.”

Everybody went on to greater things than Naked—not that anything wouldn’t constitute a step up. Contributor George Vecsey wrote Coal Miner’s Daughter and 18 other books, then became a top New York Times sports reporter. “He wrote my favorite chapter, because it was fairly clean—the one chapter I didn’t have to apologize to my mother about,” recalls McGrady. Despite his unsullied pen, Bill Moyers lost his Newsday job in large measure because of the Naked hoax. “I wrote Bill a note saying, ‘Gee, I’m really sorry to have been responsible for your leaving Newsday, but it’s the best thing that ever happened to you, because you got into television!’ It made his life.”

McGrady went on to write A Dove in Vietnam, a book serialized in The Seattle Times and many other papers, which sold “like, 23 copies.” He later penned two books about Linda Lovelace, the porn actress whose Deep Throat could be seen as a successor to Naked in the nation’s cultural/sexual history. These books told of the monstrous ordeal Lovelace endured on the dark side of the sexual revolution he had earlier lampooned.

McGrady’s favorite of his own books, though, is the out-of-print 1970 Stranger Than Naked, or How to Write Dirty Books for Fun & Profit. It’s the story of the making of the Penelope Ashe book and a much better read than Penelope’s. It’s also been optioned by Working Title, the British outfit behind comic adapt­ations including About a Boy and Bridget Jones’s Diary.

It’s ironic that such a notorious publishing hoax should be affectionately reissued at a time when journalism is consumed with self-recrimination over the exploits of Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and Jack Kelley. Yet Naked was confabulated in a spirit much different from today’s hoax- artists: Those ’60s pranksters were not looking to advance their own careers by duping their editors with too-good-to-be-true copy; they were simply trying to spoof the world of crap novels by out-crapping them—and they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

McGrady doubts a book like Naked would ever create such a sensation today. “People [then] knew they could go out and buy something that was sorta forbidden fruit. Now what’s forbidden?” We lack the sexual ignorance that made the Naked authors’ fantasies so delightfully absurd. Every college-newspaper sex columnist knows more about erotica than married reporters did in 1969. Carl Hiaasen, Dave Barry, Elmore Leonard, and company tried to reprise the satiric orgy in 1996’s Naked Came the Manatee, but it sank like a stone off the coast of South Florida. Reading Naked today, we can all sensuously drift back to a time when concupiscence was still big news, boozing reporters ran the newsroom, and a nonexistent yet demure Long Island housewife stepped out of her housedress and flashed a more innocent America.


Seattle Weekly: Arts: Crass Act by Tim Appelo

Monday, April 05, 2004

Volunteers keep Burns bookstore open
Without help, The Book Parlor would have been shuttered for a month after its owner broke her leg

04/05/04

RICHARD COCKLE

BURNS -- When a badly broken leg laid up Janice Morefield a while back, folks in this isolated high-desert town faced the dreary prospect of life without her little bookstore.

So the townspeople of Burns, population 3,000, decided to run it for her.

Thirteen volunteers have kept The Book Parlor operating for almost two months since Morefield, 47, slipped in an icy parking lot Feb. 4 while getting milk for the store's espresso machine.

"I would have been closed at least a month, for sure," a grateful Morefield says. "There were a lot of people that stepped forward."

After surgery in Bend for a spiral fracture to her right leg, she was ordered off the injured limb until it healed. Even before she left the hospital, people were offering to help.

"A good bookstore is a real luxury in a small town," says Laurie O'Connor, 50, who lives on the Double O Ranch near Burns and organized the volunteers. "It's a little spot of civilization in the middle of the desert."

Another volunteer, Claire Larson, 50, who mushes sled dogs for fun, says The Book Parlor has become an essential place for coffee and conversation. Everybody worried that Morefield might have to permanently close if she was out too long, she says.

"This is a business we really wanted to see continue in this community," Larson says. "How do you keep a store closed that long? How do you pay the bills? Some people were coming in and saying, 'Maybe we will buy our Christmas presents now.' "

The Book Parlor closed the day of Morefield's accident and the next day. But by Feb. 6, it was operating on a half-day schedule, says Morefield, who has run it for 21/2 years. Volunteers did most of the work, sometimes assisted by Morefield's husband, Steve , 49, son Brett , 17, and daughter, Kelee , 13.

The toughest part was learning to operate the Italian espresso machine that contributed to Morefield's accident, O'Connor says.

"Everybody would recoil with the thought of blowing up the whole place with the backlog of espresso pressure," she says.

Another difficulty: special orders for books that Morefield didn't have in stock. The problem was solved when The Book Parlor's former owners, Tracee McGee and Ramona Bishop showed volunteers how to do it, O'Connor says.

The Book Parlor's biggest trade is in children's books, followed by Oregon history, fiction and -- this time of year -- books for bird-watchers, Morefield says.

"I do sell quite a few of the political types of books for an Eastern Oregon town," she says.

Among the big sellers: former first lady Hillary Clinton's autobiography and liberal humorist Al Franken's tome ribbing conservatives.

Sales dropped after the accident, something Morefield attributed to the half-day schedule and the fact that February and March traditionally are slow months.

Morefield returned to work part time March 29. She says the outpouring of help is typical of people in Burns.

"People come together here," she says. "They are stretched thin, and they just keep giving."

Copyright 2004 Oregon Live. All Rights Reserved.
Volunteers keep Burns bookstore open

True to Nancy Drew
Call them the clued-in crowd: The girl sleuth's perennial appeal is no mystery to her fans, both kids and adults, many of whom gathered at a New Orleans convention last week to talk about all things Nancy Drew.

Monday April 05, 2004

By Barri Bronston
Staff writer

When Patty Kravets and her 9-year-old daughter, Ellie, learned that a Nancy Drew convention was coming to town last month, they immediately put it on their calendar.

As a child, Kravets devoured the books in the Nancy Drew mystery series, and now Ellie, a third grader at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, was exhibiting that same devotion to the teen-age detective.

"This is a kid who goes through Nancy Drew like candy," Kravets said. "If she's into a book, she'll get up at 5:30 or 6 in the morning because she wants to finish the story."

With their curiosity getting the best of them, they headed to the Chateau LeMoyne Hotel, where Nancy Drew buffs -- actually, fanatics -- were discussing everything from where they could buy collectible Nancy Drew paraphernalia to the history of River Heights, the fictional town where the mysteries are set.

Members of the fan club Nancy Drew Sleuths, they also opined on the all-new series, a collection of four books that gives Nancy a whole new look, attitude and vehicle. Instead of the blue Mustang convertible she drove in newer books of the original series, she now drives an environmentally friendly but still blue electric hybrid car. She is still in her teens but all done with high school. And she uses computers to solve mysteries, from finding a missing Fabergé egg in "Without a Trace" to discovering who kidnapped the daughter of a mayoral candidate in "False Notes."

Representatives of Simon & Schuster, publisher of the new series, were on hand at the convention to plug the books and answer questions. Not to her mother's surprise, Ellie had one:

"Why did you feel the need to change it?" she asked. "I really like it the way it is."

The publisher's representatives weren't completely shocked by the question. The books have enjoyed immense popularity since they were first published in the 1930s, with more than 200 million copies sold in 17 languages.

Although the books, written under the pen name Carolyn Keene, have undergone updates and revisions over the years, publishers felt the series needed a major overhaul if it were to compete with the likes of Harry Potter and Mary Kate and Ashley.

"We wanted to preserve the wholesomeness of Nancy Drew and the things that have kept her popular, but we wanted to update it for today's 'tween' readers in an effort to expand the reader base," said Jennifer Zatorski, senior publicist of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing.

Besides giving Nancy eco-friendly wheels and a computer, she was also given a voice. The new books are written in the first person, so that readers know what Nancy is thinking as well as what she is saying.

"My name is Nancy Drew," says the first line of the first new book, "Without a Trace." "My friends tell me I'm always looking for trouble, but that's not really true. It just seems to have a way of finding me."

Nancy's friend Bess is still ultra-feminine but she has a natural ability to make and repair things. Her tomboy friend George has a knack for finding useful information on the Internet, and she can even do some hacking if necessary.

"There is also a lot more information about River Heights," Zatorski said. "In the old books, it's a setting, but the new series gives more information on the history of the town and why all the mayhem and crime happens there."

Although Nancy Drew devotees Tricia Boh and Camille Seyler, sixth graders at St. George's Episcopal School, have not read the new series, both are eager to learn more about the characters and the town.

"You know it's going to be good," Tricia said. "Nancy Drew has that spunk. She's ready for anything."

That doesn't mean Tricia won't continue reading the old series, which numbers 175 books, including such classics as "The Secret of the Old Clock" and her favorite, "The Mystery of the Ivory Charm."

Both Tricia and Camille were introduced to Nancy Drew by their mothers, who read Nancy Drew mysteries as young girls, and both are hopeful that the new books will maintain the series' high level of suspense and intrigue.

"I like that you never know if the mysteries are going to be solved," Camille said, "although you know that in the end all the loose ends will be tied up."

Jennifer Fisher, a Nancy Drew historian and national president of The Nancy Drew Sleuths, is always thrilled to hear young girls -- and boys -- talk about their fascination with the books.

As an adult, she not only continues to read the books but she also organizes sleuth gatherings and runs the sleuth Web site (www.nancydrewsleuth.com), which features Nancy Drew trivia, tips for collectors and sellers, analyses of plots and themes and links to other Nancy Drew sites.

Although she was initially skeptical at the thought of a new series, she said, she read each one and is sure that today's generation of young readers will be pleased.

"It's a re-energization of the whole series," she said. "The writing style is much richer and you get more of a sense as to who these people are. It opens up Nancy's personality, and you get a sense of how she's feeling."

Nancy's future seems solid, with Simon & Schuster planning to publish six books a year, including two more this summer. The Nancy Drew name is already licensed for merchandising, including loungewear, video games and backpacks, and a new Nancy Drew movie is in the development stages at Warner Bros.

Clad in Nancy Drew pajamas, Stacey Johnson of Gumshoe Girls is among those capitalizing on the Nancy Drew revival. She manufactures such merchandise as tote bags, business card holders and T-shirts. The items feature various quips and images of Nancy from earlier books.

Johnson and her sister Kim Dahlquist got the idea for the merchandise after uncovering a box of old Nancy Drew books in the attic of her childhood home.

"I was such a Nancy Drew reader," she said. "I wanted to be a detective. And I wanted to be Nancy Drew. I remember all those feelings of empowerment she gave me."

Johnson didn't become a detective, but her business has certainly kept her close to the heroine of her youth. Members of The Nancy Drew Sleuths aren't detectives either, but they, too, have enjoyed the relationship they've maintained with their favorite female sleuth.

"We never grew up," said member Sharon Reid Harris of St. Louis, who is working on a Nancy Drew encyclopedia. "I've read the books from the time I was a child, and I've never stopped."



True to Nancy Drew

Critical Condition
Reading, Writing and Reviewing:
An Old-Schooler Looks Back

by Sven Birkerts

For years, in one capacity or another—as fledgling comp instructor, as seminar auditor, then as editor of a literary journal partly quartered there—I mounted the front steps of the Boston University building at the end of Bay State Road, and as I did I never once failed to glance at the big red sign on the facade to my right identifying the place as home to the Partisan Review. Time-lapse clips would show me getting conspicuously older as the institutional masonry remains imperturbably unchanged, but for all that steady aging, my associations with that name still feel fresh.

First, going way back—even though this was no longer the Partisan of its great decades (the journal came to BU in 1978)—I had a strong residue of provincial awe and often thought as I pushed open the building door that I was in live proximity to something legendary. Most readers will not need to be lectured here on the glory days of what was for so long America's premier intellectual/arts journal, home to writers and thinkers well known enough to be listed by their last names: Baldwin, Bellow, Howe, Silone, Jarrell, Orwell, Sontag, McCarthy, Trilling, MacDonald. But by the '80s, Partisan, like the literary culture, had long since declined from those heights. Still, the aura clung, and though it grew fainter as the years passed, as the journal seemed to lose its purchase on the culture, it never quite disappeared. I always felt a residual twinge, a surge of complicated emotion, whenever my eye landed on that sign. And then it happened. One day last year my glance slipped sideways, like a heel on ice, and I saw that it was gone. This is how realization sometimes comes. Though I already knew that Partisan had officially disbanded a few months before, it was only when the maintenance people finally came with their tools that I got it.

And now the retinal afterimage of that sign lingers and the implications haunt. The fate of Partisan Review signifies in a larger way. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more clearly I see that any substantive discussion of criticism in our day has to take in the whole systemic ecology of things, by which I mean the connections among writers, publishers, and readers, not to mention the vast influence systems of academia on the one hand and entertainment media on the other. As a working reviewer, I am aware of these considerations every time I pick up my pen to write—they have everything to do with the way books are read, discussed, and written about. And they have changed a great deal over time. If I begin by invoking the Partisan Review, it's because I see it both as an emblem of the kind of intellectual/cultural cohesion that was once possible and as a clear reminder that, as Robert Frost wrote, "nothing gold can stay." Partisan Review failed in part because it couldn't acknowledge that our intellectual and artistic needs—our cultural situation—had changed. Its venerability guaranteed nothing.

Anyone who reads books and book journalism knows that the big ruckus in the sideshow tents the past few seasons has had to do with negative reviewing, the worst examples of which were christened "snark" in a widely discussed essay ("Rejoice! Believe! Be Strong and Read Hard!") in the inaugural issue of the new journal The Believer, by its editor, Heidi Julavits. The precipitating event—and one hates to give it any more ink than it has already got—was an aggressively attention-grabbing review in the New Republic by Dale Peck of Rick Moody's memoir, The Black Veil. There have been other attack reviews elsewhere, of course—by Colson Whitehead, Lee Siegel, Walter Kirn, James Fenton, and others—but this one got everyone going. Doubtless goaded on by the magazine's literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, who has for years enjoyed the sport of corrective deflations, Peck took Moody's book as the occasion for a gloves-off pummeling, going after the writer's whole career, taking in everything from his metaphors to his imputed motivations. "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation": So wrote Peck, and the relieved sighs from a hundred thousand epigones rustled whole forests.

Taken to task by readers, critics, and other writers, as of course he knew he would be, Peck insisted not only that he was defending the sacred honor of Literature but that he was flaying Moody for the author's own good—because he had betrayed his considerable gift. I found myself recalling Norman Mailer's similar feints in his notorious 1959 essay "Evaluations—Quick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room." He, too, rationalized his sadistic eviscerations—of rival novelists James Jones, James Baldwin, and others—by insisting that it was the deeper genius of their prose he was policing. A good trick, that, holding fast to the moral high ground even while twisting the blade for maximal damage.

Though Peck was hardly the first mudslinger in the annals of reviewing, his piece became a headline event in literary circles, evidence, for those who needed it, that we have, along with the Brits (who have their own Dale Peck contretemps in Tibor Fischer's gob-lofting review of Martin Amis's latest novel, Yellow Dog), entered the dark ages. Heather Caldwell promptly covered the Peck-Moody controversy for the Salon website, where the outraged parties shared equal time with the indefatigable optimists, who opined, as they always do, that all the fuss just proved that people still cared to argue about books and that this could only be good for the cause of literature. "Like it or not," Caldwell wrote, "Peck's down-flung gauntlet has the literati talking about such larger questions as: What makes for good criticism? Is the literary world too polite and clubby? And finally, what is the effect of this kind of skirmish on literary culture at large?"

After Caldwell came Julavits's lengthy essay asserting her belief that literature has "an intrinsic worth" and calling for "fairness and rigor when assessing the success or failure of an author's project." Julavits was, in turn, countered in the op-ed pages of the New York Times by Clive James, who concluded by saying: "When you say a man writes badly, you are trying to hurt him. When you say it in words better than his, you have succeeded. It would be better to admit this fact, and admit that all adverse reviews are snarks to some degree, than to indulge the sentimental wish that malice might be debarred from the literary world. The literary world is where it belongs. . . . Civilization tames human passions, but it can't eliminate them. Hunt the snark and you will find it everywhere."

Then, in October of last year, James Atlas published "The Takedown Artist," his lengthy profile of Peck in the New York Times Magazine. Peck was, tellingly enough, posed in both photos with a hatchet. The second, smaller picture had him lowering the blade with contorted echt-samurai expression upon a stack of books. Full victim identification was not possible, but my skilled bookman's eye saw the name "Charles Dickens" prominent on the top spine and made out Don DeLillo's Underworld, John Barth's Giles Goat Boy, and what looked alarmingly like my own distinctively jacketed memoir on the bottom of the stack. I'm being disingenuous here. I knew damn well it was my book, knew it because after opening with the inevitable quotation about Moody, Atlas segued right to a somewhat less arresting but similarly assaultive quote about me. So, yes, here I need to show my cards. Atlas's profile quoted at some length an unpublished (because "axed") piece Peck had written about me for the New Republic. (I have learned from the Atlas article that "The Man Who Would Be Sven" will be available as a chapter in Peck's forthcoming collection Hatchet Jobs, but I have not seen it.) And if the fact of being attacked for reasons as yet unspecified skews some of the assertions in this piece (how could it not?), the reader is invited to make the compensating adjustment.

The distressing thing about Atlas's piece, apart from the fact that I naturally took the sting of Peck's assessment of my enterprise, was Atlas's broadcast assumption that literary culture, like celebrity culture, is now mainly sensationalistic, that readers are irresistibly drawn to carny-barker strategies and that the ethos of "buzz" governs the reviewing world almost to the exclusion of the more pedestrian business of consideration and evaluation. Opening with his barrage of incendiary extracts, Atlas caught the reader by the lapels: "You're curious, right? . . . You want to read more." And this is the essential tone of the article and, more or less, the sum of its contents.

Did the profile itself have its intended effect? Did it capture my attention? I daresay it did, yes. But what it prompted, after the initial fantasies of rejoinder had played themselves out, was—inevitably, perhaps—a very personal reassessment of the whole vocation. I had to ask myself: Is this the world I know? Have we really fallen thus? Is our newspaper of record—its magazine—really commissioning and printing photos of books of Dickens (and others) on the chopping block? I wished perversely that I'd been there to watch the shoot being set up.

Oddly, maybe appropriately, just as I was asking these sorts of questions the whole Stephen King dustup began. The National Book Foundation had decided to award its annual gold medal for distinguished literary achievement to the master of the horrific-premise novel. Was this not a betrayal of its lofty symbolic office? Fiction-award winner Shirley Hazzard thought so and suggested as much in her acceptance speech (Hazzard was later photographed politely admiring King's medal). The argument, before and after, followed the predictable paths, the indefatigable optimists opining, as they always do, that all the fuss just proved that people still cared about books and that this could only be good for the cause of literature. Of course, everyone knew that the whole point of the awarding was to generate publicity and excitement for an event (and a cause) widely perceived to be in need of both. My heart sank for the second time in as many weeks. Was this indeed a trend? Was Atlas right?

I do the computation and realize with a shock that I published my first critical piece exactly twenty-five years ago, a long review-essay on Robert Musil. My choice of subject matter says a great deal to me, about my aspirations starting out, as well as about my faith in the "serious." Literature was a capitalized noun, and there was nothing more important, apart from creating the stuff itself, than writing about it.

This was in 1979. I was twenty-eight years old, a veteran not of graduate schools but of bookstores. As a self-directed reader, I had my own syllabus of critics, and it was strongly weighted toward the belle-lettristic essayists, including, on the one hand, writers like Edmund Wilson, George Steiner, Susan Sontag, Walter Benjamin, Cyril Connolly, Erich Heller, Guy Davenport, and Hugh Kenner, and, on the other, the various writers orbiting around the Partisan Review, including the aforementioned Howe, Trilling, Bellow, and MacDonald, as well as Randall Jarrell and Delmore Schwartz.

I was not plucking these names and reputations from nowhere. They were, many of them, presences in the air. Working in bookstores, first in Ann Arbor, then in Boston and Cambridge, I was positioned to see exactly who was reading what. I felt I knew month to month just how many atmospheres of pressure Benjamin or Howe or Sontag exerted, and I read and aspired accordingly. I am not at all surprised now, looking back, to see that my Musil essay is a stir-fry of Sontag and Steiner, with a liberal garnish of Heller—very earnest, very humanist, very European looking.

I don't think it was just me. I moved about in a whole circle of the like-minded. These were serious times, with the governing taste set by eminences from abroad. The New York Review of Books was like a marquee for this imported sensibility, regularly featuring essays by Czeslaw Milosz, Joseph Brodsky, and Isaiah Berlin, to name just a few. Sontag was writing the essays that would be gathered in Under the Sign of Saturn—a ruminative celebration of European sensibility. In my mind these writers were carrying on the Partisan line, taking their place at table with Orwell, Silone, Chiaramonte. The journals were then hospitable to these perspectives, and as a reviewer just breaking in, I found it fairly easy to approach editors at The Nation, the New Republic, as well as, say, the Boston Phoenix or Boston Review, with ideas for longer review essays on subjects like Thomas Bernhard, Robert Walser, and Max Frisch.

But climates and scenes are changeful. Perched behind the counter at the Harvard Book Store, where I worked for five years—into the mid-'80s—I became aware of what would soon be known as just "theory" encroaching like a frontal system. I noticed how the grad student intellectuals were turning from the familiar humanist syllabus, coming up to the register now with books by Derrida, de Man, Barthes, and Cixous. The tonality of things seemed to be getting perceptibly cooler. But to me the drift away from traditional belle-lettristic approaches did not seem especially alarming at first. If anything, there was the feeling that there was something almost sacerdotal going on in the upper strata of the literary, and this could only be to the good.

In retrospect—years later—I began to think the reverse may have been true, at least from the perspective of the practicing reviewer. The explosion of theory in academia, so invigorating in the beginning, had the effect in the long run of depreciating the merely literary and making the profession of any old-style humanism seem a hopelessly rearguard, conservative practice. In front of the work was always the idea of the work, the ism that framed it and made discussion possible. Essays in cutting-edge academic journals like Representations, Critical Inquiry, and Semiotext(e) grew cleverly opaque, or opaquely clever, and while reviewing of the sort I did continued on and literary essays got published, things began to feel—to use a then-current expression—"destabilized." Educated academics, mainstay readers and writers of the former literary order (which included, in my mind, the now-faltering Partisan Review), were fleeing the old mainstream for their respective academic niches. Deconstruction and post-structuralist discourses carried the day. Fewer and fewer thinking critics were willing to be spotted wearing generalist garb.

This business—of confidence, of tonality, of voice—requires comment, even though it's also true that nothing is harder to pinpoint. The colonization of literary discourse by theory, with its implicit unmasking of assumptions and positions of vantage, had all manner of consequences, but the most telling of these was, as I suggest, climatological. The widely publicized (and, in a sense, necessary) suspicion of ideologies and the incessant questioning of the "natural" sign made it singularly difficult to venture straight literary judgments. The supreme narrative confidence of, say, an Edmund Wilson, whose trust in common sense and linguistic adequacy was his bedrock, became harder to sustain.

Consider the squared-off diction of the opening sentence of Wilson's 1925 review of a work by Mencken: "H.L. Mencken's Notes on Democracy adds nothing that is new to his political philosophy: its basic ideas are precisely those which he has been preaching for many years and which already appear in his book on Nietzsche, published in 1908." This is the plain style, long the dominant voice of American criticism, and we hear it not only in Wilson throughout his long career but in Eliot, in Howe, and with adjustments and qualifications in Trilling and the Partisan critics. But while it has not died out completely, this steady assertion of judgment—Gore Vidal remains a living exemplar—the tonality has become almost impossible to generate, much less sustain, in the wake of the poststructuralist decentering.

The natural, obvious default has been the ironic mode, which from the threshold evades the danger of straightforward declaration, the most exposed of all positions. More and more we encounter a cunningly preemptive tonality. Here is Michiko Kakutani reviewing a recent novel by Nicholson Baker: "Remember that American Express commercial a few years back," she begins, "in which Jerry Seinfeld demonstrated his 'perfect pump' technique by making the self-serve pump stop exactly on the dollar?"

The reviewer is winking at her audience, creating her analogy from the democratic realm of popular culture; she will not be caught out insisting on anything that smacks of an absolute standard or posture of judgment. We have moved in these two samples from the modern to the postmodern.

Such a comparison is, of course, rigged. With a bit of creative research one can find instances for anything, and I'm sure that I could easily enough turn up some flip whimsy from the earlier period and counter it with a reasoned pronouncement from a categorically grounded critic like James Wood. But the tendency is there to be mapped, and I'll stand by it. I'll argue, as well, that where there is ironic discourse, snark cannot be far behind. Snark—seemingly gratuitous negativity—is where the ironist goes when evasions begin to cloy.

My whole argument, I recognize, depends on a reading of the big picture; it generalizes. Needless to say, it is extremely difficult to calculate how a large-scale shift or trend modifies what had been the status quo, the more so as there are usually a number of such shifts taking place at once. The rise and spread of theory was just one development. Lest we forget, there was also the society-wide advent of personal computers and the first self-trumpeting wave of digital culture. Do we even recall how suddenly all that happened, and how much the concept—the paradigm-shifting certainty—of it all impinged on everything we did? The binary worldview of the structuralists seemed to have propagated, become the zeros and ones that were the basis of the new communications systems. Literature, so tethered to its tradition of concrete representation, suddenly took on the patina of the antique, as if narrative belonged to the old dispensation.

Other forces supervened as well. In the all-important commercial sector, we began to see during this same period the fiercely waged corporatization of the publishing industry and the rapid transformation of bookselling by the tentacular exertions of superstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders. And, of course, it was digitization that made the massification of a formerly eccentric retail niche possible.

But for me these were all big transformations happening in the background. At ground level, trying to make my way as a reviewer, I noticed more immediate, specific consequences. For one thing, it seemed to be getting harder to work in the old review-essay track. Straight-on discussion of books felt increasingly outmoded, even as magazines like Harper's and the New York Review of Books exerted themselves to keep the critical tradition alive. Not only were there fewer venues to publish in, but there were also noticeably fewer literary books being published by the major trade houses. Though it's true that editors are always grumbling about the state of things, the grumbles were now louder and more widespread. The great shell game of book editors disappearing from one house and reappearing in another had begun, filling already anxious authors with dread.

This was the beginning of Andrew Wylie's reign in the world of agenting, the glorification of greed that in spirit owed more to Boesky than Brodsky. Huge German corporations like Bertelsmann and Holtzbrinck were picking up publishing houses like jacks. Very clearly it was an industry in flux, and when I went around to my usual bookstore haunts—I had by this point traded up from bookselling to teaching—I saw from what was displayed and stocked, from the obvious emphasis placed on moving quantities of "big" books, that what I had for so long believed was a kind of constant, a kind of water table, was in fact a tide that had peaked and was now ebbing.

And isn't this how change announces itself—through complex adjustments in a whole series of linked spheres: less of one thing, more of another? With the perceived diminution of the literary comes the more widely registered assumption about what matters. There were self-fulfilling prophecies and feedback loops. I realized that I had got in just in time. In 1987 I'd assembled a book of my pieces on various lesser-known, mainly European writers and had been very lucky to find a major trade publisher. Now, only a few years later, the same book would have been much harder—maybe impossible—to place.

By the mid-'90s, it was obvious to many people that the rules of the literary game had been rewritten. Corporate conglomeration in the publishing world (addressed by Andre Schiffrin in The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took over Publishing and Shaped the Way We Read) ushered in the era of the blockbuster. Editors began to pay out succulent advances for "sexy" books like Mary Karr's The Liar's Club and Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted, while midlist writers went begging, many then shifting to small presses. No question, the prestige of the merely literary was depreciated—a harder sell in the trade marketplace—and the reviewing culture naturally reflected the change. Meghan O'Rourke's recent contention in Slate that John Leonard's tenure at the New York Times Book Review, from 1971 to 1975, was a kind of golden age assigned more importance to sensibility than cents and salability. If anything wags the dog, it's the profit-and-loss statement.

And this is more or less where we find ourselves now. Psychologically it is a landscape subtly demoralized by the slash-and-burn of bottom-line economics; the modernist/humanist assumption of art and social criticism marching forward, leading the way, has not recovered from the wholesale flight of academia into theory; the publishing world remains tyrannized in acquisition, marketing, and sales by the mentality of the blockbuster; the confident authority of print journalism has been challenged by the proliferation of online alternatives.

Even more debilitating, if harder to locate, I think, is the widely perceived loss of center, of the momentum that arises either through adversarial necessity or the emergence of the new. Or both. Partisan Review, in its glory days, rallied the best writers around the twin mission of opposing Stalinist ideology and defining and promoting modernism. It drew great energy, moreover, from another historical circumstance: the generation of American Jewish intellectuals separating itself from the world of the fathers. What a talent pool Partisan Review had to draw on—alongside the powerhouse polemicists and essayists were fiction writers like Roth, Bellow, and Malamud.

Similarly, the kinetic upstart journalism of the '60s and '70s was significantly powered by the broadly prosecuted opposition to the Vietnam War and the vigorous emergence of the ethos or style of what we now call the New Journalism. Again, the fusion of the literary/cultural with the socially active boosted the prestige of the writer. I think of Esquire, Harper's, The Nation, the Village Voice, the New York Review of Books—outlets where every week one could read fresh work by Mailer, Sontag, Baldwin, Didion, Fielder, Talese, Vivian Gornick, and Tom Wolfe. These writers aren't all gone, of course, but the pressure of sensibility they represented has long since dissipated.

What I am talking about here is, it's true, more polemic and feature-related journalism than reviewing per se, but the vitality of the latter depends in a thousand subtle ways on the vitality of the former, and if our situation feels demoralized, dissipated, without urgent core, it is to some degree because we are without a larger rallying cause and without any stirring sense of possibility. This is not to say that there are no rallying causes available—I can think of a few, beginning with the outrages of the current administration—but that we seem to be without the rallying will. We have lost the sense that there is any gathering place. Our intellectual life is fragmented. It has, perhaps of economic necessity, migrated into the academy, where it can only conform to the dominant strictures of theory-suffused disciplines (the luftmenschen of old, as Russell Jacoby reminded us in The Last Intellectuals, are no more). Connected and informed as never before, we nonetheless register a dispiriting sense of isolation, of not mattering.

All of this leads, and not all that circuitously, to the question of snark, the spirit of negativity, the personal animus pushing ahead of the intellectual or critical agenda. Snark is, I believe, prompted by the terrible vacuum feeling of not mattering, not connecting, not being heard; it is fueled by rage at the same. If writers and critics felt similar aggressive urges in the past—and of course they did, for personal, if not cultural, reasons—they were held back from venting, if not by an inner sense of decency, then by a more externalized awareness of prohibition. Cheap shots were not to be taken—not in the public arena. This was the tactic of the scandal rags and Hollywood gossip sheets, and it was just not done. But even more—and I hope I'm not getting starry-eyed here—there was yet a prevailing belief that the arts, serving and expressing creativity, were, yes, above that. They were nobler, pitched to higher ends; they did not traffic overtly in the commercial. Artistic media and entertainment media were separate. Stephen King would never have been considered for a medal from the National Book Foundation.

But for all of the reasons outlined above, the commercial consideration (sales, circulation, publicity) has in recent years become paramount. The logic of the situation is obvious. And desperation driven. What we are seeing is an effort in certain quarters to awaken a somnolent literary culture, to create attention, the idea somehow being that power and money go where the noise is. There is no way to solve the problem at the source, of course—it is systemic—so the best strategy is the quick fix. The jump start. "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation," writes Dale Peck. "You're curious, right?" queries James Atlas. The gamble here is that we readers are ourselves jaded and angry and TV conditioned enough to play along, to accept that this is the new way of things. For this sort of gambit works only when readers in their secret hearts do take pleasure in assault, when it serves as a valve for frustrations and blocked emotions. I doubt any of us who read the piece believed for an instant that Peck was right. But if we read on—most likely we did—it was with the same churning fascination we feel when someone on the city bus starts acting crazy and shouting obscenities. The screamer's "Fuck you!" about his job or spouse lets us get to our own frustration and rage. All well and good, but it has nothing to do with literature.

If I began this reflection by invoking memories and associations with Partisan Review, it was not because I wanted to propose that magazine as a model or its writers as guardian figures. In fact, I was more focused on its decline and disappearance, which seemed to me in many ways emblematic of the state of things on the literary front. It was an important decline, a bellwether. Partisan Review in its heyday was a model of mattering. Its circulation never exceeded fifteen thousand, but it nevertheless outlined the very nerve system of influence in our collective cultural life. Its main contribution, over and above the contents of any of its pieces, was that in its great years it gave us an intellectual idea of ourselves. It created the terms of the debate. By postulating a certain kind of intelligentsia, it helped to foster it. That intelligentsia was nonacademic (though academics devoured the journal) and politically and morally engaged; it deplored provincialism and assumed a cosmopolitan view; it believed in the necessity of the modernist project. We have nothing like the modernist aesthetic certainties. Indeed, our lot—henceforth—is to be suspicious of all projects. In a pluralistic and relativistic culture like ours, the clash of rival pundits may be the best we can come up with.

Partisan Review lost relevance and went under because that audience and that conjunction of beliefs and ideals faded away. This has everything to do with the state of our critical culture today, and with reviewing—indeed, with our intellectual life in general. The journal gave us a sense of center to some degree by assuming one, but finally the idea of a center itself proved no longer sustainable. The deeper structure of things is too much changed. Still, though I had not been a Partisan reader for years, when I heard it was gone I felt surprisingly bereft. Its demise reminded me—not for the first time—of all the young assumptions I have learned to do without.


The author of five books of essays and a memoir, Sven Birkerts edits the journal Agni, based at Boston University.


BOOKFORUM | spring 2004

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