Today’s issue of the New York Times Book Review calls to mind the quantitative analyses of the editorial composition of a typical Book Review issue performed by Edward Champion last May, and Michael Orthofer of the Literary Saloon a couple of weeks ago. One point these bloggers seem to agree on is that the Book Review regularly falls short of our expectations in the areas of fiction/poetry coverage, while often overachieving in areas unrelated to fiction and poetry (hard news, history, science reporting, sociology). It’s not that the Book Review doesn’t review a lot of fiction and poetry titles — it does — but these titles get far less inches and less favorable positioning in the publication.
Are we as readers somehow complicit in this? Well, we may be. Let’s face it: the Book Review’s only business goal is to please and impress us — the readers of the world — so they can sell more ads and more copies. So, as audience jurors, what do we truly like to read? Opening up today’s Book Review, I was instantly drawn to Elizabeth Royte’s review of Mariana Gosnell’s book about the history and science of ice, which is apparently the new cod. I then spied on Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvior, courtesy of Hazel Rowley by way of Cristina Nehring. Then I found a good article about John Feinstein’s Plimpton act with the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, followed by a fascinating inquiry into the real life sources of the Helen of Troy legend, the subject of a book subtitled “Goddess, Princess, Whore” by Bettany Hughes (I’ll never get around to reading the book, but I enjoyed Caroline Alexander’s summary), and then a decent Charles McGrath summary of Henry Hitchings books about early dictionary visionary Samuel Johnson.
Even for a fiction freak like me, it’s hard to pretend to be as interested in reviews of novels by strangers about strangers as I am about Samuel Johnson, Helen of Troy, the Baltimore Ravens, ice and French existentialist sexuality. In fact, some of the novels reviewed today sound quite good. I’m planning to check out Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nations which, according to Simon Baker, takes us inside the head of an African refugee turned soldier who finds himself committing the same kinds of atrocities that destroyed his family years before. I don’t usually read novels about giant squids, but Pat Walsh’s vivid notice of Jim Lynch’s The Highest Tide made me want to change that trend.
But even as I sloughed through one (short) fiction review after another, I found my mind wandering. The truth is, fiction is harder to relate to than non-fiction, and likewise fiction reviews are harder to relate to than non-fiction reviews. But fiction is also, at least for me, far more edifying and personally meaningful. I just wish sometimes it didn’t go down like medicine on a Sunday morning.
Oh, as for the 100 Best lists that litter this week’s Book Review, I ignored them and you should too. I don’t write lists, and I don’t read them. Why? Because they’re useless.