Reviewing the Review: October 21 2007

I don’t know if anybody else is seeing the book industry differently as a result of LitKicks’ increasingly gargantuan book pricing discussion, but I am. This past week’s examination of how different genres interact on a typical publishing division’s fiction list has inspired me to spend significant time visiting bookstores to gape anew at the mostly alien (to me) “popular fiction” shelves — the bestseller stacks and the romance, science-fiction, mystery, and horror sections — contemplating what on earth this lofty term “literary fiction” really means.

For instance, Alice Sebold’s second novel The Almost Moon will probably not be categorized as literary fiction by most readers, but more than anything else this is because her first novel The Lovely Bones was such a smash bestseller. If Lovely Bones had sold 5000 copies instead of a million, Almost Moon probably would be considered literary fiction. So is failure actually an essential rather than an accidental attribute of literary fiction? One doesn’t like to think so, but one begins to wonder.

I’ve been guilty of “literary snobbery” myself, and I’m now going to try harder not to scoff at bestsellers or popular genre categories as I have in the past. But this weekend’s New York Times Book Review reveals some heavy-duty scoffing of its own, first subjecting Alice Sebold to the indignity of a rude and arrogant dismissal by Lee Siegel, of all people. Siegel holds nothing back:

If you welcome the unreal disjunction between killing your mother and reflecting afterward how lucky you are compared with the children of the dead, “uncared for” mothers in Rwanda and Afghanistan, then this book will make you clap your hands with joy. If you find the idea that mothers shape their children’s “whole” lives original rather than simultaneously banal and puerilely overstated, then Barnes & Noble, here you come! This novel is so morally, emotionally and intellectually incoherent that it’s bound to become a best seller.

Well, I’m torn. As a recovering literary snob myself, I know where Siegel is coming from here. But his tone is so superior as to suggest that Sebold has no worth at all as a novelist, and yet many readers think otherwise. Perhaps Siegel’s job as a critic is to attempt to locate why this is? Instead, he mocks the book at great length for beginning with the line:

When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.

Here goes Siegel:

You have to be in awe of that first sentence, though. Dostoyevsky had to write hundreds of pages before getting to the act of patricide in “The Brothers Karamazov.” It took Oedipus two whole plays to realize he had killed his father and to “work his way through it,” as we would say, so he could find terrible redemption at Colonus. But in “The Almost Moon,” right there at the get-go, at the beginning of the long journey that will take her from the motivations for committing her unspeakable crime to some sense of “closure,” Helen is, you know, cool with murdering her mother.

At first I thought he had a point, until I remembered the first line of Camus’ The Stranger, which adopted a similar tone:

Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.

But Camus never wrote a #1 bestseller, so I guess he must be literary.

There’s been much talk of a gaffe involving a freezer and Sebold’s poor mother’s corpse, but I don’t even find this a major violation and I’m not sure why it’s getting so much press (I uncover mistakes in the NYTBR fairly often, as readers of this column know). I find it more offensive that, according to his reviewer credit, Lee Siegel (who was famously caught using an online alias to praise himself not too long ago) has a new book coming out in January called Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. May I be the first to quip that Siegel, with his many online identities, may in fact be the electronic mob?

Enough about this turkey. The bestseller-bashing continues with Tom Carson’s similarly superior insult-fest at the expense of the late Harold Robbins, the very successful author of sex-filled bestsellers like 1961’s The Carpetbaggers whose biography Harold Robbins: The Man Who Invented Sex has been written by Andrew Wilson. Carson’s review takes lit-snobbery even further over the top:

But doesn’t a hustling subliterate whose oeuvre changed American publishing deserve at least one kudo, to use a solecism Robbins himself would have been likely to commit to print? Crammed with moronic prurience, achieving logorrhea with the barest of resources, your average Robbins page turner read as if he’d clacked it out using 10, if not 11, thumbs, and his 20 or so engorged books sold more than 750 million copies combined. If you’ve ever wondered just when quality literature and commercial fiction parted ways for good with a shudder, call him Harold Rubicon.

This is truly a bad review, substituting jokes for insight and not even maintaining a high quality standard at that. What’s up with this line?

Besides answering nearly every question about its subject that any halfway brainy reader couldn’t be bothered to ask, it’s also better written than any of Robbins’s own behemoths, something I assume Wilson can’t help: he’s British.

Dumb. More sloppy generalizations at Robbins’ expense:

Making big bucks let him live out his grossest fantasies, like owning a yacht and having orgies. But his excesses are unlikely to fascinate any reader who isn’t a) 15 or b) Donald Trump, the first tycoon who seems to aspire to being a Robbins hero.

So Brits are all good writers, and Donald Trump is the first vulgar tycoon of all time. Perhaps the biggest evidence of the NYTBR’s inability to penetrate the inner workings of popular bestselling books is the fact that both Siegel’s and Carson’s reviews seem themselves to have been written so uncritically. Maybe Alice Sebold and Harold Robbins don’t deserve better (or maybe they do, I’m really not sure), but the Book Review’s readers do.

And since I just bragged about how easy it is to find mistakes in the New York Times Book Review, please note that Tom Carson screws up his aquatic metaphor in the first quoted passage above. You can say that the Red Sea “parts ways”, Mr. Carson, but the only thing anybody ever does with the Rubicon is cross it, and this suggests an active rather than a passive change.

(At least Carson’s reviewer credit is more promising than Lee Siegel’s, though. He’s apparently written a book called Gilligan’s Wake — I’ve never heard of it, but that’s a pretty funny title).

This edition of the New York Times Book Review also features a perfectly good introduction to Tom Perrotta’s promising The Abstinence Teacher by the dependable Liesl Schillinger, and an enthusiastic endorsement of Ellen Litman’s story cycle The Last Chicken in America by Maud Newton, who notes that:

When a good novel fails to find an audience, it’s the fault of bad marketing, unappealing cover art or a public too dim to appreciate literary fiction. But if short stories don’t sell, publishers blame the form.

William Boyd’s welcome consideration of the new Cheating at Canasta by the master William Trevor is ambitious and analytical, referring to the critic’s own previously p
ublished taxonomy of short stories to hammer home the point that “Trevor is not the Irish Chekhov”. Boyd works hard enough to establish this point that I’d rather simply agree with him than argue, especially since I can’t remember whether or not I ever thought William Trevor was the Irish Chekhov to begin with (but I sure do enjoy reading him).

A worthy essay by Alan Wolfe about the legacy of Christian social reformer Walter Rauschenbusch completes this weekend’s effort.

5 Responses

  1. The Seinfeld CookbookNot a
    The Seinfeld Cookbook

    Not a response, Levi; I’m just a little curious about your thoughts on the growing ‘plagiarised cookbook scandal’!

  2. Hi R. W. — well, I haven’t
    Hi R. W. — well, I haven’t seen either book but from what I’ve heard I see evidence of a coincidence, not evidence of plagiarism. I think a plaintiff needs more evidence than this one has to seal a case …

  3. Waste of SpaceNo really, if
    Waste of Space

    No really, if you aren’t going to at least treat the work with enough respect to analyze it, then the NYTimes is wasting space. Any text can be criticized, “literary” or not.

  4. More on the literary fiction
    More on the literary fiction dilemma

    I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m really getting off on these excerpts from J.I.M. Stewart’s Introduction to The Moonstone (1868), by Wilkie Collins (The Penguin Classics Edition).

    “Today we are inclined to believe that the highest excellence in a writer is incompatible with the achieving of wide popularity…and there is unfortunately much evidence to support this view. The Victorian age held a robuster faith. (Charles) Dickens, upon association with whom all Collins’s success was founded, took it for granted that the best work would win the widest acclaim, and contrived to combine an astute and vigorous commercial sense with a confident belief in the moral and artistic qualities of what he produced.
    (Italics mine).

    And here, Stewart touches on the problem of genre fiction:

    “For the development of the detective story, moving as it does within a number of sharply limiting conventions, is not easy to reconcile even with some of the quite modest purposes of ‘straight’ fiction. For example, as the intricacy and ingenuity of plot increases, it becomes more and more a condition of success…that we should go short of any sure sense of character as we read…anybody in the story must be capable of acting under any motive.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!