An ecology activist climbed the New York Times building in midtown Manhattan this week, but the best part is that a few hours later another guy heard about it and rushed over to do the same thing. Which just goes to prove: you can’t scrounge a minute of fame in this city without somebody else jumping into the spotlight. Same as it’s always been.
Have you noticed that the New York Times Book Review has been bursting out more and more into its own (successful) brand? A new 15-minute weekly radio show on WQXR-FM is no small potatoes, especially since it reflects the NYTBR’s decision to define itself outside the shrinking newspaper category and become a multimedia brand. These are hard times in the newspaper business, but the Book Review has an identity and industry presence beyond that of its parent paper. Who remembers that New York Magazine was once the Sunday magazine supplement for the dying New York Herald Tribune? The New York Times is hardly dying, but still the NYTBR is doing the smart thing by positioning itself on its own terms and promoting the Book Review brand directly to the world.
I’m thinking not only of radio here, but of internet publishing. It’s a surprising fact, and possibly a discouraging one to independent bloggers like me, that Paper Cuts, the New York Times Book Review blog, has a higher Technorati ranking than any other literary blog. It also often maintains a higher Technorati ranking than any other New York Times blog. We like to make fun of the stodgy NYTBR here in the ‘sphere, but who’s laughing last?
NYTBR’s directors may be more savvy than they look, especially since the publication trades heavily on its “traditional” image in contrast to all that crazy internet stuff out there. But behind the “gray lady” aura and the retro ink-on-the-fingers chic, it’s entirely possible that these executives are more focused than they want readers to know on playing both sides of this equation. The online edition of the NY Times competes for online ad dollars with Google and Yahoo, and does so from some position of strength. Like I said, more savvy than they look.
And maybe this is one reason why, in case anyone is wondering, I still keep my eye on the New York Times Book Review every week, even when I have to fight off waves of ennui to remain interested. Some LitKicks readers have suggested to me that this old media brand isn’t worth the attention, but I’m not falling for that easy answer. They’re on the radio, their blog’s Technorati ranking kicks my ass … no, the NYTBR isn’t losing its relevance anytime soon.
Quality-wise, it remains a mixed bag. The best article in today’s issue, David Gates’ explanation of why he just can’t endure another self-satisfied Salman Rushdie historical fantasia, rings completely true with me:
I’m probably not Rushdie’s target audience: in literature, at least, I find the marvelous tedious, and the tedious — as rendered by a Beckett or a Raymond Carver or even a Kafka — marvelous.
I also like Robert Pinksy’s flights of pathos in connecting Kathryn Harrison’s true-crime story While They Slept: An Inquiry Into the Murder of a Family to Oedipus Rex, Dante’s Inferno and the book of Genesis. Joanna Hershon’s The German Bride, which is on my to-read pile, wins the approval of Deborah Weisgall, and Elinor Lipman’s clear writing almost persuades me (as if I had time to read more novels!) to add Sylvia Brownrigg’s Morality Tale, the study of a marriage in crisis, to the pile as well.
There’s no awful writing in today’s issue, but there are some deeply flawed critical stances. Bryan Burrough completely dismisses a modest biography of a Wyoming kid who dies in an oil-field accident, The Legend of Colton T. Bryant by Alexandra Fuller, for imagining scenes and dialogue in a non-fiction book.
Call me a strict constructionist, but I wanted to yell, No, no, no, you can’t do that! Not if you want to call a book nonfiction. That’s not artistic license. It’s cheating. Not cheating in the sense that plagiarism is cheating. I don’t belive Fuller has committed a major literary felony here, but it’s clearly a misdemeanor, even if she comes out and admits it.
Burrough seems to lack confidence in his own emphatic position here, and he well should, because Fuller’s book is written the same way good nonfiction has been written since, probably, the days of hieroglyphics. Nonfiction books almost always invent dialogue and imagine scenic details beyond the realm of what the author can authenticate. There is absolutely no reason to single out this book, especially since the book does not market itself (I went to a bookstore and checked) on its veracity but on the quality of its storytelling. Nowhere on the book’s cover does it proclaim “A True Story!”. The words “nonfiction” and “biography” appear only in the finest print on the title page. Alexandra has not committed a misdemeanor or a felony; she has attempted to write a book the way books have always been written. The sins of James Frey should not condemn the world’s eager readers to a new publishing standard whereby nonfiction books are drained of all their imaginative blood and broadly vetted by lawyers. I can hardly imagine a worse fate for the important field of nonfiction publishing.
Chuck Pahlaniuk’s Snuff is likewise dismissed wholesale by Lucy Ellmann, who refers to Pahlaniuk as a “shock jock” and clearly can’t stand his scummy, nasty book. What her review doesn’t tell us is whether Pahlaniuk has written a good scummy, nasty book or a bad scummy, nasty book. And that’s exactly what Pahlaniuk’s readers will want to know.