Monday, July 9, 2012

Alan Cheuse Gets a Spanking, Part One

I guess I didn't get all my vitriol out of my system in last Sunday's post about genre ghettoization. Someone needs a spanking, and I'm just the gal for the job.

Alan Cheuse
I promise to back off from the pique after this two-part post, but I've got a couple gripes that are sticking like burrs in a sock. This all came about after I listened to NPR Book Critic Alan Cheuse name his summer reading picks the other day. (Check it out, it's short.) Cheuse included Gillian Flynn's GONE GIRL along with his (*yawn*) totally predictable other two candidates, Toni Morrison's HOME and Richard Ford's CANADA. (He also chose Lauren Groff's ARCADIA - more on that in a moment.)

Today's gripe concerns the anointing process that seems to be a byproduct of the drastic shrinkage of traditional review space. Does it seem to you like the few remaining critics have gotten together in a bar - bloodstained and battle-weary from the carnage that decimated most of their colleagues' turf, perhaps - and timidly agreed to agree on what to tout each season? It does to me, and I don't like it. I give publishers more latitude in what might be argued to be a parallel effect - promoting the top dogs heavily while the undercurrent languishes - because there is a legitimate (note I did not say "right" or "good", only legitimate) business case to be made for doing so. (You can read about that phenomenon pretty much anywhere; it's too depressing to go into here.)

But critics are unshackled by such concerns, and I expect better and broader from them. Their collective voices can, along with publisher push, create our next men and women of letters (hence, I believe, the emergence of Groff), and while undoubtedly I'm just jealous and you wouldn't be reading this post if it was a *Littlefield* novel that had gotten the seal of approval, I must object that climbing on to a momentum-gaining bandwagon is *not* the best way to select the novelists we introduce to a public looking for a good book.

Let me give an example. This breaks my own rules because I don't believe in criticizing books in the public space, as an author, particularly because I find it difficult to weed out bias that comes from my own tastes. But I'm not really slamming a book here, merely holding it up as an example of a pretty good book that got the Reviewers' (capitalized to indicate the gravitas club, the traditional review venues) seal of approval.

- - personal opinion alert - - 

In 2011, Tom Franklin's CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER was a superior book to Karen Russell's SWAMPLANDIA.

Okay, for this argument to work you'd have to agree with me on that very subjective point, but let's just agree that it's so, or sub in your own example. Now, SWAMPLANDIA caught the attention of the reviewers and managed to send a fairly significant review snowball rolling down the hill until it snagged a nomination for the ALA's fiction award and the biggie, a Pulitzer nomination. I was, frankly, very surprised (as were, apparently, some of the Pulitzer committee, since they ended up not awarding a prize).

Franklin's book, on the other hand, got an Edgar nomination, the very unscientific top-approval-rating of my personal circle of friends, a couple of trade reviews and a nice nod from USA Today. Not, in other words, a thunderous reception. Did Harper Collins fall down on the job, failing to recognize its potential? I'm not an editor or a member of a marketing department (and I don't say that lightly: I am not those things and I lack the skills they bring to publishing) but to my unskilled eye, the book could have been a huge breakout.

I think the real break in the book's ascendency came in the review process. And yet, the two are intertwined, perhaps so much that it's disingenuous to discuss them separately. Publicists have only so many slots to push individual books, so they can and do direct reviewers' attention to specific titles. And yes, it's human nature to be swayed by trends, so if they can get enough of a buzz going, it builds itself.

I guess my gripe is that I expect a little more sophistication from the Reviewers. "I am no one's errand boy," i imagine them shouting, en masse, when prodded toward a particular book. Especially now, I expect them to take seriously their obligation to discern hype from merit, to sift through the obvious candidates looking for elusive gems.

Can the two not exist side by side? I'm not really asking that the old guard be shoved unceremoniously from the shelf to make room for, well, me. Obvious candidates must receive their due; it *is* an event when a new book comes out from one of our beloved voices. A new Irving book should be read, digested and commented on, for instance. But in the process of identifying the new "big" voices, I expect more ingenuity, more creative thinking - frankly, more elbow grease - from the Reviewers.

To sum up, Richard and Toni and Lauren and Gillian probably wrote great books (I can say for sure that Gillian did; more on that tomorrow) but that's kind of uninteresting news. Dullsville, as my dad would say. Come on, Alan & Co., make a brave choice. Give us something fresh.


Mike Cooper said...

These points are well taken. One very small defense of the Reviewers, however, might be this: they can only read SO many books. Generalizing from personal experience (my usual way of defending an argument), I can read about one book a week. Fifty a year? That's not many. Someone doing it for a job might double the number -- but even 100 is a scant drop in the never-ending torrent of new titles.

So an essential (and underappreciated) part of the critic's job is to choose which books to read, even before they decide whether to review them. And in this, they are unfortunately subject to the same siroccos of buzz and hype as everyone else -- because how else do you know whether something might be worth your time?

I'd be interested to hear what the Reviewers (or reviewers) themselves think about this, if any are reading ...

Stephen said...

I think it's a hoot that I interviewed you and Lauren Groff on the same day at the Arkansas Literary Festival.

Susan A. said...

Personally, I won't read recommendations by professional reviewers. It's nothing against them, but my taste runs very different from most of them. Ninety percent of the time they cover books that are likely to send me into a coma.

I admit this is mostly because few contemporary and no literary fiction interests me (or a lot of people for that matter). I love fantasy, paranormal, and sci-fi romance. These are genres that tend to be frowned upon by the "professionals" and upper crust literary world.

Luckily, myself and some other bloggers have no problem reviewing these types of books and telling others about them. We don't get the kind of attention the big guys do, but there are people who do listen to us. Not just on our blogs, but also on Amazon where we reach thousands of people. I've had hundreds of comments left on my various reviews so I know they are being read.

The pros can have their space and the people that like the kinds of books they recommend can keep on listening to them. Those of us who prefer specific genre fiction will keep doing our own thing. The real trick is to follow the reviewers who have a similar taste to your own.