Links: The “Intergalactically Challenging Jacket” and More

The summer issue of Lapham’s Quarterly is dedicated to travel, excerpting Paul Theroux‘s Dark Star Safari, Marilynne Robinson‘s Gilead, Tobias Wolff‘s This Boy’s Life, and Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road, among many other writers around the world and throughout history. The journal’s Web site features James Franco reading that Kerouac excerpt in an appropriately slackerish way. The most entertaining piece, though, not online, is a 1935 article from Pravda describing the despairing life of American cities, which are sad and largely empty of people. Contrary to popular belief in the Soviet Union, the authors write, in New York and Chicago “brokers don’t run down the sidewalks knocking over American citizens; they simmer, invisible to the public, in their stock exchanges, making all kinds of shady deals in those monumental buildings.” The West Coast is no better: It’s home to the “American film industry, which releases around a thousand well-made but egregiously tasteless and idiotically stupid films per year.”

Speaking of Theroux, he recalls hanging out at Michael Jackson‘s Neverland, and talking with the late pop star on the phone in the wee hours about, among other things, his reading habits: “‘Somerset Maugham,’ he said quickly, and then, pausing at each name: ‘Whitman. Hemingway. Twain.'”

Jennifer Weiner
on studying under Toni Morrison: “Toni Morrison used to read her students’ work out loud, and hearing her read it made me believe that it was good (of course, Toni Morrison being Toni Morrison, she could have been reading my grocery list and I would have thought, ‘Genius!’ She’s one of the world’s all-time great readers).”

Edgar Allan Poe, supernatural detective.

The sad, long struggle of Kaye Gibbons.

Ernest Hemingway‘s grandson has reworked Papa’s posthumous memoir, A Moveable Feast, in a way that “attempts to give the impression of a work which is not completed but which is nevertheless readable.”

The second issue of Wag’s Revue is now online, with an interview with T.C. Boyle as its centerpiece. Excerpt: “I do not reveal much of myself, either publicly or in the work. I may have no problem wearing an intergalactically challenging jacket on TV and cracking jokes with the best of them or investing everything I have in a performance of a story, either live or recorded, but all of that is simply a way of rubbing up against the public world while all the while keeping the private world private.”

Joseph O’Neill ponders the president reading Netherland: “I suppose you flatter yourself that the story is the history of the United States. That’s the weird, disorienting feeling you get.”

And, apropos of nothing in particular except that anybody who follows the Washington Nationals badly needs a laugh, this is great.

Jennifer Weiner Isn’t Gonna Fix The Newspaper Book Review Problem; Or, “No Lagniappe For You!”

Jennifer Weiner has a few thoughtful ideas about what book review sections can do—her post certainly deserves better than the grossly offensive blog post that I suppose I’m obligated to say pointed me to it. (If the amateurs over at Philebrity are incapable of spotting a tongue-in-cheek statement when they see one, what makes them feel worthy of passing any sort of judgment on literary culture? And if their alleged insights are framed around fat jokes, what makes them feel worthy of the task of typing blog posts, or typing at all?)

Anyway. A bit of Weiner’s modest proposal:

[H]ere are some things I don’t want to read about: new books by Philip Roth (I prefer the old ones, which were funny). New books by Cormac McCarthy. New books by any male writer prone to complaining about the indignities of old age, either general or prostate-specific, or or having his male protagonists do the same.

New short-story collection by Alice Munro. Instead of wasting eight hundred words, just say it’s every bit as wrenching and finely wrought as the last short-story collection by Alice Munro, and be done with it. Chances are, I’ve already read most of the stories in The New Yorker, and I know that they are wrenching and finely-wrought (unless, of course, the new collection gets a ridiculously tarty cover, in which case, you can make fun of that for eight hundred words).

Weiner’s complaint, of course, isn’t with Roth but with the saturation coverage that big books get at the expense of many others, not to mention the reflexive cliche-mongering of all too many reviews stuffed with meaningless praise-gunk like “stunning” and “achingly beautiful.” This is an old complaint—indeed, it’s pretty much the central thesis of the litblog culture that’s emerged in the past five years or so. Some very smart people have pressed book reviews to spend more time and attention on genre fiction, graphic novels, works in translation, and small-press books in general—or that just figured it was hopeless to fight that battle and decided to do it themselves.

Anybody registering those complaints has my support—at least, as much support as a guy who reviewed Roth’s last novel for a metro-daily books section can offer without feeling like a hypocrite. But when the book-sections-slit-their-own-damn-throat rhetoric gets a little loud—as it has with the much-mocked National Book Critics Circle petition to save the Washington Post‘s standalone book section—it’s worth pointing something out. Even if all the Sunday book sections of American daily newspapers turned into the kind of sections that Weiner and many others dream of—a worthy small-press novel featured on the cover, a regular feature on books in translation, romance novels treated with care and respect, local author profiles a-go-go—it wouldn’t make a lick of difference for the health of the newspaper. Newspapers are suffering a financial collapse of such magnitude that a content failure—and content improvement—hardly registers. And book reviews never really mattered in this accounting.

I’m a dues-paying member of the National Book Critics Circle, and I’ve contributed to the Post‘s book section. I support both. But I didn’t sign the petition; I didn’t see the point. I’ve been trying to find a way to articulate my reasoning behind this seemingly self-contradictory posture, and Hitsville blogger Bill Wyman (an old editor of mine), found the right word to explain what’s going on. Responding to Walter Isaacson‘s Time essay proposing (yet again) micropayments for online news, Wyman writes:

The few that did publish stand-alone book sections did it as a lagniappe, and these gradually disappeared, not as papers began to lose money, but to prop up the sky-high earnings Wall Street supposedly demanded of companies like Tribune.

Lagniappe. That’s about right. It’s hard to argue that a book-review section is essential to the mission of a newspaper, which is to bring the news and watchdog those in power. Of course, it’s in a newspaper’s best interest to promote literacy, but there’s no reason why a book review section is necessary to do that; arguably, the newspapers-in-schools programs promoted by most dailies do a better job of it. Promoting literary culture in the community that the paper serves? Covering local authors and events would go a long way toward that, but there’s no reason why that coverage needs to be in the form of a book review. No, the reason why newspapers have, or had, book pages because a) Everybody else was doing it, and b) they’re nice things to have. These are bad economic times, so you don’t get to have nice things to have.

So I can resign myself to this decline without feeling like I need to cheer it on—I won’t miss “achingly beautiful,” but I suspect more people will miss the reviews when they’re gone than we think. At any rate, perhaps book-section editors will now start feeling that there’s less to lose by experimenting more. It’s not particularly important to me that the Post‘s book section be in one place in the Sunday paper—I’ve argued before that newspapers might better serve their readers and themselves if they found ways to integrate book coverage throughout the paper. If the Post can find a way to innovate with spreading book reviews around its pages and Web site, the shift can be something to cheer, and a model for other news operations to look to; if it’s just stuffing the same reviews in different slots, it only sets the stage for further cutbacks. That doesn’t serve readers, it doesn’t serve writers, and it doesn’t serve the folks like Jennifer Weiner who, bless them, want more out of book reviews.