Links: First-Time Callers

Hello there. There’s a goodly chance that you’re here today because Mark Sarvas was nice enough to include this blog on his list of ten “Really, Really Smart Literary Blogs.” I feel a bit like the little old lady whose hair is still in curlers when the Prize Patrol van arrives, but I appreciate your swinging by. If this is your first time here, a few “greatest hits” posts you might want to look at: my piece on the best books of 2008, some stray thoughts on Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, a few more on the future of book reviewing, a guide to Haruki Murakami‘s translations of American authors, and some thoughts about best practices about for DIY publishing. I usually do link roundup like this once a week, but as with many things in life, this is changeable. Onward.

Don DeLillo‘s America points to a cache of DeLillo radio
interviews on YouTube

Jay McInerney talks to the Wall Street Journal about his new story collection, How It Ended which includes an update on the life of Alison Poole, the protagonist of his novel Story of My Life. Poole was modeled after one of his ex-girlfriends, Rielle Hunter, perhaps better known for her attachment to former presidential candidate John Edwards.

One less teacher is using Toni Morrison‘s Beloved in the classroom. Kids are still using The Scarlet Letter to learn about public humiliation, though.

The Daily Iowan catches up with longtime Kurt Vonnegut confidante Loree Rackstraw; make sure to check out the slideshow, which has some fine images of Vonnegutiana in Rackstraw’s home.

It’s the 25th anniversary of Sandra CisnerosThe House on Mango Street. At a recent event at Rice University honoring the book, she offered some of the best advice for writers I’ve heard: “First, you write like you’re talking to someone in your pajamas. Then you revise like your enemy is reading it.”

Lee Abrams: Not Wrong

Like Mark Sarvas, I’m not especially outraged at the latest batch of statements about newspaper book reviews from Lee Abrams, Tribune Co.’s innovation chief. Sure, his assertions read like a lot of off-the-top-of-my-head spitballing—I picture him pacing wildly around a room, flailing his arms Jim Cramer-like, while some poor intern struggles to type all of the chatter. But none of Abrams’ assertions demand throwing journalism into a wood chipper, the first idea that most print-media managers have in the face of tanking revenues and investor pressures. So, I’m willing to hear the guy out.

Here’s Abrams’ statement:

*Books: Heard a conversation about how Book reporting doesn’t generate revenue and may have to go away. WAIT! Maybe Book reviews and coverage are one of those things that don’t generate revenue right now, BUT–are trademarks for newspapers and elicit high passion from readers. At XM, we had Opera channels. Low listenership…HIGH passion…AND–it was one of those things that even if people didn’t listen or even like Opera, it was one of those things you had to have for completeness. Maybe Book sections in newspapers are just dated. Not the idea…but the look and feel. Maybe they’re modeled after a book store in 1967 whereas we’re in the Borders, Amazon, B&N era. Maybe they are too scholarly. Maybe they avoid genres like Christian books, Celebrity books and Popular novels, opting instead for reviews of the Philippine Socialist Movement in the 1800’s. The point here is maybe Book sections need to be as dramatically re-thought as Borders re-thought retail. Not dumbing down–but getting in sync with the 21st Century mainstream book reader.

The good news here is that Abrams recognizes that there’s a small but passionate readership for book reviews—one that can potentially be monetized—and that covering the literary world is part of the mission statement of any media organization. (At least that’s how I interpret “one of those things you had to have for completeness.”) I’m not even especially troubled by the notion of more coverage of popular/Christian/celeb books. In fact, let’s expand it—make the books editor at the daily paper the ideas person, the person who’s able and willing to jump on the blog and round up the relevant books and call the relevant authors regarding the issues of the day. That’s across the paper—world, national, local, sports, etc. (Slate and the Washington Post work together on something like this, compiling reading lists on varied subjects, and the print version often winds up in the Sunday Outlook section.) Five essential books on NASA; the two best books on the neighborhood that’s about to be re-zoned for a strip mall; a handful of books on gun control; a top-ten reading list of best baseball stories, and talk to the person out in the city who wrote one that maybe didn’t make the list. All of this supplementing the regular Sunday review.

Doing that won’t save the newspaper book review. But it might do one thing that book-review managers have clearly failed to do: Make a regular case for the relevance of books to the newspaper’s audience, across all sections. If the presence and relevance of books is in the face of readers’ (and managing editors’) faces on a regular basis, the book section looks a little less like a money pit—and if the books editor is doing his or her damnedest to follow the news throughout the week, it’s easier to be all about the Philippine Socialist Movement in the 1880s on Sunday.

Yes, I’m mindful that book review editors don’t have much time on their hands; I’ve met a few lately, and they’re much less cheery now than they were when I started writing reviews in earnest five years ago. But if productivity and relevance are the new mantras at newspapers—and they certainly are at Tribune Co.—the pressure is on book reviews to make a case for themselves. I’m not sold on Sarvas’ suggestion about fixing the L.A. Times Book Review (essentially, blow it up and start anew on the Web), partly because I don’t think the cost savings gained by being online-only are enough to finance a dream review, partly because going online means alienating a book-review readership that still embraces print, but mainly because going on the Web isn’t enough now. Book reviews are already online—the trick is to figure out how to get the tendrils of the ideas in books to run throughout the paper’s Web site, and make that role so strong that when the wood chipper does finally arrive, the person in charge of it thinks twice before tossing the book review in first.

News and Notes

I woke up this morning–just like in blues songs!–and discovered the blue screen of death on my creaky laptop. So we’ll make this quick, pointing to a few relevant notes from the feedreader:

* Beatrice points to the trailer for Adam Langer‘s Ellington Boulevard.

* The Millions is excited at the prospect of a new David Foster Wallace novel.

* The Elegant Variation honcho Mark Sarvas is arranging a giveaway of an ARC of his upcoming debut novel, Harry, Revised.