Richard Price on Clockers, research, and much more

Prior to the NBCC’s “In Retrospect” series, I’d never heard of Richard Price’s Clockers. Now that I’ve been reading about it, I’m determined to read it, especially because the series has excellent taste—Norman Rush’s Mating was another featured novel.

See a marvelous interview with Price here. I can’t find a good representative sample of the interview, which is too big to summarize, but I’ll note this:

Q: So why not do a nonfiction book?

A: Because nonfiction is nonfiction. There’s nothing for me to do there except report. I ask journalists the same question: Don’t you want to just make this stuff up? And they’ll say to me, “You can’t top this stuff.” Their attitude is, you know, “I’m very good at summarizing what’s out there. And what’s out there is: God’s a first-rate novelist.” My attitude is like, is if it’s already out there, to me, that’s like clerical work. Although it’s not–I know that. But to me, I want to take all that stuff and fashion a metaphor from it. Because oftentimes, the way life unfolds, it’s very random and chaotic. It’s only in the history books where you look back everything seemed like it all happened in seven streamlined paragraphs. But daily life is much more meandering, and what a novel can do is condense and essentialize, and highlight. That’s what I like.

NBCC Good Reads in Seattle

The National Book Critics Circle’s Good Reads discussion hit Third Place Books in Seattle on Feb. 18, bringing together four panelists who showed through the quality of their thought just how much they really, really love books, as well as the importance of the ecosystem around books. The ecosystem problem echoes debates I’ve written about before—see, for example, here, here and here—and all four speakers offered eloquent, brilliant defenses of book criticism that will be, I suspect, ignored, as previous efforts have been. When I opened my browser last night, a New York Times headline said, “For Publisher in Los Angeles, Cuts and Worse,” and book reviewing will probably be part of the cuts. But critics, thinkers and scholars beat on, boats against the current, and that events like Good Reads happen shows the continuing vitality of the book.

As the blurb on Critical Mass states, the panelists were “Charles Johnson, Jonathan Raban, Seattle Weekly editor Brian Miller, and Seattle Times Book editor & NBCC Board Member Mary Ann Gwinn.” All four shone. Gwinn moderated and first passed the mic to Raban, who talked about the quality of book criticism when he was a younger man and now, saying we aren’t in a “great age” of book reviews. Although this might sound like an example of The Wonderful Past, I think it’s not, given how relatively little press coverage books generate—as demonstrated by the links in the first paragraph. Raban directed particular ire at the habit of “grading” novels, citing Michiko Kakutani as a prominent offender. Although I agreed with him concerning the importance of engaging books, I also think it important to consider how one should decide which books only deserve notices or grades versus which ones are worth engagement. I asked that question later, and Johnson gave my favorite answer when he said that he uses many criteria, including the quality of their writing, and above all whether a book succeeds in “showing us something we haven’t seen before.” You can hear an echo of the modernists’ credo, “Make it new.” Johnson didn’t define what that “something” is, and I can’t blame him: you don’t know what’s not there until someone shows you what should be. Furthermore, as Johnson said, you have to evaluate each book individually, which makes it difficult to generalize about what books are worth study.

None of that should detract from Raban’s main point about the importance of quality reviews. Johnson followed up by saying that a “fine review puts a book into context,” which I also try to do (see more here), and that there are fewer places to read good reviews. This practice harms both readers and writers, with the latter hurt because, as Johnson said, the “best way to learn about something is to write about it.”

They went on to give wonderful anecdotes and examples of problems in book reviewing and recommendations, which I would repeat if I didn’t think the power and humor of their stories would be lost in my reconstruction. Their delivery was that of adepts. Still, I think it important to note two things: Johnson said that reviewing is like pointing a finger at the moon, and not the moon itself–which is the book. In addition, Gwinn said 500 books hit her desk in a week. Five hundred. The number boggles me, and she said that the publishing industry seems to use the “shotgun” method for book sales, and fire a lot of pellets just to see what hits. Some books do, and she cited The Kite Runner as an example. She also said that not all is or should be doom and gloom, as last year book sales were up seven percent. That might just be a Harry Potter bounce, but I liked hearing it regardless.

Johnson also put the book reviewer, reader, and others, as being in part of a “matrix” or “web of education,” with books alluding to each other and readers building a kind of map or network. He echoed The Name of the Rose (a quote: “Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means […]” and one more: “Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library seemed all the more disturbing to me. It was then a place of long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or had been their conveyors.”) Yes, and we’re constantly trying to keep up with the worthy books of the past while trying to find good ones from the present and connect those with the past. Those older ones are easier to identify: you have publishers’ special imprints as well as the benefit of teachers, professors, and others, and they have by definition withstood time. Judging those from the present is harder, and much of the conversation revolved around that difficulty. In the end, finding good criteria is impossible and, as Gwinn said, part of a lifelong education. Or, to put it in Johnson’s phrasing, we’re trying to discover what it means to be educated and civilized. I wish there were better answers to these impossible questions, but regardless of those answers, it’s great fun hearing strong minds bandy the issues.

No one talked much about recommended reads, but the alternate discussion about art, reviewing, and life more than made up for the lack of recommendations. Some came up anyway: The Geography of Thought by Richard Nisbett, which Johnson liked, Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, which Raban said every boat should have onboard, and several from Miller that he spoke too fast for me to catch. None were on bestseller lists but all sounded worthy, and that’s the point of the NBCC’s effort: to find books that are likely to matter but that aren’t at the grocery store and deserve more attention than they get.

Reading, anyone?

Critical Mass quotes Randall Jarrell:

One of our universities recently made a survey of the reading habits of the American public; it decided that forty-eight percent of all Americans read, during a year, no book at all. I picture to myself that reader — non-reader, rather; one man out of every two — and I reflect, with shame: ‘Our poems are too hard for him.’ But so, too, are Treasure Island, Peter Rabbit, pornographic novels — any book whatsoever. The authors of the world have been engaged in a sort of conspiracy to drive this American away from books; have in 77 million out of 160 million cases, succeeded. A sort of dream situation often occurs to me in which I call to this imaginary figure, ‘Why don’t you read books?’ — and he always answers, after looking at me steadily for a long time:


Jarrell wrote that in 1972, and posting it now alludes to the National Endowment for the Arts’ “To Read or Not to Read,” which I mentioned previously (skip the first paragraph, as it discusses movies, and make sure you follow the link to “Twilight of the Books” from The New Yorker. I like it so much that I’m linking to it again).

It’s also worth turning to Orwell, who wrote in 1936: “It hardly needs pointing out that at this moment the prestige of the novel is extremely low, so low that the words ‘I never read novels,’ which even a dozen years ago were generally uttered with a hint of apology are now always uttered in a tone of conscious pride.” Reading has been going out of fashion for far longer than I’ve been alive. Perhaps this is another example of The Wonderful Past, when literature was respected and the public debated the finer points of meter and rhyme, although if someone could cite a year when that was the case I would much appreciate it.

Even the Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory, 4th edition, has a snide comment about the vitality of novels, and this staid volume does not joke readily: “No other literary form has attracted more writers (or more people who are not writers), and it continues to do so despite the oft-repeated cry (seldom raised by novelists themselves) that the novel is dead. If proliferation is a sign of incipient death then the demise of the novel must be imminent.”

Hugging the Shore

I found John Updike’s Hugging the Shore through Critical Mass’s the Critical Library series of posts, where this collection repeatedly came up. It’s out of print and, I suspect, a book that shaped older critics but is no longer essential and feels too much likes its opinions, like most, have either become accepted or unimportant. Like many revolutions, the ideas in Hugging the Shore seem to have become part of the ossified landscape. Some of the pieces still thrill: the one on Ursula K. Leguin is short but good, while those on Bellow seem to both stretch and not be able to wrap themselves around Bellow. Many of Updike’s opinions I respect, but, at the same time, I flip to the next essay halfway through the one I’m on.

To me, something like Martin Amis’s The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971 – 2000 feels more vital, for lack of a better term, and maybe Amis’s verbal pyrotechnics show off, but they also convince. Give me it instead of Hugging the Shore, and throw in Orwell’s Essays (more on Orwell here) to give an overview of many of the same topics but better. I like Hugging the Shore, but with criticism even more than novels the essential is everything.

More on reviews

I commented previously on the decline of newspaper book reviews, and even in the short month and a half since then much has happened, as chronicled in the National Book Critics Circle Campaign to Save Book Reviewing. Note particularly Michael Connelly’s perspicacious post.

Now the New York Times weighs in. They’re hardly a disinterested party, given that they have one of the strongest, if not the strongest, newspaper book reviews in the country, but the article covers the debate: do book reviews matter in the age of blogs, and if so how much? The debate is occurring chiefly among bloggers—or the public part is, anyway. I like Maud Newton’s assessment:

“I find it kind of naïve and misguided to be a triumphalist blogger,” Ms. Newton said. “But I also find it kind of silly when people in the print media bash blogs as a general category, because I think the people are doing very, very different things.”

I agree, and I do not like to think of myself as a “triumphalist blogger.” But I cannot perceive what force could stem the decline of newspaper reviews, and enlightened self-interest seems unlikely to suddenly ascend in newspapers, and so view the rise of blogs as more or less inevitable, whether it is a net gain or loss. In an ideal world both would coexist, complementing each other, but that works only if newspapers continue to provide real coverage.

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