Why I’m Giving Up the NYTimes Book Review Habit*

* and it’s not for the reason you think Like most American writers, I have read The New York Times Sunday Book Review every Sunday for as long as I have been a fully literate human being (a distinction I earned around my sophomore year of college). This is a habit (and it is a habit more than anything else) which I have decided to stop (starting this Sunday of course) because the N.Y.T.S.B.R (for short) has become (and this is not entirely its own fault) a prism for every kind of literary fad imaginable. In each edition of the N.Y.T.S.B.R there is typically a review of a piece of pop science (explaining, usually, how either sex or creativity or both really works), a first novel or two by an MFA grad invariably inspired by Barthelme/Cheever/Coover/Foster Wallace/Saunders/Updike, a work of social realism by an author who is a minority, homosexual, impoverished, or all three, and a book history or politics that covers a topic we are already deeply culturally familiar with (Obama/Clinton/Bush/Churchill/the World Wars/The Founding Fathers/Google) and an essay at the end by a writer who has recently received a good review in N.Y.T.S.B.R.. Reviews are almost never mean and each edition of the N.Y.T.S.B.R comes with the sound of reviewers bending over backwards to say something nice about the books they’re reviewing. Friends review friends (and these friendships were probably formed at literary parties in Brooklyn, or for older writers, Manhattan) and no one is really held to too, too high of a standard… like whether a book deserves to ever be re-read — pretty good seems to be the highest point of praise.

***

Admittedly, even the best writers are not completely original (any writer who claims to be solely inspired by their own experiences is either lying or willfully deluded) but there is a degree of difference between being influenced and following a fad; there is a difference between a literary culture where originality is both encouraged and punished, (within reasonable bounds) and one where blatant copy-catting is overlooked because a) really profitable books can spin off profitable copycats b) raising our standards would mean almost everyone would be embarrassed (we can call this the “turning the lights on at an orgy” effect). As writers, it’s in our spiritual and aesthetic best interest to be lonely; great books get written in one wilderness or another and while I do think it is important to remain in contact with what other people are doing, reading the N.Y.T.S.B.R implicitly encourages writers to ape the stylistic and thematic fads that are represented there, week after week, with little variation. On a practical level, a publication on the scale of something like the N.Y.T.S.B.R is simply filtering the best of the books that have arrived from major publishing houses or some kind of underground hype–the N.Y.T.S.B.R  does not really do the “finding” themselves; at least it does not at all appear that way. This means that, for instance, when a completely unoriginal, flat book gets pushed by its publisher as the next great American novel, the initial wave of reviews just picks up on the pre-written narrative about the narrative and praises the new book for being pleasantly reminiscent of older, better books. To wit:             … it zooms immediately into the pantheon of classics, alongside “The Natural” by Bernard Malamud and “The Southpaw” by Mark Harris — but it’s also a magical, melancholy story about friendship and coming of age that marks the debut of an immensely talented writer. And here is a more recent example:     

“If those books were inspired by Donald Barthelme and George Saunders, “The Slippage” lands squarely in John Cheever territory, the   literary subgenre of realistic suburban fiction, with chummy cocktail parties, injurious infidelities and broken real-estate dreams. Greenman doesn’t attempt to reinvent this particular brand of fiction, nor does he delve deeply into the dark psychological complexities of his characters; instead, he skates on the surface of William’s consciousness. Hisprotagonist is neither fully awake nor asleep. He is not a man of heartfelt insight or ethical honor, merely one trying to get by. Unexpectedly, the success of “The Slippage” lies in this hazy, in-          between state of being, where Greenman can reflect on loneliness through his characters, adrift in their own personal grids of sadness.”

If we really believe this stuff, you know, that there’s nothing wrong with shamelessly borrowing another writer’s entire oeuvre for one’s own novel, then we’ve essentially stopped believing literary criticism has any function other than to detect influence and praise it. Literature is just a hell of a lot harder than a cross-section of the Sunday Book Review would lead anyone to believe and if I’m going to attempt writing literature for myself, I want to have an accurate sense of the difficulty. If reviewers were really honest, they’d dismiss nine out of ten things they reviewed and that would probably be generous. If reviewers were honest, they’d admit that they were probably reviewing the wrong books in the first place; that the book reviewing machine isn’t exactly aesthetically judicious. Literary criticism should help us guard against collective delusion or over-simplification; it should take books seriously enough to take them to task for being attempts to please teacher. The irrational obsession with memoirs is a good example publications like the N.Y.T.S.B.R  have been pathetically willing to review and often praise memoir after memoir that tread the same ground (alcoholism, sexual abuse, emotionally abusive parents, eating disorders, fame) without offering a single new idea to humanity about what those things are actually about. Unless the N.Y.T.S.B.R and similar publications start policing lazy derivative writing, either with no reviews or truly bad reviews, then as far as I’m concerned, they’re only part of the problem, and I’m better off spending my Sundays re-reading the sports section. [***I do believe that writers should come into contact with good, hard-nosed, well-written, pugnacious literary criticism… in which case it’s best to turn to the British. I’d recommend everyone read as much of the collected criticism of George Steiner, John Bayley, James Wood, and Clive James, among others, as they can. ]

  • Yes! Absolutely!

  • Wow, you captured very succinctly a lot of dissatisfaction with the Book Review that has been meandering around in my head. It’s been a long time since I “discovered” via the Times a new book that I really want to read. You are so right about the standard categories, but you left one out: the literary novel written in English by a foreign-born author. Doesn’t matter if it’s interesting or well-written, as long as it’s about the experience of coming of age in a non-English speaking place, the more obscure, the better.

  • I’d like to point out that the excellent Mr Clive James is Australian. And I agree completely with your opinion of the incestuous and narcissistic world of the Establishment book-reviewer.

    • Matt

      Oh yes I know James is Australian! What a silly error; though in all fairness his career was based in London and so I associate him with the UK reviewing world.

  • Sadly, you’re right. Influence and backslapping seem to be far more important than honest opinions. As a Dane, I don’t read the New York Times, but they are definitely not the only ones who shows this kind of behavior.

  • As a first-time author who would LOVE to see his book reviewed in the Times, I take extra umbrage when the newspaper runs two reviews of the same work, as it did for The Art of Fielding, to which Gasda refers above (“… it zooms immediately into the pantheon of classics, alongside “The Natural” by Bernard Malamud and “The Southpaw” by Mark Harris”) without actually mentioning the title.

    At the risk of sounding “sour grapesy,” my mind harkens back to the days of radio payola, when records labels influenced radio stations to give their songs extra play, resulting in extra sales. I’m sure that’s not the case with publishers and publicists pushing their books and authors (no lawsuits, please), but I’d be curious to see the research on what a listing on the Times’ best-seller list means in terms of sales.