This essay was originally published on Christopher Beha’s blog.
I had a Twitter conversation a couple of days ago with Jennifer Weiner, who spends a lot time banging her drum about the lack of coverage of commercial fiction in the New York Times Book Review. Fairly or not, Weiner tends to upset people with her tone on this issue and also tends to view people’s upsettedness about her tone as related to her gender, which means that the underlying argument about the critical reception of commercial fiction doesn’t get nearly as much attention as these other matters do, even though it’s a much more interesting subject than whether Weiner is a loudmouth or whether those who think Weiner is a loudmouth would think differently were she a man expressing the same opinions in the same tone. So I wanted to engage her on the issue itself rather than on her tone when discussing the issue, and she kindly encouraged me to do so. I take it for granted that anyone reading this is reasonably up-to-speed on the debate, so I’m not going to drop lots of quotes and links and other contextual pointers. I realize there is a risk that I will mischaracterize Weiner’s argument, and I trust she will correct me if I do. Lastly, I’ll throw in the caveats that I write for the Times Book Review a fair amount and hope to continue doing so and that my own books have been reviewed there and sell many fewer copies than Weiner’s books. Also, this wound up being pretty long.
Two points are going to serve as premises for everything that follows. The first is a factual observation: Way more books get published each year than any publication could possibly cover in any useful way. There has to be some method for selection. With a handful of critics reviewing a few movies a week, the Times covers just about every movie that gets national distribution each year, as well as most movies that get limited release in New York and those that wind up on screen even once or twice in New York during festivals. It would be absolutely impossible to do this with books. I raise this up front because some people like to point out the fact that the Times reviews big blockbuster summer movies along with all the prestige Oscar bait and indie or art house stuff, as if this were relevant to the paper’s treatment of blockbuster books, without seeming to realize that the Times reviews basically ALL movies that come along. Again, this isn’t possible in the book world. Choosing which books get reviewed is a huge part of a book section editor’s job, perhaps the biggest part. To some extent this is a zero sum deal; every book you choose to cover is going to force you to pass over some other book. This can be mitigated somewhat by covering more books at less length, say in “roundup” columns, which seems to be Weiner’s favored approach for getting commercial fiction into the Times. I think this is a terrible mistake, for reasons I get into below. But even if the whole Review is done roundup style so that they are covering four times as many books as they are now, this would still be a small percentage of the books being published and selection would still be a huge part of the assigning editor’s job.
The second point is more an assertion than a statement of fact: the TBR, like the Sunday Magazine and a few other weekend sections, is basically a standalone weekly rather than a section of the newspaper. It doesn’t have the same obligation as the daily paper to cover things merely for their inherent newsworthiness. The daily arts section covers the book industry, which means covering the merger of Penguin and Random House or the judgment against Apple on e-book pricing or changes to the National Book Award or the fact that Scott Rudin just optioned the big book of the year. To some extent they even have to tell readers what the big book of the year is—I see the merit in the argument that the daily paper isn’t doing its job if it pretends that the most popular commercial books don’t exist. I take it for granted that the Sunday TBR doesn’t have this newsgathering job. I’m willing to defend this assertion, but that’s a fight for another time. If you’re not with me on this premise—if you think that the TBR is on some level the books outlet of the paper of record and therefore obliged to cover books based on their newsworthiness—then what follows won’t make a lot of sense.
So we’ve got two points. 1) The editors of the TBR have to spend a lot of time deciding which books to cover; sheer numbers dictate that most books will not make the cut. 2) In making these decisions they are under no inherent journalistic obligation to cover one sort of book rather than another.
Let me clarify this second point quickly. Weiner often conflates gender disparity issues (basically, “VIDA number” issues) with the commercial vs. literary fiction fight. These aren’t unrelated, but in my opinion they are less related than Weiner likes to make them. I happen to be entirely on board with her on the VIDA number issues. So when I say that assigning editors are under no inherent obligation to cover one sort of book rather than another, I don’t mean that it’s their own business if they want to only cover books by men or white people or straight people or any other similar class. And if other selection criteria have the practical effect of systematically excluding women or writers of color, those criteria have to be junked or else modified so they don’t have that effect. It seems to be part of Weiner’s argument that the TBR systematically excludes the kinds of commercial fiction that women read and write while still including crime fiction and other kinds of male-oriented commercial fiction, that it has no rational basis for doing so, and that this practice has the practical effect of excluding female writers. This may all be true, and if it is true, it should be fixed. My fix would be to exclude crime fiction and other male-oriented commercial fiction as well as female-oriented commercial fiction. I see no reason why the Times couldn’t achieve a healthy gender balance and racial mix while completely ignoring commercial fiction of any kind, and I don’t see how the Times has the inherent obligation to cover commercial fiction in the way they have an inherent obligation to strive for better gender balance and racial mix.
Where that leaves us is that the TBR must be selective and, with the above clarification noted, they don’t really owe it to me or to Jennifer Weiner or to anyone else to adhere to any particular selection method. But what method do I think they ought to use? Well, I think they should aim above all else to run reviews that are, in themselves, interesting. Here’s where I get to the substance of my argument. It is my strong belief that what Jennifer Weiner calls “commercial fiction” and what everyone else calls “genre fiction” is by and large not very interesting to talk about, although it often enough happens to be interesting to read. Such fiction, even when very well made, is designed to conform to the expectations of its genre or subgenre, and usually the best that can be said about any given example of it is that it does or does not succeed in conforming to those expectations. Of course, it is possible to look at the rise of a particular genre—say, dark Scandinavian crime novels with explicit depictions of sexual violence against women—and investigate the significance of that genre’s sudden rise or fall in popularity. This kind of basically sociological review appears with some frequency in outlets that otherwise don’t cover a lot of genre fiction, and it can be interesting. But it seems to me self-evident that an outlet that reviewed every new dark Scandinavian crime novel with explicit depictions of sexual violence against women and attempted to explain why it was better or worse than the last dark Scandinavian crime novels with explicit depictions of sexual violence against women would get tiresome very quickly. Certainly that outlet would be performing a service to consumers of dark Scandinavian crime novels with explicit depictions of sexual violence against women—indeed, I suspect such an outlet already exists for just such consumers—but I don’t think the TBR’s job is to publish service journalism or consumer reports. There are already a lot of places doing that.
I need to take another step back here and deal with terminology. Most people use the phrase “genre fiction” to describe the kind of stuff Weiner calls “commercial fiction.” My guess is that Weiner resists using the phrase “genre fiction” because she wants to emphasize the fact that the “literary fiction” usually opposed to “genre fiction” is, itself, a genre, just like detective fiction or chick lit, with its own genre specifications and expectations. Assuming this is what she means to say, Weiner both is and isn’t right about that. We’ve all read books that read like they were written to conform to some preconception of what “literary novels” look like. Weiner is right to suggest that those books are, in essence, “genre books” that happen to be members of a noncommercial genre that is given a certain prestige for largely arbitrary reasons, one of them perversely enough being precisely the fact that they aren’t very inviting to the common reader and don’t sell a lot of copies. Some of these books are good and some of these books are not good, in the same sense that some detective novels or spy novels are good and some are not good: They either do or do not meet the built in expectations of the genre’s fans.
As it happens, I would be the first to admit that those books aren’t very interesting to talk about, either. But if I’m willing to admit that there is such a genre as “literary fiction” and that books that fit easily into this genre aren’t inherently better than books that fit easily into any other genre, I hope that Weiner is willing to admit that an awful lot of fiction doesn’t fit easily into any genre, either because it is truly sui generis (which is rare) or because it combines various genres in new ways (which is less rare). When these books succeed they offer a level of richness and surprise that can’t be found in books that fit easily into genre classifications, including the genre classification “literary fiction.” Even when they fail, they tend to fail in interesting ways. But that’s not all: one characteristic of this sort of book is that it is often difficult at first glance to tell if it has succeeded or failed, because we don’t know what standard we ought to be using to judge it. A person who devours Sue Grafton’s alphabet novels may finish U Is for Undertow and think, “That was one of Grafton’s best,” or “That was sub-par Grafton,” but she almost certainly won’t finish it and think, “Holy crap, what was that about?” This is not Sue Grafton’s fault; she hasn’t set out to make her readers say, “Holy crap, what was that about?” She has set out to give her readers the familiar experience of reading a Sue Grafton alphabet mystery. There is nothing shameful or ignoble about that goal. But once you have weighed in on whether U Is for Undertow has succeeded in delivering the familiar experience of reading a Sue Grafton alphabet mystery, what more of interest is there to say about the book?
So here’s my main point: Books that one doesn’t know how to read, books that challenge our ideas about what fiction is supposed to be doing, are more interesting to talk and think about. And at least when it comes to fiction, these are the books that I want professional critics weighing in on, so these are the books that I want the TBR to cover. Unfortunately, the phrase we most frequently use to describe such books is the same phrase we use to describe members in good standing of the conventional genre called “literary fiction.” This is one reason I don’t really like the phrase “literary fiction.” It is also one reason I don’t like thinking about books as members of genres at all. Instead I like to think about individual books. If I have to think about genres I suppose it could be said that the genre of fiction I find most interesting to talk and write and read about—the one I think the TBR should be reviewing—is the genre that has the genre specification “does not conform to any genre specifications.” For our purposes I would call this genre “holy crap fiction.” In case I haven’t made this clear, lots of holy crap fiction isn’t all that good. Certainly lots of it is objectively worse than the average competent genre novel. But even bad holy crap fiction is far more interesting to talk about and read about than a competent genre novel, because it requires making sense of. A corollary to this is that there is no such thing as a merely competent holy crap novel.
So if it were my job to decide which works of fiction got reviewed in the TBR, and I had the time to read each work of fiction that came across my desk, I would try not to think about genre at all. Instead I would just try to assign books I thought were interesting in a holy crap way. I suspect that if I did so, I wouldn’t wind up assigning very much of what Weiner calls commercial fiction, since most examples of what Weiner calls commercial fiction—even intelligent and witty and well-written books that I personally would more than happily spend a rainy Saturday afternoon reading—don’t set out to challenge or confound readers in the way that holy crap fiction does. But of course if it were my job to decide which works of fiction got reviewed in the TBR, I wouldn’t have time to read every work of fiction that crossed my desk. I wouldn’t even have time to skim all of them. So I would fall back on certain shortcuts, mostly having to do with publicist’s letters and blurbs and other promotional material and my knowledge of the author’s previous works and their bona fides. This wouldn’t be ideal, and it would lead to mistakes, so I would try not to over-rely on these shortcuts, but it probably couldn’t be helped. Eventually one shortcut that would seem irresistible just in terms of efficiency would be to discount right out of the gate books that advertised themselves as commercial fiction or as examples of a particular genre, since experience tells me such books are a lot less likely to be holy crap books.
As I see it, this inevitable shortcut would have two drawbacks. The first would be that occasionally I would wind up overlooking holy crap books that had been mislabeled as genre fiction. One of my favorite holy crap novelists, John Crowley, often writes books that bear lots of resemblances to sci-fi/fantasy genre books, and because of this the work was slow to get recognized as the holy crap work it is. So I don’t dismiss this problem. But I actually think it would be relatively rare, since I think that authors and editors and publicists usually recognize holy crap books when they see them and have become increasingly good at making sure such books don’t get dismissed by assigning editors as genre fiction even when they are trying to pitch those books to a wider readership as more conventional genre books. Anyway, I don’t see this as Jennifer Weiner’s problem. One of the things that makes Jennifer Weiner’s argument interesting is that she doesn’t claim that she writes holy crap books that have been unfairly dismissed as commercial fiction. By her own admission, she writes very good examples of a particular commercial fiction genre.
The much bigger problem with the shortcut I’ve suggested is that I wouldn’t be able to use it when it came to the genre called “literary fiction,” because too many legitimate holy crap books are labeled with that name. So when I failed in my mission to only assign holy crap books, it would almost always be because I’d assigned for review some literary fiction genre book about which there wasn’t much very interesting to say. I think most of us, even the actual assigning editors at the Times, would admit that this is a real problem the TBR sometimes has. And I can’t blame Jennifer Weiner, who writes books that are not only best-sellers but very well-made examples of her chosen genre, if she reads the TBR once in a while and thinks, “Why are they publishing another boring review of a mediocre literary novel? Couldn’t they have given this space to a decent commercial book like mine for once?” My response is that the first half of this complaint is spot on, but that the second half misses the mark. The TBR should try hard to publish fewer not-that-interesting reviews of mediocre literary novels. But that doesn’t mean they should give this space over to commercial fiction. Instead, they should redouble their efforts to separate predictable genre fiction of all kinds, including the literary fiction genre, from real holy crap books, and redouble their commitment to only publishing the latter. I happen to think there are enough holy crap novels getting published each year that the TBR could devote their fiction coverage exclusively to such books and fill its pages. It would require a ton of effort on the part of its already overworked editors, but it would be possible and it seems like a worthier goal than being more inclusive of commercial fiction.
I could say more about how holy crap novels are the ones that either dissolve an old genre or found a new one, rather than sustaining the status quo, or about how they influence other writers and so alter the literary tradition, or about how the very best of them even have a shot at altering the consciousness of the time and therefore these are the books to which a healthy literary culture ought to attend. And I believe all that. But basically the core of my argument is just about what books make for the most interesting reviews. Given this fact, there are two obvious objections I can anticipate. The first is that running interesting reviews shouldn’t be the TBR’s primary goal. But I can’t really think of a better goal for the TBR to have. If Weiner or anyone else wants to make this objection, they should say what the TBR’s primary goal ought to be instead, and I’d be happy to respond. The second objection would be that I’m wrong to assume that extended reviews of commercial fiction are unlikely to be interesting. This is a matter of opinion, but I suspect that Jennifer Weiner basically knows that extended reviews of commercial fiction are unlikely to be interesting, which is why she tends to call instead for roundups or capsule reviews. Indeed, the TBR has started doing more roundups and capsule reviews, and in this way covering more commercial fiction, and Jennifer Weiner considers this a real victory.
Without being too dramatic, I die a little every time the TBR takes space it used to devote to reasonably lengthy treatments of interesting books and gives it over to capsule reviews or roundups or author interviews or expanded best-seller list coverage or anything else besides reasonably lengthy treatments of interesting books. It doesn’t make me feel aggrieved or marginalized or silenced, it just makes me sad, and not because the philistines are muddying up my pristine literary space, but because I like reasonably lengthy treatments of interesting books, and not many places do them anymore, and lots of places do capsule reviews and roundups and author interviews, and I just don’t see the point of the TBR becoming another one of those places. This isn’t the same as saying, as some people apparently do, that because Jennifer Weiner already gets the readers and the movie deals and the capsule write-ups in glossy magazines and the television appearances, it’s greedy of her to want into my TBR, the last refuge for midlist literary authors. My concern is not for midlist literary authors; my concern is for having an interesting book review to read. If the TBR covered more commercial fiction, either it would have to run lengthy treatments of them, which would not be very interesting, or it would have to run more roundup columns of books, which would also not be very interesting.
So I don’t think Jennifer Weiner is greedy to say she belongs in the TBR. I just think she’s wrong. But it is true that the fact that she gets the readers and the movie deals and the capsule write-ups in the glossy magazines and the television appearances and every other possible emolument a writer could have besides coverage in the TBR and still spends so much time obsessing over not getting coverage in the TBR does raise interesting questions, the most obvious of which is why she gives a shit about getting covered in the TBR. The obvious answer is that getting covered in the TBR confers a legitimacy that Weiner believes she’s being unfairly denied. My basic response to this would be: tough. Remember, our first premise here is that the vast majority of books are denied the legitimacy of coverage in the TBR. Why should Jennifer Weiner’s books be any different? When Weiner gets asked this question she tends to respond, more or less explicitly, that the very fact that she has the readers and the movie deals, etc., means that she deserves the legitimacy the TBR bestows, and I think this is where some readers or writers of literary fiction start to think she’s being greedy. But I would make a more basic point, which is that if the TBR simply conferred legitimacy upon Weiner based on the commercial success she already has, that legitimacy would cease to mean anything. She already has whatever legitimacy follows naturally from commercial success. The TBR, at its best, does not set out to confer legitimacy; that legitimacy comes as a byproduct of the fact that they are selective in their coverage. That is, precisely because not everyone gets in. Turning the TBR into an outlet for roundup columns and capsule reviews in order to throw commercial writers “a bone,” as Weiner has put it, would just undermine that legitimacy. Weiner is suffering from the age-old problem of the person who wants so badly into the exclusive club that she tries to force them into an open-door policy.
Lastly, Weiner knows what kinds of books the TBR reviews, and if she wants to get into the TBR so badly, she’s probably capable of writing one. But such a book would alienate her core readership, who are looking to read another good Jennifer Weiner novel and aren’t in the market for holy crap novels. And Jennifer Weiner doesn’t want to alienate those readers. I don’t want to suggest that her unwillingness to alienate her readers is craven or cowardly or anything like that. She has a relationship with those readers, and she wants to respect that. Good for her. Those readers have done a lot for her, and they will continue to do so as long as she writes the books they want to read. What they haven’t done, and can’t do, is get her reviewed in the TBR, and that seems to me as it should be.
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The Actual World
“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.