The Only Kind of Fiction the Times Book Review Should Cover Is Holy Crap Fiction

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Sept. 12 2013 4:00 PM

Why Jennifer Weiner Is Wrong About the Times Book Review

It doesn’t need to review more popular fiction. Or lit fiction, either. It needs to review holy crap fiction.

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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.

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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.

Christopher Beha is a deputy editor of Harper's Magazine and the author of What Happened to Sophie Wilder. His second novel, Arts and Entertainments, will be published next year by Ecco/HarperCollins.