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.