Friday, March 9, 2007

Thursday Morning at The New School: "The Mandarin at the Minimart: What We Talk about When We Talk about Mass Market Fiction"

This post is a report on a National Book Critics Circle panel at The New School University and was originally posted on the esteemed blog Edward Champion's Return of the Reluctant on March 9, 2007:

The Mandarin at the Minimart: What We Talk about When We Talk about Mass Market Fiction

More and more often professional critics are called upon to review mass-market fiction. Mysteries, thrillers, romances, science fiction, ghetto lit — editors are getting more aggressive about assigning them, and literary writers (Roth, Ishiguro, McCarthy, Chabon, Atwood) more fearless about borrowing from them. Why do critics review genre fiction so condescendingly? Why does genre fiction get so little critical attention? Who are the hacks, and who are the pros, and how do we tell them apart – and do literary critics have the skills to do it? Join moderator and Time book critic Lev Grossman in conversation with novelist Walter Mosley, Publishers Weekly Reviews Director Louisa Ermelino, Little, Brown executive editor Reagan Arthur, and Entertainment Weekly book editor Thom Geier for a discussion about these issues and more.
(The New School University , Wolf Conference Room, 65 Fifth Avenue , Room 229)

~ Free and open to the public.

I got there about 15 minutes early and seemed to be one of the few members of the public there. Nearly everyone else, I guess, were newspaper book section editors, literary critics, people in publishing, etc. As a former taker of minutes at the Brooklyn College student assembly in the early ‘70s and many other academic meetings and weird clubs, I made extensive notes, which are kind of illegible now, but I thought people who couldn’t attend the panel might be interested in reading:

Before the panel, the critics were talking about the decline of book pages in newspapers, like the recent news of the folding of the Los Angeles Times Sunday book section into a larger section of opinion articles. One man (I wish I knew who these people were, sorry) talked about how online reviews may take the place of reviews in the paper. John Freeman of the NBCC said that the Philadelphia Inquirer’s book editor, Frank Wilson, is leading the way with his Books, Inq. blog that has apparently drawn traffic to the newspaper’s book reviews. Someone discussed that some papers put a few book reviews online only, and they don’t pay for these reviews, and someone else worried about the danger that this would only justify publishers who want to take away physical space in the newspaper – unlike print, putting reviews online costs nothing – and they might then decide, hey, if we’re not paying online book reviewers, why bother paying the reviewers in the dead-trees version?

John Freeman then talked about how authors who come to the Twin Cities get reviews and profiles in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, are interviewed on the local NPR station, give stage talks and go to bookstores; he said publicity should be bundled in a creative format, but the newspaper is integral to this. He wasn’t sure how the NBCC could be involved.

A woman (Helen?) spoke about meeting the new editor of the L.A. Times, a Mr. O’Shea, and she talked about moving book sections from Sundays, when the papers are so huge, to Saturdays; someone else noted that in the metropolitan area, New York Times subscribers already get the NYT Book Review on Saturday so maybe they have more time to read it.

Another man said Mr. O’Shea of the L.A. Times is a friend and that he really cares about books. Whether that translates to more book coverage, he wasn’t sure, but this editor was definitely not an enemy of book coverage. (Someone then said, I think, that he savaged Freakonomics in a review.)

Freeman said they had to wrap up the discussion because the panel was going to start, but he wanted ideas what NBCC could do (lobbying? events?) to help newspaper book sections raise their profiles. He told people with ideas to contact the NBCC board members.

Members talked about how the NBCC blog, Critical Mass, was a great step forward (there were kudos to Rebecca Skloot at this point) as was the fact that members could pay their dues online, which has improved revenue. Freeman closed by reminding NBCC members that March was the time to renew their membership and pay their dues.

Then Lev Grossman of Time and the other panel members took over the table at the front of the room. (I came in late, so I had to sit right up in front of them.) Here’s a kind of transcript. I may have some things messed up. My notes are pretty much a scrawl.

Grossman talked about the genesis of the panel. A few years ago he was in Palm Beach, Florida, to write a profile of James Patterson, and he felt uncomfortable, not just because he was tapering off his antidepressants: He didn’t know what critical language to use regarding Patterson’s work other than “lousy.” He said genre fiction was “hard to grasp for me” although he understands its appeal, but it was like a Higgs-Boson particle for him, not easy to describe critically and fill up three pages of Time. So today’s panel topic was taken to the board members of NBCC, and it had caused a lot of controversy. He read some critical emails, one of which said simply, “Genre fiction is inferior, mediocre.” Another email (or comment post, I’m not sure which) took a sarcastic tone, making fun of the NBCC deigning to discuss something that its members looked down their noses at. (I think it was sarcastic; Freeman said so, but otherwise it was hard to tell).

Tom Geier from EW: Why, for god’s sake, should we assign reviews [of genre books]? I’m not sure what a genre book is. Literary books are genre – consider coming-of-age novels that are so formulaic. Yes, I assign both commercial and literary books because that’s the world of books.

Walter Mosley was addressed by Lev Grossman as “a writer of popular fiction” and asked how he was treated by reviewers. Mosley said he generally got good reviews, except for Entertainment Weekly. He noted the crowd (I’m a bad judge of numbers, maybe 60? 75?) was very white and said all over New York roomfuls of white people like the NBCC members defined what culture is. He said coming-of-age novels are the genre in literary America . It’s impossible to find an genuinely original book that’s literary: they’re all imitative to some degree.

Lev Grossman asked what the dividing line was, if there was one, between literary and genre fiction.

Mosley said that he wrote all kinds of books and it was hard to say what the dividing line is. The tag he’s often given is that he’s the writer who created the first black detective, but of course he didn’t. He mentions Ted —– (I didn’t catch the name) and George Pelecanos and said they don’t get reviewed. Once critics have put you down as a genre author, they want to keep you in there. They give his non-mystery books reviews in the mystery section.

Grossman asked about bookstores because that’s where the hard decisions about who goes where get made.

Mosley said he’s never once gone into the African-American section of a bookstore. Toni Morrison is there, though she’s also with literary fiction.

Louisa Ermelino of PW said they review 100 books a week, including sci fi (they all called it that; no one said SF), mystery, etc. and they put a lot in their “mass market paperback” section. So PW has more latitude than newspapers. It’s a slippery slope. PW has a mystery editor, but sometimes they don’t know if a book is a literary thriller or a genre mystery and it’s a dilemma where to put the review. SF series books are very hard to review in the New York Times Book Review or Entertainment Weekly, but PW can make room for some reviews of them.

Ermelino went on to say it’s a matter of individual taste and that she’s addicted to Pringles potato chips. Books are in fact entertainment; however, the dividing line between genre and literary is there. Her own second novel contained a murder, and she was told by an editor to take out the murder because otherwise the book would be considered detective fiction. She closed by saying genre is in some ways a purely American concept; the demarcation between genre and literary fiction doesn’t really exist in Europe.

Mosley said that the American division is “pure capitalism.” Reagan Arthur of Little, Brown edits some writers seen as “transcending genre.” He asked Reagan Arthur how she sees these books, if she thinks of them as genre fiction.

Reagan Arthur, said yes, with George [Pelecanos?] and Kate [Atkinson?], it’s a different story. Kate’s first book won the Whitbread Prize over Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Her “genre” book got reviewed seriously because of her literary past, but it also brought her a totally new audience. Arthur mentioned other writers like Ian Rankin; she doesn’t consider them “crime novelists.”

Lev Grossman said (I think; my notes are a bit hazy) that Rankin was considered a crime writer and Atkinson literary. Reagan Arthur said she wants Rankin to be taken seriously and noted he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Ruth Rendell. Walter Mosley said Robert Parker wrote his dissertation on Raymond Chandler. In any case, things are different in Britain , where crime novels are regularly reviewed and even highlighted alongside literary fiction.

Mosley said he thought the smartest writers wrote science fiction. At that point Grossman brought up the heretofore unmentioned romance genre and called it “radioactive: reviewers don’t touch it.” An audience member shouted out that was because all the readers were women. Lev Grossman said that one-third of all novels published were, in fact, romance novels.

Louisa Ermelino said that at PW, they review certain romance novels under mass market paperback; I believe she said they review four a month. She added, “Good writing is good writing.” People talked about what a great story The Godfather was but how badly written parts of it were, and someone said the same was true of early Stephen King novels.

Walter Mosley said there was less good writing in the romance genre than, say, in science fiction. He added there was lots of really bad “literary” writing. PW’s Ermelino: “Oh yes.” EW’s Tom Geier: Some people find some genres off-putting; they don’t want to read 300 pages about space aliens. Ermelino: Alien is a great novel. Geier said he just knew the film. Mosely said, “A book is a book.” Yeah, Ermelino said, but PW and other review media are sent galleys labeled “suspense,” “romance,” “science fiction” – so partly it’s the publishers’ doing separating genre fiction from literary or general fiction.

Lev Grossman noted that Cormac McCarthy did a genre novel, that Philip K. Dick has been enshrined in the Library of America (he just got the galleys); Grossman said Dick has brilliant ideas but “the prose is bad.” Then he mentioned Susannah Clarke’s books; some are genre, some aren’t.

Reagan Arthur said how books are seen all depends upon how the books are “published” rather than the actual works themselves. She mentioned a vampire or Dracula book (I didn’t catch what she was referring to) which she viewed as “literary/historical” – clearly not for the same audience who likes Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. A novel of Susannah Clarke’s may have supernatural elements, but it’s “bigger” than just that. It’s not just for the literary reader and not just for the genre reader. It’s all about story anyway. Lev Grossman said, “You’ll get genre readers and it will also catch the literary market.”

Walter Mosley said that book readers were one thing, they were eclectic, but critics are “a whole ‘nother thing.” His mystery characters are somehow always seen by critics as more complex than the characters in his non-mystery books. In the L.A. Times reviews, the reviewer is always telling him to stick to Easy Rawlins novels; by now his publisher has stopped sending that newspaper his non-Easy books because of that. Mosley said he had to leave one publisher because they said they couldn’t publish one of his books, that they didn’t “do” science fiction.

Tom Geier from EW said Kate Atkinson can “go genre,” that Philip Roth can do alternate history in The Plot Against America and literary reviewers who don’t know that genre actually give Roth credit for inventing that kind of book, as if he were the first one to do it –- when there have been many alternate history novels written for years. The literary community can be blind to what they do not know. For example, critics who don’t know comics may have a hard time with Chabon or Lethem. Walter Mosley: “Well, their books are good, but their comics suck.”

Mosley said it’s very hard for writers to shift genres and seconded Geier’s notion of literary critic’s ignorance of genre. He brought up Octavia Butler; literary people ignored this fine writer. She told Mosley she once gave one of her books to a neighbor couple, and then, asking them how she liked it, they said, “Oh, we saw it was science fiction so we gave it to our kids.”

Tom Geier referred to a Helen Vendler interview in which said she doesn’t review younger poets who rely on so many pop culture references because she’s not familiar with them and therefore is not qualified to criticize such poetry. Lev Grossman referred to the schism between high and low culture brought about by modernism. The schism didn’t exist in the 18th century, although it started in the 19th century when popular literature was both stigmatized and feminized. Postmodern is supposed to be a melding of high and low culture, however.

Louisa Ermelino said that a hundred years from now, people are more likely going to be reading Stephen King than Philip Roth. Why would the Library of America be doing Philip K. Dick if he’s a bad writer? The notion of what a writer is, is changing. Dickens is still not considered literary among the Oxford/Cambridge crowd.

An audience member (it could have been Ron Hogan; I am very bad with names and faces) said newspaper book review sections are on their deathbeds and as far as popular culture is concerned, they don’t care if the review sections disappear because they were never covered in them anyway. Maybe newspaper review sections will have to become more relevant?

Tom Geier: There’s a simple way to do it; you do monthly SF roundups like EW does. These joint reviews make a bigger impact for the books. EW groups together books by Patterson, Sophie Kinsella, et. al. – they can group them as a particular genre and review them that way. Louisa Ermelino: There may be limited space, but they always seem to cover Stephen King.

Walter Mosley said it is literary fiction that is at the margins. He talked about the people on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn who sell large quantities of books invisible to and unknown by the literary community. (He’s referring to the many “urban” lit books I see sold by street sellers on Flatbush Avenue and on the Fulton Street mall.)

Reagan Arthur: What’s the purpose of a review if books will sell without a single review? She noted that the Denver Post seems to review more non-literary books than any other newspaper. The authors like the ones Walter Mosley was referring to probably sell more books than do much-reviewed novels by Claire Messud and Marsha Pessl, who got tons of reviews. Audiences manage to find these other books without any reviews.

An audience member (Sarah Gold?) noted that romance books have their own websites that contain reviews trusted by people who read romances. And they have their own critics who specialize in romances.

Chauncey Mabe, book editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel (the only one there I really knew fairly well) got up and said his paper doesn’t review romances for the same reason that restaurant critics don’t review McDonald’s: “it’s the same experience all the time.” The paper does regularly review mysteries. Good writing and bad writing can be found in both kinds of books. He found Ian McEwan’s Saturday atrocious. Then he said, “Literary fiction is a genre.” Every genre’s adherents have a romanticized history of the genre and everything can be good writing. Mosley: “Everything but romance?” Mabe: “Yes.” A woman said that she, like Chauncey, once hated romance but she managed to find some well-written novels in the genre – but they weren’t easy to locate: “It took work.” Mabe said they did review Nora Roberts and Janet Evanovich, whom he didn’t consider romance. Harlequin novels are romance.

Sybil Steinberg in the audience said that at PW, she used to get hate mail from romance writers. She said she cast a net out for reviewers of romance books, but a lot of people didn’t want to review those novels. And some of the strictly-romance reviewers’ reviews would be filled the same purple prose in the bad romance novels. It’s important, she said, with limited review space, to review good books. Walter Mosley: That kind of thinking can hurt writers, though, because they get no attention at all.

Someone in the audience (Peter, Lev Grossman called him) noted that NBCC has never nominated a genre book for an award. The argument could be made that we celebrate literary fiction (he mentioned Chabon and Lethem); we can easily say why these books deserve notice and an award.

Walter Mosley said it’s because of (elite?) education that they review the books they do. It’s also why there are no black people in the room. (Someone piped up: Yes, there are.) He mentioned a literary award for poetry and wondered why no Asian-American poet had ever won it. The poetry critics he asked this of said they didn’t know any Asian-American poets.

Chauncey Mabe said that Lethem is a science fiction writer, just a really good one. Walter Mosley said, “Readers are catholic; critics are not.” Readers, but not critics, will read both Philip Roth and Samuel R. Delany. (At that point I nodded, because I love them both, and then I noticed that Mosley was looking at me.) He brought up Edward P. Jones. Where were the critics when he was so many years between books, struggling in his job? Anyway, Mosley said, there’s a kind of tyranny today in publishing: authors must sell 50,000 books; if it’s just 20,000, the publishers will stop publishing them.

John Freeman said he learned about Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany in college courses. Universities, he and Lev Grossman said, are probably more open to acknowledging teaching genre today than at any time and more open to genre than some critics are. There are lots of Ph.D. dissertations being written today on genre authors. (Someone: That’s because Melville is all used up by now.)

The session ended with a short discussion of poetry reviews or the lack of them. People said that except for a few places, the very literary work of poetry fared no better in getting newspaper and magazines to review them than do the genre books which were the subject of the panel. With that, Lev Grossman thanked the participants, there was applause, people got up, and Walter Mosley gave out some free copies (I snagged one that he kindly autographed) of his new book This Year You Write Your Novel.