Thursday, August 26, 2010

Gender, Genre, and the Politics of Book Reviews

"As it stands, thrillers and mysteries and speculative fiction can get daily reviews, or considered in the NY Times Book Review round-ups. Chick lit gets ignored, unless it gores one of the paper's sacred cows (note to self: don't mess with Anna Wintour!). Romance gets ignored completely...and that, I think, is the most damning argument about gender bias at the Times. How can anyone claim the paper plays fair when genre fiction that men read gets reviewed but genre fiction that women read doesn't exist on the paper's review pages?"
- Jennifer Weiner in a recent Huffington Post interview

There has been a lot of talk recently about whether or not female writers are getting the same respect and coverage as their male peers, especially when it comes to reputable media such as the New York Times, The Washington Post, or the Atlantic. While this has been brewing for ages (some might even say since writing was invented), the argument has been bumped to the foreground recently because of the New York Times' extensive coverage of Jonathan Franzen. With book review space so limited it caused an uproar when the New York Times Book Review (NYTBR) covered Franzen's new book, Freedom, twice in seven days. When he made the front cover of TIME the same week things blew up.

On the surface this seems to be an argument of whether or not certain books are considered Literary or Commercial. Literary novelists (such as Franzen, Foer, or Irving) get reviews, magazine spots, and advertising. Contrarily, commercial novelists (such as Picoult, Wiener, and Weisberger) don't get the critical attention, but they do get the sales. It can be argued that the more commercial writers just write populist fiction devoid of real substance, while the literary authors write fuller books that speak directly to the human condition. There's just one problem with that: the two overlap more than most acknowledge. And when the line gets drawn it is often drawn right between the genders.

It has been pointed out that if a man writes about family and work it is literary and cutting edge. Worthy of being lauded. Whereas if a woman does the same the book is called a "beach read" and doomed to the classification of chick-lit. This gets particularly sticky when you consider that the former books are getting hailed in the media while the latter are ignored entirely. Compound that with the fact that more women buy books than men and it becomes suspiciously sexist.

Do I, personally, think there is a sexist agenda at the NYTBR? No. Do I think there is some pretty serious gender inequality going on? You betcha.

I, for one, do not read chick-lit, romance, or beach reads (however you wish to define the boundaries). It should be noted that I also don't read books with the same themes, written by men, and classified as Literary. However, as both an academic and a reader of sci-fi and fantasy, I am sensitive to the shunning of genres as low-brow.

Weiner makes an excellent point when she points out that, "by willfully ignoring commercial women's fiction, the Times has made itself, as an institution, an unreliable narrator." When you chose to cover male dominated genres such as suspense and horror, but then chose to exclude female dominated genres such as romance, you are admitting your bias openly. You are saying that one type of genre writing is worth reading while another is not. And if the genre you are ignoring happens to be dominated by women, both authors and readers, you will be presenting a poor knowledge (if nothing else) of gender politics.

So what do you think? Should the NYTBR spend more time reviewing other genres, and give more attention to chick-lit writers? Should they even things out by ceasing to cover genres like horror and just stick to what is considered Literary fiction? Or is this whole thing one big miscommunication built on misperceptions? I for one vote for more book reviews overall so that every genre can get its day in the sun.

To read more about this visit this article on GalleyCat and read the full interview of Picoult and Weiner on the Huffington Post.

- t

Friday, August 13, 2010

Existentialism in Reading (or WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?!?)

"I went back to the sofa and started reading the rest of Anna Karenina. Until that reading, I hadn't realized how little I remembered of what goes on in the book. I recognized virtually nothing-- the characters, the scenes, nothing. I might as well have been reading a whole new book. How strange. I must have been deeply moved at the time I first read it, but now there was nothing left. Without my noticing, the memories of all the shuddering, soaring emotions had slipped away and vanished.
What, then, of the enormous fund of time I had consumed back then reading books? What had all that meant?"
-Haruki Murakami, "Sleep" from the short story collection The Elephant Vanishes

I read this short story my freshman year of college and this quote has haunted me ever since. There is a disturbing honesty behind it that I usually try to ignore. As a general rule, any book I've read more than three months ago becomes a blip on the radar. Even if I were asked now to compile a list of every book read so far this year, I would struggle in doing so. If prompted, I can recall general themes, or maybe a scene that I enjoyed, but usually this requires a long hard stare at the cover first or a brief skimming of the description on the back. I don't think I'd be able to name a single character from any of the books on my pick shelf by name.

I know I'm not alone, either. Many of our customers can't even keep track of which books they've read and which they haven't. Covers, titles, and authors all start blurring into one gray mass of literature.

So what, then, of the enormous fund of time I consume by reading books?
It took some thought, but I'm convinced that this time wasn't wasted. First and foremost, I love reading. And I would much rather not remember literary characters' names than not remember which episodes of Jershey Shore I've already seen.
Taking this even a step further, however, I may not remember a character's name, or even the general plot of a novel, but something sticks with me subconsciously each time I pick up a book. Murakami's short story "Sleep" is the perfect example. I have no idea what that story is about as a whole, or even most of the other stories in that collection. It's been three years since I picked that book up last and still the quote above stuck with me. It planted itself deep in my mind and that is something irreversible, even if I can't remember the name of the character who said it.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Go Ape

I never read Water for Elephants. It made a huge splash. It was recommended highly by people I know with excellent taste. It was written by a fellow NaNoWriMo participant. It even has elephants. And still, I never found the time to read it. So when an advanced copy of Sara Gruen’s new novel, Ape House, showed up in a box of goodies I snatched it up tout de suite. I was not going to miss the boat again. I have to say I’m glad I finally got on board.

I have a tendency to soak up fast-paced action packed media. I like explosions, car chases, and wise cracking anti-heroes. This book has none of that. Okay, I lied. It has an explosion. The book literally gets going with a bang. And from that point forward I was hooked. Car chases or no.

I would warn that this review has spoilers, but the main engine of the book is not the plot. On the surface it is a simple story: Woman teaches apes to communicate. Man meets apes and has a change of perspective. Woman loses apes. Woman, and Man, quest to get apes back. Nothing world shattering here. Fortunately the real heart of the story isn’t the plot. The plot is a skeleton to hang all the good meaty stuff on. And the meaty stuff is plentiful.

The people, and indeed the apes, are the real show stealers in Ape House. Every minute decision, feeling, conversation, and thought all add depth to the people of the story. The main characters are John Thigpen the journalist, his wife Amanda the failing author, and Isabel, who regards the apes as family. Then there are all of the secondary characters. Scientists. Rivals. Opportunists. And they all have their own problems and unique ways of interacting with the world. Also, let us not forget the apes, who have their own personalities and desires. All of these varied people become real throughout the crafting of the novel, and it is their lives that captivated me. It was one of those rare books that left me wondering about the characters when I was finished.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the greatest triumph of Ape House isn’t the characters, or even that I found it thoroughly entertaining. It lies in the fact that it shows so much by saying so little. Over and over it shows us our nature, and the nature of our ape cousins. This is a book that makes no effort to conceal its agenda. It shows us how very human the great apes can be. More interesting however is that it also shows how very ape we humans can be. By the end of the book man and animal become indistinct. And therein lies the argument the book makes so eloquently: are we really so different? And if we aren’t, then what?

I must say I am both reluctant and excited to pass on my copy of Ape House. It seems a shame to give it up, but I can’t wait to talk to someone else about it. The hole it has left on my shelf has been filled though - I’m pleased to say I picked up a copy of Water for Elephants. I feel confident this time I will get around to it.

Ape House goes on sale September seventh.

- t

Monday, August 9, 2010

What? Classics? GOOD?

It has struck me recently that classics are good books.
And not just in the "YOU SHOULD READ JANE EYRE BECAUSE IT'S LIKE A CLASSIC AND SUCH" way, either. Classics, it turns out, have usually done something to earn the title, and I think we often forget that.
Don't get me wrong. I dislike Great Expectations as much as the next person. Perhaps even more. It's tough to appreciate a book with archaic diction and sentence structure (Especially Dickens' syntactical train-wrecks. Hoo golly. [Yes I know he's a master of the English language. I don't care.])
But once you get past the frustratingly obtuse turns of phrase, you begin to pick up on the emotional brilliance of these writers. Deep psychological examinations of traumatized characters coping with the events of the story. Regardless of how cliche the specifics have become, the emotions transcend centuries.
Take Shakespeare, for instance. I used to hate Shakespeare. "He's over-rated," I would say, "A complete hack. He wrote for money, that's it. Sure, he was good in his time, but we're past that now."
And then I read Hamlet again.
Something you never notice about that play is how blatantly, how strikingly, and how gut-wrenchingly unhappy it is. Hamlet's soliloquy, the one that begins "To be or not to be, that is the question..." is about suicide.
Today we see as melodrama; something to be ridiculed and poked fun at, ever since Mel Gibson's garbled rendition that ignored an entire scene and ruined Hamlet's reputation for an entire generation, spawning the skull-holding cliche that still haunts us today(I'M NOT BITTER NO NOT AT ALL.) My first memory of Hamlet was when it was 'performed' on the cartoon Animaniacs one bright Saturday morning sometime in the early nineties. Hamlet was performed by Wakko, in a faux-British accent that grated on my nerves even then.
I laughed. It was funny.
Just play that back in your mind for a moment. I laughed. It was funny.
This just goes to show how much we, collectively, don't understand Hamlet.
For contrast, here is the beginning of the actual soliloquy:

"To be or not to be– that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep
No more – and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to – ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause."

Hamlet is saying that death is preferable. End your troubles. Sure, go on with life; suicide might not be worth it. But, then again, what if it is?
I mean, holy crud.
And then there's the whole issue of whether or not he actually means it or if he's just pretending in order to throw off his fiance Ophelia who's been used to gauge Hamlet's madness by her father Polonius who is the right-hand man of Claudius, the King of Denmark (who we all know killed Hamlet's father and married his mother, just for kicks.)
Just about the point where Hamlet accidentally stabs Polonius causing Ophelia to go mad with grief and drown herself, I remebered that the play Hamlet was totally awesome.
That's the problem with classics: we see them so often that nobody remembers how rad they are. The list doesn't stop with Shakespeare, either. Everything from Hawthorne to Dostoyevsky is worth reading. Forget Twilight, read Wuthering Heights. If you're looking to be depressed, read The Sun Also Rises. For comedy, A Confederacy of Dunces.
It turns out, there's a reason that your high-school teachers made you read these books. People have been feeling the same emotions for generations upon generations. Sometimes, an author finds the best way to capture those emotions with words; when that happens, a classic is born.
In short:
Read classics. There's a reason they're good, even if you know the story.
Except Dickens.


Thursday, August 5, 2010

We're hiring! Or: thoughts on bookstore life

Working in an independent bookstore is the best job I've ever had. EVER. I love the environment, the customers, my co-workers, and the feeling that we are building something of value to the community. After all, we help make available knowledge, entertainment, and a sense of community. I've had other jobs, even other careers, I've sold pets, men's ties, and movie tickets. I've been a counselor and an educator. But the biggest miracle of my life has been that I turned what started as a way to pay for grad school into a vocation, in the broader sense of the word.

And we're hiring! You're welcome to go here and fill out an application. But beware: more than a love of reading is necessary to work in a bookstore. In fact, it's highly unlikely that you're going to be reading much, if at all, at work. Here's some thoughts on life in an independent bookstore from the manager of the Twig Bookstore in San Antonio:

"It is a fantasy to think that you can sit behind a counter and read until a customer comes up to pay for a book. Bookselling requires physical and mental stamina. Ordering books requires poring over catalogues with publishing representatives, vendors, and authors. These days a bookseller must have a comfort level with various computer programs from point of sale programs to search engines and publication designs. Boxes of books come daily that must be unboxed, received, and shelved. Organizational skills go beyond alphabetizing. Marketing books once they are in takes retail and design sense. Shelves must be culled of books that are not selling and returned to the publishers or authors. And there is always dusting and sweeping to be done. Oh yeah, and then read, read, read. I used to feel like all I had time to read was the back of a book. After a year as manager that has improved somewhat.

"I have found booksellers to share a common ideal about the world. We care deeply about our communities, about the power of the written word throughout the centuries, the importance of sharing the stories of our human condition. We are finding and even creating new ways to connect with each other, between various organizations and businesses, in partnerships and special projects."

To this list of things to do I would add: playing detective for vaguely remembered but much-desired books, holding back the chaos of the children's section, being ready for whatever questions or problems arrive at your counter and going the extra mile EVERY TIME, and being pretty whippy on the computer too.

Still the best job I've ever had.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Tweed vs. Polyester (and Zombies?)

Anyone can tell you that what is old will eventually be new again. Our culture is constantly recycling itself. I remember one summer I raided my mother's closet for fashion gems from the 70s, which were the height of cool all over again. I find it particularly interesting is when this happens with literary culture. Watching as Hollywood releases yet another remake of Dracula, and then observing the subsequent rush to read the original novel. And how many versions of Hamlet have made it to the silver screen now? I've lost track. Perhaps the most intriguing phenomenon I've been witnessing, however, isn't just a resurgence of classics, but rather a poppy and youthful reinvention of them.

It used to be (at least in my recollection) that books like Jane Eyre were approached with a certain dread by teens. Classic British literature was dusty and dry, something you skimmed because it was assigned or because you wanted to flesh out your reading list. Somewhere along the lines this changed, and suddenly such books are the height of cool.

It’s tricky to pinpoint the exact time that this transition occurred - when classics got that extra bubblegum oomph that launched them from the Ivory Tower and into mainstream pop culture. Was it Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet? Or perhaps a better springboard could be Clueless? Whenever it happened, it is in full swing now. And the mash-ups and cultural spins that have followed are numerous and colorful. When you start running across things like Jane Austin Fight Club and faux Brotë sister action figures on YouTube you know the phenomenon has gone from in-joke to mainstream satire.

The media is saturated with references and spoofs, and our books shelves are no exception. We have mash-ups aplenty: Pride and Predjudice and Zombies. Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters. Dawn of the Dreadfuls, and let us not forget the newest addition: Android Karenina. And then there are the remakes. Just this week I came across and advanced reading copy of Jane by April Lindner (due out this October), which is described as, “a modern retelling of Jane Eyre with an iconic rock star twist.”

It has taken me a while to settle on my feelings regarding all of this. Part of me finds it delightfully comedic and appealing. Still another part (I suspect the part that got a degree in English) finds it all somewhat disheartening. After all, must we really add zombies to make literature appealing? There is this though: people are reading classics again. Sure, they may be chopped up or retold, but people are reading them. Isn’t that better than them not reading them at all?

What do you think, dear readers? Is this just the next step up on evolutionary ladder for literature, a fine blending of popular culture and literary culture? Could it simply be a trend that will come and go like the bell-bottom jean? Or is it a slip down the rungs, another step deeper into the “dumbing down” of reading that some fear has taken hold?

- t

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Jose Luis Borges

This 20th century, blind poet/essayist from Argentina was, I believe, ahead of his time. Check out his surrealistic essays, mostly less than one page, in Dream Tigers to discover that he was the consummate flash fiction writer, 50 or 60 years before the term was invented. I don't know how the man managed to evoke memories of places and people using just a few sentences, perhaps because I'm not a world-class writer...

Respond if you have opinions about Borges! I would love to hear alternative points of view.