Months ago, taking household garbage to the dump in Sag Harbor, I found a paperback of James Patterson’s 1ST TO DIE lying on a ledge for the taking, which I did. I’d never read him, and thought it might be worth reading on the plane when heading for our annual vacation in Virgin Gorda in February. Then, on January 24, The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story, James Patterson Inc., about the author who will be publishing nine books this year with Little Brown, an imprint of Hachette, one of the “Big Six” conglomerates. I was told by two people to read this article before posting this blog, and so I did. Rather than be put-off by this profile, I was impressed by it. Here’s a guy who started out wanting to be a writer and went, eventually, from a extremely successful ad man to an author whose first mystery won an Edgar Award. I liked the fact that he had a very rich reading background; that many of the writers he read as a young guy were the same ones I’d read and admired. I appreciated the fact that he’s written in many different genre’s, including books for kids, to help encourage reading. Also, the fact that he didn’t care what most critics had to say about his work, because his audience was vast: one out of every 17 adult trade hardcover books sold in America was written by him. I was intrigued by him saying that his thrillers were characterized by dialogue and action, as opposed to lots of background and painting scenery—that they were page turners, since the three writers of suspenseful novels I treasure the most—John le Carré, Elmore Leonard, and Chris Knopf—all write exceptional page turners that feature excellent dialogue and action. So what if Patterson employed 9 “assistants” who helped flesh out his plots and whose writing he supervised? Didn’t Michelangelo also employ assistants to paint the Sistine Chapel? And so I decided to start reading his recycled paperback four nights ago.
At which time the bubble burst and a different appreciation appeared. For the dialogue could have been written by an undistinguished high school junior, the characters had no depth, and the action was gore, violent and scary, like a Freddy Krueger film: slash, frighten, and terrorize… the very stuff of pop culture. What I came to appreciate was not Patterson’s writing (I put it aside at page 41, for it was a book that would have joined the other 5,000 rejects we turn away each year had we seen it in manuscript form), but how he fit so perfectly into what the largest corporate publishers have evolved into and increasingly desire; emphasizing the lowest cultural denominator—books that provide the largest audiences in both fiction and non-fiction that favor celebrities, gossip, scandals, and frivolous political coverage. The sort of books that are regularly reviewed by critics and are not very different than what one hears and sees on television’s nightly news cycles plus Entertainment Tonight. In America, the big political debate is about Main Street versus Wall Street, while in book publishing and publicizing there is no debate at all because it’s all about Madison Avenue.
There is a tale told about a middle-aged American from Kansas who, visiting Jerusalem set off to see the sights. When he got to the Wailing Wall he came upon something he’d never seen before: a thin young man in a black coat, with long curls growing where sideburns would be, wearing a yarmulke, rocking back and forth and bringing his head into contact with the wall while chanting in Hebrew. When he was finished, the American asked what he was doing. “Praying,” he answered. “Praying for what?”
“World peace,” came the answer. The Midwesterner asked if he thought it was working, to which the Israeli replied “It’s like hitting your head against a brick wall.”
It reminded me that in my last blog I noted that many guest reviewers started to appear in mid December in the daily Arts section of The New York Times, and that this might signify a change in coverage. But with the New Year it was apparent that Kakutani, Maslin, and Garner were absent only for a Christmas vacation and were now back in full force. In order to avoid a headache by praying for a different approach, I’m taking a bye from criticizing the critics. But I would like to send you one distinguished critic’s take on his profession that appeared in Salon.com in 1996, entitled CRISIS IN CRITVILLE: Why You can’t Trust Book Reviews. What follows are relevant excerpts:
In a tart and clear-eyed essay he titled "Confessions of a Book Reviewer," George Orwell once wrote that it is "almost impossible to mention books in bulk without grossly overpraising the great majority of them." And he added, perhaps unnecessarily: "Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are.”
Q: If Orwell's thesis about critics "grossly overpraising" books is still true, how can I test it? The next time you bump into a book critic at a party, ask what he or she has read in the past six months that's really blown their hair back, that they've really admired. Chances are they'll be stumped—at least long enough for you to refill your drink— even if they've written a heap of glowing reviews during that time. (In print, they purred about the new Edwidge Danticat or Thomas Beller book. In person, they get cagey.) I propose a new rule: Critics may only praise books they're willing to force their friends to read.
Q: Why do I keep buying highly-praised books that turn out to really suck?
Three words: literary grade inflation. Critics read so much gray, mealy, well-intentioned schlock that anyone who is halfway readable—T. Coraghessan Boyle! Barbara Kingsolver! Gish Jen! —begins to seem like a Writer for the Ages. Another word: laziness. It's far easier to write a positive review than a negative one. (Think about the mash notes you've written. Now think of the break-up letters.) Certain plummy phrases—"deeply-felt first novel," for instance, or "one of the best young writers of his/her generation"—practically come pre-programmed on the junior reviewer's laptop. Dissent, on the other hand, requires a deft touch, a nice high style, and enough knowledge and vigor to make your opinions stick.
Q: Are there any great, eagle-eyed, up-and-coming attack dogs out there?
Not really. Walter Kirn, the regular book columnist for New York magazine, isn't exactly a critical hero of mine, but he had a nice run going last year, grandly letting the air out of a whole pile of overpraised novels (including Cormac McCarthy's "The Crossing" and Howard Norman's "The Bird Artist"). You felt that, among the critics writing in the glossies anyway, Kirn was at least reviewing as if books really mattered.
Q: So, then, are there any reliable young critics I can hitch my reading to?
Nope, sorry. Kirn's fine for high, inside hardballs, and he's always a pleasure to read. But he's not remarkably erudite—and he surely doesn't have the world of literature spinning in his palm the way, say, John Updike does. (Updike is, hands down, the most reliably probing critic currently writing for a popular audience.) Lit crit, sad to say, doesn't seem to be a real calling for young writers any longer. Maybe the potentially great book critics are out in the ether, writing music or film reviews. Or maybe what used to be called belles lettres simply aren't as valued as they once were. In today's literary culture, the authors of grindingly second-rate novels are far more revered than first-rate essayists. Wasn't always so.
Q: Is the literary fame game rigged, as James Wolcott implied in his bruising Wall Street Journal review of the "The End of Alice," the new novel from that New York media darling A.M. Homes?
Not entirely, but probably more than you want to know. Anyone who's toiled at a women's magazine (I have, briefly) knows that it's far easier to pitch a novelist's new book if that novelist happens to wear a size 6 and look great in Anna Sui. Similarly, if Richard Avedon has ever happened to photograph you, even if you just wandered into the background of one of his street shots in the '60s, your chances of being profiled in The New Yorker are immediately doubled.
Q: Should there be term limits for daily book critics?
Four years maximum, given the track record of the critics at the New York Times and most other dailies. Daily critics, with the Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley as a possible exception, have the half-life of snow tires. They calcify quickly. These days you can count on Michiko Kakutani to swat at anything (Phillip Roth, Nicholson Baker) that—sexually, morally—puts some sweat on her brow. And reading the Times' other critics, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and Richard Bernstein, it almost doesn't matter whether they're writing pro or con; the tone doesn't vary. (Their earnest, straight-on, eight-paragraphs-of-plot-summary prose is the equivalent of what used to be called, in football, "three yards and a cloud of dust.") No one's regularly throwing sparks. Anywhere.
The entire article can be seen here. Two years later another Salon.com article of his appeared in Salon.com in which he had some not very nice things to say in a 1998 profile of Michiko Kakutani, where he quoted one book critic after another on how she didn't deserve her Pulitzer Prize. Months later this observant and sharp critic, DWIGHT GARNER, was appointed to join Kakutani and Janet Maslin as one of the three daily critics.
Ten years later Garner understandably recanted, denouncing his own articles in an e-mail to Media Mob, saying that "I wrote that article for Salon more than a decade ago, and its chest-thumping, know-it-all tone makes me cringe today. Michiko Kakutani is an enormously talented literary critic, and I'm honored to be writing on the same culture pages.” I can understand that, just as I can understand why Galileo Galilei recanted his belief that the earth revolves around the sun in his 1610 book THE STARRY MESSENGER (only 550 copies printed, by the way, which wouldn’t have made it in today’s publishing world, though it did get wide public acclaim) with evidence that the Copernican theory was wrong—when the Church insisted that the opposite was true. Galileo was also seen as having a youthful know-it-all attitude with his other observations before that time which had already cost him various teaching positions at universities. But, like Garner, I believe these first observations were the truest.
Before moving on to my heart’s current passion, Doris Buffet, let me add that I consider Dwight Garner by far the best weekly reviewer at the Times. Most everything I’ve seen him write shows a keen intelligence behind it, he isn’t focused as much on books by or about celebrities, and he doesn’t go in for covering so many books he dislikes—as do Maslin and Kakutani. My only disappointment is that he restricts himself to non-fiction.
I would also like to ask—as others have—that with such reductions of review space, why would the Sunday Book Review so often re-review books covered in January’s weekly Arts section—or vice-versa? Is there no coordination between the two? In their January 31 Sunday Book Review, there was a two page review, starting on the cover, of Patti Smith’s THE NIGHT BELONGS TO US, about the love between two celebrities—Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe (both Maslin and the Sunday reviewer, Tom Carson liked it). Then there was a full page review of Robert Stone’s story collection FUN WITH PROBLEMS, enjoyed by Antonia Nelson and dismissed by Michiko Kakutani in her daily review (Unfortunately for the reader, Fun With Problems is a grab-bag collection that’s full of Mr. Stone’s liabilities as a writer, with only a glimpse, here and there, of his strengths.)
And, finally, a full page review of 36 ARGUMENTS FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD: A Work of Fiction by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (Maslin liked it but her review mimicked her criticism of the book, expressed by comments like The plotting is so irrational and structure is not Ms. Goldstein’s strong suit, and neither is narrative urgency, while Sunday’s reviewer, Liesl Schillinger, goes on and on about the plot, stating near the conclusion, that The chronology floats back and forth across two decades according to no particular scheme; some characters are less developed than others; and the insertion of e-mail correspondence and inside jokes strike the reader as unhelpfully random. Curiously, for a novel that asserts the irrelevance of God, the unifying thread that knots all pieces together, however loosely, is Orthodox Judaism. I personally, can’t see anyone rushing out and buying a copy of this book based on these reviews, so how does on account for this? Does the author, as in Garner’s Q & A article, “wear a size 6 and look great in Anna Sui?” Or are either of these reviews potential candidates for The Donkey Awards, announced in my last blog? (Incidentally, a fifth jurist is serving on the Awards Committee, the Best Selling writer Daniel Klein, and I particularly liked a comment posted on my January blog by Gayle Carline, author of FREEZER BURN, who wrote A very good, thoughtful post, albeit depressing, especially as a debut novelist with an independent publisher. I only have one complaint—sounds like the winners of the Donkey Award have done a disservice to donkeys everywhere.)
Finally, on to something bright and beautiful to talk about: Doris Buffett, a non-celebrity who deserves to be celebrated. We’re in the process of putting together a biography, GIVING IT ALL AWAY: THE DORIS BUFFETT STORY, written by Michael Zitz, an award-winning newspaper reporter and columnist for The Free Lance-Star, a Virginia daily, who has known Doris since 1992, before she started to do philanthropic work with her Sunshine Lady Foundation. To me, she is the epitome of Mother Teresa in sweat pants.
At 82 years young, Doris, big sister of billionaire Warren, is on a mission. When she inherited millions in Berkshire Hathaway stock from a family trust in 1996, instead of clinging to it like a security blanket, she dedicated the rest of her life to giving it away—all of it—mostly to individuals in trouble through no fault of their own. So far she’s given away $100 million of her own money. She says she wants to give it all away; that she wants the last check she writes to bounce due to “insufficient funds.”
She began the Sunshine Lady Foundation, helping battered women, sick children, and at-risk kids who otherwise would never have had the chance to go to college. She’s also funding college programs for prison inmates, lowering recidivism. And she does it through “retail philanthropy,” often making personal phone calls to those who need help, one by one. But she still has a lot of work left to do, because each person requesting help must be checked out by the small, but dedicated, crew of her foundation.
Brother Warren also asked her to help out with the thousands of letters he receives requesting help, and supplies millions that Doris can channel to the worthy among that group. “She’s good at this,” Warren said. “She really cares about the underdog.”
The book, written with her full cooperation, begins with her growing up as the primary target of an abusive mother’s rage, goes on to talk about her having to watch every penny to take care of her family as a young wife and mother, and how, years after becoming one of the first investors in an early Warren partnership and making a fortune, she found herself $2 million in debt and almost lost her home in the 1987 stock market crash. It’s a life of many trials from which she has only gained greater strength and more magnanimity, a life in which she’s been estranged from her three children and endured four horrific marriages and divorces.
So much bad luck and pain would harden most hearts, and Doris has suffered through bouts of depression. Yet, she has kept her heart open, focusing on the needs of others. In 2007, The Wall Street Journal quoted Melissa Berman, president and CEO of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, as saying Doris’ personal approach and reliance on friends and non-professionals is unique, adding that most private foundations keep those they are helping at arm’s length, never getting involved in people’s lives.
That same year, Harry Smith of the CBS Early Show called Doris and her crew of middle-aged women volunteers a combination of “social worker, private detective and life coach.”
While the Buffett name has not meant a life of ease for Doris, it has created a sense, not only of responsibility, but of urgency to help others, and to get involved in a very personal way. She’s been knocked down repeatedly, only to get up, brush herself off, and go on. So there’s no greater joy for her than knowing she’s given someone else a hand up.
This biography fell into our hands through “marriage brokers” Howard and Karen Owen. We’ve published six of Howard’s novels over the years and a seventh, THE RECKONING, is due in December. Judy and I have become close friends of the Owens, starting in 1992 when we published his first novel, LITTLEJOHN. Both Howard and Karen are editors at Fredericksburg’s Free-Lance Star, where Mike Zitz’s columns appear. Right now we are working hard with Mike and Karen at editing so as to get our print run underway in order to ship somewhere between 3,000 to 5,000 copies to brother Warren’s Berkshire-Hathaway Convention, beginning on May 1st, where 35,000 people will be in attendance.
The links below will tell you more about this remarkable woman (a Wall Street Journal article and two videos).
Wall Street Journal
CBS Morning News - Doris Buffett Goes for Broke to Help City
One final bit of great news: Kirkus has survived!
I’m grateful to so many of you who have been spreading the word about this blog. Close to 900 hits on the January posting, Announcing The Donkey Awards, and nearly 3,200 for the last three blogs. If you haven’t signed up yet on Notifixious to receive notice when March’s blog is posted, I hope you’ll do it now. If you want more information about how our new fiction is faring, go to our website and click on the Newsletter.