Monday, June 7, 2010

PIN THE TAIL ON THE DONKEY


The Donkey Award (Equus Asinus) was presented at a Press Conference on Saturday, June 5. In attendence were, left to right, Marc Schuster, myself, Dan Rattiner, and Joan Baum. There were six judges in all. The winner of this year’s Award had three jurists voting in her favor. A fourth vote went to some one else, and two jurists didn’t care who the Award went to (so many were worthy but one had to be picked), but felt it important to make a statement about the increasing trivialization and asininity of coverage. Nor was it accidental that all five finalists had their reviews published in The New York Times in either the Sunday Book Review or in the daily reviews.

There is no better introduction to this initial Equus Asinus Award than that written by Daniel Klein, who could not be with us at the ceremony as his play, Mengelberg and Mahler, was still in rehearsal, as it receives its World Premier at Shakespeare & Company Theater in Lennox, Massachusetts on June 11. One other note about Danny Klein: his novel, The History Of Now was a finalist for this year’s 2010 Massachusetts Book Award and received the Silver Award for Literary Fiction given by ForeWord Magazine at this year’s Book Expo. He is also the best-selling co-author of Plato and a Platypus Walked Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes. Here is Danny’s statement:

I did the math:
* Each year, 175,000 new titles are published in the USA.
* The New York Times receives upwards of 1,000 books for review each week.
* They publish reviews of about 30 of these each week (counting the Sunday Book Review). So we’re talking reviews of fewer than 1% of the books published.

This would suggest that the books selected for review should be in the top 1% of importance for the general reader. That, above all, they serve to alert the reader to new and significant ideas in print and major new works of literary fiction.

Not so. Not even close. Overwhelmingly, The New York Times chooses to review books of or about popular culture: celebrity biographies and mysteries by bestselling authors. Rarely reviewed are new voices in literature, philosophy, or translations by significant foreign authors.

Times reviewer Janet Maslin epitomizes this phenomenon. She moved smoothly from the film page to the book review page without missing a beat—her beat, pop culture. The print equivalent of “Entertainment Tonight.”

Thus do I choose Ms. Maslin and her double review of the pop mysteries, ‘Caught’ and ‘Never Look Away’ for this year’s Donkey Award. The books themselves are genre entertainments—I have no problem whatsoever with such books or their popularity. (There’s nothing wrong with reading for fun; I am not against fun.) But what is galling is that Ms. Maslin essentially criticizes these books for not being more literary. She has chosen to review pop genre books and then disparages them for not being more meaningful. Huh?

Maslin compounds this cognitive dissonance by writing her reviews in teen magazine prose, showing how dim the authors are by outdoing them in banality. She should receive a special award for The Worst Extended Simile for a section of that double review that begins, “When books start with such perfunctory tricks, their authors are in effect playing a classic version of Monopoly. Imagine a game board full of spaces on which the characters can land. The best destinations—Boardwalk, Park Place—are the ones that deliver truly startling plot twists.” It doesn’t stop there, or even with, “When a main character searching for a lost loved one becomes the main suspect in that person’s disappearance, the story is figuratively stuck on Monopoly’s low-end Baltic Avenue.” But enough. Enough!



As it turns out, Janet Maslin did win the 2010 Donkey Award for this double review. Yet when we asked those who read our news releases which of the finalists they would give the prize to, 50% were in favor of Stanley Fish’s review of Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue, 32% favored Maslin’s review of Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, by Peter Beskind (once again trashing the book), and 18% voting for Nellie McKay’s review of John Lennon: The Life, by Philip Norman. I would also add that all of the judges thought that McKay’s review was unreadable, as she tried to parody some of Lennon’s writing. One item of note is that this musician/songwriter/comedienne was born two years after Lennon’s death in 1980. Her conceit reminded me of the 1988 Presidential elections when Dan Quayle and Senator Lloyd Bentsen were the vice-Presidential candidate on tickets headed by George Bush Senior and Michael Dukakis. In one debate Quayle compared himself to John F. Kennedy, and Bentsen shot back telling this half-wit that “I knew Jack Kennedy, sir, and you are no John Kennedy.” Nor is Nellie McKay John Lennon—a man I greatly admired and once, after meeting with Yoko Ono, wrote a letter on his behalf, in my capacity as a psychiatrist, to prevent the Justice Department from deporting John because of a marijuana conviction against him in England.


But here’s my own take on why all the finalists came from New York Times reviews:
I’ve had a long association with The New York Times, having read it for over 60 years, since attending The High School of Music & Art (one and a half hours of traveling each way, by bus and subway, leaving plenty of time to read it). In 1959 I actually worked there during my senior year in medical school as a “Night Intern,” seeing employees who had accidents or were ill. I believed then—as I still believe now—that it is the best newspaper in America. But that high regard does not extend to their book reviews, which have slid rapidly downhill over the past eight years, due to policies insisted upon by Bill Keller, a prize-winning journalist who, in July 2003, was appointed Executive Editor, the most powerful person at the newspaper after Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the publisher. In earlier blogs I traced the relationship between which books get reviewed and which companies do the advertising. And I talked about the imbalances between quality books and passing celebrity fancies—that Danny Klein talked about. In my March blog (Applauding/Appalling) I wrote about an interview that Keller gave to Margo Hammond and Ellen Heltzel (in January 21, 2004), where Keller and Steve Erlanger, another journalist who became Editor of the Culture Desk in 2002(and had overall charge of the daily book reviews), announced “dramatic changes” to come, “top to bottom,”

"The most compelling ideas tend to be in the non-fiction world” Keller said. "Because we are a newspaper, we should be more skewed toward non-fiction." More attention will be paid to the potboilers, we're told. After all, says Keller, somebody's got to tell you what book to choose at the airport. “Why take up 800 words when a paragraph will do? Contemporary fiction has received more column inches than it deserves. Of course, some fiction needs to be done.We'll do the new Updike, the new Roth, the new Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith. But there are not a lot of them, it seems to me." He gets no argument from Erlanger. "To be honest, there's so much shit," the new leader of the daily arts section observes. "Most of the things we praise aren't very good. We need to do more policy and history. We need to be more urgent and journalistic." Some of the non-fiction books he reviews for "urgency" are poorly written, he admits, but for him this is less important than the book's contents. He and Keller, both see books as a launching pad for discussion. "Book reviews are partly a consumer service," Keller says, but they also "should be written for people who don't have any intention of buying the book."

I remember how I enjoyed reading the Sunday Book Review years ago when Harvey Shapiro and Rebecca Sinkler and Charles McGrath headed it. But all that was before Keller laid down the new line…one of which was that he wanted to review books that people would buy at airports. Amazingly, when I took a flight from LaGuardia to Richmond to meet Doris Buffett two weeks ago, there was A New York Times Bookstore at LaGuardia selling books that the Times had reviewed. It was a pocket sized shop, and there are at least 7 others at airports around the country with expansion plans “selling the Times brand.” No wonder Bill Keller said he wanted to review books that people could order at airports. The Times has been selling them there! One internet report said that earnings at their Airport Bookstores were over 150 million dollars a year or so ago. At LaGuardia there was a full display box of at least 10 James Patterson thrillers, which made me suddenly realize why Patterson, a very successful hack, was given a major feature in the New York Times Magazine earlier this year. Also prominent were Harlan Coben’s Caught and a plethora of other books the Times reviewed.

I became increasingly aware of how huge the Times is, and how influential—and not just The New York Times newspaper. A bit of web research show that it is a very closed self-serving system, one that increasingly fails to cover high culture—book wise at least—for very strong self-serving economic reasons, restraining trade in subtle but substantial ways. I quote from a 2005 web site posting:

The New York Times Company is a leading media company that reported 2004 revenues of $3.3 billion, which included sales of The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, The Boston Globe, 16 other newspapers, eight network-affiliated television stations, two New York City radio stations and more than 40 Web sites, including NYTimes.com, Boston.com and About.com. For the fifth consecutive year, the Company was ranked No. 1 in the publishing industry in Fortune's 2005 list of America's Most Admired Companies. The Company's core purpose is to “enhance society by creating, collecting and distributing high-quality news, information and entertainment.”

This transition from reviewng “high-quality” books to low is striking. Moreso when you realize that their syndicated reviews go out to newspapers across the country, including those they own. I remember sitting in Becky Sinkler’s office years ago, presenting some titles to her, when she got a phone call from an irate publisher who was angered about a lousy review. Becky said “I agree with you, but that book was assigned and the critic wrote what he thought, and there is nothing I can do about it.” Some of the Donkey finalists were similarly assigned books for the Sunday Book Reviews and, mean spirited though these reviews were, they were honest expressions of what they felt. Can we fault a critic for this? Not really in this instance, but we can hold them accountable for terrible writing (as in the case of Nellie McKay’s review of John Lennon: The Life, where blame can only be truly placed at the feet of the editors who let her get away with this). But the daily reviewers, like Janet Maslin, are free to choose what they wish to review, and some of these choices are abominable.

Here’s another contrast: On June 7 the day of this posting, Doris Buffett came to New York to promote Michael Zitz’s biography: Giving It All Away: The Doris Buffett Story, a book we just released. She started off with a Good Morning America interview with George Stephanopoulis. It was so successful, feedback wise, that ABC radio scheduled her for a live one hour Radio Tour on Wednesday, June 9, with their Radio Network Affiliates, and shortly after this interview her biography jumped up to 600 on Amazon.com. Nightline, originally set to run their filmed feature on Doris this evening, has postponed its segment until the 9th as well because of another breaking news story. On June 8 Doris appears on CNN’s American Morning, Fox Business News' Countdown To Closing, at 3 PM, And she will tape the Charlie Rose show for PBS.

This biography received a starred review in Publishers Weekly (“Zitz, a journalist befriended by Buffett, lets the dynamic philanthropist—who he describes as "a combination of Gandhi, Santa Claus and Lucille Ball"—tell the majority of her own story, making this more an oral history than a conventional biography, and a lively, inspirational read for fellow philanthropists and those who depend on them”, another excellent one in Kirkus (“Inspiring story of a woman who is using her wealth for philanthropy. The author offers moving examples of Doris’s philanthropy and rightly praises her support of prisoner education at Sing Sing and San Quentin prisons, among other causes shunned by most of her peers. Having learned what matters the hard way, she is determined to give all her money away to others who have also been unlucky in life. This is a readable portrait of a remarkable individual.”), and was lauded this past Sunday in the Richmond Times-Dispatch (“Her inspiring tale is a stirring and profoundly moving story.”) And yet, this biography was turned down by The New York Times Book Review non-fiction editors as not being particularly noteworthy. Playing Nostrdamus, I predict that the daily Times reviewers will not see merit in it either, as it's just another product of a small press that doesn't advertise and yet challenges how they go about their assignments, though I'm sure they would have other explanations for noteworthiness.

And so I looked at the two past Book Reviews and took note of what they considered noteworthy. In the May 30 issue there was a page and a half About The Value of Silence, covering three books telling us that keeping excess noise out of our lives was important but difficult to achieve; another page and page and a half about a book written by David Lipsky (not that well reviewed), a Rolling Stone reporter, who accompanied David Foster Wallace when Wallace was on tour promoting his novel Infinite Jest in 1996 (not that well reviewed). In their June 6 Summer Reading Issue there was a full page covering two memoirs written by journeymen baseball players (not very well reviewed); a third of a page about a food writer looking to find the perfect steak (he couldn’t); a full page covering two sex-symbol actresses who wrote their memoirs: Raquel Welch (Racquel) and Pam Grier (Foxy) which unimpressed the reviewer; a full page covering two memoirs about shopaholics (The Thoughtful Spender and Spent), and another two pages covering four books about baseball and a fifth about Astroturf). All of these books were published by conglomerate publishers. Expect to see them at their airport stores.

So what has this to do with The Donkey Awards? And the five finalists? Plenty. It’s another way of pointing out the difficulties of spreading the word about quality fiction and non-fiction. Can one ever hope to make the Times coverage of books more balanced…as it once was? Who is to say? But we must continue to have hope, though it often feels like trying to divert a charging elephant with a pea shooter. We are giving an award to a critic, but then again the critics are chosen by the executives to carry out Bill Keller’s mandate. Keller does a good job of covering politics, news, investigative journalism, and has good columnists. If only he could reevaluate his book review dictates and allow the book review sections to be run by literary people, how much better things might be for readers who would like to know about new writers and new books that they might like to read or discover.

3 comments:

  1. Given Keller's role in all of this, perhaps a special award is in order: The King Donkey Award (Asinus Rex).

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  2. A pleasure to read, Marty, but maybe you’ve got it wrong. Perhaps the Times books pages are simply ahead of the game, leading the way toward a bright new future in which newspapers humbly reflect the financial realities of the world around them. Forget New York, let us praise the trailblazers and subscribe now to The Asinine Times.

    By the by, I know donkeys, I’ve looked after them. They rarely bite the hand that feeds (show them a stale bun and they’ll follow you anywhere), but they’ll happily give you a boot up the backside when you’re not looking. Never, ever bend down in the vicinity of the hindquarters of a donkey, no matter how compelling the motive. Whether this holds true for book reviewers as well, I wouldn’t like to say.

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  3. I think I'll continue to take my own reading matter (and large carry-on cases) to the airport, though I still have to visit Powell's on every trip. It's kind of sad to read about the New York Times Bookstore though. Ouch! Hoping things will change, and seeing them change for the worse, but still. I do like donkeys. Used to ride them on the beach every summer.

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