Sunday, June 17, 2007

Of Onions And The New York Times

I spent Saturday afternoon running errands--buying everything from cotton balls to automotive antifreeze to either the seventh or eighth collar and tag for Dinah (I've lost count of how many I've bought her in the last six months. Suffice it to say, we're into three figures dollar-wise by now).

I also managed to score some sweet corn and sweet onions while I was out.

Although I know Georgia is rightfully proud of their Vidalia onion, I'll put the Texas sweet onion up against theirs any day of the week. Lots of people don't know that onions are Texas' leading vegetable crop. Texas A&M University is constantly churning out new varieties of pest-resistant onions. My middle brother almost had an orgasm a few years ago after planting one of A&M's "special" onions in his garden.

There is no better meal on a cool spring evening than shrimp scampi, buttered corn on the cob and Texas sweet onions--eaten on a dimly lit patio surrounded by the smell of rain-soaked grass.

Speaking of onions, The New York Times recently premiered its book blog, which it calls The Skim. Dwight Garner is the columnist. He got into a discussion in the comment thread of the column with a disgruntled romance writer during his first week on the job.

I'm going to offer a portion of their conversation here. Warning: I've edited both Garner's posts and those of the writer, Jennifer Weiner.

Jennifer began with this salvo:

Can you give us some insights into how reviewers make their choices? Do you all get a supersecret list of which books/authors/imprints are important enough to merit a mention? Have reviewers noticed that it’s the same tiny handful of authors who get written up everywhere, while there are authors — and, in the Times’ case, entire genres — that never get mentioned at all?

Garner responded by directing her to a quote by Sam Tanenhaus, the NYT Book Review's editor:

Our mission is very simple: to publish lively, informed, provocative criticism on the widest-possible range of books and also to provide a kind of snapshot of the literary culture . . . There are many, many books published each year . . . Our job is to tell you which ones we think matter most, and why, and to direct your attention to authors and critics who have interesting things to say, particularly if they have original ways of saying them.

Jennifer tried again:

What are the criteria for making the cut? What are the previewers looking for? Tanenhaus never says . . . Writing romance – a genre that the book review has never covered even in the cursory roundup form – gets an automatic skip (unless, of course, your book is roman-a-clef-ish chick lit that gores a recognizable NYC sacred cow. . . I’d love it if someone at the Review could spell out what qualifies as literary enough to notice, what gets automatically dismissed, and how a memoir about anal sex fell into the first category.

Garner's condescending response followed:

Reviewing romance novels: whew. We don’t have room to review so very many things we’d like to; is reviewing romances really the best use of our space? Can’t the readers who love them find news of them elsewhere?

Who does do a good job of reviewing them, anyway? Who is the Lionel Trilling of romance critics? Maybe we should hire that person, whoever he or she is.

Jennifer stuck to her guns:

So, to recap….

1. It’s important for The Book Review to weigh in on the new DeLillo because DeLillo is important. It’s not important for TBR to spare so much as a mention for the new Jodi Picoult, which will sell many, many more copies than the new DeLillo because Picoult isn’t important, and readers will find out about her anyhow. Carry this argument to its logical extreme, and you end up with the paper’s film critics saying, we’ll review the new Almodovar, because Almodovar is important, but we won’t waste a word on “Knocked Up,” because it’s popular and viewers will find out about it anyhow.

2. We don’t have room to review romance, but we have made room to published roundups for mysteries and sci-fi.

This strikes me as problematic, especially given how many more readers buy romance than any other genre. And I don’t think it would be that hard to find someone qualified to write smart, discerning reviews separating the wheat from the chaff.

3. I still wish someone at TBR [The Book Review] would take readers behind the curtain and explain how the reviewers and previewers decide what’s important enough to cover. The DeLillo is a given; no quarrel there. But why review Dana Vachon? Because the book got buzz? A big advance? Did the editors think his book was better than the hundreds of other debut novels that didn’t get covered this spring? Why did Sally Koslow’s LITTLE PINK SLIPS get two Times reviews, when the vast, vast majority of books like hers get none? Because she’s a well-connected New York City magazine editor? Because the book was took thinly-veiled shots at a real-life celebrity? Just…why?

Garner decided to abandon the field:

Thanks for your note. All the assignments we make are subjective, for sure, and we miss good books *all the time* — interesting bad books, too — and we definitely agonize about it. And try to get it right.

It’s good to have your comments to chew on.

Hope you’ll keep reading. I’ll be looking (really) for that great romance novel critic.

At this point, other women--probably as annoyed by the condescending tone of Garner's earlier posts as I was--jumped into the fray. My favorite comment was posted by Charlene:

What I’m getting from your comments, Dwight, is that you feel the romance genre is not even worthy of respect.

This apparent scorn for the genre concerns me, especially since it doesn’t seem that you’re dismissive toward science fiction, which has as many bad books by percentage as romance does (if not more). It makes me wonder whether part of your apparent dismissal stems at least unconsciously from the fact that romance novels are largely written to appeal to women while science fiction is mainly written to appeal to men.

Regulars to this blog know that I'm an avid reader of The New York Times. I love the Gray Lady, but that doesn't mean that I can't recognize when it is being arrogant and elitist.

As one of the posters said, no one expects The Times to review supermarket throwaway romances. However, it would be nice if they would begin reviewing some of what is often called "women's fiction."

Like Jennifer, I am a big fan of Jodi Picoult. Since 1992, she's written fourteen novels. I've been reading her books for almost ten years. Just for fun I did a search on The New York Times website for mentions of Jodi. I got 72 hits. Of those 72 hits, TWO were reviews--both within the last three years. The other 70 hits were two calendar notices of appearances, two news stories in which she was mentioned, an interview in the Long Island Journal, two "Books in Brief," two notices of her wedding back in 1989 and 61 notices of her appearance on either the paperback or hardcover best-seller list. That's right; I said SIXTY-ONE! Show me another author who has hit the best-seller list with such regularity without more attention from the NYT, and I'll show you another writer of romance or women's fiction.

I found the entire exchange between Garner and Jennifer symptomatic of a problem in publishing in general when it comes to what is called "women's fiction."

What is women's fiction anyway? I'd describe it as stories about relationships, families and children--the things women care about. My question is, "Don't men care about these things, too?"

I've told this story before. My youngest brother is a fairly well-known sports columnist. He travels a lot for his job and is a huge reader on airplanes and in hotels. We exchange books and phone calls about books all the time. It took me two years to convince him to try a Picoult book.

The funny thing is that, once he tried one of her novels, he became as devoted a fan as I am.

Sure, I don't read a lot of the purple prose on the market, but I am offended that good material gets short shrift because it's labeled for women. There's something really wrong about that mentality.



David Roth said...

Hi Maya,

I have to take issue with your preference for Texas Sweets over Vidalia, even though I understand it. There are a lot of onions out there calling them Vidalia when they're not. In fact, one of our local stores leaves the 'Vidalia' sign up year round even though the seasonal variety currently in the bin might actually be Texas, Mayan, or some other sweet onion variety.

The real problem with Vidalia, but what sets them apart when you get a genuine Vidalia, is that they simply don't last long. The rings themselves are very thick, and their flavor - especially grilled - has no equal, in my humble opinion.

On to other things.

As you know from reading my posts in Mike's list, I'm a huge proponant of writers no one has ever heard of. People like Ed Lord (from Mike's list), yourself, J.W. Coffee and Lorrieann Russel. These individuals (I'm going to go out on the limb and include you here based on your posts and BLOG, since I haven't actually read or reviewed your book yet) have written very good novels - at least as good as the stuff being pushed by the big houses and the critics such as the one you mention in this BLOG, yet they go unnoticed.

I am a fan of Dianna Gabaldon's Outlander series, and even though I thought A Breath of Snow and Ashes was sluggish and uninspired right except for the last 100 pages or so, I still enjoyed reading it. It's certainly a cross-genre novel, with elements of romance, sci-fi and historical fiction, and my wife had to pull teeth with me to get me to read the first one. After that I went looking for them.

Lorrieann Russel's trilogy (My Brother's Keeper, In the Wake of Ashes, and the forthcoming By Right of Blood) is as good as anything Gabaldon has written, but you'll not read about it anywhere other than what those few of us who have 'discovered' her have to say.

Ditto Jesse Coffee's A Wager of Blood - in the Anne Rice league. Ned Lord's All the Guys are Bad Guys is on par with Clive Cussler.

It's not just Romance novels that are not getting noticed.

By the way, I thought that the woman in the dialogue you reference came across as confrontational and having a chip on her shoulder, but maybe that's because I'm a guy and deficient in some way :o)


Maya Reynolds said...

David: Thanks for the male POV on this matter.

Yeah, I agree Jen was confrontational. I know exactly how she feels. If Garner had been talking down to me the way he was talking to her, I would have been every bit as confrontational as she was.

For the record, I cherish the differences between men and women. I don't regard your sex as deficient in any way. A little slow sometimes, but never deficient ;)

Your email is a perfect example. You were fair and honest.

Thanks for posting.



Maya Reynolds said...
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