Christian Lorentzen articulates a lot of my concerns with the current state of book reviewing in a new article in Harper’s, Like This or Die: The Fate of the Book Review in the Age of the Algorithm.
I talked about these issues in a previous links post, in which editors bluntly said that reviewing wasn’t enough, book conversation was what people wanted. I call it “book-adjacent” conversation, since most of the time, as Lorentzen points out, we’re either praising the authors for having written the book (which we aren’t talking about in any detail) or we’re asking them what’s on their nightstand or who they want to invite to a bookish dinner party. Not that those aren’t fun questions — hey, I read the NYT’s “By The Book” column most weeks — but they’re not reviews.
There’s a good discussion of the Lorentzen piece on the Three Percent Podcast (it starts at the 50 minute mark). I agreed, sadly, that the space for reviews which are neither raves nor hatchet-job pans is going away, and when the few outlets for booktalk that are still around focus on shareability of content over other aspects, it makes for a much less vibrant discussion space.
The content maw is a terrible thing for culture, not just politics. It’s basically a terrible thing for humanity. Not as terrible as climate change or white supremacy, sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not terrible.
The New Yorker recently published an article on the latest YA kerfuffles around authenticity, own voices, and appropriation. This round, which saw two debut authors choosing to pull their upcoming releases after substantial criticism by those who had and those who hadn’t read the books, had already been covered widely. But it’s something new to see The New Yorker weighing in.
I thought it was a pretty balanced article as these articles go despite the inflammatory title. Waldman is writing from outside the community (as far as I know) but from inside the publishing industry, and she focuses on what I agree is the main issue here: power. The power to publish is dominated by white men and women, but increasingly readers and fellow authors have the power to raise public awareness of work that is appropriative or just tone-deaf. The extent to which publishing isn’t progressing is encapsulated in this paragraph:
A digital-marketing manager at a major publisher, who used to work in kid lit, wrote to me in a Facebook message, “The majority of those who make the editorial and marketing decisions about Y.A. books are not within the typical Y.A. reading range, don’t regularly consume the content beyond what their work would demand (this is in contrast to the people lower down who are genuine fans of the genre), and, most importantly, don’t trust the people lower down when they give them advice about both problematic content and content that audiences are hungry for.” This person says that she witnessed multiple instances of coördinators, managers, and assistants getting shot down after they’d approached their bosses with concerns about offensive material. When, several times, she e-mailed editors about what she saw as problematic passages in manuscripts she’d read, she did not receive a response. At a meeting about a story that portrayed “a marginalized perspective/religion,” she recalled, “I asked if there were any readers of color on the project, meaning readers of that specific marginalization.” The higher-ups “pointed to the one black woman in the room, an assistant, and said she read it.” The book in question was not written by a black author, and the characters in question weren’t black.
Unlike a lot of people opining about the Zhao and Jackson novels, Waldman appears to have actually read the books.
Update: Janine pointed us to a statement by the RWA President, HelenKay Dimon, which says the current RITA judging system will be changed for 2020. In addition, Cherry Adair, who had been chosen to receive the RWA’s 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award. It is beyond my ability to sum up the events leading to this decision, but this Twitter stream can get you started.
And finally, some some good news: the 2019 Whiting Awards have been announced. They bestow $50,000 each on emerging authors in nonfiction, fiction, drama, and poetry. I’m particularly pleased to see Terese Marie Mailhot’s name on the recipient list. She wrote a powerful and moving memoir, Heartberries, which came out in 2018 but didn’t get as much press as I’d hoped. That might have been because it was released near the same time as There There (the Highlander Problem), but perhaps also because she’s Canadian and US/UK media are terrible about covering Canadian literature. The same thing seems to have happened with Tania Tugaq’s similarly difficult-to-classify book, Split Tooth.
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