School, snow, freezing rain, ice; all the fun stuff.
Between the intro sessions and the MLK holiday, I’ve only taught 50 percent of my class periods over the last two weeks. One is going very well, the other is only OK, perhaps because I haven’t taught it in three years and I’m still feeling my way to a rhythm. They’re both set up the same way, with theoretical and abstract readings to provide a foundation, but I walk out of them feeling quite differently. Oh well, it’s the beginning and it’s me, not the students. The OK one will improve.
I forgot to mention that I’m the Director of Undergraduate Studies this semester. A colleague and I have split the work for the last two years and this is the last of it. I describe being DUS as comparable to being nibbled to death by ducks: there are rarely big crises, but there’s always something. So. Much. Email.
Nothing else I can really write about, just the usual meetings. My two regular seminars start up again this week and next, so that will provide a rhythm along with class times. I have some letters of recommendation to write and a bunch of research papers to write up comments on.
The Chiefs are going to the Super Bowl! I’m so happy for the team and the fans. They are a blast to watch, and it should be a great game. As a long-time 49ers fan as well I suppose I should be rooting for them, but it’s Chiefs all the way. Time to dig out our magnetic car logos and wear my logo wool varsity jacket.
One of my 2019 holds from the library came in, Javier Cercas’s latest “nonfiction novel” Lord of All the Dead. It’s a companion work to Soldiers of Salamis and so far it’s really good. I love his writing style, which is deceptively informal and feels unselfconscious, but the words and phrases are beautifully chosen. You notice how well it’s written almost after the fact.
I’m also continuing to work my way through The Steep Approach to Garbadale, which is starting to be work. Much as I love Banks, this is not his best novel by any stretch, and the audio format makes the digressions and quirks more apparent to me. I just hit a chapter where the breasts of not one but two women are described in detail and I was grateful to have a reason to stop listening for a while. I’ll keep going because it’s Banks, but I’m bummed he is yet another male author whose characters are obsessed with breasts over other body parts. I hadn’t noticed this is his other books, but then I’ve mostly been reading the M. novels up to now.
I’ve been reading the articles and some of the Twitter conversation on the Hype Book of 2020, American Dirt. It is so, so depressing to have the structure of the book-industrial complex laid out so clearly and uncompromisingly. I first heard of the book and the likelihood for pushback late last year, and when I looked up the author I discovered she had written a memoir about a tragic and complicated double-murder case that took place in St. Louis in the 1990s, in which her brother was both a victim and for a time a suspect. I haven’t read the book, partly because I avoid true crime books and partly because having seen so many stories about the events and the legal aftermath, the idea of reading a memoir that one reviewer described as having “an expertly paced narrative that reads like a novel” made me uncomfortable.
I wasn’t surprised that a “social issues” thriller written and marketed as a book-club book is so decidedly Not A Good Book in many of the usual ways we judge quality (although it is apparently “propulsive” and page-turning). But the fact that so much promotional money was thrown at it so crassly did come as something of a shock. It shouldn’t; this is the editor who acquired The Help, after all. But the machinery of promotion has been something to see. Two reviews, plus an interview, plus a featured excerpt in the NYT. Two reviews, plus a podcast episode in the Guardian. Reviews in every major and not so major newspaper that still reviews books. A three-course dinner complete with wine pairings to celebrate the book at BookExpo 2019 (where the dining table was festooned with barbed-wire-and-flower decorations). Not just an Oprah Book Club pick, but Oprah and the author are going to go to the border together! An interview on CBS This Morning with the author and Oprah, in which Oprah’s Best Friend™ Gayle King referred to legitimate criticism and outrage as “haterade.”
Oh, wait there’s more! This week I received an email invitation from my local, much-admired indie bookstore. The author of American Dirt is coming to town. And her event will be at the Ethical Society, no less, because they’re expecting a big crowd. You cannot make this shit up. The mind reels while the stomach churns.
If you ever doubted that white editors prefer to champion books about non-white people written by white people and the majority of white readers prefer to read those over books written from within a culture, this should provide all the confirmation needed. American Dirt is going to sell and sell and sell, just like The Help did. And of course there’s a film option; not only was the film option acquired during the writing process, the author took the producer’s advice on scenes and characterization while writing the book.
For me, it’s the final nail in the coffin of the idea that book sections do anything other than ride the hype train. Apropos of which, there was a long negative review of a widely praised collection of essays in the LRB’s most recent issue. Most of the chatter I saw was critical of the review, and I agree it wasn’t a great review (although I thought it made some excellent points as well), but the criticism that I found oddest was that the review was so late. It came a few months after the book’s publication, and this was deemed to be a flaw worth pointing out. I guess by hype train and Book Twitter standards it’s a sin, but last time I looked, books aren’t cartons of milk. You can read them and even review them without ill effects long after they’ve been published.
I still haven’t filled in my calendars, argh. And there’s so much going on that I really have to. And I need daily ToDo lists, which I have been avoiding.
I finished the Paris Loop cape/poncho and I’m pleased to say that it does not seem to look like a throw rug on me. I still need to weave in the ends, and I might block it a bit, but I think I like it.
This week is almost over, but I still have a few days to do my own stuff I hope. If the weather improves we’ll go for a day hike on Sunday. Which means I need to get my Monday classes prepped on Saturday. Blergh.
Thank you, thank you for your thoughts on ‘American Dirt’. Not going to read it, as I had the same ‘squicky’ feeling about the overwhelming hype. Just, ugh!
Glad to read that the poncho succeeds as clothing and need not be repurposed as a throw rug.
Hope the weather cooperates for your hike.
This should be a very interesting Super Bowl. It is always less stressful for me to watch when I will be happy with whichever wins.
@Barb: I had to get it out of my brain, although I’m still reading about it. I read the first chapter in the NYT and it’s just as cliched as the critics say. It’s The Help meets Don Winslow level of high concept, carried out by someone whose backlist suggests she never met a character whose melodrama-filled life she could not write. And if they’re marginalized, even better.
But it’s less the book than the utter disregard for any concerns besides manufacturing a bestseller. And so many industry and industry-adjacent people have been complicit in the juggernaut.
I agree with you on the no-losers Super Bowl. So much easier!
Thank you for the background about American Dirt. As you could probably tell, I came late to the table and had no idea. I’m just…why? Why do that? (I know why: the confluence of money, privilege, and racism.)
Congratulations on the Chiefs going to the SuperBowl!
@jmc: Thank you! It is a Big Moment, and I know you as a fellow Fan of Sports Teams know the feeling.
There are so many articles out there now. JP Brammer’s post (it’s linked in some articles) is really good from a Latino author POV. Vox has an excellent roundup with lots of links. And Myriam Gurba’s original takedown review at Tropics of Meta is awesome. One of my colleagues wrote an Op-Ed at the Washington Post on portrayals of Mexico more specifically and did a nice job too.
I saw Brammer’s post and a tweet from Gurba, but hadn’t checked out the Post or Vox’s roundup. Thanks.
I agree with your assesment of how the American Dirt furore has laid bare the machinations of the pubishing industry and how we ending up reading the books we read unless we look hard for something different.
@Cathy: It’s a UK problem too, as I know you know. It’s blogs like yours that help people find books outside the Industry Hype Machine. I wouldn’t have read Country, for example, without seeing your discussion of it, and there are plenty of others.
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I’ve been thinking re. American Dirt about how there is a kind of vicious symbiosis here. Of course the very white publishing industry bears a lot of responsibility for apparently not being able to see the problems with books like this, and with hyping and promoting them over more authentic work (by Latinx authors/in translation etc.). But they do that, in part, because Oprah and millions of readers love this kind of book, page-turning, emotional, making readers feel good about their empathy with suffering but not asking hard political questions, etc. (a number of pieces I read made excellent points about this).
I think it’s publishing that has to change and try to shape people’s tastes, but what is their incentive to do that when movie producers and Oprah are lapping this kind of thing up and it sells jabillions? (If they HAD put this kind of push behind, say, Lost Children Archive, would it have been even bigger? It’s not an easy Oprah read. I think I sound like Frantzen now but he always had a point about this).
@Liz: Yes, exactly. It’s the fact that readers prefer books that are by people that are like them, even or especially when the subjects are not, that creates this structure. And this book is also basically a thriller, not lit fic (which makes the choice of Winslow’s Steinbeck comparison even worse). This author and editor seem to be on the extreme end of the exploit-the-marginalized-for-money scale, and that helps sharpen our understanding of the issue.
This kind of push wouldn’t have worked for Lost Children Archive because it’s a harder, more complicated, and more ambiguous read. Not in terms of the qualities of the characters but in terms of the other more “literary” stuff. Pretentiousness was one of the complaints about it. But Luiselli never “humanizes” her characters because to her they’re already human.