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Literary reviews

rco-2
ann_leckie has a post here that I really agree with.

I wanted to say a couple of things about the topic in general, because I find some of the dislike of the literary novel almost pointless. There's nothing in her post I disagree with; None of the following points are addressed by her in her main post.

First: equating sales with quality means that McDonald's is a better restaurant than, say, Scaramouche or Canoe. It's not. Does this make me a snob? I don't think so. I know what I like; I know why I like it. I can go through every little thing about the two restaurants in comparison, and come up with an answer that works for me. This answer won't materially change the fact that McDonalds outsells either of the two restaurants I have just named. If someone wants to tell me that the mass appeal of McDonald's means that I should now equate McDonalds with 5 star restaurants… don't go there.

Does this mean that I think anything popular = the McDonald's of fiction? No. Anathem was #1 NYT in hardcover. It was therefore demonstrably popular, and it is an ambitious work which I adored. I'm merely saying that numbers or popularity do not instantly mean that L. K. Hamilton should be reviewed as if she were writing Franzen's novels. The people who are pushing her to the top of the NYT lists are, imho, not the audience at which the NYTRs are aimed.

Second: Literary novels are, to me, like any other sub-genre of book. Do I write them? No. Do I read them? Sometimes. Do I like them? Sometimes.

But I don't expect that the novels I write are going to be feted by reviewers of literary novels. I just don't. Those reviewers read and get literary novels in a way that many readers don't. There's nothing wrong with that. That's what they're paid to do. The fact that they can still be paid to do this means there is a market for their opinions of those books. Implying that they are stale-dated and not moving with the market seems, to me, to miss this point.

I don't expect that those reviewers are going to pick up one of my Cast novels or one of my West novels and find themselves riveted by the contents. I would vastly prefer that my novels never be sent to one of those reviewers because I can guarantee that they wouldn't like it or give it a review that would be germane to my audience. I'm not white, not male, and don't live in Brooklyn, but I also don't want my books to be reviewed by the stable of reviewers that comprise the NYT's book review section.

People who are looking at the NYTR aren't looking for Cast in Chaos. They're not looking for opinions on Cast in Chaos. They're probably looking for opinions on the latest Franzen novel -- which, not surprisingly, they'll find there. They might also be looking for opinions on the latest Margaret Atwood novel. They just won't be looking for mine.

Neither will I.

I want my books to be read by reviewers who actually enjoy reading the types of books I write. If someone from the NYTR hated my books, it wouldn't mean anything to me, because they're not my audience.

If the blogsphere of active fantasy readers and reviewers hated my books…it would.

But you know, I don't troll over to Pat's Fantasy Hotlist or Dear Author or Smart Bitches and ask why they're collectively so much of a snob that they don't review mysteries, westerns or baseball books. I don't really need that from them--or any other number--of sites. Would I like to see them reading my books? Yes. Would I like them to review them? Yes. Why? Because I consider their unanointed reviews to be germane to what I've done, and what I'm trying to achieve.

Those are my reviewers, those and the people like them spread across the blogsphere. Those are my critics, and the critics who will reach my readers.

I guess I don't understand why people hate the NYTR so much because in the end, it's not relevant to the books that they're writing and the readers they're trying to reach. They're irrelevant to me because I don't write in that genre. They're not my readers and in a purely crass way, they're not going to be giving me 80 cents per book at the bookstore or ebookstore.

For people who want to point out that the NYTR is an arbiter of prestige, I won't disagree -- but I will say up front that it's a pointless prestige for me because my readers are not those critics or those reviewers. As long as I can reach my readers, I'm happy to let other people drown in prestige games.


Edited because rant is not spelled with a terminating g.

Comments

( 21 comments — Leave a comment )
twiegand
Aug. 31st, 2010 03:26 am (UTC)
My nonliterary review is simple. I like your books.
karenmiller
Aug. 31st, 2010 03:29 am (UTC)
You know, you're going to get into trouble if you continue to talk such down to earth, common and garden good sense ...
sdn
Aug. 31st, 2010 03:32 am (UTC)
Thank you. Game, set, and match.

I will add that the "kidlit" article they ran (I linked on FBook) made my head explode, though.
msagara
Aug. 31st, 2010 04:04 am (UTC)
I will add that the "kidlit" article they ran (I linked on FBook) made my head explode, though.

I missed that, and now, of course, will go and hunt it down.
alfvaen
Aug. 31st, 2010 03:54 am (UTC)
I think part of the problem with the literary fiction is the implicit snobbery. They're the books that are filed under "Fiction" in most bookstores, without a qualifier. (Of course, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, and Candace Bushnell go there too.) They get the most prestige. They get the snootiest reviewers. That's what gets people's backs up--they claim, or at least imply, that their books are better than anyone else's.

And we buy into it, too. If I read a romance novel and don't like it, I say that it was bad. If I read a literary novel and don't like it, I say that I just didn't get it. I feel like there was a layer there that I didn't get because I'm too stupid or I'm unwilling to put in the extra time to appreciate it. Which makes me defensive and resentful, because I don't like feeling stupid.
msagara
Aug. 31st, 2010 04:02 am (UTC)
I think part of the problem with the literary fiction is the implicit snobbery. They're the books that are filed under "Fiction" in most bookstores, without a qualifier. (Of course, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, and Candace Bushnell go there too.) They get the most prestige. They get the snootiest reviewers. That's what gets people's backs up--they claim, or at least imply, that their books are better than anyone else's.

I guess this is something I don't buy into. I like reading some of the literary reviews; I like the essay quality of them. It doesn't make me feel stupid, and it doesn't make me feel that somehow I'm being condescended to because, in the end, it's not relevant to my writing. I know that I'm excluded from that by the nature of what I write, and I'm unwilling to change the nature of what I write to join that club--if I even could change the nature of what I write so artificially. (Sorry; I know it's not all about my books, but..)

And we buy into it, too. If I read a romance novel and don't like it, I say that it was bad. If I read a literary novel and don't like it, I say that I just didn't get it. I feel like there was a layer there that I didn't get because I'm too stupid or I'm unwilling to put in the extra time to appreciate it. Which makes me defensive and resentful, because I don't like feeling stupid.

If you don't like the book, and/or you don't want to put the work into it -- there's nothing to feel stupid about. We all read for different reasons, at different times. Sometimes I want to chew at things; I want the layers and the difficulty and the language. Sometimes I don't. I don't feel inherently smarter or stupider at either of those times.

I guess maybe you're right, and that is part of the problem - it's just that I don't get the problem. Assuming none of us are reading for classes anymore, and therefore choose what we want to read, we're reading solely to entertain ourselves in any given frame of mind. If you read entirely to relax after a long, mentally challenging day, or if you read for escape because you're a child psychologist and you simply don't want fictional darkness and edge when you see so much of it in real life, there are books that will speak to you, and fill those needs.

If you have a mindless dayjob and you want the work and intellectual stimulation of the struggle for comprehension and epiphany, there are also books that you will like.

What other people make of those books has nothing to do with the way you relate to them as a reader; books aren't clothing, and I hate to seem them reduced to fashion statements.
(Anonymous)
Aug. 31st, 2010 04:14 am (UTC)
Assuming none of us are reading for classes anymore, and therefore choose what we want to read, we're reading solely to entertain ourselves in any given frame of mind.

Except that's not always the case. There are plenty of people out there who do things because they believe it's expected of them. Reading the NYT reviews is part of it --and the NYT's commercials on satellite channels like A&E and Bravo highlight their implicit superiority-- and people who want to fit into certain social strata may feel the need to pick up literary novels for reasons other than entertainment. Reading for entertainment is simply one reason among many, and people don't always read with fun in mind.

(Disclaimer: this is not me I'm describing. I'm more like you, Michelle, in that I really don't care what people think of my reading habits. I read what I like to read, and there's no snootiness involved iwth that at all.)
mtlawson
Aug. 31st, 2010 04:15 am (UTC)
That was me above. That's what I get for closing my Firefox browser prematurely and expecting that I was still logged in.
msagara
Aug. 31st, 2010 04:39 am (UTC)
Thank you for tagging that.

Okay, let me take a breath here.

Except that's not always the case. There are plenty of people out there who do things because they believe it's expected of them. Reading the NYT reviews is part of it --and the NYT's commercials on satellite channels like A&E and Bravo highlight their implicit superiority-- and people who want to fit into certain social strata may feel the need to pick up literary novels for reasons other than entertainment. Reading for entertainment is simply one reason among many, and people don't always read with fun in mind.

This is what's being addressed in the Ann Leckie post, sort of.

I've had many people assume that writers whose works I adore are works I read only to somehow make other people feel stupid. Ummm, no. I read them because I adore them. I don't castigate other people for their failure to come up with a similar adoration; I don't assume that other people are reading books with the sole incentive of making a Statement About Their Intellect. If they say they love something, who am I to tell them they're wrong, lying, or attempting to impress me?

I can without qualifiers say that I don't love or adore certain works. I can say why, at length, because those are book discussions. But assuming that people are only pretending to like something in order to somehow fit into some sort of social agenda, just because I don't like the books in question seems unfair.
lyssabits
Aug. 31st, 2010 07:20 am (UTC)
I've had many people assume that writers whose works I adore are works I read only to somehow make other people feel stupid. Ummm, no. I read them because I adore them. I don't castigate other people for their failure to come up with a similar adoration

Yeah but plenty of other people DO castigate people who fail to enjoy them. Or worse, they castigate people who enjoy the very genre you write in. I think the response to literary fiction comes because too often literary fiction kicks sand in the face of genre, and tells it is is lesser, tries to degrade the audience because it IS so much more popular by the numbers. So genre responds by saying literary fiction is snotty because no one likes to be told that your tastes are common. ;)

My only problem with the NYTR is that the idea that something is "better" or "smarter" can be a problem when you're not wholly in control of your reading choices. I knew a guy at work with a 12-year-old daughter who apparently has the same taste in books that I do. He's an immigrant, and he was concerned about what she was reading. He'd ask me, "Is this okay for her to read?" and I'd reply, "Why not? What's the nature of your concern?" I thought perhaps he was concerned about violence, or sex, or whatever subject matter being too mature for a 12-year-old. So when he'd say, "Well, shouldn't she read classics? You know, better books?" I'd be a bit irritated. I felt I was doing her a solid by insisting to her father that genre books are no better or worse than classics and what she should read is whatever entertains her and keeps her reading. (For the record, this guy was sort of weird about a lot of things. I also had to tell him I thought it was perfectly fine that she played sports, and it wasn't unladylike at all.)

I think this is the slightly dangerous notion that the NYTR sells to people, that somehow some books are inappropriate to read because they're not challenging enough. The same way that people scorn mindless action movies that are just plain fun and entertaining, people scorn genre books that are entertaining. (I love mindless actions movies. And sometimes, they're not as mindless as people generally assume that genre to be.) I dunno why so many people feel that reading should be work and you should always be slightly unhappy doing it, like its homework. I certainly was mocked and ridiculed by my peers for liking to read AT ALL, and reading fantasy was like the touch of death in high school. Seriously UNCOOL. When frankly, a lot of fantasy is very well-written and can teach a lot. But plenty of people assume that you have to read certain books to build vocabulary to learn to think critically.
tobemeagain
Aug. 31st, 2010 08:50 am (UTC)
Got a tad off topic here.
Oddly the ten years I worked for BGI we as booksellers all knew that the NYT lists were "bogus". Not to put it down (it works for some trending), but because it certainly didn't reflect the reality of the industry. The number 1 most put down category is the biggest seller - romance. There is no getting around that; doesn't matter who disparages the genre or why, it sells bottom line. (I say people need an escape and they want that happy ending.)

Now depending on where a store was located, the percentages changed sure. My last store was across from a Joint Naval Army Reserve Base - Do you have any idea how much science-fiction/fantasy we sold? (Shocked the hell out of the HO when I had to keep ordering more. They finally re-categorized us.) But Romance still beat it by several percentage points. The break down was Romance, Sci-fi/Fantasy, Graphic novels, Fiction (this fell further down the list if you broke out the African-American and classics sections which both sold better then regular fic), Young Adult, Mystery, Children and so on down the list. We had the smallest true crime and history/bio sections I've ever seen, but they just didn't sell as well as say science and religion did. In 10 years, despite the Oprah Club Fiction NEVER got to number 1, it rarely made number 2 and didn't stay long.

Obviously I got way off topic here, oops. But the numbers were how I knew what to keep in stock, so I paid a lot of attention to them. By listening to what my customers wanted we managed to make plan (or close) even with the recession and a good deal of our readers being shipped off to war. I never understood how anyone could talk down to about any category; they are all important to someone and they all deserve credit.
mtlawson
Aug. 31st, 2010 08:58 am (UTC)
Michelle, that's correct for you, me, and a good portion of other people. I'm also very happy that the hype games that NYTR plays slide right off of you, because you know exactly what you desire. To borrow a sports term, you are "playing within yourself", not trying to become something you're not.

At the same time, lyssabits is right in that there are people who believe the hype that NYTR and literary fiction are promoting. They may be potential readers of genre fiction who instead parrot what they are told about the inferiority of genre fiction. It's a shame, really, because what's important is whether you enjoy what you read, not how important it is to read the right things. Books aren't kryptonite, and people shouldn't act like they are.

And that's not even getting into the argument about whether restrictions on reading from a political and/or religious viewpoint are valid either, which is a can of worms that could completely derail this thread.
sartorias
Aug. 31st, 2010 04:06 am (UTC)
For people who want to point out that the NYTR is an arbiter of prestige, I won't disagree -- but I will say up front that it's a pointless prestige for me because my readers are not those critics or those reviewers. As long as I can reach my readers, I'm happy to let other people drown in prestige games.



Bingo!
tobemeagain
Aug. 31st, 2010 09:02 am (UTC)
On a personal note, I prefer military sci-fi when I need to defuse; fantasy when I'm feeling adventurous or hyper; romance when I'm over worked or over tired; young adult fantasy and action adventure when I need to recharge; mystery when I want a challenge. I want an escape when I read - literary fiction is often to close to real life, you know what I'm trying to escape.

Amy Tan for example is an absolutely fabulous author - and her books bore me to tears. I just want to escape them. Not because her writing isn't wonderful, it pulls me in and I see everything... unfortunately I don't want to be there.

...80 whole cents? Well I tried to add to your collection when I was a bookseller - I love your books and they were an easy upsell. Now of course I have to go find them all as e-books (can't read the print in regular books anymore) so I'm giving the whole Cast series to my sister and making *ahem* encouraging her to read them :)
mtlawson
Aug. 31st, 2010 10:17 am (UTC)
I want an escape when I read - literary fiction is often to close to real life, you know what I'm trying to escape.

From a personal perspective, I'm the same way. If I want real life or something depressing, I'll go watch the news; there's more than enough of that to go around as it is.
romsfuulynn
Aug. 31st, 2010 12:28 pm (UTC)
There are a couple of points I've wanted to add.

First - the assumption that readers don't have to work at other types of fiction. For SF and fantasy there are protocols that are more work - but you have to be willing to engage with the work. Your books are excellent examples of exactly that.

In reading your books the reader has to be willing to move into the world you have created. Most readers of litfic aren't competent to do that. They are lazy about that stuff.

The second point I'm going to riff off of mtlawson - but I've seen this a lot of places. I read to go interesting places I can't go any other way. It isn't about getting away from here, it's about going someplace else interesting. It may even be depressing and upsetting, but I'm going to someplace not escaping.


fyrna
Sep. 2nd, 2010 06:17 am (UTC)
On the point about moving into the world the author has created --

One of the books we were required to read in 9th grade was The Sword in the Stone. I remember that most of my class was having trouble with the idea of Arthur turning into a fish and all. My best friend and I realized we had a real advantage from being familiar with fantasy writing. (It was reflected in our grades, too.)
estara
Aug. 31st, 2010 01:05 pm (UTC)
Not having grown up in the US means that English reviews really only crossed over to me when I got internet and found the first reader reviews on Amazon.de and then saw that there were review sites and blogs and communities - and then I simply tended to read those who reviewed what I liked reading, so I can't really weigh in on the meat of this post, I just wanted to add a link to a post at dearauthor.com that addressed their view on this topic (or what they saw in this whole fracas), just like I linked your points there (in case you hadn't seen them).
ann_leckie
Aug. 31st, 2010 02:25 pm (UTC)
Yes! Just....yes.

And thanks for the link! :)
la_marquise_de_
Aug. 31st, 2010 09:35 pm (UTC)
Yes, what you say, really.
damedini
Sep. 1st, 2010 12:31 am (UTC)
Hrm. I have no opinion of NYTR because I neither read it nor think about it. But, if I did, I would avoid books they like because I dislike the sorts of books that get positive reviews there.
So, you've nailed it.
I enjoy your books. I read them voraciously. Big word. I'm on a couch. In a house. Needing a new read. (and yeah, Isaiah Mustapha fan)
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