Wednesday, September 26, 2007

IWOSC Panel: Book Reviewing

Gary Young had asked me to a Independent Writers of Southern California meeting held last spring where I shared my Amazon experience as a Top 1000 Reviewer with an appreciative and enthusiastic audience in the Valley. Last Monday, at the Veteran's Memorial Building in Culver City-- this time along with my wife who took the photo-- I returned by his kind invitation to talk to IWOSC members, this time along with Amy Wilentz, journalist, chronicler and novelist with expertise as the past Jerusalem correspondent for The New Yorker; Erika Schickel, a blogger, reviewer, and freelance writer as well as a first-time memoirist; Michael Dresser, a talk-show radio host who interviews writers; and Edward St. John, who reviews, admirably as he's limited to objective statements of about 300 words, for Library Journal.

Before a full house spanning two what we called in grade school "multipurpose rooms," not a chair to be found, the evening was ably moderated by the L.A. Times heir to the late Jonathan Kirsch, book reviewer and former editor of the section, Digby Diehl. He set the tone immediately when he lamented the diminution of opportunities-- at least in print and traditional media. The chains do not wish to advertise in local newspapers, and the LATBR has suffered notably, now up-ended with the Opinion section each Sunday in a soixante-neuf exchange of positions.

I've been reflecting on the issues raised in the hour-and-a-half roundtable. For instance, are we in Los Angeles neglecting the non-English speaking population? The statistics show 52% of local households do not use English as the primary language, so I wished I could have commented on this factor. Reading in the NY Times the other day of a Hispanic bookstore's closure, I wondered how an English-dominant press can acculturate an audience that simply does not choose a book in English, and even their own native language, to pass the time. The Blue Line that I ride may have supported my skepticism. I'd estimate 80-90% of the readers choosing Spanish that I see read "Hoy," the LA Times-sponsored giveaway paper, or a religious tract or Bible. At least half the riders at any given glance I cast their way drowse, chatter, listen to music, stare without any print to peruse at all as they sit on the Blue or Red Line.

I am not sure if the colorful circulars for markets count, or coupons, as reading a paper: these gain lots of eyeball contact whether as images to pass the time or impromptu seat covers. An audience member asked about the separation of African American books in stores. Diehl acknowledged the pros and cons of this, but I would support his consideration that such "niche" markets certainly appeared to meet a demand. The black riders on the Blue Line tend from the glimpses I can make out to read a local (often not the LAT) paper or a novel aimed at the black readership, usually women reading a woman writer targeting their own demographic. The times that I saw literature being chosen by apparently non-students (the same reader on different occasions) with Paul Roche's translation of Aristophanes and Ron Rosenbaum's "The Shakespeare Wars" (the latter reviewed by me here and you know where), makes its own case in my memory as the exception proving the rule. Mass-market paperbacks of the romance, fantasy, thriller, mystery, or SF categories predominate among the relatively few riders who pack a novel, from my perspective.

Also, along these lines of genre, the NYTBR this week expands its bestsellers to a third category, trade paperback, or "quality" (and pricier) fiction aimed at the more upscale customer. A page will be lost in the Book Review to allow for this feature. Surely, as I pointed out, this only plays into the bestseller ranking obsession I share in a small way in my Top 1000 perch with the writers listening to those panelists who boasted of their own ratings on Amazon. The competition, whether driven by Amazon, the chains, the fourth estate, Library Journal and the trade, or any other category in the reading and writing realm does intensify in our capitalist society where the arts have always had to appeal to the kindness of strangers more than the fellowships and grants and acclaim of patrons.

My own efforts to concentrate on lesser-known books and music decrease my own ratings, ironically. But, I try to apply Amazon or this blog as I teach: my vocation is to expose whoever you are, in my classroom or online or in person, to what I think, given my own narrow areas of favor and personal expertise, you'd like. I did mention my own experience teaching complex ideas to students with often first-generation college backgrounds, and/or immigrant status, and attempted to justify, if not praise, my own diligence on Amazon and elsewhere on the Net (where you ponder this) as extensions of my belief in the spread of literate discourse.

(After I typed this to set aside as a draft, I rushed off to teach my night class-- is not this term itself redolent of seventy-five years ago, CCNY and red-diaper babies turned intellectuals, neo-con or Yiddishists, Marxist or anti-Stalinist? Talking outside the room was a student of mine who in a previous course gave a term paper in form of recounting and summarizing a debate he'd hosted between members of his own family from Mexico about the pros and cons of illegal immigration. A year later, he nears graduation. Beside him were a couple others whom I did not know. But I recognized under one young man's hand the library book's picture of James Joyce. The Modern Library-Random House [speaking of our American equivalent to Penguin Classics and the old Manhattan duty of a publisher to bring culture to the masses] "Ulysses." I asked him if he was reading it. "For school," he agreed, adding he'd taken it at random but quailed after the first page. I sympathized, but had to assure him how "that's my favorite author" even before I rambled on. Urging him to go to the Robot website for help of all sorts, and making him -- me the pedant-- repeat the domain name to remember it, off I dashed through the door for my three-and-a-half hour class all about "Brave New World" and reprogenetics.)

You never know, then, who you will run into. After the panel, I chatted with a woman preparing an historical novel on ancient, or at least pre-contact, Hawai'i. I admitted my lack of expertise but added the nails vs. food, native vs. sailor taboos that were both broken, and after the first Europeans left the Sandwich Islands, the shattering of the old ways led to civil war that destroyed the old order-- and this in the interim before the Western missionaries returned thirty or so years later. She was delighted at my knowledge, and told me I was the first person she'd told of her novel to that knew even this much about the topic.

Another man had a contract with U of Cal Press and was editing his architectural and cultural guide to U.S. Highway 99; a third writer with the fine surname of Redmond spoke of her spirituality interests; a fourth man told me of his series of ESL dialogues for foreign college students coming here who knew grammar well but could not speak intelligibly-- this was based on his experience with science TA's at USC. So, I was able to talk with each aspiring author a bit, as well as a woman who reminded me to be charitable in comments on the creative contingent, recounting briefly not only her own son whose film was slammed by the L.A. Times, but of her own show business career with "each of the Three Stooges." I assured her my son and wife would be delighted to know of her filmography. (And my father-in-law, gone now a week to wherever Moe, Larry, Curly, and even Shemp chuckle on the clouds, serenaded by Harpo.)

So, back to summarize: the panel tended to divide over a crucial function of reviewers. Dresser held that it was his business to help the writer sell books. I contended that I sought to help the reader decide to buy (or at least check out from the library) the book. Identifying as writers, Wilentz & Schickel disagreed over how much slack should be given a reviewer for a first-time novelist. Diehl tended to advise tempering justice with mercy for newbies, while Wilentz appeared eager to balance the ledger by slamming immoral, immodest, or indifferent writers especially if they dared to court fate by climbing the bestseller lists without due preparation in their labor and with doddering veneration of millions. They both reminded us, like St. John's own efforts, that reviewers do not choose the books they review-- a point often overlooked and the fundamental difference with my own eclectic choices.

Point well taken. But I'd add a coda that I wish I'd have thought of before. "The wit on the staircase," the bon mot that comes to mind too late-- after you've already stepped away from the dinner table's repartee. We did fill well the time on the panel, however. In the words of (where I review Celtic and Irish music for "the online magazine of the world's music" by his own invitation) editor Cliff Furnald that as he was told by another scribe: "you listen to a record differently when you have to buy it first." Same for books.

Thanks to the missus for the pre-panel snapshot; see her blog for snide comments about my "working class background" and more."

1 comment:

Miss Templeton said...

Very interesting post. I'll admit that I've yet to conquer the steep mountain of your many Amazon reviews, but I certainly can say that ONE of them made a major impact on me.

Your kindly take on Liam Clancy's Mountain of Women helped me overcome the recently and mostly self-imposed stigma I'd attached to my fondness of the sweatered family of folkies. (I need to write further on that.) I gave the review a positive rating and ordered the book.

Of course I fell in love with it! The character of Diane Hamilton has become a personal icon of the flawed and flighty music enthusiast. Where ever I go and however I comport myself, I have no need to fear: Diane Hamilton was there pushing the boundaries long before me.

And it was invaluable background when I met up with the Dun Ringles and Guireans of Stornoway. TWICE now, I've responded instinctively to waulking songs without knowing their enthno-folkie roots. Liam Clancy's description of the vats of communal urine the process requires will remain with me long after I've forgotten which U2 album Vertigo was on.

So I'm totally back into my Clancy recordings and to heck with anyone who wants to make remarks about that!

All because of a critic's efforts.