In a recent e-mail rumination sent to various literary bloggers, Robert Birnbaum expresses his displeasure at a recent Laura Miller column, "Smiley's People," in the New York Times Book Review. Noting that many bloggers have long voiced similar complaints about Miller's The Last Word mini-essays, Birnbaum says that "I read [this piece] and starting in the first paragraph, where she stoops to the journalistic contrivance/ convenience of creating her own dubious categories, I found myself stopping nine or ten times, saying to myself, 'Says who?' or some such. I do not think it was quibbling, I just cannot seem to see the world and its facts in the way that Miller exhibits them. . . ."
I have to confess that I've found the blogospheric distaste for Laura Miller's writing a little bit puzzling, since, as Robert himself acknowledges, she "is no doubt smart and possibly passionate about literature, which frequently leads her to some original and thoughtful opining on things literary." In my opinion, she has had some interesting things to say, and her tone most often seems genuinely inquisitive rather than pompous or cynical. Yet I will also admit that usually I skip over Miller's "opining," not because I think it will make me angry or exasperated but because it's bland; these columns tend to be meandering and expository rather than critically engaging, the literary equivalent of noodling.
This is itself a somewhat roundabout way of getting to my real subject, which is the BEA panel discussion on book reviewing featuring the "Book Babes" and broadcast on C-SPAN as part of their coverage of the Book Expo. The most astonishing thing I heard said during this discussion was that, as far as the Book Babes are concerned, newspaper book reviewers are "literary snobs." Apparently book reviewers are way too interested in literature and not atttentive enough to the best-seller trash that most "real" Americans actually read. This can be the only logical conclusion to be drawn from their assertions, given that the sort of books featured on Oprah or other televison talk shows, which Margo and Ellen later claimed were the models of the kind of book discussion they had in mind, are already the books that most book reviews feature. The problem can't be that book reviews exclude the middlebrow (a point that Ron made during the question period), focusing instead on the highbrow. It's that these book reviews give any attention to the highbrow--that is, literature--at all.
Probably the Book Babes do not mean to say this, precisely. Their arguments are for the most part too confused to yield any coherent ideas in the first place. They seemed to agree with the remarks made by one questioner who complained that book review pages in general were just too "intimidating," implying, at least, that readers who might be interested in books wouldn't go to book reviews because, well, the reviewers seemed to like books too much! Mark Sarvas tried to indicate that truly serious readers of book reviews were more likely to find them too brief and thin on substance rather than otherwise, but this seemed to go right by them. The closest thing to a concrete proposal that I heard was Margo's entreaty that book reviewers focus on what a novel "is trying to say" rather than its "style." (I think I also heard her mumbling about how at one time "rich people" might have sat around thinking about style, but this was so silly that I tentatively concluded I'd just misunderstood her.)
I'd guess it's actually book commentators like Laura Miller that the Book Babes have in mind when they grouse about "literary snobs." Miller's knowledge of literature and of literary criticism is fairly wide-ranging, and she does periodically attempt to inject a higher level of discourse into the discussion of books. In the current column, for example, she refers to a quasi-scholarly book on spy fiction as a way of sharpening the debate about such fiction. She's trying, within the limitations of the form and the forum she's working with, to do something like literary criticism. Unfortunately, those limitations are too confining. They lead her to make simplistic generalizations--"Spy fiction falls into two categories: the preposterous and the disillusioned"--and into hasty summaries of both spy fiction and the critical book she's using. Her conclusion about spy fiction is actually, to my mind, quite sound: "The real fantasy the spy novel peddles is a dream of coherence and mastery, in which people have the power to transcend human error and the vagaries of chance and to direct the unfolding of fate itself. Even if those people are evil, at least they're people, and not the terrifyingly random forces that, we fear, may truly shape our lives." But it's a conclusion that can't effectively be supported in the kind of book-chat essay she's writing.
If Margo and Ellen really think that too many book reviewers are snobs, they just don't get around enough. There are snobs, and then there are snobs. Academics, for example, look down on journalist book reviewers as dabblers at best, rather dim bulbs at worst. Even now, when academic literary critics are themselves no longer much interested in literature, most of them wouldn't think of writing for newspaper book pages, where the discussion is so dreadfully undertheorized. But previous generations of academic critics were snobbish enough as well, regarding the mere newspaper book review as a sop to the uneducated masses. Even among writers themselves, while the good review in a prominent newspaper is always welcome, it's hard to believe that the most serious of them really have much respect for the tastes and the critical acumen of the newspaper critic.
Under the circumstances, maybe we shouldn't regard the shrinking of space given to book reviews in American newspapers with all that much trepidation. If book reviewing were to go in the direction the Book Babes advocate (sort of ), it would be the end of "general interest" book reviews anyone could take seriously, but perhaps other, better, sources of book discussion would pop up in their wake. (Book blogs, obviously, but also other forums for serious consideration of books, both online and in print.) Maybe even the book publishers would look elsewhere for ways to get the word out on new books, concentrating on the people who actually do read books, and not just every once in a while. Control of the national book-reviewing agenda might slip out of the hands of newspapers and uninformed journalists--who aren't doing such a good job by it now--and might spread out among writers and readers who don't consider serious book criticism a function of literary snobbery. Maybe not. But wouldn't it be nice to think so?