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Interviews

Notes from the Undercard

These are the notes that I took in preparation for, and during, the Brooklyn Book Festival’s National Book Critics Circle Panel, which took place in the lecture hall of the Brooklyn Historical Society on September 16. The panel was part of the NBCC’s week long symposium, “The Age of Infinite Margins: Book Critics Face the 21st Century.” The topic up for discussion at the Brooklyn Book Festival panel: “Why Book Reviews Matter: how we decide what to read (next)."[1]

The panelists:


  • Jane Ciabattari, NBCC vice president and short story writer (moderator)

  • Kathryn Harrison, novelist, critic, memoirist, essayist, NBCC member

  • Colin Harrison, novelist and executive editor, Scribner

  • John Reed, novelist, book editor, Brooklyn Rail[2]

  • Harvey Shapiro, poet and former editor, New York Times Book Review

Question: As a reader of literature, who do you trust to give you suggestions on what to read? (Word of mouth? A book group? NPR? The New York Times? Other book review? Brooklyn Rail? Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal or other advance industry book review? Oprah? Literary blogs? (If so, which ones?)[3]

It really depends on who’s recommending what. There’s no single source I go to for my reading material. If the right person recommends the right thing, I might look at it; but I’m more likely to look at it if I also see a print review, or also run across the book online, or at the bookstore, or something. The term one heard in advertising, maybe the year before last, was Ecosystem. The sale of books, being suitable behind the music industry, is now beginning to take on that model; no single venue makes up a successful strategy, rather, it is an overall profile and accessibility that moves “units.”

The blog entries that I read are on the websites of journalists or writers who archive their published materials. Everything is published, pretty much. Other than that, I’ll read a friend’s blog, if it’s a lark. As for the book networking sites, I relate best to goodreads. Bookcrossing and bookmooch and a few other sites don’t have any market for new books, and Shelfari, while I like it, doesn’t list many, many literary books--it has a stunning absence of poetry titles.

As Jane touched upon in her comments, the poetry titles have a terrible time getting review space, bookstore space, and increasingly, library orders. The disappearance of small press publications from library shelves, in favor of electronic databases, is a grim reality to poets.
The poets, out of need, out of personality, maybe, tend to be early adopters of technologies as they apply to literature; goodreads looks to the poetry community to fine effect.[4]

Question: Where do you buy your books?

I probably buy the majority of my books online. But I also peruse bookstores, graphic novel stores, drama bookshops, airport bookstores, etc. For very specific subjects, I’m almost certain to buy online; the Shakespeare section, for example, has this season’s books, but not necessarily the best books on the subject. And many literary titles just aren’t at bookstores. Also, if the tipping point on buying a book is something I run across online--website, blog, networking site--I’m much more likely to pop over to alibris or powells.com and buy it.

Public domain books I download. It’s a crime to buy them.[5]

Question: As a writer (novelist, poet, memoirist), who do you trust to give you suggestions on what to read? (see above)
Same as above. Echoing Kathryn: I like to listen to my students.

Question: As a writer, which sources of review attention do you hope will cover your books?

Print? The New York Times: big readership venues. I wouldn’t mind the front page of myspace. The advance reviews in Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal, etc., are extremely important. My thoughts here are almost identical to the answer Harvey Shapiro gave on the subject.[6]

Question: As an editor (Colin), how do you get the word out about books you are publishing?

This leads to current shifts/trends ...

The internet is increasingly important, but the internet itself is a vast sea of garbage. The influence of the internet is in the process of orienting to smaller networks. The networking sites are the obvious next place to provide readers with perceived accessibility to authors, and to provide authors targeted markets.

Question: (John), how do you hear about books for the Brooklyn Rail?
The way I like to choose books: through a publisher’s catalogue. I can pick books that fit in with the Rail’s mission, and assign them, and get the reviews printed on-time or even early. (The best thing the Rail can do for a literary title is to get it early press.) I also hear about books through advance press, reviewer pitches--usually, I’ll check out the book on the publisher’s website--and through publicists, and occasionally a book agent or editor who has a book they care about.

Question: As a book editor (John), how do you decide which books to give book review space to?

Literary underdogs. Books we can do something for, that are worth doing something for. What we like to do: early press, which can help to pitch the book to bigger publications and can also help along the distribution process. Sometimes a publicist will ask me to wait on a review--to put it out at the pub date--because they think reviews/interviews sell books. I try to accommodate them, but I think they’re crazy. First of all: I don’t know what I’ll have that month, and the piece might get bumped. Second: by the time the book is out, it’s over.[7]

Question: As a book critic (Kathryn), how do you find the books you review? Assigned by book editor? Read about (where?) and asked to review?
The question leads into assumption that a reviewer or editor should know everything ...

That I like catalogs, means I have to know the presses. Of course, nobody knows everything anymore--there are many, many small presses printing quality books, and even the large presses have nooks and crannies, and good books that aren’t readily apparent. So I do my best to constantly update myself: to pay attention.[8]

Question: What’s the difference between a literary book and a “non-literary book”?

In a literary book, structure follows content; in a genre book, content follows structure. Of course, there are many exceptions.

Question: As former editor of the New York Times Book Review (Harvey), how have you seen the book culture shift in terms of letting readers and those who care about book culture know about books they should read? How effective do you think the online sources of reviews are? (i.e., online versions of newspaper book review sections, literary blogs, online versions of magazine, literary magazines online, other?). Which do you read yourself?

The question leads into the difficulty of genre fiction competing with “quality fiction” ...

I don’t think genre fiction competes with “quality fiction.” Any new books are good. I think the major competition for literary books is the backlist: primarily, the backlist of “classics,” many of which are just not better (in my opinion, often, just not as good) as contemporary books. If anyone doesn’t believe me, go peruse the review books in the basement of the Strand.
It’s easier to go to the classics--for everyone, academics, critics, etc--but it’s no wonder that young people look at those books and say literature isn’t for them. I don’t blame them, looking at those books: they’re right. The readership of literature would grow exponentially if the books we offered in school weren’t utterly divorced from contemporary concerns, contemporary life, and contemporary authors.

Question: What’s the function of book reviews? At best?
At best, book reviews can help level the field, take some of the corporatism out of book publishing, and give attention where attention is due.
At worst?

At worst, book reviews function as the establishment. Calcified, antagonistic, and obsequious.

Question: Do book reviews sell books?
In some publications they do, the Rail, for example, has a targeted readership, and it’s my impression that readers do respond to the reviews. More important to the book, though, is that the Rail readership is made up of many people who sell books: i.e., bigger press venues, reading venues, book publicists. Everyone who lives in Brooklyn.

Early reviews are especially important for library sales. Also, as Jane pointed out, most libraries require two reviews for a librarian to order a book.

Question: Optimally, what can a review do for a book?
Book reviews may not seem to do much, but without them, your book is dead. Publishing a book is a chain of events, and any break in that chain can undo the success of your title. Without reviews: booksellers won’t know about your books to stock them, and book readers won’t know about your books to read them.


  • Can sell books.

  • Can sell books to people who sell books.

  • Can help get more press.

  • Can mitigate an unfair review.

  • Can help sell hardback to paperback.

  • Can frame the discussion of a writer (make/support a career).

  • Can change the trajectory of a discussion on a writer (change a career).

  • Probably keeps a few heads out of ovens.

  • The last thing: reviews might not make a big impact review by review, but overall, a publication can help to shift the emphasis on what gets covered, what gets read.

The review, said Harvey Shapiro, is “the talk in the room.” Less a judgment than a conversation.

Question: What about reviews on blogs or bookseller networking sites? Do they put an end to print reviews? Do you trust those reviews?

To me, the multi-platform aspect of the networking sites allows for so much that I can’t help but see the venue as the future of bookselling, and television, and magazines and advertising. Right now, the technology is rudimentary, but the more one interacts with it, the more apparent the potential becomes. If one thinks about early magazines, and their ability to put fiction, journals and news into one package, the networking site is less objectionable. (Writers, by the way, take to these sites like ducks to water.)
Do I trust online reviewers? Usually, no. Top reviewers on Amazon review hand soaps and batteries, and books--so that’s not where I would go for my expert. To look back into history again: in the early years of the printing press, there was an erosion of “the expert,” because the word gained authority through the process of printing. But then, after a glut of pap, the expert returned; they were needed. My feeling is that networking sites, and bookseller sites, for content, will eventually turn to sources that their users can trust. I’m aware of business models that are already moving in that direction.

Jane opens up the discussion to comments on specific literary blogs; Jane reads Bookslut.com, theoldhag.com, maudnewton.com, and The Elegant Variation (marksarvas.blogs.com), as she knows the sensibility of the founders. Audience members cite Booklust (nancypearl.com) and the Wall Street Journal. Writer’s portals--various combinations of publishers, booksellers, lit blogs, journals, magazines, interviews--are also gaining users/readers. A few examples (like the lit blogs, there are many; their exclusion here is no slight): Powells.com (Review-a-Day), Hecale.com, Noveltown.net, KGBbar.com, livewriters.com, readerville.com.[9]

Question: Bad reviews? Do you write them? Do you run them?
We’ve run a few grumpy reviews. But when you’re talking about a book of poetry or a literary novel from a micro-press--it’s pretty hard to motivate to print a snide review. Any first-time author with a small print run; maybe a big press, maybe a small press--regardless, what’s the point? As for running negative reviews of “big” books; I can see doing it, in another venue, but it’s really not the mission of the Rail.[10]

[1] Ok, the above: dry as dust. But, heady stuff, esteemed company: a daunting bit of prose. And I was afraid of coming off like a fool, which is why I took notes in the first place, and why, probably I was invited to participate: comic relief.

[2] Novelist sounds wrong. How about: pote? Or, I don’t know, the London Telegraph once called me a smart-aleck.

[3] One set of people I don’t ever believe: those who tell me I have to read something. People who say something is so good that you must read it--they usually only read one or two books a year, and like to think they’re reading the right ones.

[4] I am frequently “friended” by poets. And, regardless of how good a poet is, there’s nothing more heartening to know: there’s yet another sweet-tempered poet out there. You want to do something good with your day? Go find an unknown poet on goodreads, friend them, and write a glowing review of their chapbook.

[5] Please, please, please don’t buy public domain books. And, God forbid, don’t tell your editor, or perspective editor, or agent, or perspective agent, that you’re the next Dostoevsky. If you’re the world’s answer to Dostoevsky, you better go find a time machine, or build one, and get into it.

[6] Every author I know (who hasn’t been on Oprah) reports with great misery that, inevitably, when they’re books come out, dozens of people tell them they should get on Oprah. Yes, Oprah is a good idea.

[7] A terrible, terrible confession on this. A publicist asked me to push an interview to sync up with the pub date, and I did, and, alas, we had a new designer that month, and we misspelled the cat’s name.

[8] I still miss major things, all the time. In our culture, even “big books” and “renowned authors” are virtual anonymities.

[9] If I didn’t include your blog here, it wasn’t an oversight, it was that your blog, among several other top blogs, was so obvious that I figured everyone already knew about it.

[10] To close up the event, we got the compulsory angry guy. I got to field his question, which wasn’t really much of a question. He wanted someone to confess that reviews had come to an end, because now the people could write reviews online, at networking sites, at booksellers, etc.. Look at my name: Vive La People! Go write me a review on amazon and I’ll dance an Irish jig on your front lawn, or in your hallway. I’m pretty good with the drinking songs after I’ve knocked back a few. Like most authors. But, sadly, I won’t be entrusting my distribution to the angry guy, who may not have inroads to the NY Times, Publisher’s Weekly, the buyer at Barnes & Nobles, or Oprah.