the complete review Quarterly
Volume IV, Issue 4   --   November, 2003

Year-End Panel


       Alex Good organized a panel to "kick around the year that was in books". The participants were:        The topics considered were:
       (See also the copy of this panel at

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I. Feel Good Story of the Year

Alex: One of the things that impressed me most in 2003 was the continuing development of a real literary culture online. So far the Internet is behaving more like a print medium than like television, which seems to make it especially attractive to writers and readers.

We all know about the shrinking (or disappearing) book review sections in daily newspapers, but I think a lot of that interest is hopping online. And it is making the leap with a style, intelligence, and depth of reporting that the mainstream media gave up on long ago (at least with regard to books). When I go trolling the blogs for book news and commentary I’m amazed at the wealth of material out there. And best of all, the majority of it is refreshingly independent. The major news sources have dropped the ball (the Guardian online is one of the few really good book pages available; when other papers cut their print book sections they were left without any content to put online), letting what are basically a bunch of talented amateurs move in and, in a lot of cases, change the subject.

I see this happening in Canada. There aren’t very many Canadian book sites (yet), but a look at two of the liveliest tells you a lot about what is happening. The Danforth Review is a great site dedicated to covering Canada’s small press. What chance do small press titles have of being reviewed by a Canadian daily? Slim to none. Now the Danforth is one of the best all-around book pages in Canada. BookNinja seems to be similarly focused on less well-known names and publications. So if you want to find out what’s happening in Canadian literature by going online, chances are good you’re going to spend less time reading about Margaret Atwood and more time reading about some new books and authors.

I see the same thing happening elsewhere. Because most book sites are being produced by committed amateurs who aren’t making any money, they simply aren’t concerned with the whole bestseller culture. Of course celebrity stories still rule the newswire, but I do like the way the field has opened up. The Internet is giving a lot of less commercial writers, and their critics, some oxygen.

I hope this culture can take roots. The Internet is still a free country, and I’d like to think this level of interest and activity will last forever, but this may be remembered as the Golden Age.

Michael: I don't feel quite so good about (or convinced of ) "the continuing development of a real literary culture online" over the past year. Additional large-audience book coverage sources - including The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Salon, The Washington Post - have not reduced content so much as, to varying degrees, erected hurdles preventing ready access to their content online, which I find a significant loss. There are sites that have picked up some of the slack but I think overall accessible, in-depth book coverage (at least of the sort I'm interested in) is down from last year - not that there's necessarily less, but there's less one can readily get at, which I think is a very disappointing development, even if it's nothing new. It seems to me that especially coverage of quality/literary/serious (whatever you want to call it) fiction has suffered. There's still a lot out there, mind you, but I don't think there's been a change for the better compared to 2002.

The weblog-phenomenon is the one area where there has been significant change: they seem to have boomed in 2003, with those dedicated to literary subjects booming right along with all the rest. I still feel fairly ambivalent about them: I don't find nearly enough critical engagement with the material (here, there, and everywhere). And the disorganized presentation of material makes most weblogs (even the one I'm affiliated with) less than ideal for most uses beyond the day-to-day. Weblogs are one area where literary coverage has improved greatly over last year, but I don't know to what extent they've enhanced literary culture. (I note that the two most popular stories at the Literary Saloon over the past year have involved discussion of a book cover (MTV does Wuthering Heights) and of an author whose book we have not read (Nell Freudenberger), i.e. almost completely superficial matters.)

Not much made me feel good about the literary landscape in 2003 - but looking back one thing did impress me greatly. I'm used to finding reviews of significant foreign literature that's not yet available in English in the Times Literary Supplement, as well as, occasionally, in The Economist and the London Review of Books, but this has always been no-go territory in the US. So it was more than a pleasant surprise to find reviews of Gabriel García Márquez's memoir Vivir para contarla appearing both in The Los Angeles Times (at that time still freely accessible online) and the Houston Chronicle in February, when the Spanish edition came out (the English edition, Living to Tell the Tale, only appeared in November). Both newspapers also published their reviews in both Spanish and English. I understand that these were special circumstances (a very well-known author, a large local Spanish-speaking population greatly interested in learning about the book), but it's still an extraordinary example of outside-the-box thinking in the otherwise so predictable American book-reviewing world.

Alex: The blogs certainly did take off in 2003, and I share some of your ambivalence. In particular I’m concerned that more book chat doesn’t necessarily mean more people reading. But still: All those blogs have to link to something! The blogs grew out of the boom in content. Yes there’s a lot of garbage out there, and a lot of it is superficial, but I find some really interesting commentary too. And it’s precisely that "outside-the-box thinking in the otherwise so predictable American book-reviewing world" that I think the online book sites are bringing to the table. I find myself growing less and less interested with mainstream book coverage (at least in North America).

As for American reviews of foreign literature not available in English, well, I don’t think you’re ever going to see a lot of that outside of the niche you identify. Again, if you want to find that sort of coverage the Internet is your best bet (and will always be your best bet as compared to the mass media). This is the "end run" I mentioned earlier. I mean, I’d rather read The Complete Review (or any of your sites) than the Houston Chronicle anyway.

Robert:The notion of "feel good" story is a bit foreign to me. Especially within the context of my feeling like a character in a Jules Feiffer cartoon that blurts out (regularly), in Tourette's syndrome fashion, "People are starving and homeless! We are ruining the environment! Greedy capitalist vampires are sucking the blood out of our civilization!"

Two things come to mind. While it is not an unalloyed blessing, the burgeoning literary nations camping out on the Web gives me pause for pleasure and perhaps hope. At the risk of seeming self-congratulatory the civilized and occasionally inspired exchanges between people/web entities like the ones represented here by the Gang of Five seems, to me, be a good thing and the kind of thing that the Internet has made possible and available.

I suppose one could also note the bad things that accompany that growing population of voices and cliques but they are obvious and in the main the same hazards and afflictions that we contend with in other populated areas of various democratic institutions: overcrowding, high noise levels, rank idiocy and a refuge for scoundrels and connivers. As adults we have all developed awareness and tactics to deal with that kind of stuff. I put that down to that's just the way it is . . .

One thing that I think web communicators and narrators don't seem to be conscious of is the echo chamber frequently presented - which, sadly, emulates main stream/commercial media. One recent example comes to mind. The Literary Saloon was (LS did later report that the LA Times gave the event some belated coverage), as far as I know, the first and perhaps only American medium to note Susan Sontag being awarded a prestigious German peace prize. And also linking to the Guardian's presentation of her provocative acceptance remarks. I could not understand the almost conspiratorial silence around Sontag.

Also, I find it hopeful that a slew of books have hit the market place that seem to provide a counterpoint to the silly books proffered by carnival barkers like Billy O'Reilly and Ann Coulter. Al Franken, Molly Ivins, Jim Hightower and Joe Conason and even the lefty everyone loves to hate - Michael Moore - are doing something to keep public discourse from becoming monochromatically triumphalist and fascistic.

Now does any of this help the cause of literary culture? Well, yes. How and how much? I am not certain this is a concern that requires or even admits much in the way of certitude. Books are written and published and talked about . . . the narrative moves on, as George Harrison penned, "within us and without us."

Alex: I think the prominence of "political books", at least in terms of bestsellerdom and media attention, was a real story this year. You mention a lot of the big names Robert. As a whole this level of public interest should be a good thing. I think a lot of people feel that they are living through an important historical moment. Unfortunately, the level of discourse is sometimes pretty low. At the end of the day, O’Reilly and Coulter and Moore and Franken are all comedians and/or cheerleaders. People are looking for something, but part of what they’re looking for seems to be just entertainment. There are exceptions, but they tend to stay off the radar. Dennis Johnson had a column on the "Secret Bestseller List" this year that talked about the conspiratorial silence that surrounds writers like Chomsky. The actual spectrum of political thought you hear about in the mainstream media seems kind of narrow. Even Moore and Franken are hardly what I would call radical.

Robert: I have not been able to warm up to the notion of "feel good" story regarding the lit/book world. I keep thinking of Pete Seeger's idea of a good song - which he defined as a song that did some good. Quite honestly the only story that actually made me feel good this year was the one about the Texas Democratic legislators who fled the state to put a roadblock in the way of a Republican redistricting steamroller. That and reading wonderful novels like Charles Baxter's Saul and Patsy and Edward Jones' The Known World. Otherwise I don't really see much that qualifies

A fellow named James Sallis (who I am unfamiliar with) in a recent review of Michael Dirda's An Open Book scoffed at the idea of a literary press in the US. Setting aside his dismissive intention I did rethink to think about us (the members of this panel) and commentators/observers like us vis-à-vis the moribund mainstream book pages. Personally, I am buoyed by opportunities to share information, insights, irritations and revelations with a broad web based community of literary enthusiasts. I suppose that's a feel good story which I would feel better about if there were less self consciousness and, dare I say it, narcissism in evidence in these parts. Anyway, regarding our brave new world, to quote the wily Chou En Lai in another context, "It's too soon to tell."

Maud: For me, the outstanding story of the year was the award of the Nobel Prize to J.M. Coetzee. His prose is lean, cut to the wire, but some of the most evocative around. The Nobel Academy observed that by portraying the defeat and weakness of his characters, Coetzee captures "the divine spark in man."  I think that's exactly right.
Detractors variously charge that the latest novel, Elizabeth Costello, has an abstract, or didactic, or meta- quality that, in hindsight, poisons most of Coetzee's work. David Lodge is excellent on Elizabeth Costello in The New York Review of Books.  He reads it in part as a critique of  "the value our culture attributes to literature." (The proprietor of The Minor Fall, The Major Lift has written at greater length about the novel and the Lodge review.)

Regardless of how one interprets the book, given the complexity of Coetzee's work, I believe it is too facile an approach to read the protagonist as a stand-in for the author himself. And whatever one may think of Elizabeth Costello, it is difficult to argue that novels like Disgrace and Life and Times of Michael K are not among the very finest English-language works of the last fifty years. 

As for political books, I was thrilled by those first reports that demand for left-leaning books is on the rise. But many major publishers around the same time began spinning off subsidiaries devoted entirely to production of right-wing diatribes. Popular political opinion seems to be shifting somewhat, and it's good to see some dissenting voices on the shelves, but I think it's too soon to declare victory over the likes of O'Reilly and Coulter.  And I agree with Alex that the level of discourse leaves something to be desired.

I also think it's too soon to say how weblogs will affect literary criticism and reporting.  Yes, as Robert points out, weblogs link and respond to source material like the excellent reviews, essays, and interviews that routinely appear in the Guardian and other publications. Yet Jessa has observed on Bookslut that Salon - for many years an excellent resource for book lovers - has cut its literary reviews, recommendations and reportage significantly over the last year or so. 

Some resources are waning, then, while others are waxing. I wouldn't presume to predict what literary coverage in newspapers and magazines will look like in the next five years.

I agree with Michael that the weblog format doesn't lend itself to the sort of thoroughgoing, rigorous analysis that one would expect in a scholarly book review.  Often the literary and publishing weblogs provide a mere sentence or two of opinion and analysis. (There are exceptions. See, e.g., About Last Night, 2Blowhards, Golden Rule Jones, The Elegant Variation, and Cup of Chicha).

On the bright side, the Internet is by its nature a forum for debate and discussion. If someone disagrees with my take on Elizabeth Costello, for instance, she might write a paragraph or two taking issue with what I've said. Someone else might respond further, agreeing in part with me and in part with my critic. 

The dynamic and democratic nature of the Internet (at least at present) ensures that arts debates will no longer be confined to the pages of newspapers and periodicals but will be open to anyone with smarts and a knack for expressing him or herself. Every day I happen across new sites written by people who are at least as passionate about books as I am and can express their passions in an intelligent, charismatic way. Three or four years ago it would not have been possible for me to read their opinions, or for them to read mine. While online debates can be splintered and diffuse and sometimes clubby, I'm heartened by the sheer number of them. Who knew so many people cared about books?

Robert: Coetzee's award reminded me of when the Nobel Prize goes to some (allegedly obscure) writer like Kertez or Wislawa Szymborsk and then literary press types scramble to distract from their ignorance of world literature.

Michael: While I think Coetzee was a good choice, I am not sure how positively to see his having received the award yet - a reflection of the current state of the literary culture (or absence thereof). I think for the Nobel to be a feel-good story, for it to be a success beyond merely giving a worthy author a lot of cash, the award has to engender public debate. Often the Nobel is a complete failure in this regard (Dario Fo!). So also last year: in the US Imre Kertész remains, at best, a curiosity: he sold some more books, but there was little discussion of his (fascinating) oeuvre as a whole (hampered, of course, also by the absence of translations - though it's also surprising that no new ones have appeared). (Kertész has, however, been embraced throughout Europe; there his Nobel definitely was a feel-good story.) The last "successful" Nobel prizewinner (seen from US/UK vantage points) seems to have been Naipaul. Coetzee is well-known in the US and UK, but there was still considerably less to-do about Elizabeth Costello not making the Booker shortlist than Martin Amis' Yellow Dog (despite Coetzee previously being a Booker-darling) - and I worry that there's a general uneasiness in dealing with him and his work. (I also note that there's been some very critical coverage of Coetzee in South Africa.) His work clearly deserves attention - and is also of the sort that is eminently and wonderfully debatable. I just worry that the debates won't come.

Alex: You're right that Coetzee's win didn't seem to get noticed very much over here, especially given the fact that he writes in English. Still, I'm glad you put that "successful" in quotation marks. I mean, we could have a successful Nobel Prize every year if it was awarded at a televised gala event in L.A. with Oprah as the host.

Public debate would require a large audience familiar with a fair sample of that author's work. I don't know where you get real public debate over any author's work these days. What you have instead tends to focus on mediagenic or deliberately controversial, provocative figures. There's been a lot of fuss over Houellebecq, and attention given to Amis, and yet I don't think they're really great writers

Jessa: In regards to J. M. Coetzee, I actually prefer it when the Nobel goes to someone completely obscure. With Coetzee, it just felt like one more reason to feel bad for having read only two of his books. I think the public pays less and less attention to the winners unless they've heard of him or her before, and I too was disappointed there were no new translations of Kertesz after he won. But with so few authors being translated and published in America, the more foreign language obscure authors that can be spotlighted, the better.

To me, and I'm probably alone in this group with this, the "feel good story" of the year is the slow acceptance of graphic novels and comics as literature. I'm sick to death of the articles that proclaim this, but every time I see Chris Ware or Daniel Clowes mentioned in the same paragraph as authors who write "real" books, my heart swells a bit. And I get much more excited about packages of review books from Fantagraphics than I do packages from Random House. This year has been especially good for comics, with Joe Sacco, Neil Gaiman, Craig Thompson, Jessica Abel. "Y" kicks my ass every single issue.

Maud: I do agree with those who are troubled by the fact that the novels of lesser-known Nobel winners often have not been translated into English.  For me that sad fact does not detract from the power of Coetzee's prose, however. 

Fortunately there is room for disagreement.

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II. Enough Already !

Robert: The overexposed/"enough already" question is about two faces of literary journalism's hydra. I don't know that I read enough widely or consistently enough to know what is being over-reported though I suspect that given today's rampant pack journalism in other areas one may be able to extrapolate safely and know what is being reported.

Anyway, I think the story I am sick of and unfortunately it won't go away soon - Harry Potter and its phenomenal sales blah blah blah.

Secondly, the Snark issue which has given way to secondary and tertiary (like a STD) or meta-snarkery.

And last but not least the nattering flocks perched on window ledges twittering about Al Franken and the Fox law suit and category of books of various political stripes that are supposedly part of public (political) discourse. Other than Ivins and Conason, these aren't really books at all, I think. They are stand-up monologue scripts or the shrieking of carny barkers.

Though I think we haven't seen the apex yet I am already sick of articles as in the Washington Post about that wretched verb, dare I say it, "blogging."

Maud: All signs point to The Believer anti-Snark manifesto.  And since so much discussion has been devoted to the debate, both online and in print, I don't feel compelled to try to shed new light on the issue here. 

Even though I believe the story is played out, a friend recently raised a good counter-argument. He pointed out that the proprietors of weblogs and online magazines tend to grow weary of a debate before the terms of the debate are communicated to the wider public. While the number of people turning to weblogs for literary and other news is on the rise, many continue to rely on their local newspapers and favorite magazines to summarize major developments.

It's understandable that the discussion would seem stale to us before it even appeared in the major magazines and newspapers and then trickled down to the pages of alternative weeklies distributed in colleges around the country. Still, as my friend said, the question of the proper tone of reviews is one worthy of consideration by intelligent people who do not devote their lives to the online discussion of literary developments.

Michael: Enough already of: Harry Potter and it's phenomenal sales, books of various political stripes that are supposedly part of public (political) discourse, and articles about "blogging"? I am not sure. These are all phenomena worthy of some discussion. One of the things that surprised me about the reaction to Jennifer Howard's Washington Post article was how many other bloggers claimed never to have even heard of those mentioned in the article (as well as her own admission that she wasn't familiar with Identity Theory) - i.e. how very isolated the literary blogging community seems to be, not only from mainstream USA but even active bloggers. (Are we really this marginal?) So I actually think there needs to be more coverage of literary weblogging specifically - and probably blogging in general.

As to Harry Potter and the bestselling so-called political books, I do admit to a certain fascination with the incredible success of both. Though I wish some of the coverage was more serious.

As to snarkery: that I am - sort of - tired of. But it's the incessant squealing of that horrible word - "Snark! snark! snark!" - in any and every book-review related piece that's driving me nuts. The issue itself, and the broader question of how books should be reviewed, is one of enough interest to me that I'm almost willing to put up with the continued (over)use of the s-word.

My own opinions on "Enough already!", or a story or person we heard too much about in 2003:

Most of the time I'm so grateful for any literary coverage that it wouldn't occur to me to complain that there's too much of any of it. I was somewhat annoyed by a few figures and books - Hillary Clinton's memoir, Lauren Weisberger's The Devil Wears Prada (surely utterly ignorable books both), Michael Moore (now an international superstar!), etc. - and certainly I feel that space devoted to them could have been put to better use, but I'll admit that their incredible success warranted some coverage. All the to-do about The Believer crowd has also gotten to be a bit much - but since it has also resulted in some worthwhile coverage (a lot of reactions, especially to the essay that started it all, I found quite interesting) I can accept that too.

So for my choice I'll fall back on a favorite stand-by: the excessive coverage of personality over content, writer over book. I don't want to hear about the writers, I want the discussions to be about the works. Yes, yes, a bit of writer-information is useful - but most coverage is limited to superficialities, and I think that does more damage than good.

Jessa: I would also like a moratorium on discussing what a female author is wearing in an interview with her. It's insulting. Every article on Jhumpa Lahiri began with a paragraph or two discussing how pretty she is, what clothes she likes, calling her an "exotic beauty" at least once. She won the Pulitzer. Perhaps she has a few interesting things to say.

And in regards to the Great Snark Debate, I want more literary feuds. Real ones, though. The Frey/Eggers thing didn't last long enough. Frey apologized much too quickly. It's silly and it's nonsense, but I love it.

The topic of conversation I would like to die: chick lit. I don't fucking care if sales are up or down. If it's a fad or "here to stay." I just want it all to go away.

Alex: Chick lit will never die! Romance novels make up one third of all the fiction bought in the United States. That’s not a niche. It’s the mainstream.

The whole Harry Potter thing is becoming a bore. Call it Star Wars syndrome. I think this is one fad that is just about played out. Because it’s such a powerful media franchise it’s going to stay in the news (and of course make hundreds of millions of dollars), but you can already see a public weariness. The selling patterns indicate this. Huge pre-orders (everybody wants to be the first on their block to read the new Harry Potter) followed by weaker sales over time. What I find disturbing is that more adults than kids are reading this stuff. Publishers have even started talking about the "kidult" market. I think anyone over the age of 12 reading Harry Potter in public should have to wear a paper bag over their head. Grow up people. I’d rather read pornography. At least its fantasies are post-pubescent.

I think the most over-reported stories have all been mentioned. And I take Michael’s point that they were worthy of (some) discussion.

Except in one case, which is the "Snark" business.

I think everyone can see through the McSweeney’s crowd now. This juvenile circle-jerk has gone on long enough, and why anyone continues to pay attention to the Book Brats is beyond me. You want excessive coverage of personality over content? The last time I checked Peter Pan (David Eggers) and his self-worshipping Island of Lost Children were responsible for the world’s largest library of books that nobody has finished reading. As marketers discovered several decades ago, if you can brand something new as cool and "hip" (the preferred adjective in this case), then what you’re actually selling becomes irrelevant. Buzz and hype feeds on itself, leaving unfortunate reviewers (what used to be the front line) to scratch their heads.

The Snark essay was typical. It went on forever and said absolutely nothing. I defy anyone - defy anyone - to explain to me what Julavits’s point was. She believes in literature and wants critics to be fair. Gee lambchop, that’s swell. Such a vapid manifesto would never have been published outside of a house organ like The Believer, and even if it had it would have been justifiably ignored. But no, there has to be a big non-debate over whether critics are too nasty - which is not the point.

Instead of squawking over who’s the biggest bitch on the block, a more interesting line of inquiry would be in assessing how so little talent has managed to pass itself off as some kind of important or even significant "movement". Writers of good ad-copy are dime a dozen. I give Eggers and company credit for being adept (if cynical) players of the fame game, but Britney Spears has more substance and integrity.

Michael: I wasn't overly impressed by the original Snark-essay either (and still don't know exactly what the term means) - but I do like the fact that it led to discussions about book reviewing. I was particularly impressed by the number (and, often, quality) of the responses printed on the Internet: it was one of the few times I thought an actual literary debate of sorts took place.

Robert: It is a characteristic of media coverage on so called major stories that it goes on past the point of adding new information or understanding to a story. I am not tired of Harry Potter because I have a feeling (mild disinterest doesn't qualify as feeling in my calculus of emotion) one way or another about Harry Potter. My HP fatigue comes from hearing the same basic story over and over. As for the Snark snipping I thought everything after Clive James (interestingly, another very controversial writer was scheduled to write that piece) was redundant.

I would stand by my earlier choices of "Please, no more" choices but I have a feeling that well before the pre-Trial of Century even takes place I'll be wishing for Harry Potter coverage or rehashes of the snarky Snark debate. I do like Barry Crimmins take on this latest giga story:

"I don't like the inanity of media priorities that allowed Michael Jackson's arrest on child molestation charges to garner more airtime than the Turkish terrorist attacks, the massive British protests, the latest Wall Street scandal, the Quagmire in Iraq and the Republican energy and Medicare scams put together . . . we mustn't downgrade the seriousness of the case against Jackson because of our disgust with the media swarm. We must let the media know that we understand that Jackson's story won't be told until a judge or jury speaks and that we can wait for that result. We've got to hold the media accountable for covering the larger story of the court-appointed Bush administration's molestation of human rights, the environment and our very way of life. Such editorial scrutiny will only help kids. Goodness knows that cutbacks in human services necessitated by Bush giveaways to the ultra-wealthy have made the USA a more dangerous place for children."

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