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The Literary Saloon Archive

21 - 31 August 2002

21 August: Signs of more troubled Times ?
22 August: Bush reads a book ? | Defending DeLillo | Stoppard's Coast
24 August: Publishing reputations | Darwinian debates
25 August: Borges' birthday | John Willett (1917-2002) | Ads at The NYT Book Review
26 August: The new Naipaul | French Corrections | The annual Amélie !
27 August: TLS poems
28 August: The NYer Festival ... and Nell | Baseball strike ?
29 August: Literary curiosities
30 August: Meaty news | Yee blog | NY as "book country"
31 August: Critical death | Goethe-Prize | The Monk

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31 August 2002 - Saturday

Critical death | Goethe-Prize | The Monk

       Critical death - Walser's Tod eines Kritikers

       The preeminent literary scandal of the summer seems to have been the to-do about prolific (and generally esteemed) German author Martin Walser's recent novel, Tod eines Kritikers ("Death of a Critic"; we haven't reviewed it -- and have no plans to do so). As readers may have heard: Walser's book has been denounced as anti-Semitic -- and a personal attack on the thinly-disguised critic of the title, identified as German literary super-heavyweight Marcel Reich-Ranicki (see also our next entry).
       The affair has received considerable press coverage even in English and American publications. The most recent to weigh in is The Economist (issue of 31 August), who opine in their review-story (note that this link will only be freely accessible on or after 5 September):
"Death of a Critic" is an atrocious book, so bad that not even Reich-Ranicki could have wished it worse.
       They also note that it has already sold "upwards of 150,000" copies -- an impressive amount. (See also this BBC report on the success of the book.)
       There have also been reviews in the London Review of Books (issue of 8 August) by David Midgley (also focussing more on the scandal than trying to appraise the work) and the Times Literary Supplement (issue of 19 July). In his TLS-review Michael Butler actually considers both the work and the to-do about the novel, unwilling to be as simply and sweepingly dismissive as The Economist's reviewer is. He notes:
What the book is not is anti-Semitic. Indeed, it is unclear whether Walser's fictive critic is in fact Jewish (.....)
    The extraordinary controversy surrounding Tod eines Kritikers demonstrates a considerable parochialism in the German literary scene. Too many of its denizens appear to be obsessed with what they see as the scandalous demonstration of anti-Semitism to read the text without prejudice.
       The book's (considerable) weaknesses lie elsewhere, he finds -- and fortunately makes a point of paying some attention to these as well.
       Anyway you look at it, it does not sound like a particularly tempting read. Which makes it all the more striking how much of a success it has been. Walser is a well-known author, but these sales-figures are considerably above what he usually achieves. So scandal (and press coverage) is enough to assure sales success ? A sad lesson if true ....

       Other links of interest:
(Posted by: complete review)

       Ehrl-König ... we mean: Reich-Ranicki wins the Goethe Prize

       The Goethe-Prize is a prestigious award given out every three years by the city of Frankfurt. (See this list of previous winners.) This year it was awarded to German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki -- yes, the very same man who figures, thinly disguised, in Martin Walser's Tod eines Kritikers (see our previous entry).
       Some English-language publications took notice of the award -- see, for example, this BBC report. There is also an article in today's issue of The New York Times (sorry -- you know we don't link to the NYT). While it is nice to see coverage of the prestigious prize and estimable honoree we weren't too thrilled by The New York Times' coverage (by Desmond Oates Butler). Okay, we liked the closing paragraph, noting: "Not present in the crowd at Wednesday's ceremony was the novelist Martin Walser (.....)" But .....
       The piece in The New York Times is titled: "Holocaust Survivor Wins Goethe Prize". The implication here ... well, there are many implications. First the facts: yes, Reich-Ranicki did survive the Holocaust -- and in quite remarkable fashion, no less. It's a great story (which he tells in his autobiography). However, Reich-Ranicki's claim to fame is not that he was a Holocaust survivor. And he was not awarded the Goethe Prize for being a Holocaust survivor.
       Reich-Ranicki is, as the article correctly points out, "commonly referred to as the pope of German literature". As big as Oprah in her Book Club heyday -- but truly concerned about literature (and not just books). That -- the tremendous power and influence he has had on the post-World War II literary scene in Germany -- is why he was awarded the Goethe Prize. To identify him first and foremost as a "Holocaust survivor" trivializes his actual accomplishments.
       The article also refers to his "best-selling autobiography, 'My Life'". Yes, Reich-Ranicki did write a best-selling autobiography called Mein Leben (get your copy from -- a title which translates as "My Life". But surely English-speaking audiences (surely the target audience of this English-language article) would prefer to know that there is an English translation of the work available, published by Princeton University Press, with the title The Author of Himself: The Life of Marcel Reich-Ranicki
       See:        So what do we think of him getting the prize ? Well, he has had a big impact, and he does have some literary standards (pretty good ones, too). But he doesn't compare to the late and truly great Hans Mayer (except, of course, that Reich-Ranicki outlived Mayer, which does give him a big edge in the present-day).

(Posted by: complete review)

       OUP re-does The Monk

       Matthew Lewis' 1796 novel The Monk (sorry: not under review, and no plans for a review anytime soon) is being published in yet another edition -- the venerable Oxford University Press is offering it anew. Why ? one might ask. It's not like it isn't available, right ? You can find the entire text online (courtesy of Project Gutenberg), and there are any number of cheap paperback editions to be had. So why this -- incidentally quite expensive hardcover -- edition ?
       Well, it comes with an introduction by Stephen King -- apparently a huge selling point.
       It was enough to get The New York Times to write a piece about it in today's issue (you know the drill: we don't link to the NYT, but if you really want to you can find the article pretty easily). It's a "Shelf Life" article by Emily Eakin - a not-quite book review (the Times doesn't really offer book reviews on Saturdays, but they generally will offer articles sort of discussing a specific book -- which is what this is). Not a real book review, but explicit reference to the OUP edition. Eakin enthuses: the OUP edition comes "with a terrific new introduction by Stephen King". Wow !
       And The Monk itself ? Eakin suggests it:
is primarily of historical interest as a daring literary experiment. With the exception of a few English literature professors and hard-core horror novel enthusiasts, most people should feel no compunction about skipping the book and waiting for one of the periodic film adaptations to pop up on late-night television.
       Oh, how we love to hear stuff like that. Printed words ? Read a whole book ? You've got to be kidding. It's got a worthwhile introduction, but then you can toss it aside and turn to your TV Guide instead, which is obviously a much better way to spend your time.
       (Note: we checked for film adaptations of The Monk and found only a single one: the 1972 film Le moine, directed by Adonis Kyrou and written by -- get this -- Jean-Claude Carrière and Luis Buñuel, starring Franco Nero, Nathalie Delon, and Nicol Williamson. Impressive, yes, but Eakin suggests there have also been other adaptations (that will pop up on your TV screen at regular intervals) and it doesn't look like that's true. So read the book !)
       Admittedly, Lewis' tale is not fresh in our minds (this was teenage and college reading) but the consensus here at the complete review is that it was a very worthwhile read -- way, way out there, but a lot of fun, and not something we would have wanted to have missed. Definitely a memorable book, too.
       Her literary judgement left aside (way aside), Eakin does offer a nice introduction to Lewis and the book in her article. But we suggest you leaf through the "terrific" Stephen King introduction at your local bookstore, then go to your favourite used-bookstore and pick up a second-hand paperback copy of The Monk (which you should be able to get for under two or three dollars) and then sit back and enjoy it on some overcast weekend afternoon.
       Other links of interest:
(Posted by: complete review)

30 August 2002 - Friday

Meaty news | Yee blog | NY as "book country"

       Beefy updates

       Tossing some hamburgers on the grill over the (American) holiday weekend ? Good luck.
       It's not exactly literary news, but since our review of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation consistently ranks among the most popular reviews at the complete review, it is apparently a subject of considerable interest to our users. So quite a few of you will probably want to check out Schlosser's piece on Bad Meat in the 16 September issue of The Nation, focussing on the recent huge (nearly 19 million pound) recall of ConAgra-prepared beef.
       Additional notes: the ConAgra site conveniently ignores the subject entirely (type "recall" into the on-site search engine -- as some consumers surely do -- and you'll find no results (not a one !)). Admittedly they do better on their separate ConAgra Beef site, where it receives prominent (if not exactly informative) coverage -- and they even have another separate site which they created "so that we can share with you the latest information regarding the ground beef recall". It's always fun to read this stuff to see the spin companies put on things, and they spin very nicely here (sounding so benign and so concerned -- though it's hard to believe anybody could be taken in by this guff). The problem, of course, is that substantive factual information is hardly presented. (The most useful page on the subject ? Still the USDA's original press release.)

       Read Schlosser's article -- and book - and take care when you're grilling and barbecuing !

(Posted by: complete review)

       Danny Yee goes blogging

       Yet another weblog appears: the "pathologically eclectic generalist" and Internet book review pioneer Danny Yee now offers Pathologically Polymathic.
       Given his literary bent and longtime active presence on the Internet it sounds like it will be of both interest and use. Keep an eye on it (and drop by his book review site when you're in that neighborhood).

(Posted by: complete review)

       More bookish doings in New York at the end of September

       We mentioned previously that The New Yorker Festival will take place 27-9 September, ignoring entirely the concurrent events that are New York is Book Country®. Check out the site and see what other fun doings will be happening on what sounds like a very busy weekend.
       The NY is BC®-site features one of the most bizarre ideas we have come across on the Internet in a while: a make your own bookmark page. We're curious to know how many people actually try this out.
       Additional note: New York is Book Country® is apparently a registered designation (hence the little ®). Showing again how problematic intellectual property rights can be. Is this really the type of thing that should be legally protected ? In the meantime: don't you dare improperly use the designation !!!!

(Posted by: complete review)

29 August 2002 - Thursday

Literary curiosities

       Literary curiosities and very Invisible Forms

       Our newest review is of Kevin Jackson's Invisible Forms. Subtitled "a guide to literary curiosities" it offers a fun tour of practically every part of a book except (most of) the actual text. From introductions to titles to marginalia to indexes, Jackson delves into all aspects of books' supporting apparatuses. Fun stuff, and just up our alley -- as a reader of these pages noted: it was actually at the suggestion of a visitor to the Literary Saloon that we picked up this book (and you thought we didn't listen to anything you had to say !).
       The book was first published in 1999 in the UK, and then in November 2000 in the US. It does not appear to have done well. It hasn't made it to paperback in the US, and at the sales rank (checked today) of the hardcover edition is 345,655. You can apparently purchase it there at remainder prices: from 4.75 dollars new (and 2.90 used -- prices even we can (almost) afford).
       It made it into paperback in the UK (first published, so, 10 September 2001), yet less than a year later, regrets to inform that they are "currently unable to offer this title". (For all that, it still has a higher sales rank than the US edition -- 196,413.)
       Why this lack of curiosity about literary curiosities ? This is a good book. It's fun, it's clever, and -- except for an abomination that calls itself an index -- is marvelously presented. Anyone who loves literature should love this stuff. But apparently they don't.
       Part of it may well be marketing -- we seem to have been vaguely aware of the existence of the book, but hadn't ever really registered it (and thus not considered it for review earlier). We usually keep an eye out for books like this, but this one didn't grab our attention when it first came out. We do not know why.
       On a broader scale, it may simply be that this is not an age much interested in literary curiosities any longer. Jackson devotes a chapter of homage to the doyen of literary curiosity, Isaac D'Israeli -- and reports an "unflagging public appetite" for what D'Israeli offered in his own Curiosities of Literature. In his own time, that is. Appetite has since flagged: Jackson shockingly reports that now: "The English Faculty Library at Cambridge doesn't have a single copy of any work by Isaac D'Israeli." Which maybe should have told him something about the prospects for his own work. Despite enthusiastic reviews it does not seem to have fared well. Too bad; Jackson deserves to have made some money for his efforts.
       We're no fans of marketing, and especially not of blurbs, but suggest that the American edition might have benefited from one slight change. It comes adorned with quotes from three reviews -- enthusiastic ones, certainly. But the single best possible blurb-quote, from Simon Jarvis' review in the 26 November 1999 Times Literary Supplement isn't to be found there (remember: this is a book about paratexts):
It is appropriate that one of the book's own paratexts should supply the justest measure of its performance. Invisible Forms is, as the jacket copy declares, "the perfect companion for literature lovers everywhere".
       (The daring marketeer would have used only the second of the two sentences. We hope at least the English paperback publisher did.)

       Another reviewer also brings up an interesting point -- Sean French, in the 20 October 1999 The Independent:
Obviously, this is a book that has the reader shouting suggestions and objections while reading. I almost felt that it should be a website rather than a book, so it could accumulate examples and counter-arguments.
       Maybe that's where success lies -- it sounds like a good suggestion (though much of the charm of Jackson's book lies in the small (and often personal) details and quirks that might get lost on a site that featured many contributing voices.)
       We haven't found a website offering as many riches as Jackson does (there's still a lot to be said for the good old bound book), and for now can recommend you get a copy of the book before it disappears entirely -- a bargain at those bargain-basement prices.

(Posted by: complete review)

28 August 2002 - Wednesday

The NYer Festival ... and Nell | Baseball strike ?

       The New Yorker's forthcoming Festival
       The 2 September issue of The New Yorker comes with a lavish, almost 50-page insert, detailing their forthcoming "The New Yorker Festival", scheduled for the weekend of 27-9 September.
       Notes re. the "Program Guide" and the festival:
       Throughout, they write in small print: "for the most up-to-date information (...) visit". That website is the magazine website. There one finds a link to: -- a separate set of pages devoted to the Festival. Why not send people there directly ? It's not that complicated a URL .....
       The programme is fairly impressive. Friday the 27th is fiction night. Most tempting (to us): the Martin Amis and James Fenton combo. Also of interest: David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen
       Other pairings include Amy Tan and Stephen King (maybe they'll jam), David Eggers and Zadie Smith (we'll pass), and Ian Frazier and Steve Martin. Murakami Haruki goes solo, allowing Paul Rudd to read for him and then allowing himself to be interviewed by The New Yorker's deputy fiction editor.
       Saturday the 28th is "a day of panel discussions, talks, and interviews". The conversations don't really do it for us -- Richard Avedon interviewed by Adam Gopnik ? We admire them both, but ..... "Writers and their subjects" also doesn't tempt that much. The panels ? "Censorship and creativity" apparently only deals with television (fair enough, but not of great interest to us). "Biorevolution" offers more cloning talk (with Francis Fukuyama).
       Sunday the 29th offers some wilder, smaller events (go to one of NYC's criminal forensics labs with Jeffrey Toobin and Barry Scheck), as well as an Elizabeth Bishop tribute (with a good list of speakers).
       Check out the programme for yourself -- there's a lot more there. (We'll be there -- if someone invites us.)

       Also of interest: the Festival offers another Nell Freudenberger-sighting. Yes, she gets to appear on fiction night as well (paired up with Lorrie Moore). Nell who ? you ask. Perhaps you remember her from our Literary Saloon dialogue in the August 2001 issue of the cr Quarterly, Whoa Nelly !, about Real Life, Lucky Girls, and Advances in Non-Fiction. A one-time New Yorker-employee, she apparently hasn't been forgotten there and gets nudged into a small spotlight again at this festival. We haven't seen any recent fiction by her, but the brief bio assures us: "She is working on a book of stories."
       (The last Freudenberger sighting was also a recent one: she reviewed Pramoedya Ananta Toer's The Girl from the Coast (good choice !) in the 11 August issue of The New York Times Book Review. Readers are told there only: "Nell Freudenberger is a writer in New York." We're still waiting for the book -- and full of even more admiration that she was able to bag such an impressive advance so far in advance.)

(Posted by: complete review)

       Baseball strike : pro and contra

       Why would (or should) the complete review have an opinion on whether or not the so-called American national pastime shuts down in a labour dispute ? (A strikedate looms on Friday.)
       There's not much in it for us, either way. Monies and time spent by fans over the interminable season (most teams play 162 (!) regular season games (each generally lasting over two hours), and then there are playoff and championship games to contest) could possibly be put to better use reading, but fundamentally we agree that people should be free to waste and while away their time and cash however they please (even on something like baseball) -- and we are under the impression that book-sales would, in any case, not dramatically improve if all these fans can't go to the ballpark or watch the games on TV. I.e. literary culture as such is unlikely to benefit from the demise of the institution that is Major League Baseball. (Not that the continued existence of MLB is doing much for it either.)
       No, the main reason we considered endorsing a baseball strike was in the hope that it would also spell the end for the annual spring issue of The New York Times Book Review which devotes considerable space (and the cover) to coverage of baseball-related titles. It's a pet peeve, we know, but that issue annoys the hell out of us -- even though it wasn't even particularly baseball-focussed this year (the 31 March issue, with three full-length baseball book reviews (out of twelve books reviewed)). But then we figure that even if baseball goes entirely out of business, there would be a wave of nostalgia lasting for ... probably decades, leading to even more baseball books (and reviews thereof). As well as books explaining the admittedly fascinating labour-business issues that led to this work stoppage.
       So it seems like a lose-lose proposition. And so we will not take a position regarding possible work stoppages and/or lockouts.
Update (added 30 September): The matter is moot, the issues resolved, a strike averted (in, essentially, the eleventh hour).
(Posted by: complete review)

27 August 2002 - Tuesday

TLS poems

       Times Literary Supplement poems

       The 16 August issue of the TLS (it takes a while until it reaches us, hence the belated mention ...) offers four poems. Especially noteworthy: a new T.S.Eliot verse, "Montpelier Row" (cut it out and paste it in your edition of the collected poems !), which apparently also appears in the current issue (number 5) of the Walter de la Mare Society Magazine (the society's website is largely unhelpful in this regard).
       Also (on the same TLS page): "God Again" by Alasdair Gray. Under the title readers are parenthetically advised: "see TLS, August 11, 1995" -- something of a tall order, we suggest. Nevertheless, TLS-subscribers do have access to back-issues up to late-1994, via the TLS-site, and so can theoretically find the issue in question. We looked, and it would appear the reference is to Randall Stevenson's review of a dramatization of Gray's Lanark [...]
CORRECTION (added 29 September): We were quite mistaken. Further hunting does indeed reveal the poem in question -- though it can't be found by typing in "Alasdair Gray" under keywords (or anywhere else) in the TLS-search engine. The secret lies in typing in the name of the poem -- which turns out to be "A Postmodern Hymn to Obscurity". How did we figure that out ? As we should have originally -- by referring to the fine volume edited by Phil Moores, Alasdair Gray (see our review), with its very good bibliography that includes even a section for "Poetry First Published in Magazines".
       There we also learn the poem can also be found in the Gray collection Sixteen Occasional Poems (sorry, not under review), under the title "Postmodernism".
       And yes, the older poem does throw a bit more light on the present one. But, while we vaguely enjoy rooting about in old TLSs, we're generally not that fond of hard to place references such as "see TLS, August 11, 1995".
       All that effort, and we're still not entirely clear what Gray means in pointing us there. Still -- a very fine poem, master Gray god-playing again (would that he would do it more often !).
       Gray's verse is still too little appreciated, though perhaps S B Kelly's useful introduction in Alasdair Gray (ed. Phil Moores; see our review) will lead more to turn to it (if they can find the elusive volumes).
       (For more Gray information, as always see our Alasdair Gray page.)

(Posted by: complete review)

26 August 2002 - Monday

The new Naipaul | French Corrections | The annual Amélie !

       The new (?) Naipaul

       Our review of the new V.S.Naipaul collection, The Writer and the World, is now available.
       It's a nice big brick of a book, 500 plus pages worth, and offers some choice Naipaul material. The rub ? You've seen most of it before.
       We dislike repackaged books, and The Writer and the World is almost all repackaged, with only a few odds and ends that aren't available elsewhere. Editor Pankaj Mishra's selection-methodology remains a mystery (and it's not explained in his introduction).
       Still, it is Naipaul, and that's pretty hard to pass up .....
       See our review for links to other reviews, etc.

(Posted by: complete review)

       French Corrections

       Among the books appearing in the flood that is the French book-week (oh, the glory !) -- the translation of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections (Les corrections, of course). And doing quite well, too -- ranked an impressive 14th at (where you can purchase it too) when we checked Sunday.
       You can, of course, find links to dozens of reviews (in English, German, French, etc.) on our review page for the book, but among the French reactions, check out these at: L'Express and Libération. (Our favourite review-line: a mention of how uppity Franzen was in dealing with "la toute-puissante Oprah Winfrey, la diva des talk-shows new-yorkais" (from L'Express -- hey, they're French, they don't know that Oprah's a Chicago gal).)
       (And don't forget our still seminal analysis, A Book, an Author, and a Talk Show Host at the complete review Quarterly. Maybe we'll update it soon to take into account the foreign-language reactions now that the book has begun to appear in translation.)

(Posted by: complete review)

       The annual Amélie !

       She says she writes far more, but most wind up in the drawer. But once a year, in the French August tradition, Amélie Nothomb (see our author page) deigns to share a novel with the reading public. This year it's Robert des noms propres -- already number 1 at (where you can get your copy ).
       We'll review it as soon as we can get our hands on a copy -- we're hoping the nice people at Albin-Michel send us a copy soonest. In the meantime, consider the recent L'Express review. And check out some of her other work too -- like Loving Sabotage (still her best -- though we're hoping Robert can compare).

(Posted by: complete review)

25 August 2002 - Sunday

Borges' birthday | John Willett (1917-2002) | Ads at The NYT Book Review

       Borges' birthday

       Yes, Jorge Luis Borges birthday was yesterday (24 August) -- but it's never too late to celebrate. Get out that dog-eared copy of Ficciones, or check out sites such as The Garden of Forking Paths at The Modern Word or the informative biographical page at books and writers.
       We don't have a Borges-page up (yet), but we do have a couple of titles under review -- see what tempts you:        The stories (and the essays) are short -- leaf through some on a lazy August Sunday afternoon !

(Posted by: complete review)

       John Willett

       John Willett passed away earlier this week (20 August). Mel Gussow wrote The New York Times' obituary (in the 24 August issue), and there's also a nice one by Richard Boston in The Guardian (which Gussow quotes from).
       Born 24 June 1917, he died 20 August 2002. He remains best known as a translator and editor of Bertolt Brecht's work, tasks he performed admirably. He also worked at the Times Literary Supplement.
       Read the Brecht editions (if you can't read them in the original) -- the plays, of course, but also the excellent Poems, 1913-1956 which Willett edited with Ralph Mannheim. For lighter amusement, see also a letter to the editor in response to a James Fenton review.

(Posted by: complete review)

       Ads at The New York Times Book Review

       We wrote about the troubling Signs of more troubled Times ? earlier this week, after reading a Newsweek article talking of the "plummeting ad revenue" at the Book Review.
       Ad revenue is apparently an important thing in the media world, and many publications seem to depend on it. The complete review, as you've noticed, more or less does without it ( links and some such things excepted). We don't really get advertising (people are persuaded to purchase something because someone has paid to tell them it's a superior product -- spending huge amounts of money that surely would have been better spent truly making the product superior or (even better) cheaper ?). But it sounds plausible, that if there is less ad revenue then the Times Book Review can't cover as many books.
       At least we thought it did. The story got us thinking: there are some sections of The New York Times that don't appear to have much advertising -- how can they get away with that ? So we compared several sections with the three most recent Book Reviews (4, 11, and 18 August).
       We compared three weekday sections from three issues of the Times (Wednesday through Friday, 21-23 August). All issues refer to the New York edition of the newspaper -- which differs from the national edition (for example, the Sports section is not a separate one in the national edition).
       We looked at the C section -- the Business section. Over those three days there were a total of 46 pages in this section, of which about 16.5 were ads -- of which, in turn, about 3 were New York Times-ads. (We realize that the Arthur Andersen school of accounting probably counts income from these as actual revenue, but we refuse to count them for obvious reasons.) So, over the three days, an average of 0.29 of the Business section was devoted to real ads. (The per day totals: 0.38, 0.34, 0.10).
       We looked at the W section -- the World Business section. Over those three days there were a total of 24 pages in this section, of which about 4.5 were ads -- of which all were New York Times-ads. That's right -- they apparently couldn't pay anyone to advertise in this section. Over the three days, an average of 0.00 of the World Business section was devoted to real ads.
       We looked at the D section -- the Sports section. Over those three days there were a total of 24 pages in this section, of which about 1.5 were ads -- of which essentially all were real ads. Over the three days, an average of 0.0625 of the Sports section was devoted to real ads. (Each day half a page of the eight was ad-space.)
       Now, the W section is almost all stock tables (except for a few staff written stories on the first page), so labour costs are low (though paper costs are high). Still, given that it brings in no outside ad revenue whatsoever this section is obviously not covering its costs. Why is it allowed to exist (especially in these days when current stock prices are so easily found everywhere) ?
       The C section also has many stock tables, but already has considerably more journalistic input. At about 30 percent ad-coverage it also seems to be bringing in a decent amount of revenue.
       The real shocker is the Sports section, which brings in a measly half page of advertising for the labour-intensive 8 pages of content. (All right, maybe it's a bit less than eight pages -- weather appeared on the back of each of the editions we checked, and there are also the baseball standings and other results that usually take up two pages). We thought it might be a weekday thing -- but the Sunday Sports section of 18 August only had ads covering a total of about one page out of twelve (i.e. hardly any more).
       So how does the Book Review compare ? Well, the three issues we looked at had a total of 76 pages (though remember these pages are only half the size of the sections previously considered), of which about 26.5 were ads -- of which, in turn, about 2.25 were New York Times-ads. Over the three issues, an average of 0.32 of the Book Review section was devoted to real ads. (The per issue totals: a very consistent 0.32, 0.33, 0.30).
       So on a per-page basis, the Book Review has at least four times as much ad space as the Sports section. So why isn't the Sports section being cut back ? (Radically cut back -- this thing looks like a complete dud.)
       Oh, we know advertising is a complicated thing. There are different rates for different sections for different days. The Book Review obviously looks pretty pathetic against the ad-packed Sunday Magazine section. But it still seems to be pulling a lot of its weight -- unlike the ridiculous World Business section, or the Sports section.
       We're sure there are demographic specialists at The New York Times who can explain that such an expansive Sports section leads to the sale of ad-space elsewhere in the paper, and that's why it can't be touched, unlike the fringe-section that is the Book Review, or offer some similar crackpot-marketeer explanations. From this vantage point it doesn't look convincing.
       Ad revenue at the Book Review may also have gone down -- but on a per page basis it still looks pretty good, especially compared to some of these other sections. What are we missing ? Why this conspiracy to cut back Book Review coverage when that doesn't seem to make any economic sense ? Why no talk of getting rid of the Sports section ?
       (Has the cost of the reviews themselves gone up so much that the Times can't afford to buy more ? What gives ?)
       Check out advertising rates at The New York Times to perhaps unearth the secret to it all -- and please let us know if you do. In the meantime, be more than a little suspicious when they tell you about hard times at the Book Review.

(Posted by: complete review)

24 August 2002 - Saturday

Publishing reputations | Darwinian debates

       What's in a publisher's name ?

       Apparently publishers have don't a good job of establishing themselves as brand-names -- at least in England. So at least the conclusion from David Sexton's 19 August article in the Evening Standard, discussing recent findings that readers don't much care or notice who published what. As Sexton points out, in this age of huge, many-tentacled publishers, few have much of a recognisable identity any more. Every large publisher publishes the whole gamut of books nowadays, from the occasional more literary title to mass-market drivel.
       A few small firms remain with a distinct identity, where you might possibly know what you're getting, but it seems ever-rarer -- in both the UK and the US (and elsewhere).
       We'll still pick up certain books based on the publisher -- but they're almost always of an older vintage. The old American Vintage paperbacks (the mass-market paperback sized ones, not the hideous trade paperbacks they've mutated into), for example, or Harper Torchbooks, or -- from certain periods -- Grove Press titles, Fabers, Picadors, and Harvills. But there's no one we believe in fully any longer. Everyone of any size has spread themselves far too thin.
       With editors switching from house to house (as occurs at a terrifying rate in the US), as well as the sheer volume of titles spewn out by the bigger publishers, it's hard for most publishers to establish any sort of recognisable identity. Only the niche publishers -- smaller, focussed houses, usually in the firm editorial grasp of an individual, certain of what s/he wants to do -- have recognisable identities.
       It's odd that the large publishers don't try make more of an effort of establishing their own clearly recognisable identities in this brand-name age. Given the huge number of books found in any bookstore, think of the marketing edge to be had if a reader checks the spine, finds a trusted name there, and is convinced because of that alone to give that book more consideration. Name-brand recognition has, after all, worked out quite well in many industries. Consumers certainly like it, thinking it allows them to know what to expect from a product.
       But, of course, even basic business sense isn't widespread in the publishing world, and they'd rather try to crash their way to success by betting on blockbusters than concentrating on quality or user-satisfaction.

(Posted by: complete review)

       Hey, relativity's just a "theory" too

       School's in again in much of the United States, and everybody's favourite educational controversy has reared its peculiar head again. That's right, they're debating how evolution should be taught in schools again -- this time in Cobb County, Georgia.
       An article in yesterday's issue of The New York Times by Kate Zernike covers much of the ground -- the Cobb County policy of "attaching disclaimers to all science textbooks, saying that evolution 'is a theory, not a fact,' and should be 'approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered' " and the other recent events down in Georgia. (It's not clear from the article whether or not the warning labels are placed in such a manner as to prevent the textbooks being opened at all .....)
       See also this A.P. story on Thursday's school board meeting, noting:
The Cobb County school board voted unanimously Thursday to review for 30 days a proposal that says the district "believes that discussion of disputed views of academic subjects is a necessary element of providing a balanced education, including the study of the origin of the species."
       Everything is nicely and carefully couched -- who could possibly object to the "discussion of disputed views" or that something should be "approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered" ? certainly not us -- but, of course, it isn't all quite that simple. Yes, that spectre of creationism lurks in the background, eagre to get a foot in the classroom door again. (Oddly, you never hear these apparently so open-minded parents pushing other alternative versions of the coming-into-being-of-man story -- including the no more far-fetched Raëlian idea (check out Welcome to the Raelian Revolution to learn about it). Somehow we don't think these Georgian folk are too excited by the prospect of all the stories out their being taught in the classroom. In fact, aside from possibly tolerating that Darwinian-evolution-theory-thing, it seems they allow for just that one other alternative -- though in fact there are any number of other candidates which have at least as sound (or unsound) a basis as the Sunday-school one they embrace.)
       The ACLU has already filed suit, the school board meets again in a month. If you want to see who the decision-makers on the board are (or write them an e-mail), go Meet the Board (at the quite impressive Cobb County School District site).
       As to understanding the actual debate, we can strongly recommend Robert Pennock's Tower of Babel (see our review) (as well as his Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics (see our review)). For other titles on the subject, see also our index of books on Darwinism and Evolutionary Theory

(Posted by: complete review)

22 August 2002 - Thursday

Bush reads a book ? | Defending DeLillo | Stoppard's Coast

       Bush reads a book ? How scary is that ?

       The current American President, the junior George Bush, is not an uneducated man and yet his reputation is such that the headline that he has picked up a book still draws some gasps. Yes, he may not be stupid, but he's certainly not what people think of as a literary man (and probably damn proud of that).
       But the junior Bush has, indeed, picked up another book -- and this is news of some note. The book is Eliot A. Cohen's Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime. (You can get your own copy from (or, of course, elsewhere) -- it was their 133rd bestselling title by the time we checked today.)
       Coverage of the junior Bush's reading can be found in these recent articles (both recommended):        Choice quote from the Post:
It is noteworthy that Bush should devote his precious time to reading Cohen's book about the importance of civilian leadership resisting whining generals, instead of paying attention to the whining general whose op-ed article appeared in the Journal the day after Cohen's
       There's part of the rub, of course. Cohen's book may well be a book of excellent scholarship, but it has, in certain respects, obvious leanings. As Joe Conanson notes, it comes prominently blurbed by Weekly Standard-bearer Billy Kristol -- who, Conanson says, calls this "the single volume he most wished Mr. Bush would read". (For what is presumably the Weekly Standard line on the book, read their review of it -- and check out the magazine in general to see if this is the type of thinking you believe should be influential in the White House.)
       The complete review is, of course, as ultra-literary as it gets, and thus also quite pro-reading. However, we also remind our readers that there is nothing per se good about reading -- and are mindful that reading a bad book can be a very bad thing. A badly written book, as most of the schlock out there is, is bad enough (like watching most daytime TV). But a book that propounds bad ideas -- especially if it is not badly written and propounds those ideas well is far more dangerous.
       Cohen's book may well propound reasonable ideas -- but there are some obvious dangers to it (especially for a man in a position in power who wants to be compared to the historical figures at the centre of the book). Bush is welcome, even encouraged to read it -- but he should also be reading books that take other positions into consideration.
       From our vantage point, it looks like he is merely looking for support for his position in choosing this particular text. The books he should be reading, of course, are those that present the positions very much opposed to his. He would then be able to engage with the text (beyond mere enthusiastic nodding), taking apart the foolish arguments he finds there, proving to himself -- and thus becoming more capable of demonstrating to others -- why his position is the correct one and the others (found in these books) the wrong ones.
       Unfortunately, the President appears to have no interest in such exercise. And indications are that this is the only book he's reading. (Try some fiction for once, we want to scream at him too !)
       There can be great dangers in what one reads. The often ill-advised junior Bush seems to have particular trouble in this regard -- recall our brief look at his previous reading adventures in our cr Quarterly piece, George's History Lesson. Maybe some more literary person in the White House can help prod him to move in a different direction. Laura's been known to pick up a book, hasn't she ? Maybe she can help.

(Posted by: complete review)

       Defending DeLillo

       The 26 August issue of The New York Observer also offers a review of B.R.Myers' forthcoming book, A Reader's Manifesto. (Get your copy at, or elsewhere -- though the book won't be out for a few more weeks.)
       The Myers book is an expanded version of his article in the July/August 2001 issue of the The Atlantic Monthly (sic). We discussed it at length in our piece, Considering B.R.Myers' Reader's Manifesto, and our review of the book-version is forthcoming.
       Begley's review is a solid one -- it is informative and reasonable enough, and he has some fun with what Myers did. He doesn't even mind many of the attacks, not thinking so highly of quite a few of the six authors Myers focusses on either. Except one of them -- as one of the six authors under attack is a man Begley will defend at all costs. Which ? Well, see if you can guess:
  • The review is headlined: DeLillo Pretentious ? Stupid ? Literary Pugilists Throw Punches
  • The review begins: "Who dares attack Don DeLillo"
  • etc.
       Begley has long appeared to be the greatest DeLillo fan around. He claims that many others also see DeLillo's genius -- and certainly DeLillo has other ardent admirers too -- but few cheerlead as vociferously as Begley does.
       All in all, not a bad thing. It's nice when a critic believes so strongly in the great literary value of what an author produces (though we keep asking ourselves: "DeLillo ? Of all writers, DeLillo ?"). And readers of The New York Observer (whose literary corner Begley runs) are no doubt familiar with his enthralled praises for (almost) all things DeLillean.
       However, there's one slight problem we've had with this ra-ra enthusiasm. When DeLillo's last book came out, Begley reviewed it. Not, as expected, for The New York Observer, but for The New York Times Book Review. It was a somewhat ... daring choice: not wanting to doubt Begley's objectivity, it was pretty clear which way this review was going to lean. Picking reviewers for specific books or authors who are great fans of an author (or, similarly, who despise their work -- consider William Deresiewicz's complete dismantling of Tibor Fischer in a 20 October 2000 review in The New York Times Book Review, or, more recently Dale Peck's savaging of Rick Moody in The New Republic) can be fun. But does it serve the review readers -- especially those who may not be aware, for example, of Begley's long-standing love for almost all that flows from DeLillo's pen ?
       The Begley review would have troubled us less but for what happened next: in not one but two issues of The New York Observer the DeLillo-review from The New York Times Book Review was reproduced in an almost full-page advertisement. Understand: the publishers of DeLillo's book paid a fortune to The New York Observer -- Begley's employer -- and perhaps puffed the vanity of the literary editor himself in reproducing his words again (twice over, no less !). You know the folks that sell ad-space at the Observer were just thrilled by this. That's a lot of cash flowing around, for an unusual form of advertisement -- and objectivity looks ever more distant .....
       Maybe something to keep in mind the next time you read a Begley review of a DeLillo book.

(Posted by: complete review)

       Stoppard's Coast of Utopia

       Yes, we finally got around to it -- we've reviewed Stoppard's Coast of Utopia. The parts and the whole -- see all our reviews:        It's still early going with this play, and it will be interesting to see what becomes of it. The Trevor Nunn production sounds impressive (our reviews, as almost ever, are purely literary exercises -- no one volunteered to fly us over to get a peek at the play in action as well). That should probably be enough for it to get a brief New York run. But it's a tough cycle, and it's not something the small reps are going to be able to produce. And individually ? Well, the plays hardly seems worth the effort by themselves -- too much else seems missing.
       The reviews (see our reviews for links) were surprisingly superficial. Hardly anyone discussed the plays one by one to any meaningful extent -- and such major occurrences as the Emancipation of the Russian serfs (the big historical event in part III) go almost entirely unmentioned (a quick look suggests only The Guardian took note). Much of the messy private lives of the characters is also neglected -- you'd almost think it wasn't part of the play from many of the reviews.
       Admittedly, it's a hard play to review -- though we would have hoped that at least a few publications would have done it in three (or four) reviews, play-by-play rather than just in one. More serious, lengthier discussion will no doubt follow.
       Well, for now you have ours to tide you over .....

(Posted by: complete review)

21 August 2002 - Wednesday

Signs of more troubled Times ?

       Signs of more troubled Times -- and even less reviews ?

       A very brief Newsweek article in the 26 August issue sounds ominously familiar. (Note that this link will die after a very short period of time, and the article will no longer be accessible. It's at the MSNBC site; you can't expect any better from them.) This Periscope-feature talks of tough times at The New York Times Book Review, noting that because of "the same plummeting ad revenue that has starved many publications in recent months (...) the skinnier TBR is now reviewing fewer books each week".
       This is all the more worrisome because the "TBR" already complained about tough times -- and drastically cut back coverage -- when the going was still better, over a year ago. Readers may remember the headlines -- or such articles as Salon's on The amazing disappearing book review section (from July 2001), or our very own cr Quarterly editorial on the phenomenon of Withering Reviews (from May 2001 !).
       Is Newsweek covering old ground, or is this an early warning from The New York Times Book Review that coverage will be further reduced ? And how much less coverage can there actually be ?
       The Newsweek article even has a quote from Book Review-editor Charles McGrath (with such encouraging words as: "We're trying to spread the pain around (.....) It's almost a triage situation"). It sure looks like they're laying their groundwork (and making their excuses) for the further diminution of the Sunday-supplement. Stay tuned (and write to them to let them know that you're against -- or for, as the case may be -- further Book Review-cutbacks).

       Additional notes:
       The Newsweek article begins: "Every Sunday morning 1.7 million subscribers across the country snuggle up to The New York Times Book Review." We note:
  • The New York Times Sunday issue does not have "1.7 million subscribers". It has a circulation of 1.7 million, of which only about 1.1 are subscriptions -- see The New York Times' own figures
  • At least in the New York area, subscribers to The New York Times receive their artsy Sunday supplements (like the Book Review (and Arts & Leisure, etc.)) on Saturday.
  • The New York Times Book Review is actually available by subscription separately from the newspaper itself, but apparently the number of subscribers is very small (in the thousands -- we couldn't find any exact figures)
  • We suggest: few people actually "snuggle up" to the Book Review. We know we don't. (But good for you if you do .....)
       (Who writes this crap ? Suzanne Smalley did. Newsweek is apparently suffering some financial hardship as well and couldn't be bothered to hire a fact (or style) checker.)

       Finally, since all this is about money -- take a look at the The New York Times Book Review's rate card. We know they have high overhead (all that paper !), and greedy stockholders, but we'd like to point out that the complete review -- admittedly as low-frills and amateurish a site as you're likely to find -- costs (considerably) less to run for a year than what would be required to purchase an ad covering 1/20th of a page in a single issue in The New York Times Book Review. That's right, all the content on this site, as well as the server space and everything else doesn't come close to costing what they charge for a single, tiny piece of ad-space. Admirably they actually pay their contributors (we couldn't even think of doing so) but it still makes you wonder where all the cash is going and what the hell they're griping about. (And, at least on a bang for the buck basis -- yours and ours --, the complete review starts looking pretty good.)

(Posted by: complete review)

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