the complete review Quarterly
Volume I, Issue 4   --   November, 2000

On the Cover / Uncovered:
What's in the reviews and what's not

A Literary Saloon Dialogue

The Scene:

       Fall fell quickly upon the Literary Saloon, the afternoons now fading fast into night. It doesn't stop them coming. It is unclear whether interest in bookish talk or in drink predominates, but there's a greater intensity in the smoky air than there was in the summer months.
       A sits before his half-finished stout, the computer screen of his laptop darkened, his face LED-lit from the indicator buttons which signal that, despite appearances, the device is still in use.
       B sits down beside him, the hearty clap on A's shoulder too forceful a greeting. He orders a whisky.

The Dialogue:

B:    Blank screen ?
A:    To go with a blank mind. Yes, I was searching ...
B:    Searching for information, and despite the billions of pages out there couldn't find a thing, eh ?
A:    Not quite. There is some information. But it is not enough, not adequate ...
B:    Not timely, not pertinent ...
A:    Yes, yes, along those lines.
B:    What were you looking for ?
A:    Literary information. Reviews, actually.
B:    Specific books, or just general browsing ?
A:    A bit of each, initially. But now it's been a more focussed search, and it's all become a blur. There are already hundreds of sites devoted to reviewing books out there.
B:    I've visited a few.
A:    And hundreds of publications which are not yet on-line.
B:    And what's the problem you're having ?
A:    Well, I'm wondering what to rely on, where to turn. I understand that not everyone can cover everything, but I was hoping that with the Internet one would be able to find at least some information about almost any title.
B:    And you haven't ?
A:    Oh, I have -- just. What I'm concerned about is the books that I don't even know to look for. I conducted a "test", of sorts, to see what's out there, to see what I might rely on -- which of the leading publications provide the necessary coverage. The incidental and supplemental information that's available on the Internet -- it's useful, but it's not enough. I need a few places to turn to in the national and international press that will make me aware of the titles of significance that I should know about. Then I can seek out additional information over the World Wide Web.
B:    So how did your test go ?
A:    Dismally. It's an 'orrible state of affairs out there.
B:    What did you test for ?
A:    I chose three titles of some significance. Two were published in 2000: Scottish master Alasdair Gray's long-awaited The Book of Prefaces and Irmtraud Morgner's 1970s (East) German classic, The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice, finally available in English. As well as American author Daniel Evan Weiss' Honk if you Love Aphrodite, published in 1999.
B:    I haven't seen them on the bestseller lists.
A:    One place that they can be expected to be absent from. Unfortunately, it is not the only one.
B:    What is it about these titles that led you to choose them ?
A:    They are worthy.
B:    Of what ?
A:    Readers. Attention. Notice. Reviews.
B:    Let's take a look. "A-l-a-s-d-a-i-r--G-r-a-y--B-o-o-k--o-f--P-r-e-f-a-c-e-s". Returns quite a number of sites that sound promising.
A:    Indeed. It was extensively reviewed and covered in the British press. All the major publications discussed it, and there were numerous other articles about Gray's undertaking.
B:    I don't see the problem then.
A:    Not a single major American periodical has, to date, printed a review. Indeed, only several very minor ones have. The most extensive national coverage came in The New Yorker ...
B:    Heavyweight !
A:    It got a mention in "Book Currents" (September 11, 2000). They did call the book "joyously magisterial", but the comment -- and it is little more -- is hidden in the "Goings On about Town" section. The book is not properly reviewed, not even in the "Briefly Noted" section. And, as I said, no other major US publication has reviewed it. None of the national weeklies or monthlies, none of the big dailies.
B:    Perhaps it's a Brit-book through and through.
A:    Hardly. And Gray is well-known stateside. Almost all his novels have been fairly widely reviewed here.
B:    He's fallen out of favour ? The book is too fat ? Too serious ? But look here, at least the complete review covered it.
A:    Well, you know them, they'll cover most anything ...
B:    Especially if no one has ever heard of it.
A:    Possibly. They also reviewed the other two books I mentioned. Now, Irmtraud Morgner's novel -- that's one of the major works of post-World War II German literature. One of the defining works from East Germany.
B:    East German literature ? Come on !
A:    Christa Wolf, Christoph Hein, Heiner Müller, Volker Braun, Karl Mickel, Sarah Kirsch, Stefan Heym, Wolf ...
B:    Yes, yes, yes. Still: matter of taste perhaps ?
A:    Good and important stuff -- but, all right, some of it is debatable. Not Morgner's book. There's no debate about that one, there can't be.
B:    So what is the review-status ?
A:    No coverage. Not major, not minor, not in England, not anywhere. As though it never existed.
B:    Maybe back when it was first published ?
A:    Oh, there are German reviews galore, but not a single notice here, then or now. Some are inevitable -- booknotes in quarterly journals, eventually -- but what of the places where it deserves a place ? The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books. The Nation . The New Republic. But no one has picked up on it. Baffling. Worrisome. And unacceptable.
B:    And there was one more title -- "Honking Aphrodite" ?
A:    Honk if you Love Aphrodite. Daniel Evan Weiss. Not major lit, but more than solid. A semi-established author, American, with more talent than most, the book itself an entertaining read. And no mentions. No reviews.
B:    Except at the complete review.
A:    And a few other small sites and rags, certainly. But real notice, reaching real audiences .....
B:    The complete review already reaches tens of thousands of individual hosts monthly.
A:    It's something, and it's still nothing. It doesn't have the reputation or the reach, and I can't imagine it ever will. No, Weiss deserves to be reviewed in some of the bigger, more accessible standard-bearers. Those that appear in print as well as on the computer-screen. They have an obligation to present information about these books.
B:    There are a lot of books out there .....
A:    There are, and I understand they can't review all of them. But some -- these, for example, -- well, it's unacceptable that they've been missed. And so consistently missed, by one and all. A lazy flock they are, all copying one another.
B:    Not always.
A:    But by and large.
B:    So you're losing respect for The New York Times Book Review and The New York Review of Books and the like ?
A:    As they're all that so many readers can rely on they can't be dismissed. But I am concerned. The New York Review of Books still seems on the right track, along with the TLS and the London Review of Books and a few others. They have their focus. Readers know what to find there, and what to expect. The New York Times Book Review gives me pause more frequently.
B:    Why so ?
A:    Dubious choices. Inexplicable omissions. I understand that it's hard to cull and choose, but their choices .....
B:    What about them ?
A:    It's best summed up by a single summer cover. I've had it framed and hung it on my study wall. The July 30, 2000 cover. A summer issue, with few books to choose from, admittedly. Thirteen books comprehensively reviewed -- Joe Eszterhas' American Rhapsody and two Rudy Giuliani biographies among them --, a few more in "Books in Brief" and "Science Fiction".
B:    And the cover ?
A:    Michael Paterniti's Driving Mr. Albert
B:    You're joking ? The Einstein's-brain-in-the-trunk-caper ? Wasn't that just the outline for a sit-com ?
A:    Sadly no, it was what now counts for a "real" book -- puffed up magazine piece that it was. Yes, it will take The New York Times Book Review considerable effort to regain their credibility after that.
B:    Driving Mr. Albert ? My god, even I thought that was tripe. And I have no literary standards whatsoever.
A:    Cover of The New York Times Book Review. Maybe so they could put a picture of Al's bushy head there again.
B:    No great honour, in this instance.
A:    In any case, it strikes me as symbolic of the current standards of reviewing in America.
B:    Well, it's what you might expect in USA Today.
A:    Exactly -- and that appears to be the standard of reviewing in all the States today, even in The New York Times. That's why I've got the Book Review cover framed and up on my wall. Though it still brings tears to my eyes. Alasdair Gray and Irmtraud Morgner don't even warrant a books-in-brief mention, and Paterniti's magazine article-cum-book gets cover coverage.
B:    But Paterniti's book will outsell the three you've mentioned -- and many more.
A:    Especially with the movie tie-in. Still, it's worthless, and ten or twenty years from now people will refer back only to the original article -- while Gray's book will be a standard, and Morgner's will outlast the century.
B:    It was a mid-summer issue of the Book Review -- you shouldn't expect more. All fluff and filler. Everyone is at the beach and doesn't want to concern themselves with what might pass for literary merit.
A:    I can't quite accept that.
B:    You should. Look, the Internet does a decent job of providing some information about these semi-obscure books that don't otherwise attract much notice. Witness the complete review.
A:    It's not the same thing. The big boys have to play. They can't just leave the field to bit players on the Internet and the like. They have an obligation. There are some standards.
B:    Are there now ? They must have forgotten to mail me my copy when they last agreed on them. Maybe Charles McGrath (editor of The New York Times Book Review) didn't get his copy either.
A:    You don't think they've done wrong ?
B:    Oh, they flubbed with the Paterniti-book cover, certainly -- but that's just embarrassing. The rest ? Errors of omission are difficult to criticize. So many books, so little time and space .....
A:    The July 30 issue of the Book Review is ... almost barren. A mere twenty-seven pages ...
B:    On the low side, but still a fair amount.
A:    ... certainly with room for more reviews. Especially of works of fiction -- there are only three works of fiction with full-size reviews in that issue. But then they are generally taking fiction less and less seriously. Systematically weeding it out, it seems.
B:    Rightly so, many would argue. But it's a different issue, surely.
A:    Not when works such as Morgner's -- among the most important to appear in Germany over the past five decades -- are ignored. It shows a deliberate indifference to fiction that is of great literary value and significance.
B:    It's foreign, you know. American audiences don't go for that.
A:    And still, the Book Review and the dozen or so other publications of influence and importance can't ignore it.
B:    And yet you see how easily they have.
A:    Leaving me to wonder what else they are ignoring.
B:    A great deal, no doubt.
    Another round ?
A:    My mind's already reeling -- but yes, another round.


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© 2000 the complete review Quarterly
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