Here at the blog we always review what we want, and rarely get pitched anything. Well, that’s a lie; we get pitched stuff all the time. We just pick what we want to read, typically, and I mean 99% of the time because we like it. Which brings me to the sticky point of liking everything, or being objective. In the case of William Giraldi, and his utter bullshit and openly violent reaction to the great Alix Ohlin and her two books, Inside and Signs & Wonders. He was assigned the book and got paid to write that review. As the conversation leapt forward, I think what J. Robert Lennon said in his piece on Salon is mostly true and a good rule of thumb, if a little sophomoric in tone.
Lets be serious here. If you’re reviewing a book, you take notes, you’re objective, because face it, Lennon is not talking about the reviewers who get paid to write reviews. He is talking about the other 99%, the bloggers, and how the overall tone in the reviewing world is soft and “nice”. The filmmaker Steven Soderbergh called bloggers graffiti artists at best, and since we don’t get paid to do this, (really we don’t) then we don’t count.
The fine folks at Knopf have used my blurbs in promotional material, but who is going to put quotes around my review and put it on the cover of a book? Who am I? I think the reason they use published writers is not because they hope Ma and Pa Smith walk into a store and say, “Gee wiz, look at that book! It’s got a quote from Richard Ford on it!!! I have to buy that…” Or do they put those writers blurbs on the jacket so the rest of the very small literary establishment will recognize the book has merit? And the author’s blurb is usually listed with his or her most recent publication (Is that the seal of approval, a sentence from a fellow published writer?). Then the 200k that read literary fiction will go, “nice, I love Richard Ford, let me buy this book…” Thus perpetuating the process, indefinitely.
I’m not crying with a loaf of bread under my arm. I like being blurbed, but I wonder what the idea of blurbing is, from a publisher’s standpoint? If no one knows who Richard Ford is in the general public, then why not put my name on the book? If they don’t know him, and he has written a book that is listed after his name, then why even put it there? What does it matter? Are the people who get paid to write reviews different and do they somehow offer a refined/legitimate perspective than those who review for free? Will Ma and Pa Kettle know what Kirkus is? Which begs the other question, how do people find out about books? From their friends? But how do their friends find out? Which came first, the book or the reader?
When we reviewed and discussed Sam Taylor, we read all three of his books (discussed them at length). I interviewed Sam, nice enough man, but I’d had my fill of him by the time we were all done. Nothing personal, but I felt like we had said all that there was to be said. It was DH’s idea to read all the books together so we could give a full treatment to the writer. In fact, DH is probably the most disciplined of the bunch here at the blog, his research is legendary, and you’ve got to get up early to catch him sleeping on a review. His reviews could easily be in the TBR, and I’m surprised Tannenhaus hasn’t emailed him to do some freelance work.
Giraldi is a debut novelist who is also a critic, and that means he had to turn the pen on his peers, good or bad. But he could have turned the job down. He has an ego, and wanted to see his writing in print, especially that print publication. Or maybe he needed the work and wanted to get his name out there, but what he did next was a crime of the literary kind. That’s okay, we’ve all forgotten about it. Has Colson Whitehead or Richard Ford forgotten the spitting incident? I don’t know.
Giraldi is overwhelmingly off base with his appraisal of Ohlin’s work. In my opinion, it is neither cliché or comparable to Danielle Steel. Comparing a racehorse of Ohlin’s kind to a mashed potato sandwich like Steel is a brutal takedown, and unwarranted. The editors at the TBR should have cut that line out, especially since Steel has in her contract a full page color advertisement in the TBR when her new titles go on sale. And she is shelved in fiction in all bookstores, despite being a moonlight kisser, of the soft porn variety.
What we’re doing here on the blog is trying to steer overwhelmed and distracted readers to what’s good, and what is worth their time. Writing a bad review? I could do it all day, and have done just that with my take on the recent television show The Newsroom. I don’t know if I would go all out to slam a writer, knowing what the process is like. That’s the great mystery of Giraldi’s review. He is a writer, so he knows. Which tells me he doesn’t care. Is he telling a peer, “you have to do better than this”? Okay. Fair enough. But I disagree with you on Ohlin. They are great books, both of them.
Novels are really hard to write. Really. Fucking. Hard. And I have incredible respect for those who can do it well. I’m happy to tell you about them, and really want to make our readers feel like I felt when I read the book. That’s my goal as a reviewer. Giraldi wanted you to feel like he did. Insulted, angry, pissed off, and that’s all well and good. The literary community is pretty small, we’re a tight knit bunch, and I live and work very close to NYC, I see all kinds of literary “things”.
One aspect of this that is never debated is the TBR’s relevance in the United States. A wise woman in the book business once pulled me aside during a cocktail party when an author was being hailed by his peers after a great review in the TBR, and said, “Jason, west of the Hudson, no one reads the New York Times Book Review, remember that.” Which is to say, I regard this dust up over being nice as opposed to being honest in book reviews as sort of silly. Say what you want, just be prepared for a response. And in the immortal words of Bill Murray, “lighten up Francis.”