Monday, January 31, 2011

What's In a Book Trailer?

Recently I took a writing class with a debut novelist whose first book is scheduled to publish next month. Half of the fun of the class was to hear the little bits of what the process leading up to the book’s publication entailed. (By chance, most of the class worked in publishing, but as wannabe writers it was more the other side of the equation—the writer’s experience in the months approaching the big day—that we were interested in.) As one session was drawing to a close and we were packing up for the day, our fearless leader mentioned in passing that the topic of his book trailer had just been broached by his publisher, and—here’s where he got a dramatic reaction from his class—that they had a five thousand dollar budget to work with. I suspect I was in good company when I say that, though I had worked in the trenches of book publishing for about four and a half years at that point, I could count on one hand the number of book trailers I’d seen for any book, from any house. Because they don’t play a huge part in the typical marketing campaign of a book, I was shocked to hear how much this publisher was planning to spend.

In theory, I can understand the appeal of a book trailer. Their second cousin, and only real counterpart—the movie trailer—has long been an art form in its own right, and I’ve heard dozens of people say that they enjoyed the preview for a given movie a whole helluva lot more than the film itself. It’s now a common feature of DVDs to include the movie’s official theatrical trailer.

My own fondness for a well executed movie trailer, paired with my teacher’s announcement, inspired me to have a look at the book trailers that are out there—who is making them, for which books, and perhaps most importantly, how many people are watching them.

I decided to start the process by watching the book trailers for the sixty-three books that TK has reviewed in its nine issues. Excited to take in a vast range of styles on a variety of subjects, I was more than a little surprised to discover that only five of the sixty-three books we’ve reviewed have a trailer. Remembering the small but steady buzz that the trailer for Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story created, I thought perhaps trailers might be reserved for younger, “hipper” writers with a younger fan base. Following this lead, I looked for trailers for the 20 under 40 writers singled out by the New Yorker. With a considerably higher turn out, four out the twenty writers had a trailer for their most recent book (a 20% trailer rate, compared the 7% rate for the sixty-three TK books). I also looked for trailers for the National Book Award’s 2009 and 2010 “5 Under 35” winners. There was one for each year’s set of five (so again, a 20% rate). While young, debut novelists do seem to have trailers more often, by no means do all of them.

Looking at the breakdown between fiction and non fiction for the trailers I did find, there seems to be only a small lead in the number of fiction trailers over those for non-fiction trailers (though it’s difficult to give an exact break down since all of the 20 Under 40 and 5 Under 35 National Book Award winners are fiction writers). The success of or anticipation leading up to a book’s publication also seems to have little to do with the likelihood that a trailer will be made for it: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (arguable the biggest book of 2010) didn’t have an official trailer. A non-book-related celebrity doesn’t seem to matter either: Roseanne Cash’s Composed was also trailer-less.

Looking at the number of hits that the book trailers I was able to find shed some light on why so few books are publicized trailer-style. Even books by prominent, big-sellers often got only a few hundred hits. (Chuck Palahniuk’s Tell-All had only 127 views on You Tube.) The highest number of hits for a single book trailer was for Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters with 275,943 (the trailer is as whacky and fun as the book’s title would imply, which I suspect is the reason).

Perhaps the most surprising finding in all of this research when all was said and done, was how professionally and impressively done some of the trailers I did find were, given how infrequently the marketing device is used, and how few people see them. Though they certainly don’t rival movie trailers in their star power or air time, some of them were as compelling and artful. Though I wouldn’t recommend you watch the three dozen or so book trailers I did to find the gems, there are worst ways to spend a slow afternoon than checking out the best in the bunch. So, below, the ten best book trailers I came across (in random order) and the particular charms of each:

Most Likely to Inspire Wanderlust:
Joshua Ferris’s The Unnamed

Best Use of Noire:

Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal

Funniest/Best Cameos:
Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story

Most Likely to be Used as a Montage Meant to Indicate a Drug Trip in a Full-Length Film (well, the second half at least, and in the best way possible!):
Sloane Crosley’s How Did You Get This Number

Best Animal Attack:
Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters's Sense and Sensibility and Seas Monsters

Most Reminiscent of an Indie Film Trailer (I kept waiting to see Greta Gerwig’s Chuck Taylor and jegging-clad legs go running down those grocery store aisles!):
Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps

Best Art/Animation:
Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances

Most Hanuting/Eeriest
Mira Bartok’s The Memory Place

Most Likely to Invite Involuntary Knee-Tapping and a Craving for Funnel Cake and Cotton Candy
Lydia Peelle’s Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing

Most Likely to Foster Nostalgia for First Grade Story Hour:
Wells Towers’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Times and the New Social Reader

On Monday, I had a great idea for a blog post. So good, in fact, that I almost asked Caroline to switch days. But then I remembered how devoted Caroline is to her Monday posts, polishing drafts over the weekend, thinking about subjects for weeks in advance.

No one gets between that girl and Mondays.

Well, that’s fine, I thought, it can wait until Friday. Except now Friday is here and, as you’ve probably already guessed, I’ve forgotten the topic that so inspired me. After thinking about it, hard, I thought of something that could have been my great idea—but I’m not sure. The one feeling worse than not remembering a great idea: possibly remembering it, but not having that sense of conviction, not hearing that little snick as it clicks into place.

Anyway, here’s what I was thinking about. I’m currently in a master’s program, and this semester, I’m taking a class on readers and reading. In our first session, our professor had us share our thoughts on that subject—remembering Katie’s beautifully written post from a few months ago, I brought up the question of professionalizing reading (something Jess touched on yesterday as well). That was fine, but a more interesting point was made a few minutes later, when a classmate mentioned the historical shift from communal reading (the family gathered around a father and the fire) to private reading, from the oral to the silent. Now, this woman said, we seem to be swinging back to a more social form of reading with the proliferation of comments, Twitter, and email, with all of the ways of discussing reading material as a group and sharing pieces you find interesting.

The conversation quickly switched topics again, but I stayed with her observation for a while, because it just seemed so true to me. Some of the recent articles in The New York Times on "Why Criticism Matters" also mentioned the socializing effect of internet commentary, where everyone's a critic, but—I thought in class—isn’t the truly strange part how much we share? Looking at the Times’s home page, under “Most Popular,” we find this:

Most E-mailed
Most Blogged
Most Searched
Most Viewed

That, my friends, is peculiar. First of all, it’s peculiar that these forms of sharing (e-mailing, blogging, even searching) are so prominent. When “Most Popular” means “Most E-mailed,” it does not mean “Most Read.” That, one would assume, corresponds to “Most Viewed.” Instead, “Most E-mailed” means those articles readers feel most compelled to give to friends and family. Perhaps unsurprisingly, at this moment, the subjects of those articles are not incredibly serious:

“Most E-mailed” is to “Most Popular,” I would contest, as the Thursday Styles section is to the rest of the Times (and in fact you’ll see Styles articles on the list frequently). The articles are a little bit more embarrassing, more about wacky health trends and shocking diet discoveries and, well, the shortcomings of gyms. By contrast, here's "Most Viewed" at the same moment:
OK. There’s some overlap. Japan, Bittman, stressed freshmen. But really, doesn’t this second list give you some sense of pride? Readers of the Times may be sharing articles about calcium and meditation, but they’re reading about the protests in Egypt and domestic economics and politics. They’re more internationally and nationally engaged than “Most E-mailed” might lead you to believe.

Bu in the publishing world, it’s “Most E-mailed” that matters. When a first serial piece makes it there, we’re delighted. When a particularly smart Sunday magazine article is up, we take notice, and you can bet that writer’s agent will be getting a few calls. But friends: what’s being emailed is not necessarily what’s being read. If that were the case, wouldn’t you expect the two lists to match exactly, or almost exactly? People seem to be reading the news they seek out on their own more than the news that their friends send them. And yet—books don’t work that way, do they? What seems to breed a bestseller is a combination of quality and word of mouth. You need it to be shared.

I’m not sure yet what to make of these thoughts, but it seems to me that the Times’s structuring of their “Most Popular” articles says something about how we should think about buying and selling books in publishing. Americans—or those who are reading the Times, anyway—seem to be interested in the tough topics, although we have to dig a little for that information. So my question is this: how do we make our “Most E-mailed” list look more like the “Most Viewed”? How do we make our readers buy and share the books it seems they just might want to read? How do we make the private reader of the past translate into this new (old) social reader?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

What Do You Do with a BA in English?

Last night, I saw a post on Twitter that made me shudder. It came from the illustrious Ron Charles, the book critic for the Washington Post and quite possibly the most entertaining reviewer working today (his video reviews are enough to make him the first person worth consulting on a book's merit, not counting the lovely folks at TK.) @RonCharles had tweeted, "Fascinating & depressing story in @ (Feb) about sex workers in NYC. 9% of the prostitutes work in publishing during the day...." (The story is on stands today, and hits the web in February.) Feeling snarky and put out by that statistic, I responded to him, "If that's the case, then why don't we have better wardrobes?" He responded by citing a specific sex worker's $2000-per-month shoe budget, proof positive that if you want fantastic (expensive) options in your closet, you should seek out supplemental income, and not just from freelance proofreaading. I wept for the future, tweeting, "What do you do with a BA in English, anyway?" His response: "Use that BA to get an MA in English. Then teach. Good life. Best job I ever had."

I get emails all the time from aspiring publishing folks--sometimes soon-to-be-graduates from my high school or college--who have steeped themselves in a love of literature. They want to know about publishing, if it really entails sitting around all day reading to your heart's content, if you're discovering the next Toni Morrison around every corner. We've discussed this several times on TK, and I think we've pretty much dashed our readers' hopes on that one: no, not every manuscript you read is a gem. You spend far more time understanding the mechanics of publishing, of promotion of an author, of the ways in which readers are fickle and particular and easily turned off, than you do reveling in a deep love for the written word. That's not to say that you won't be satisfied or even thrilled in your work, and many people develop a passion for the ways pursuing literature through publishing is different than pursuing literature through an academic or critical setting. But it is definitely not just the life of curling up in an armchair with a good book, and no one should paint it as such.

I've only recently discovered that I was an anomaly among my fellow college graduates in that my English (and Sociology) degree led me into a field directly related to the process of reading and evaluating. Looking through Facebook and my college alumni association, I see some of my fellow English majors are in law school, some are business school, some are in banking and film and media studies and photojournalism. A few of them are doing ground-breaking journalism, though not on the subject of Jane Austen and Herman Melville. Not all of them went on to be writers, editors, or even teachers. And very few are pursuing advanced (MAs and beyond) in the study of literature. The musical Avenue Q asked the question, "What do you do with a BA in English?" and the answer seems to be "Don't guarantee that your career will involve reading for fun."

But it seems that the skills you learn with an English degree have less to do with a very detailed skill set, but instead the inculcation of a love of reading and conversation. With the proliferation of blogs and social forums for reading, if the way you make your money doesn't involve good books, you have a multitude of ways of staying in the cultural conversation. The great beauty behind Goodreads is not just that it's like a Netflix queue for books, but also that it becomes a dialogue, a viral syllabus of what's worth reading. The community of informal book critics out there is just as thrilling to read as the legitimate critics in print publications today, and surely Charles knows that as he churns out yet another insightful, hilarious video review. (And when he took time to live-tweet his reading of Snooki's A Shore Thing, it seemed the only way worth reading the book at all.)

So yes, a BA in English guarantees you...four years of reading good books. And maybe, if you end up being part of that 9% of sex workers that spend their free time reading manuscripts, you get a really nice big shoe budget as a bonus. But either way, you carry with you passion for the written word. Whether that's how you make your money is up to you. As for me... I'll stick with proofreading for the extra bread, thanks.

Friday, January 21, 2011

In with the New

For a long time—the last three years—we had only one real bookcase in our apartment. (A bedside table holds my textbooks and a regular rotation of novels I’m hoping to read next.) This is irregular among editorial assistants, as you might expect: we tend to accumulate a lot of books. (So foreign is it to publishing friends, in fact, that upon entering our apartment a guest once asked, “Where are the rest of your books?”)

But when I moved to New York, I had to fit everything I wanted to bring with me in the trunk and backseat of an economy-sized car. My shoe collection was radically downsized. My various college furniture—microwave, mini-fridge, radio—stayed in California. And only the ten books I cared for most came with me. Moby-Dick. Two beloved Austen novels, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. The books on which I wrote my senior thesis: A Confederacy of Dunces, The Moviegoer, Edisto.

Luckily, one of the first items of furniture we bought in New York was our bookcase. And actually, that was the second bookcase we’d found on Craigslist, and the second that we’d picked up. The difference? This one we paid for, and, more importantly, this one we moved in a car. We’d been less clever with the first, free bookcase, which we thought we’d be able to carry together for thirty-five mostly uphill blocks. We left it on the street no more than a block away from the apartment where we picked it up, and felt terrible about it.

This new bookcase was a monster, though, so even though we had a car, it hung precariously out of the trunk while I clung to it in the backseat. We drove very, very slowly down Broadway, passed by every other car as we cruised along at ten miles an hour.

The bookcase has served us well, but it’s always been a vaguely threatening, somewhat homely presence in our apartment. Gaps show between the shelves and the frame of the bookcase. It’s slightly lopsided. It’s clearly handmade, and wouldn’t match any other bookcase. And, worrying me most of all, we store an enormous, elaborate pot on top of the case. With something this roughhewn and precarious-looking, my constant fear is that it will just collapse one day, leaving the shattered pot amidst the mismatched boards.

The fact is, though, that my initial collection of ten books has grown rapidly since I moved to New York. This bookcase filled quickly, and since then I’ve had to store the extra books I acquire in trades and various book piles in boxes under my desk. It takes up valuable space, and more importantly, it makes these lovely books harder to access. I tried to keep a list of which books were in which box, but it got hopelessly confused at a certain point.

So two weekends ago, when we went through a burst of home improvement enthusiasm, we bought a new bookcase. It’s Ikea, once-removed through Craigslist. This means a) that it was cheap and b) it’s absolutely the wrong color for our living room. It is black, which doesn’t really work with the various other light wood furniture in the room. So we decided to paint it. White. This led to a slight nervous breakdown last weekend, when I realized that the second can of paint I’d bought was a slightly different color than the first (although the label was the same, I swear!) and the freshly painted bookcase sported a distinctly mismatched look.

But the bookcase is finally starting to come together—it just needs one more coat of paint, and then we’ll actually build the thing. So I’ve started to bring books home, box after box. On Wednesday night, I lugged the first (cookbooks!) onto the train. The box was small, but heavy. The train was full. An elderly lady took the only seat left—until her husband gestured to me, and she stood.

“No, no!” I said. I stepped away.

“Yes,” she said.

“That box looks heavy,” said her husband.

Well, I took the seat. And I could swear everyone was looking at me with the disdain I myself felt—I couldn’t believe I’d just deprived an older woman of her seat (and even more, that the young man next to me didn’t offer his).

I think there are about twenty boxes left to go. That’s a lot of guilty train rides to endure.

Ultimately, though, it’s exciting to be opening these boxes and discovering books I didn’t remember owning, and to anticipate arranging them on the shelves of the new bookcase. I’ve culled a few, leaving them in my building’s lobby for others to pick up, and it makes me genuinely happy to see them gone the next morning—to know that they’ve found new owners. The old bookcase will be moved to our bedroom, alongside the bedside table, and the books languishing beneath my desk will come home at last.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

To Blog or Not to Blog

A few days ago, a story was publishing in Chicago Business about bloggers quitting their web gigs. The bloggers interviewed had a handful of reasons for abandoning their web writing: too little public recognition, too much time required, and too small a chance of going viral and becoming profitable. (Millions of blogs go unrecognized every day, and the ones that do go viral--Stuff White People Like, The Julie/Julia Project--usually have very, very commercial appeal that helps them move beyond the online community.) Some of them have moved their writing to Facebook and Twitter, which require less of a word count but can have exponentially more readership. Raanan Bar-Cohen, vice-president of media services for the blogging platform WordPress, says that for the blogs that end up becoming big, "the feedback is as or more important than the actual posts.” In short, who reads the blog is far more important than what they're reading.

This story wasn't completely surprising to me--I've seen too many of my favorite blogs go silent or mostly mute after the lucky blogger gets a book deal. And that's not necessarily bad: shouldn't an unpaid online writing gig eventually be abandoned in the pursuit of a paid, more commercially legitimized opportunity? But what's interesting to me, as a blogger not only for TK, but also on two separate blogs of my own making, is the question of which is more valuable for the development of a writing career: writing every day, or writing really well? Are these contradictions in terms?

Successful writers report a multitude of techniques for getting their work done. Some have to set clear hours every day, often in cafes or restaurants that let them sit for hours nursing a cup of coffee. Some rent offices outside of their homes, creating workplaces of their own. Some turn off Internet access and unplug their phones so there's no chance of being disrupted. (Jonathan Franzen said, "It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction,"; Jonathan Lethem has gone so far as to disable an old Mac laptop so it functions like a typewriter, and Etsy sells typewriters that connect to computer harddrives by way of a USB port.) The monastic techniques that a writer has to use to get into a perfect creative state of mind are admirable...yet there are a multitude of budding writers all over the world who have to fit in time for writing while working their desk jobs. Carving out ten minutes here or there, churning out blog posts on their lunch break, these writers don't have the luxury of spending the day in a coffee shop spinning stories as pleasantly unobtrusive music plays in the background. As the saying goes, "Don't quit your day job." When asking a friend of mine how she manages to fit writing in with her office job, she says that she stays up until two in the morning almost every night just to get a few extra hours of writing time. "Coffee," she said. "Coffee helps a lot."

But does writing every day, making the time however your life allows for it, really make good writing? Can you force the work to just come to you? Some writers take as long as 10 years to develop a novel, some even longer. (J. Franz, Junot Diaz, Toni Morrison, and many, many more.) Great pieces of non-fiction seem in constant genesis, marinating through years of research, their stories changing dramatically as the results come in. (My two favorite pieces of non-fiction from last year, The Emperor of All Maladies and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, made the writing of the work as major a plot point as the work itself.) Many writers claim that they had to have been at a particular point in their lives to write certain stories, experiencing a burst of energy and passion that forces the book into existence. Could that same result have been reached if they were simply trying to sit down every day and produce 10 pages of copy, no matter what the results? And furthermore, could they have produced something of true quality if it was always going to be published day-of-genesis, as is the way of blogging your work?

I've started to believe that in order to achieve your dreams, you have to both work the job you want and the job you have at the same time. Blogging gives writers the opportunity to find an audience immediately, virally, making their work available for anyone who wants to read it. You don't have to quit your day job to be a published writer, and assuming you can make the time to write regularly, it can become a real passion, hobby, and career opportunity. And it is immensely gratifying to get comments on your work from your web readers--I know us at TK are thrilled whenever we find a new reader has come to the site, or commented on a particularly difficult post. But you also have to wonder how the writing would change, the quality and the quantity, if it was done at a distance from the digital world. Perhaps one of us has the great American book criticism in her after all...

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On Edgar Allan Poe's 202nd Birthday

In fourth grade, our teacher told us we had to memorize a poem called The Raven. She handed us copies of the rather long poem, illustrated with a sinister-looking raven eyeing the stanzas. Each student was assigned a few lines to say aloud.

I only had two lines to memorize (I think my teacher was attuned to my anxiety over anything spoken in front of people) and I began practicing my lines non-stop. In the shower; on the bus. I knew myself well enough to know that I would be the single student to mess up the lines.

The day of the performance arrived and I was, of course, deadly nervous. But there was a buzz in the room. Something about the poem we all liked. It was a little scary and dark. For us ten year olds, The Raven was pretty edgy. We thought the name ‘Lenore’ was interesting. And we liked that the door wasn’t just a door, it was a chamber door.

When it was time for my two lines, I stammered them out in a continuous exhale. Any mixed up words were tangled up in my muffled voice:

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;

And then before I knew it, the next student took up the next lines. And on it went until the end when we all clapped with pride.

The great thing about elementary school education is that you’re told what’s important. And you’re young enough to just go with the flow. There’s no debate: Is this great art? And why? Naw. You just memorize things and they become cemented in your brain. And then several years later, you start to appreciate it.

At that age, your academic interests and talents are just beginning to show. School subjects are still up for grabs. It was possible for the geeky numbers-inclined boy to be moved to tears by a poem in Language Arts period.

In publishing, we dream of finding authors with genuine appeal and natural charisma. We’d like our writers to be like the lead singer of a band, luring readers to their work. I don’t know if you could call Edgar Allan Poe charismatic, I certainly couldn’t imagine him being interviewed on chipper morning television, but he left behind a mythic aura, so palpable, even fourth graders were transported by this rock star.

Monday, January 10, 2011

And, Action!

2010 was a good year for literary moviegoers. There were the much talked about adaptations of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (has there ever been a movie trailer to get more play?), and Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island. While the delightfully cheesy teen flick Easy A was more of a nod to The Scarlet Letter than a remake, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person for whom it brought memories of reading the book in high school crashing back. And let’s not forget the almost unprecedented hype surrounding who would play the female lead in the American adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s Dragon Tattoo trilogy (newcomer Rooney Mara eventually won the coveted role).

With Kathryn Stockett’s runaway hit The Help in production, Baz Luhrmann’s plan to remake The Great Gatsby with an all star cast, and James Franco’s announcement last week that he is planning to direct adaptations of both William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, 2011 doesn’t show any signs of slowing down the trend.

While all of these books are certainly worthy of a go at the big screen, I can’t help wondering how those who call the shots pick which classics and contemporary hits to make. I finally read John Kennedy Toole’s The Confederacy of Dunces this past December, and I couldn’t help but picture Zach Galifianakis delivering all of Ignatius J. Reilly’s unforgettable lines as I did. Kathy Bates could play his loving but frustrated boozehound of a mother, and has there ever been a more perfect role for Betty White than that of Trixie? Mark Ruffalo would be a natural at the bumbling Mancuso, with Chris Cooper as his unforgiving boss.

Below are four other books, both classic and from this year, that also feel like naturals for movie magic:

The Catcher in the Rye

Admittedly it was the plans to remake Gatsby that first invited my interest in this other great American favorite. With two previous Gatsby adaptations and another in the works, doesn’t it feel like Catcher is due a turn? Admittedly, it was Salinger’s refusal to sell the movie rights that have stalled any efforts on this front. (After the 1949 adaptation of his short story “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” flopped Salinger became reticent to allow any other goes at his masterpieces.) Not surprisingly, attempts to secure the rights have been made steadily since the books 1951 publication. (Both Harvey Weinstein and Steven Spielberg allegedly recently made bids). There’s hope yet, though. A 1957 letter penned by Salinger expressed the possibility that the rights might be sold after his death. Terrence Malick (director of The Thin Red Line and the much anticipated Tree of Life starring Brad Pitt) is rumored to be connected to a possible screen adaptation.

Should the movie version ever become more than a pipe dream, I nominate Jesse Eisenberg to play our beloved Holden. In 2010’s The Social Network he proved himself capable of playing the brilliant and misunderstood outcast type, and his debut film The Squid and the Whale was rife with the familial discontent aspect of the classic tale. Perhaps he’s a little old, but with that baby face I imagine he can suspend the disbelief of the skeptics.

Mr. Peanut

Full of references to Hitchcock’s body of film, this one feels destined for the big screen. With its nonlinear and unconventional format, Michel Gondry of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind fame might be just the director for it. Equally capable of doing drama and comedy, I see Matt Damon in the lead as David Pepin, alleged wife-killer. (His recent weight gain and his mustachioed look for True Grit also help.) Rebecca Hall seems a good fit for his ill-fated wife, Alice, if we can find a believable enough body suit? (Alice’s struggle with obesity is central to the narrative.) The fascinating middle section of the book fictionalizes the real life murder of Marilyn Sheppard by, many believe, her surgeon husband, Sam. (The case is the same one on which the movie and television show The Fugitive were based.) With a resume full of both regal roles and those saturated in upper-middle-class discontent I can’t think of anyone better-suited for the roll of Marilyn than Julianne Moore, and Liam Neeson feels like one of the few leading men with enough gravitas to pull off Sam.

Happy All the Time

Okay, I know I’ve already gushed about this book via this blog, but it’s good enough that it’s worth harping on. (And I know I’m in good company in wanting it to make a comeback. Twice in the summer week I spent reading this at various Park Slope cafes twenty-something ladies approached me to tell me how glad they were to see someone reading it—that they had just discovered and delighted in it themselves, but thought they were the only one to read it in the last ten years!) With all the New York City neuroses flying, it’s got Woody Allen written all over it. I see the Columbia-educated Joseph Gordon Leavitt as the serious, scholarly Guido, a big fan of pursuing graduate studies over a 9-5 job and a lover of the finer arts, and Jason Segal would serve as a brilliant Vincent, the perpetual fool for Misty Berkowitz. (His lovely, bumbling Marshall on How I Met Your Mother is certainly a kindred spirit of Vincent’s.) At the risk of plagiarizing the cast list for 500 Days of Summer I think Zooey Deschanel would be the perfect Holly opposite Guido—she’s the Queen of Quirk, and Holly is nothing if not quirky. Meanwhile, Maggie Gyllenhaal is one of the few female leads with the chops to bring Misty’s ferocity to the screen while maintaining her likeability.

A Visit from the Goon Squad

If you didn’t read anything about this one in 2010 you were officially living under a rock. While it’s not rare for the media to pick up a book as the darling of the season, it is unusual for said book to not only live up to but surpass the hype. I clung to every last word Egan had to offer and long for the movie version only so I can re-experience the magic of her characters. (I get so jealous when I see people reading it on the subway—I want another book this good to occupy my transportation hours!) Grown up Benny is just begging to be played by Robert Downey, Jr. and Michelle Williams has proven how believably she can give the tough women she plays an undercurrent of vulnerability, which may make her the perfect Sasha. Joaquin Phoenix seems like the ideal wounded oddball introvert to take the roll of the tragic Rob, and Carey Mulligan would make the small roll of Charlene as memorable on screen as it was in the book despite the relatively little space she’s given. (I know it seems like Mulligan has already done her share of movie adaptations, but there do seem to be repeat offenders in this movie genre. It kind of makes one wonder if DiCaprio, another fan of book-inspired films—2009’s Revolutionary Road comes to mind—might be a solid book group partner despite his string of supermodel girlfriends?)

Friday, January 7, 2011

Technology, History, Writing: Why Does Criticism Matter?

In yesterday’s post, Jessica briefly alluded to The New York Times’s recent series of short essays explaining “Why Criticism Matters.” Today I’d like to discuss them at somewhat greater length. Although the six writers chosen for the series come from different backgrounds—academia, journalism, publishing—and although, accordingly, their essays reflect a variety of hopes for and disappointments in the American public, and in the future of criticism, some central themes emerge. Here are a few:

Those Doggoned Amazon Reviewers!—and iPods, and iPads

“There is so much noise and screen clutter, there are so many Amazon reviewers and bloggers clamoring for attention, so many opinions and bitter misspelled rages, so much fawning ungrammatical love spewed into the ether, that the role of the true critic is actually quite simple: to write on a different level, to pay attention to the elements of style.” –Katie Roiphe

“With the advent of Amazon reviews and other rating sites the audience is abundantly vocal. A sensitive membrane has evolved from the historical transactions between author, critic and reader. Though online reviews inevitably vary in quality and insight, their very existence no longer makes it possible to imagine that there is not an engaged general-interest audience out there consuming and thinking about literary works. The audience now talks to itself.” –Stephen Burn

“I tend to shy away from big, sweeping, era-defining statements. It’s the fastest possible way to be wrong about the world, and usually just an excuse for various forms of sloppy thinking: cherry-picking, scapegoating, doomsaying, fear-mongering, sandbagging, arm-twisting, wool-gathering, leg-pulling. And yet it would be hard to dispute that over the last 5 or 10 years, the culture’s relationship to time has changed pretty drastically. The shift is so obvious that it’s boring, by now, even to name the culprits: Google, blogs, texting, tweets, iPhones, Facebook—a little army of tools that have given rise to (and grown out of) radically new habits of attention.” –Sam Anderson

“I think we can say with confidence that in 200 years Anna Karenina and her men will still exist. And the iPad—who knows?” –Katie Roiphe

The History of Histrionics

“Before the requiem begins, we have to admit that critics have always been a grandstanding, depressive and histrionic bunch. They—and by ‘they’ I mean ‘we’—have always decried the decline of standards, the end of reading, the seductions of mediocrity, the abysmal shallowness and distractibility of the general public, the virtually apocalyptic state of literature and culture. Yet somehow the bruised and embattled figures of both the writer and the critic have survived lo these many centuries.” –Katie Roiphe

“What looked to Kazin like a dwindling, fissiparous literary culture looks to us like a golden age. (As yet another great critic, Randall Jarrell, once said, in a golden age people go around complaining about how yellow everything looks.)” –Adam Kirsch

“It helps to remember . . . that every era in the history of humanity has lamented the rise of whatever technology it happened to see the rise of.” –Sam Anderson

Write Well, Accomplish Much

“Now, maybe more than ever, in a cultural desert characterized by the vast, glimmering territory of the Internet, it is important for the critic to write gracefully. If she is going to separate excellent books from those merely posing as excellent, the brilliant from the flashy, the real talent from the hyped—if she is going to ferret out what is lazy and merely fashionable, if she is going to hold writers to the standards they have set for themselves in their best work, if she is going to be the ideal reader and in so doing prove that the ideal reader exists—then the critic has one important function: to write well.” –Katie Roiphe

“Whether I am writing verse or prose, I try to believe that what matters is not exercising influence or force, but writing well—that is, truthfully and beautifully; and that maybe, if you seek truth and beauty, all the rest will be added unto you.” –Adam Kirsch

“We have to work harder to justify our presence on the page, our consumption of readers’ increasingly precious attentional units. This means writing with more energy, more art, more conviction, more excitement and a deeper sense of personal investment.” –Sam Anderson

What Does the Critic Accomplish?

“Stepping aside from the culture of opinion, delving deeper into open-minded analysis, critics might fulfill their most important function: locating major works that are not always visible in mainstream networks.” –Stephen Burn

“The previous decade of severe political and economic shocks may end up opening literary criticism and literature to the questions Kazin and his peers asked of them . . . The line of inquiry that connects a writer to her world runs through quirks of individual personality and literary manner to broaden into larger moral and political issues. The critic who follows this method, staying close to the texture of social history as well as to aesthetic experience, is likely to avoid the intellectual isolation and self-pity of the kind Kazin describes.” –Pankaj Mishra

“A more productive and more faithful (albeit less literal) application of Freud’s theory to literature may be found in Marxist criticism, which searches the work of art for signs not of the writer’s personal sexual history, but of history itself. Literature viewed in this way becomes a gigantic multifarious dream produced by a historical moment. The role of the critic is then less to exhaustively explain any single work than to identify, in a group of works, a reflection of some conditioned aspect of reality . . . Much as there are things about our own life stories that we can learn only from the systematic study of our dreams, there are things about the human condition that we can learn only from a systematic study of literature.” –Elif Batuman

“It’s better—certainly it’s better for the critic—not to see criticism as a means of making things happen, of rewarding and punishing, or of becoming what Kazin calls a ‘force.’ The critic participates in the world of literature not as a lawgiver or a team captain for this or that school of writing, but as a writer, a colleague of the poet and the novelist. Novelists interpret experience through the medium of plot and character, poets through the medium of rhythm and metaphor, and critics through the medium of other texts.” –Adam Kirsch

“If critics can fulfill this single function [to write well], if they can carry the mundane everyday business of literary criticism to the level of art, then they can be ambitious and brash; they can connect books to larger currents in the culture; they can identify movements and waves in fiction; they can provoke discussion; they can carry books back into the middle of conversations at dinner parties.” –Katie Roiphe

“Why, then, do we read? There’s something Buddhist about literary reading, as I understand it—you drop yourself into a little pocket of silence and peace and allow magical things to happen to your consciousness. I read, on the most basic level, because it makes me happy. It calms my brain down. My wife and I sometimes refer to this as ‘textual healing’: if I’m in a wretched mood, feeling oppressed by the world, I can go off with a book for an hour and suddenly be myself again. This practice, if you’re receptive to it, can come to define your life—can come in fact to seem like the very definition of a rich life. (Pound: ‘Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one’s hand.’) If our era needs to learn that lesson, or to relearn it, the book critic is in the best possible position to teach it.” –Sam Anderson

I consider the two first themes listed above—attacking technology and dismissing fears based on history—some of the greater traps of discussing criticism. The first, it seems to me, is just too easy. Those Amazon reviewers, ignorant of the “elements of style,” are sitting ducks. It’s like those popular bestsellers that Jessica mentioned yesterday: mocking them, however gently, isn’t so difficult as attempting to understand—and maybe applaud—them. And of course the iPad won’t be around in two hundred years, but technology will be. To direct your loathing at one device, and to oppose it to books in general, is to present an essentially misleading non-sequitur.

Similarly, to mention hysteria’s historical precedent is, at this point, both annoying and irrelevant. Over the last few years, premonitions of doom and the death of print have been widespread. And the first couple of times (hell, I’ve probably done it here) someone announced the truth that every age decries its own downfall, it was refreshing. But half of the six articles here make the same observation. It has ceased to seem wise or reassuring. At this point, it sounds as much like fear as anything else.

If, for some reason, you can only read one of the six, I’d suggest you go for Anderson’s. Yes, he falls into both traps. But his essay also reminds us that criticism is an art. You have to write well about writing, because to do anything is to invalidate your work. In so doing, what you’ve produced becomes, if not the equal of its subject, its peer. No, Anderson—and the other few who focus specifically on the importance of good writing—doesn’t answer the bigger question: why does art matter? But he does argue, persuasively, that the critic is an artist himself, that he mimics the great achievements of his subject (writing) as well as what it means to be a good reader and a valuer of books: “If our era needs to learn that lesson, or to relearn it, the book critic is in the best possible position to teach it.”

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Don't Judge a Book By Its Popularity

Welcome to 2011. Compose your New Years' resolutions, the ones that will supposedly make you healthier, happier, a better human being. I made a good comprehensive list, and I'm trying to follow through. But my resolution as a book critic gives me a good amount of hesitation--while I'm fairly certain it'll make me more informed, I wonder if it might prove detrimental to my health.

One of the Christmas gifts I was hoping for this year was a copy of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. I asked for this not because it was at the top of my to-read list, but because I'd heard so many people talking about it for so long. It's high on the children's best-seller lists, but it's a YA book that many adults have picked up as well. (And you can't say that Harry Potter became a phenomenon solely on the shoulders of readers under 18.) I felt like I was missing out on some crucial conversation in our culture by not reading the books, and so I was thrilled to find it wrapped up under our tree on Christmas morning. And more thrilling than its presence was the fact that I found the book absolutely thrilling and a total pleasure to read. No, it wasn't a deeply complex literary novel, or a bafflingly well-researched biography, but it was a great, enjoyable read with deeply compelling characters and, more importantly to me, a thoughtful allegory about the post-9/11 culture of both the American police state and obsession with reality television. Why had I assumed that, just because the series was popular, it would be all fluff and no substance?

What chip had landed on my shoulder that convinced me all things profitable and well-liked had to be bad, or not worth my reading? I should've known better after reading The Help, a flawed yet sharply observed novel about the South during the Civil Rights movement. Or when I read Three Cups of Tea and found it a galvanic piece of war journalism. More than just "misunderestimating" these works, I'd missed a chance to better understand the reading public. How better to take the pulse of popular culture than to sample what's popular? I marvel at those who somehow managed to avoid seeing Avatar in 2009, or Inception in 2010--yet I still haven't read a single page of the Twilight saga? Can I really call myself an editor, critic, reader, writer, if I only deign to read those titles that fit my narrow definition of literature? Last year authors like Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner took the New York Times to task for failing to review female writers as often as they would male writers, but they could've gone one step further: why does Jonathan Franzen, who writes a great tome once every 10 years, get countless articles, whereas Picoult, who regularly appears on the best-seller list and has over 14 million copies of her books in print, rarely merits a mention? Is it because Picoult is female? Or is it because she is already being read?

In the recent issue of The New York Times Book Review, attempting to explain "why criticism matters, the writer and critic Elif Batuman said, "Much as there are things about our own life stories that we can learn only from the systematic study of our dreams, there are things about the human condition that we can learn only from a systematic study of literature." If I take a page from the reading public, I may come to understand them much, much better. So here are my New Year's resolution is to reserve judgment of those things most lucrative and well-liked: I will read Twilight. I will read a few novels by James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell, and Tom Clancy. I will spend time in the romance, fantasy, and sci-fi sections of my favorite bookstores. I will not turn my nose up at something just because the author has earned back their advance.

I can continue to champion, in my writing and on my credit card bill, those writers who I believe deserve praise and acclaim, but they'll have to be the ones from a much wider library than I've ever had before.

Next up on my list: S**t My Dad Says.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Franzen Takes a Bullet, Snooki Writes a Novel, and Other January Joys

Well, it’s January. Ba-dump. The original Gray Lady. Time to purge the system of yesteryear’s excesses: take a break from the booze and cut down on chocolate consumption, make it to bed at a reasonable hour, and drink more water.

It’s depressing, isn’t it—the walk to the subway through the Christmas tree graveyard, the dirty banks of plowed snow, marbled yellow by dog piss (and human, judging from the guy I saw peeing into a snowdrift outside the 14th St. A/C station), that are slowly oozing out into the street. One must turn inward for comfort, and seek solace in domestic distractions. Here are the welcoming arms of the bookshelf, the internet, and the television. To begin, the first and the last combine themselves: A Shore Thing, Snooki’s fiction debut, goes on-sale today! Get it now, and you’ll have two days to read before the premiere of the Jersey Shore’s third season on January 6th.

Once you’ve got your book and your TV on, turn to the internet—and the lists of books to watch in 2011. The Daily Beast has come out with a rather myopic list, so for greater scope head over to The Millions and see what they’re panting for this year. And finally, Electric Literature takes a rather unusual look back to find out, literally, if FREEDOM (and other 2010 titles) will stop a bullet.

Happy Tuesday.

Monday, January 3, 2011

In 2011 Our Books Shall Resolve To . . .

Have you broken your New Year’s resolution yet? Me too. Wanna focus on someone else’s instead? Yep, I’m with you again. So, I present to you, the New Year’s resolutions I would make for the book industry for the upcoming year, in the form of tropes, themes, and trends I think we’ve exhausted in the last few years and that it’s maybe time we start steering clear of. This is not to say I haven’t enjoyed books about these very things when I’ve seen them in the past as recently as 2010, but perhaps they’ve been done well (and thoroughly) enough that we can start barking up another tree?

I’m sure for each of these “don’ts” at least one writer will come along and prove it a breathtakingly, arrestingly original do, proving yet again that in the world of great prose rules are made to be broken and there’s always room in any niche for one more if that one happens to be brilliantly executed. I look forward to it. In the name of a good read, after all, I’m happy even to be proven wrong.

In the meantime . . .

The trends we may have cashed:

Novels about how soul-less the uber rich are. Since reading The Great Gatsby in high school we’ve all grown up to have at least one perfectly kind, normal-ish, well-adjusted rich friend. The jig is up.

Stories narrated by dead characters. Yes, this is a clever device, but only if you’re the first one to employ it in ten years.

Novels about the modern art world. These can be fascinating and enlightening for art novices, but after three fantastic novels on the subject in 2010 (from Michael Cunningham, Steve Martin, and Jim Carroll), we may need a one-year hiatus.

Any memoir about a misspent youth or addiction struggles. This one speaks for itself, right?

Novels with supernaturally wise/shrewd/crafty child protagonists. Kids are great. They’re funny. They’re candid. They always have super fun games to play. They are not, however, supernaturally wise.

Tell-all political books serving mainly to defend one’s career or serve to establish a platform in a coming election. Who would do such a thing? (Hint: it rhymes with Air-a Laylan.)

Novels set in Brooklyn in which the borough becomes a character. Yes, Brooklyn is a vibrant place rife with artistic capital, but I fear it may be cashed as an aggressively central setting. Perhaps poor Queens or the Bronx are due a turn?