Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Maybe I'm just a skeptic

Shelf Awareness had a link to this New York Sun story - and please accept my apologies for linking to this newspaper -about Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End. The writer is wondering why the book, despite glowing reviews, didn't become a New York Times bestseller. Must have made for quite a disappointed author. Oh the poor, poor dear...

The writer does mention that: The book's publisher, Little Brown, says it has shipped 50,000 copies. It's in its fourth printing, and still selling well. That's a goal rarely achieved by any writer, let alone a debut novelist. Just to throw that out there, since everything's relative.

Oh, and it was optioned by HBO Films.

The writer of the piece, David Blum, strikes me as.... well... not bright. I get to this point by noting that part of his "research," used to support his theory that people are too stupid to buy well-reviewed novels because they're too busy buying Jodi Picoult (?!), involves going to the Lincoln Square Barnes & Noble and noting that the staff couldn't find the book. I've worked at these chains, my friends, and this doesn't surprise me. I'd like to see this Blum character walk into an independent bookstore and try this out. Speak to a bookseller who actually reads book reviews.

Blum goes on to suggest that bookstores should have sections for well reviewed books, so people can read reviews and then go into their local Borders or Barnes & Noble and find it. At this point in my reading, I think I actually spewed oatmeal. Independent bookstores almost always have great staff reviews and often are in touch with media reviews, especially in local papers. At the Brookline Booksmith here in the Boston area a few weeks ago, I listened as a bookseller made a call to someone who handles the inventory asking how many copies of a new book they had on stock, because the laydown date was the next day and he had read in pre-pub (illegal) reviews that it had some explosive material that was generating a lot of press. Meanwhile, when I worked at Borders, I once watched as an assistant manager got on the computer to look up a bestseller whose title she didn't recognize. As a lowly employee making $7 an hour or something, I had to take the customer away from customer service and walk her to the front of the store for the book, sans computer assistance. It was shocking.

But what also bothered me was the writer's tone, and my suspicions about this book. Look, I didn't read it. I'll admit that. But I did read at least 2 or 3 of the praising reviews of it, and I had no interest. Why? Because it looks like a smug, hipster, ironic book for smug, hipster ironic people. On the Powells page, they reproduce Nick Hornby comparing it in part to Seinfeld, which sums up my frustration. Because Seinfeld, while enjoyable at the time, was about adults not taking responsibility for their actions. It was an exercise in demonstrating that we have come to such a point of "civilization" that we can be ironic without any sensitivity. We can be self-obsessed without guilt in the service of humor. Blah blah blah.

And at the risk of turning people off with language that reeks of leftwing revolution, I don't want to read about smug clever twentysomethings mocking marketing plans and cubicle culture, khakis and computer wallpaper, boss emails and commuter woes. All the while, I'm sure they'll refuse any criticism of class or economic disparities. Maybe he'll go to Wal-mart but maintain ironic distance, eat at McDonald's but make it quirky by scraping the cheese off a Big Mac.

So the reviewers who are of this ilk - went to the right colleges, working in offices, young media types - write up raves and then sit back and wonder why everyone isn't out to buy it. Instead, these IDIOTS are out buying Jodi Picoult's novel about a Columbine-style killing. Maybe Nineteen Minutes is over dramatic or sentimental, I don't know, but obviously it's having a stronger effect on readers, and I'm not ready to dismiss Picoult, as Blum does, as some kind of hack churning out books. I'd even wonder if there isn't a certain level of sexism here. I mean, who does the kind of smug office humor best, folks? From Seinfeld to the Office (which is also mentioned in the Hornby blurb, I might note), it's almost always straight white middle class men.

So keep book review sections in newspapers, just diversify them and write about an array of books with an array of writers in the stable. And for god's sake, if you want to find a good book, whether you read about it already or don't even know what it will be, go to a good independent bookstore! (I know they're not all good, but when they're good, they can be great).


Kristin said...

"I don't want to read about smug clever twentysomethings mocking marketing plans and cubicle culture, khakis and computer wallpaper, boss emails and commuter woes."

I don't want to read about that either..because then what would we chat about?

What do you tell the poor kid? There's tons of talented, well reviewed people out there who don't sell like they should. We can't all be pop stars.

Mark Knowles said...

I don't think it's necessarily about the reviews, it's more about the marketing. Let's face it, most of the lousy, rotten books most of us have read lately were well marketed and because of the way advertising is going it is often difficult to tell the difference between a genuine review and an advertisement disguised as one, so most people ignore them.