Friday, February 24, 2006

Almighty NYT

I must be pretty cool, because I know three people who have had books reviewed in the New York Times over the last couple of weeks. Two of them I even like, both as people and as authors ;) One is the splendid SF Said, author of Varjak Paw, scoring his second NYT Review, which gives hope that serious consideration of children's books is not confined to this blog. It would have been cool to see an NYT journalist discussing the import of Varjak's Mesopotamian (Iraqi, for those not equipped with an archaeological turn of brain) ancestry rather than whether dogs are cooler than cats, but still -- a good review from a dog person for a cat book. That's high praise indeed. The second person (I'm just jamming him in here where he can't really be seen) is Nick Laird, who I've only met briefly but took against for a number of reasons involving money, sex and poetry. He famously has all of these, simultaneously, which is pretty irritating. And he has a review in NYT. If they just called him "Zadie Smith's husband," everyone would ignore him or be snide about him the way they are when some male artist's wife or girlfriend achieves something. (Hmm, and all three authors reviewed are male... Conspiracy? It's not like all my friends are male).
The third person to be lavished with praise is Steve Heighton, who I met at Massey College in 2004 (and once before that, very drunkenly, at a party for the Griffin Prize) where he was writer-in-residence, working on 'Afterlands,' the book reviewed in said august organ. It's pretty cool to follow a book from production to publication to review, something I've been lucky enough to witness - in all its pains and glories - a few times over the last years. To see such solitary, ornery struggles become the meat of public consumption (NYT book pages = Sunday brunch) is unnerving for someone considering committing their own thoughts and inventions to the page.
Exciting, too: a review in NYT lifted Afterlands from 1000-ish to the top 100 on overnight. In some ways, the Amazon sales ranking has replaced the good review as balm to an author's heart (not that authors check it obsessively or anything). But what does it mean, apart from that Americans can clearly eat brunch, read the NYT and use their computers at the same time (ah, the dangers of One-Click ordering...) For hardcover lit fic, fine - but are 8 year olds reading NYT? Surely not. Or ordering from Amazon?
It's scary that the literary world can be carved up so: a few publications of renown place their seal of approval. A few large retailers order. Or don't order. Display or don't display. The, as has been written so often, end. What does it matter that a small independent bookstore can sell 150 copies of an Indigenous fantasy novel put out by a small press at its launch? Rabid fans didn't even have the power to float Serenity at the box office...
OK, so I'm changing the subject (which was? oh yeah, how cool I am, but enought of that) but it's all connected: the media sells us pre-packaged "cult classics" and gets hoist on its own hypetard (JT Leroy, anyone?). Readers aren't enough anymore - what matters is consumers. I know that I have a shelf of unread books (I mean, that was the point of this blog but - in that curious way - new books keep keeping me from the old ones) but I intend to read them, when I'm not reading other things. I don't just buy them because the NYT makes them sound important. It's not like I wish for another era, where only rich people who could read Latin could own books - hell, I bet the Duc de Berry never even looked at his "tres riches heures" - but I'm curious as to what a community of readers, rather than shoppers, might look like.
I think that Kynship, Afterlands and The Outlaw Varjak Paw would still be in that top 100 - but funkymonkeyboy wouldn't. What neglected classics - unreviewed, unsaleable, deeply loved - would you see up there?

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