I was talking to an editor of a major literary quarterly at a party recently. She was getting annoyed, she said, at the number of times she has been asked to publicly comment on the "death" of the American short story and give quotes for newspaper articles on why "nobody" reads short stories anymore. She spends sixty hours a week thinking about the American short story, she said. Why would they ask HER why "nobody" cares about the very thing she has made her career? How would she know?
The same thing happens to book reviewers. The death of newspaper book review sections mirrors the downfall of the print newspaper in general. Ever more squeezed for cash and desperate for ad dollars, book sections have been jettisoned as dead weight: either cut entirely or shrunk down dramatically. Many hand-wringing articles can be read, in which major book critics discuss the death of the book review and try to determine why "nobody" cares. Book reviewers will never know the answer to this question. Because we DO care.
I, for one, don't believe that the book review has died. Two things have happened, though: first of all, the most lively discussions of literature in a public forum now happen online rather than in the paper. And also, for the most part, the people who do the writing of the reviews don't do it as their sole source of income -- many of the best are passionate amateurs, not unlike the Pushcart Prize anthology staff. There's absolutely nothing wrong with being a passionate amateur lover of literature, but it sure freaks the hell out of the newsprint-bound old guard, who really enjoyed their century of being the sole arbiter of literary merit. Author Richard Ford famously dismissed book blogs (which he has never read) as "some guy sitting in his basement in Terre Haute". Michael Dirda of the Washington Post commented that authors would much rather be reviewed in a major paper than "on a website by someone who uses the moniker NovelGobbler". The world of books and book reviewing is not dying or dead, by any means, but it is changing, and what the literary world will look like in the 21st century will be entirely different from how it looked in the 20th. It isn't book criticism that has died: the subscriber-driven major print daily newspaper is what died, and thanks to the internet, the book review needn't depend just on that one forum for its existence.
The National Book Critics Circle, the organization of professional book reviewers, has their annual meeting this week (January 10-12, 2008) right here in San Francisco. By professional, it means "in print." Often controversial, always thought-provoking podcaster and critic Edward Champion is running for NBCC board. Extension of membership to litbloggers is one of the major planks in his platform. It'll be interesting to see how he does. [CORRECTION: The NBCC is open to print and online reviewers. 1/10/08]
At the January 12th meeting, the organization will vote on NBCC award finalists, and it will host a series of free, open-to-the-public events and discussions about the future of literature. These events will culminate in the announcement of the finalists for this year's National Book Critics Circle Award. If winning the National Book Award is like getting an Oscar, then getting an NBCC award is like winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes: artistic merit and formal experimentation are prized. The voting is a complicated process. The long-lists of ten prospective nominees (either chosen by a committee or voted onto the list by members) are winnowed down to five books in each of six categories: fiction, general nonfiction, biography, memoir, criticism, and poetry. The NBCC board will vote on the shortlist at their meeting in San Francisco, and the finalists in each category will be announced in a public ceremony at City Lights Bookstore at 6pm that evening. I imagine a team of exhausted Book Critics staggering out into the evening after long rounds of voting and defending their votes, like Iowans at a caucus.
Although there will probably be less drunken antics than at Litquake, there will still be plenty of great fun programming during the week of the NBCC meeting. Since I imagine that everyone present at the panels is a passionate fan of literature, hopefully we won't have to do much speculating about why "nobody cares." Attend one of these panels, and hopefully the answer to the question "why is literary criticism important and alive?" will be self-evident.
Thursday, January 10 at 6 pm: Book Culture: The Future Is Global
Three local authors, with an international perspective, discuss the Bay Area's worldwide literary reach. Moderated by NBCC president John Freeman, participants will include Daniel Alarcon, (author of the astonishing Lost City Radio, Mills College professor, and editor of Etiqueta Negra, a Peruvian literary journal, Micheline Aharonian Marcom (author of The Daydreaming Boy and Draining the Sea, a forthcoming novel that contains some of the most harrowing descriptions of government-sanctioned torture ever set to paper), and Sylvia Brownrigg, an author and critic whose reviews have appeared in a variety of publications. This event is at Book Passage Bookstore's Ferry Building location, 1 Ferry Building #42 in San Francisco.
Friday, January 11: Two panels at the 111 Minna Gallery.
At 5:30 pm: New Voices/Unrecognized Voices
NBCC board member Jane Ciabbatari will moderate a discussion with Eli Horowitz of McSweeney's, Michelle Richmond of Fiction Attic, Literary agent Sandy Dijkstra, Michael Ray of Zoetrope, and Suzanne Kleid (yours truly!) from this here KQED arts blog will be discussing the future of literature (including, hopefully, who DOES care, and why, and what they're working on.) Some of the topics I hope we'll get to discuss are: what new small innovative presses are out there, and how do they keep themselves afloat? What good writing gets published solely online, and how does it differ from writing in print? Does the book world have anything to fear from the Amazon Kindle?
At 6:30 pm: The View From Here: Is the West Coast Driving American Literature?
The topic of this one tickles me especially: years ago, I attended a panel at the Commonwealth Club at which there was a lot of anxiety over whether San Francisco would ever be "as good as New York" in terms of literary-ness, and it seemed that many people were very focused on this feeling that we were still somehow a backwater. Well, clearly that's no longer the case. Over 100 of the NBCC's 800 members live in the Bay Area. Many of the best book review editors in the country are on the west coast and three of them will be on this panel. Moderator Oscar Villalon edits the San Francisco Chronicle book section. On the panel is David Ulin, book review editor of the Los Angeles Times. They will be joined by Mary Ann Gwinn, book editor of the Seattle Times, Ellen Heltzel of the "Book Babes" column, Jennifer Reese of Entertainment Weekly, which distinguishes itself from the usual checkout-stand fare with its great book review section, and local novelist Andrew Sean Greer.
Saturday, January 12th at 6 pm: National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists announcement
As if all that panel programming wasn't cool enough, the actual announcement ceremony should prove to be a blast as well. Bay Area-based NBCC Board members and past winners will be announcing the finalists: folks like Dave Eggers, Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Frederick Crews, Jane Ganahl, Paul Hoover and a whole raft of other luminaries will be in attendance. It all happens at City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Avenue in San Francisco. (Insider's tip: City Lights Bookstore is a small building, and they're expecting full capacity. Get there early, or you'll wind up standing out front with your nose against the glass. Factor in extra time for North Beach parking.)
If "nobody" cares about books anymore, then I'm immensely glad I live on the west coast where there seems to be a whole lot of "nobodies" who love books. I know a lot of you will come watch the panels, ask questions, buy books, read reviews, and help prove "everybody" wrong.
The National Book Critics Circle Finalist Announcement and Panels is January 10, 11 and 12, 2008 in various San Francisco locations. Visit Critical Mass, the NBCC's blog for up-to-date information about the conference.