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January 31, 2007

Why they call it an “establishment”
Posted by Patrick at 10:05 AM * 40 comments

One of the more embarrassing tics of the genre SF and fantasy world, professional and fannish alike, is our ignorance about the actual existing “literary establishment” that we love to rail against. Way too many of us are just like me: cranky autodidacts whose knowledge of the world beyond our ghetto is composed of as much prejudice as actual knowledge. A chronic indicator of this is our tendency, in reviews, essays, and polemics, to confuse the New York Times Book Review with the New York Review of Books.

Here’s what to remember: The New York Times Book Review is an organ of the received-wisdom prejudices of upper-middle-class Americans. The New York Review of Books is more typically confrontational and—unashamedly—intellectual. You can inhale entire issues of the New York Times Book Review without having a single preconception ruffled. This isn’t remotely true of the New York Review of Books.

Here’s the comparison that wraps it all up. Both publications recently ran reviews of Norman Mailer’s new novel, The Castle in the Forest.

To write their review, the New York Review of Books commissioned J. M. Coetzee, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

To write theirs, on the other hand, the New York Times Book Review commissioned disgraced former New Republic blogger and sockpuppet wielder Lee Siegel, the man who had to be administered smelling salts after being exposed to the awful language of the bloggers in whom he’d discerned the novel new characteristic that he dubbed “blogofascism”.

Why is this guy still getting work, much less high-profile work like this? Answer: establishments take care of their own.

Comments on Why they call it an "establishment":
#1 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 10:35 AM:

"You are in a twisty maze of book reviews, all different."

So. Does either of these august publications have an easily-summarized attitude toward science fiction? Fantasy?

(For a preconception-rufflin' rag like NYRoB, I infer the answer might be "no." But it probably represents an alternative kind of establishment itself.)

Disclaimer: I don't usually read either one. Thus I could stand to become better informed.

#2 ::: ctate ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 11:10 AM:

Oh, I'm far more cynical. I think of The New York Times Book Review as being "that thing where they advertise the best-sellers list." And I think of the New York Times Best-Seller List as "that thing that publishers pay to get their books listed on."

I figure I'm probably being unfair about the best-seller list. Probably.

Does anyone attempt to describe books' retail sales, not just sales to distributors?

#3 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 11:10 AM:

The London Review of Books is also a fantastic read, I think it's the best of the bunch.

It's interesting timing this topic came up. One of the giants in the established literary world is TC Boyle. He made some disparaging remarks about genre that were totally off base in an NPR interview. I posted a response on my blog, and on his website, and I'm in the thick of an internet war now. They're even googling me and posting personal information about me on his message board.

#4 ::: Evan Goer ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 11:26 AM:

Understanding the difference between the New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books sounds like unnecessary work. My recommendation is to just read B. R. Meyers's "A Reader's Manifesto" and Dale Peck's "Hatchet Jobs". Poof! You can now bloviate about the evils of the literary establishment for *hours* at cocktail parties, with an absolute minimum investment of time and effort.

#5 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 11:59 AM:

Does anyone attempt to describe books' retail sales...

That would be BookScan.

#6 ::: Kieran ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 12:26 PM:

But ... but ... the NYTBR liked my book ..sniff.

#7 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 12:31 PM:

ctate @ 2... My wife's latest was on the New York Times bestseller list, in the mid-thirties, and only for a few days, but her publisher didn't pay them to get her there. Nothing either about our having to give away our first-born, probably because who wants a 14-year-old sheltie who's going blind and deaf?

#8 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 12:39 PM:

Kieran, I didn't say the NYTBR wasn't frequently right!

#9 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 12:43 PM:

Sean Sakamoto said (#3):
The London Review of Books is also a fantastic read, I think it's the best of the bunch.

Hmm... I actually find the NY Review much more interesting and diverse than the London Review; the latter has a tendency to concentrate more exclusively on literary fiction and politics. The LRB reviewers and essayists tend to be a bit more ideologically driven and/or narrow-minded; and they just don't seem to write as well as the NYRB writers.

(I also think the NY Review is better laid out and easier to read than the London Review; something to do with the typography, though I can't put my finger on it.)

#10 ::: Emma ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 12:48 PM:

And (at the risk of making a ridiculous overgeneralization) if you are a librarian, the NYTBR is where you go see what the white-haired lady crowd wants to see in "their" public library and the NYRB is where you go to see what the faculty will want in "theirs".

#11 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 12:54 PM:

Serge 7: My wife's latest was on the New York Times bestseller list, in the mid-thirties

Uhhhh....how old is your wife?

When the NYTBR reviewed Starhawk's then-latest book, Truth or Dare, their reviewer complained that "These rituals seem deliberately concocted for political purposes." Well, duh! I doubt that person had read so much as the title of Starhawk's previous book, which was Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics.

A bunch of us sat around after that review came out, speculating on what the reviewer would have said about other books of our acquaintance. "This book is filled with events that couldn't happen in the real world" about The Lord of the Rings, for example, or "This author seems to believe that standards of verbal politeness are not universal," about That's Not What I Meant!

#12 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 01:08 PM:

Xopher... "Wise guy, eh?"

#13 ::: theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 01:10 PM:

The LRB also has funnier personals than the NYRoB. Take, for example, this one from the current issue:

The genre-crossing personal ad. It begins as Romance with this mention of Jane Austin, before turning into Contemporary Fiction with this reference to the latest Thomas Pynchon novel. But once we meet it’s all Sci-Fi as I persuade you (and I will – my argument is perfectly sound and very coherently structured) about the existence of extra-terrestrials who walk amongst us disguised as doctors, academics, lawyers, my ex-wife and, latterly, following an absurd 3-month ‘cooling-off’ restraining order, my probation officer. Man, 48. Warwick. Box no. 01/04. The truth is out there.

#14 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 01:10 PM:

Ctate (2):

"Oh, I'm far more cynical. I think of The New York Times Book Review as being "that thing where they advertise the best-sellers list." And I think of the New York Times Best-Seller List as "that thing that publishers pay to get their books listed on."

...Does anyone attempt to describe books' retail sales, not just sales to distributors?"

I'm afraid I'm going to have to disappoint your cynicism.

First, the NYT bestsellers' list is largely derived from retail sales. So are all the other bestseller lists.

Second, slots on that list are not for sale. Believe me, we'd know if they were.

Third, everyone tries to monitor and model retail sales. We have to. Distributors don't pay us when they get our books. Instead, credit for books shipped gets swapped against books returned. Publishers only make money off retail sales. Never doubt that the industry keeps track of them.

Moreover, the industry is now keeping track of them better and in more detail than ever before. It's this thing called Bookscan. The system doesn't track all retail sales, but it tracks a large and consistent proportion of total retail sales.

This is the same kind of thing that happened some years back in the music industry. Before that, sales trends were determined by phoning up a lot of music stores and asking what was selling. This introduced a major bias, because people pay more attention to music they like and already know, and a lot of record store clerks were young white males with a taste for loud heroic rock and roll. Then the music industry switched over to monitoring trends via scans of package codes. Surprise! Core rock and roll took a major hit, but classical, folk, blues, jazz, world beat, rap, and hip-hop turned out to be selling significantly better than had previously been thought.

As far as I know, having Bookscan hasn't been quite that transformative for our industry, but it's an interesting resource to have around.

#15 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 01:13 PM:

Theophylact @ 13... Calamity Jane Austin rides again.

#16 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 01:19 PM:

That's what I get for pausing to explain something to an editorial assistant, and phone an author about a bunch of queries, when I'm in the middle of explaining about Bookscan.

#17 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 01:48 PM:

Although I think the NYRB is a better magazine than the LRB, it is absolutely true that the latter publication's personal ads are unparalleled.

#18 ::: Martin Wisse ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 01:48 PM:

Why is this guy still getting work, much less high-profile work like this? Answer: establishments take care of their own.

But not out of any form of altruism. They get these jobs because they're prepared to propagandise, lie and cheat for their masters.

#19 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 01:52 PM:

Teresa: Does that mean that music stores will at any point actually bother to stock the other sections?

The trend I've seen is for the DVDs to take over, the Pop/rock section to stay the same or shrink slightly, the rap and hip-hop to grow, and everything else to shrink. Then shrink. Then shrink some more.

Thank god for the folk festival's year-round music store

(even they lost their original head, the guy who knew the music inside and out, and fewer things seem to be in stock, but they're still ahead of everyone else on not only folk and world, but jazz and blues.)

#20 ::: theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 02:08 PM:

#17 Patrick,

I agree. But I get them both anyway, and read the NYTBR and Washington Post Book World as well. The last is worth it if only for Michael Dirda, one of the few general critics who understands -- and likes -- genre literature.

#21 ::: Matt Austern ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 02:22 PM:

The other important difference between the New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books is that the latter is primarily not about reviewing books. They run essays (and occasionally other things), sometimes but not always inspired by recently recent books. It's rare that more than a couple articles in any NYRB issue are anything I'd call a book review.

I'd also say that NYRB is one of the US's best magazines. It has published more than a few articles that are still worth remembering and reading years later. I learned more about the Arafat/Barak/Clinton negotiations from the NYRB's articles than from all the other coverage I read combined.

#22 ::: theo ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 02:32 PM:

Actually, the NY Times Starhawk review says:

These latter-day incantations and spells appear to have been concocted deliberately, for ideological reasons; they have more of library paste than of mandrake root in them.

Which isn't quite what you said, and seems a valid criticism to me. I'll pass on the deliberate, academic rituals, thanks.

And call me a pragmatist if you like, but if her "political rituals" don't terminate with some phone calls to Congress or door-to-door canvassing, she's wasting a lot of trees (and angering the Goddess) in vain.

#23 ::: Debbie Notkin ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 02:36 PM:

Although I rarely read the NYT (and less often the Review of Books), last week I was vacationing with newspaper readers, so I saw both Siegel's review (though I didn't know who he was) and Janet Maslin's review in the daily NYT. It was completely clear that Siegel was a sycophantic idiot. Maslin, on the other hand, panned the book, and won my heart with the (slightly paraphrased) statement, "Rarely has the banality of evil been made so literal."

#24 ::: ctate ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 02:48 PM:

TNH (14):

I'm afraid I'm going to have to disappoint your cynicism.

But that's a good thing! I am much encouraged.

#25 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 03:48 PM:

theo 22: I was quoting from memory. Thanks for clearing it up. And no, I'm sorry, it's a stupid criticism. "Concocted deliberately, for ideological reasons" is exactly what Starhawk is about, and anyone who read the book in question with anything approaching attention would have seen that.

As for the library paste comment, the reviewer is trying for a cute remark, and failing; that part might be a valid criticism if it were true. (BTW, mandrake root is nasty stuff; handle with care.) She (I seem to remember the reviewer being female) makes it sound like Starhawk is making everyone chant in Ancient Egyptian or something.

It's like the reviewer was expecting this book to be The Spiral Dance which really is a How To Be A Witch cookbook, and criticising it for not being one, when ToD is a book about how to concoct rituals to express your ideology, both publicly and to the inner self.

One example: the Twelve Steps figure prominently in that book. Now there's a good example of a ritual form "concocted deliberately, for ideological reasons"!

Modern Witches create new rituals, on an ongoing basis. It's a CREATIVE religion. That stupidass reviewer was looking for "ooga booga," which the more sensible Witches abhor. This is like a reviewer walking out of THX 1138 and complaining that there were no space battles. Now I'm not saying THX 1138 is a great movie, but someone who complains of its lack of space battles was going in with stupid expectations.

Take a pass on anything you like, and ToD is not Starhawk's best book. But this reviewer had her head firmly up her ass.

#26 ::: Noelle ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 04:44 PM:

While I have to say that Bookscan is changing things, you still have to wonder about the effect of the larger chains on the bestseller list. When a Publisher purchases prime retail positioning for a book at a chain, it's pretty obvious that book is going to start moving up the list. Of course, if it's a terrible book it might not get too far up the list.

But not many books get that kind of treatment. So is the bestseller list more a reflection of what the marketing department puts their money behind, rather than what books have taken off with the public?

#27 ::: Yarrow ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 05:00 PM:

theo 22: ... if her "political rituals" don't terminate with some phone calls to Congress or door-to-door canvassing, she's wasting a lot of trees (and angering the Goddess) in vain.

Well, she's more likely to call for (and do) direct action than lobbying. Not everyone's cup of tea, but I have friends in Reclaiming (Starhawk's tradition of witchcraft, and mine) who dropped everything after Katrina and went to New Orleans for months to help out. Not, perhaps, as a direct result of Truth or Dare; but certainly inspired by what Starhawk and other Reclaiming folks have done with their lives. Surely she does more good per tree than [insert name of disfavored author here].

As for "angering the Goddess"; as Star occasionally says, the nice thing about being a polytheist is that you can always get a second opinion.

#28 ::: CJColucci ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 05:51 PM:

Quite often, I've found that the extensive NYRB essays are a perfectly adequate substitute for the books themselves, at least for areas on the periphery of my interests.

#29 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 11:01 PM:

Ditto everything Xopher said about "deliberately concocted" rituals--what exactly did that reviewer want modern Pagans to do, restrict themselves to Rites Handed Down The Ages From Our Ancestors? And where did she figure the first rituals came from? Good grief.

As for following ritual with lobbying action--well, yes. While I do know Pagans who, faced with bills to pay, will light green candles and then sit around waiting for the money to roll in, Starhawk is very much not one of them. The most effective practitioners of magic(k) know that it is best approached as an augmentative, not an alternative/replacement, measure. That is, ritual AND physical activity, not one or the other. Green candles AND job applications; political magic AND lobbying/demonstrations/volunteering.

What I've found most inspiring about Starhawk is her tendency to merge the magical with the mundane, such that the public protest/demonstration is also a magical working. To me, that makes both aspects of the action more powerful.

This may be wandering somewhat afield of the original topic of book reviews, however... I suppose one might consider this further refutation of the ToD review Xopher originally cited.

Yarrow: As for "angering the Goddess"; as Star occasionally says, the nice thing about being a polytheist is that you can always get a second opinion.

Bwahaha! I hadn't heard that one yet. Niiiice.

#30 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2007, 05:36 PM:

#26: If making books into bestsellers was just a simple matter of putting marketing money behind them, we'd all be rich.

#20: Michael Dirda is a national treasure, or at least a national Pretty Valuable Thing.


#31 ::: handdrummer ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2007, 06:49 PM:

In conversation during dinner at the last CapClave, Michael Dirda referred to SF as "our genre'. He's one of us, folks.

#32 ::: Bob Oldendorf ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2007, 07:33 PM:

Way too many of us are just like me: cranky autodidacts whose knowledge of the world beyond our ghetto is composed of as much prejudice as actual knowledge.

"Cranky Autodidact" would make a good username.

I grew up on the edge of the NYT's market; the Sunday Times was a weekly ritual. I gave it up at some point in the '80s, as the paper drifted rightward and upmarket. For a while, we'd buy it as a special event, to entertain Sunday-morning company - but for the last decade or so, we've found that it's not even worth that.

And yay, LRB: one of its many virtues is that it's about the densest periodical available: throw one slim tabloid-sized paper into your carry-on, and you're set for reading matter for several hours of travel - and, unlike a book, you can abandon it without guilt.

#33 ::: Barbara Gordon ::: (view all by) ::: February 04, 2007, 04:01 PM:

ummm...aren't most or all rituals deliberately concocted? Often by committee? I doubt The Book of Common Prayer sprouted up like a flower all untouched.
-Barbara (lapsed Anglican)

#34 ::: Andrew MacEwen ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2007, 02:36 PM:

I don't like the New York Times Book Review any more than any of you, but I must object, as a conservative, to the dismayingly knee-jerk penchant of many leftists for labeling as conservative or right-wing, the people, ideas, and writings they deem provincial and narrow . The claim that the Book Review of a left-wing paper like the Times has "moved rightward" is risible -- yet not at all surprising to me, since I have come to expect claims like this. The type of close-minded cultural mentality that you regard as the sole domain of conservatives actually cuts across political perspectives and affiliations, at least within the Arts. There are few who can match such politically-left film-critics as David Denby and John Simon for bourgeouis elitism. On the other hand, I can read with great enjoyment the fascinating film-criticism of Robin Wood, who is ostensibly my political opposite, but who puts those two clowns to shame for his intellectual rigor and eager openness to the various realms and niches of the Arts.

Having said that, let me say that the quality I despise most in the Times's book review critics is the stench of self-love wafting up from the pages of their "reviews." Most of these reviews serve as vehicles through which they can demonstrate their smart, sassy wit and cultural superiority. Only a fraction of the space alloted for the critical piece is actually spent on critiquing the book.

Take, for instance, many of the write-ups on Stephen King's books. What you get are soliloquys in which the critics wax philosophic on everything wrong with King, interspersed with a smattering of snide comments. A classic example of this was Dave Itzkoff's review for "Cell." When the article was done, I felt I had received little insight into what the book was about. It would have been nice if he had spent less time cracking jokes about King's annoyance at bad manners and more time analyzing the novel.

Well, that's it. THE END.

#35 ::: Kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2007, 03:51 PM:

Andrew @34,

If I have a couple of questions about your comment, are you going to be back here to continue the discussion?

#36 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2007, 08:10 PM:

David Denby is "politically left"? Last I saw, he was sprinting for right field.

#37 ::: Howard Peirce ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2007, 08:14 PM:

I must object, as a conservative....

Conservatism brings with it all kinds of strange obligations.

#38 ::: Andrew MacEwen ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2007, 12:01 AM:

"Conservatism brings with it all kinds of strange obligations."

What does that even mean?

#39 ::: Andrew MacEwen ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2007, 12:02 AM:

"David Denby is 'politically left'? Last I saw, he was sprinting for right field."

What color is the sky in your world?

#40 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2007, 02:35 AM:

#38: It means that you deployed an arguably cliched turn of phrase, and Howard made mild fun of you for it. This happens around here, even to people named Nielsen Hayden.

#39: Blue. Denby has been drinking the cultural-conservative Kool-Aid out of gallon jugs for well over a decade. Our culture is broken because (mysteriously powerful) college professors promulgate sinister multiculturalism at the expense of Great Books by Important Men. Modern movies about modern people just don't have the crisp manly-and-womanly authenticity of Spencer Tracy and Kathryn Hepburn, or maybe it was Fred and Wilma Flintstone. It's all just the high-culture version of Chris Matthews having his on-camera orgasm about Mitt Romney's shoulders and Aqua-Velva.

None of which is enough to keep me from reading Denby; he's a sharp, witty, and often terrific movie critic, and being a creature of habit (temperamentally conservative!), I've been using the New Yorker as subway reading for two decades now. But he's definitely been trending rightward for a long time. I'm not excommunicating him from the society of decent women and men for it, just observing. It happens.

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