Inkwell: Authors and Artists
Linda Castellani (castle) Wed 7 Mar 01 13:42
"Not only do the fine young critics in the "Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors" filet their subjects with finesse and wit, but this erudite and bitchy collection of profiles, reviews, bibliographies and writers' reading lists also makes for compulsive reading." -- Vanity Fair ------------- Laura Miller is the New York Editorial Director of Salon.com, and the editor (with Adam Begley) of Salon.com's "Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors." Laura's criticism and book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, The Village Voice, the San Francisco Examiner and the New York Observer. The Salon.com "Readers' Guide" is intended for those remarkable and slightly mysterious individuals who read contemporary fiction for pleasure. It is an excellent resource that can answer the question that matters most to someone holding a novel in his or her hands -- "why should I read this?" With all original writing by an international cast of talented young critics and reviewers, this book provides a guide to over 200 of the most fascinating writers of our time. The editors began with a list of about 500 authors, and let their contributors' enthusiasm and curiosity be their guide in the selection of who would be included. Thus the reviews are passionate and fun, and resemble nothing of the ordinary mainstream literary criticism that is anemic by comparison. Laura will be interviewed by Susannah Indigo. Susannah is the Editor-in-Chief of Clean Sheets Magazine (www.cleansheets.com), a weekly literary magazine devoted to sexuality. She is also the editor of the upcoming literary zine, Slow Trains (www.slowtrains.com), and she is a contributor to Salon.com. Susannah's fiction is widely published, and her first book, "Oysters Among Us," will be released this spring. Please join me in welcoming Laura and Susannah to inkwell.vue!
Susannah Indigo (sindigo) Fri 9 Mar 01 07:34
<scribbled by sindigo Fri 9 Mar 01 07:36>
Susannah Indigo (sindigo) Fri 9 Mar 01 07:38
Hi Laura, and welcome - we appreciate your taking time to talk here about "Salon.com's Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors," emphasis, as you say in the preface, on the word _reader_. I like that the book was written for us, the "mysterious individuals who read contemporary fiction for pleasure," and I think the book is a fun and fascinating read. We'll start by offering the link to the full preface, which is posted on Salon, for those interested in knowing some of the detailed background - http://www.salon.com/promo/feature/2000/08/18/salonguide/index1.html To summarize everyone's favorite question (why is author X not in this book?!), the preface says you limited the selection first by only authors who wrote fiction in English, whose major works were published since 1960(with a few exceptions), and who had published more than one book. Then the contributors and editors took over, and narrowed down the list through curiosity and enthusiasm. You have some marvelous entries from contributors in the Reader's Guide -- even one entry that's going to make me read an author I normally wouldn't think I would like (David Bowman, by contributor Stephanie Zacharek) -- and I found myself following who the writer of the entry was as much as who they were writing about. So perhaps we should begin with that question first: can you tell us a bit of the background on the contributors to the book, and how you went about choosing them, and how you feel they shaped the book? Also, you contributed on a number of entries yourself - were these your favorite choices, or were you left with some that others were less than enthusiastic about, as with Alice Walker?
Laura Miller (lauram) Fri 9 Mar 01 08:16
Thanks, Susannah. It's a pleasure to be here. I want to add, before I answer your questions about the book, that this weekend I'm finishing up my reading for the National Book Critics Circle Awards. I and the 24 other members of the NBCC's board are picking the 5 winners this year, in the categories of fiction, nonfiction, criticism, biography/autobiography and poetry. So I may offer some updates on that, if anyone's interested; choosing the winners of awards like these is something a lot of book critics do at one time or another, and the process can be very strange. So, on to your questions. The idea for the book came, originally, from Dwight Garner. He'd been toying with the idea, mentioned it to me, I got fired up about it and convinced David Talbot that Salon should do it. From the beginning it was a collaboration between the two of us, and Dwight and I did most of the final list-honing and assigning together. Dwight was the original editor of Salon's daily book reviews, back when they were called "Sneak Peeks". Longtime readers of Salon may recall the many terrific pieces Dwight wrote for us back then. But I also credit Dwight with creating the original feel and approach of Salon's book criticism. I think the closest critical analogy is Pauline Kael: a lively, direct, conversational voice; a knowledgable but not scholastic sensibility; not overly invested in high/low divisions; belief that pleasure is an important aspect of art.
Laura Miller (lauram) Fri 9 Mar 01 08:33
Most of the contributors to the Guide were already contributing to Salon, though some, like Stephanie, weren't able to do as many entries as we hope since they were *still* writing for Salon! We had our list of dream contributors, who were first and foremost people whose reviews we enjoyed reading for their own sake -- for the sake of the reviews that it. We picked people whose taste we trusted, but most of all we wanted the book to be fun to read in its own right. Those people, if they were rash enough to agree to do all that work for what was relatively little money, got to see the early versions of the list of potential entries, which was about 500 names long. We asked them to suggest adds and deletes, though to our chagrin they all had suggested adds and no one suggested deletions. We hoped to have about 300 entries, but the final book has about 225. The expense of paying the contributors and the publisher's need to keep the book to a reasonable length forced us to winnow it down. Which turned out to be good for me because Dwight left for the New York Times Book Review shortly after we assigned the entries and I edited the whole thing myself, except for the parts I wrote myself, of course. The contributors shaped the book because we really let their enthusiasms, as well as our own, dictate which authors were included. Some contributors were so enthusiastic about certain authors that, after the money ran out, they volunteered to write an entry for free. Most of the entries I wrote myself were either my own personal favorites, or authors I was curious about, or, in a couple of cases, authors who I was concerned wouldn't get good entries otherwise. I wrote the Martin Amis entry partly because I feel that he has some interesting flaws as a writer that I was pretty sure wouldn't be dealt with by the contributors who were eagerly volunteering to write about him. Then there were a handful more who I wrote up because no one else would do it or because Dwight wasn't able to fulfill all his writing commitments on the project (given the workload at his new job, I'm appreciative that he managed to do as many as he did). With the Alice Walker, I kept asking people to do it and I'd get this groan. That was interesting -- here's this very successful, well-known, prize-winning literary novelist and none of the book-loving people I knew (and I know a lot, and they're diverse) could stand her stuff. So I dove in, and it was not pleasant.
Gail Williams (gail) Fri 9 Mar 01 09:15
My mom, a retired librarian, commented to me on that. She said that she had always disliked Walker's writing and nobody ever talked about it. I on the other hand had read some short articles by Walker which I'd liked, and had a more positive impression, not having tried the novels. I bet you got some interesting "fan mail" after writing that piece.
Laura Miller (lauram) Fri 9 Mar 01 12:47
One of the funny things about challenging a person or idea that's seen as a PC sacred cow is that so many people say "That was brave!" or "I bet you got a lot of hate mail about that". In fact, all I got was mail saying "That was brave!" and "I bet you got a lot of hate mail about that". Hardly anyone objected to it I'm not particularly familiar with Walker's nonfiction, but maybe that's a better format for her. The problem with the fiction is that it's so polemically-driven that the characters feel like automatons in thrall to the author's agenda. It makes you wonder why she bothers with fiction at all and doesn't just write screeds.
Susannah Indigo (sindigo) Sat 10 Mar 01 10:27
That's interesting -- I would have thought you'd get negative feedback on Walker also. The Walker entry is online, for anyone who wants to read it -- http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2000/08/11/guide_walker/index.html Reading this also gives an excellent idea of how the entries are arranged in the book, for those who haven't read it yet. Except most of them are much more flattering. I'm curious, Laura -- you say that some of the contributors were so enthusiastic about certain authors that they volunteered to write the entry for free. Can you tell us who some of those authors might be? Surely they are a must-read! And, please do give us some inside scoop -- how is the process sometimes "very strange" during the selection of the National Book Critics Circle Awards?
Laura Miller (lauram) Sun 11 Mar 01 09:33
Lydia Davis is one of the writers we included because the contributor wanted to write it badly enough that he waived the fee. And, I think, Guy Davenport is another. Several people have mentioned that they're particularly glad to see the Davis entry. I'm not familiar with her work, but I do know other readers who don't like it at all. I see that more and more: writers that someone I know just loves to pieces but that other people don't care for at all. I think that's behind the inertia that most of us feel when certain friends are raving to us about how we *have* to read a particular book. I suppose there are other friends who are more persuasive simply because you know you have similar tastes, but just last night I was at a dinner party and the editor in chief of a literary publishing house was praising a William Maxwell novel as "an absolutely exquisite cameo" and I knew right then that I'd probably never read it! Something about that description had the opposite of the intended effect on me. At this same dinner, I ran into someone else from the NBCC and we were complaining that even though it seems there are many great nonfiction books published each year, somehow the list of finalists in our nonfiction category is so unthrilling. I'm holed up with 5 doorstops here, including Laurie Garrett's book "Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health" and Frances FitzGerald's book on the Star Wars program. Then there's "Crucible of War" a 900 page history of the French and Indian War and a really stultifying and cryptic 800-page Proust biography. I keep wondering how we wound up with such a lodgy list.
Linda Castellani (castle) Sun 11 Mar 01 09:47
How's the Laurie Garrett book?
David Gans (tnf) Mon 12 Mar 01 12:03
firstname.lastname@example.org writes: I have concerns about the trashing of Alice Walker, and am quite willing to say so. The first concern comes from the footnote, which says "There are many finer African-American women writers ....". We don't say this about white males, ("There are many finer White male writers) and I find the implication disturbing. Then, I am surprised by the reference to Alice Walker's "clumsy prose" -- why exactly do you suppose so many people read Alice Walker, many of whom consider hers to be a poetic voice ? And last -- why did you break your own rules and include her if nobody wanted to write about her? I can't help but wonder if the nastiness that comes through in the entry was a pleasure to write? Thank you, Cynthia
Susannah Indigo (sindigo) Mon 12 Mar 01 12:33
I'm curious about that last part myself -- is there a certain enjoyment in writing "erudite yet bitchy" (Vanity Fair's words) criticism? I've looked at the National Book Critics awards online (and they appear to be taking place... tonight! No wonder you were holed up with these books.). The award info is at: http://www.bookcritics.org/ for anyone interested. I didn't see any background on how the nominations/finalists come to be, so I'm curious how it is that you do end up with such "unthrilling" books. Although I'd bet that there are people here on the WELL who probably consider "Crucible of War" somewhat thrilling. We have a couple of questions that have come in about the "red-hot center" introduction and trends in publishing, but I'll wait until you have a chance to answer the Walker question first.
M. J. Rose (anewanais) Tue 13 Mar 01 06:07
Hi Laura - I'm curious about the mantle of critic and how well it fits and where it feels too tight? What are the issues you have have - what are the total joys?
Laura Miller (lauram) Tue 13 Mar 01 06:36
On the Alice Walker: It seemed important to write about her since she consistently makes bestseller lists, won the Pulitzer and because she's been informally designated as a spokesperson for African-American women writers, which is, I think, unfortunate. From the beginning, Walker has been touted for writing about the experiences of African-American women -- that's been presented as one of the major reasons why her work is significant -- so it seems kind of disingenuous to then claim that those themes aren't an important factor in considering her work. Readers who aren't familiar with many African-American women writers can quite easily be given the impression that she's the one to read first, and if they do that they can quite easily be given the impression that African-American women writers aren't as a whole very good, and that's not true. I'd say the same about, say, Robert Coover, to a reader who's curious about the metafictionists. I think there are better practitioners of that form, just as there are better writers who testify to the lives of African-American women than Walker. I don't think African-American writers, or any other writers who belong to minority groups, benefit from a sacred cow status being attached to someone like Walker. It creates a climate of cynicism in which readers suspect that different critical standards are being applied and that no one will tell the truth about writers of color for fear that a negative review will be labeled racist. And it's unnecessary, since there are so many good African-American writers, several of whom are written up in the Guide. I know some people find Walker's prose poetic, but Rod McKuen was a bestselling poet in the 1970s, too. I don't know how to explain either phenomenon; I just know how to tell the truth as I see it. I have to run off to the NBCC's morning board meeting now, but I'll post more later about the whole awards-picking process. I took some notes and I think it'll be interesting.
Paul Terry Walhus (terry) Wed 14 Mar 01 07:41
I'm going to curl up with this on the weekend, but till then I just have some quick impressions about the organization. There was a table of contents but it didn't list the authors, I'd recommend doing an author list in this area if there are any more editions of this book. At the back of the book there is a listing of authors and I noticed that there was an Austin guy listed so I looked for him in the index and both references were to other authors, perhaps this is the only glitch in the indexing. Nit picks aside, it looked like a great book to get down with and I'm looking forward to spending some time with it this weekend.
Susannah Indigo (sindigo) Wed 14 Mar 01 09:09
Alice Walker is on Oprah's list of "favorites," of course, which begs the question -- what are your thoughts about Oprah and her popularity as a book critic?
Laura Miller (lauram) Wed 14 Mar 01 15:09
OK, sorry to be AWOL, but the NBCC really throws me behind schedule with work. The index is comprehensive. In other words, it lists authors and contributors and other writers mentioned in author entries. I've got no regrets about not having a list of author entries, but I do now wish that the book had running heads to make it easier to look for author entries.
Laura Miller (lauram) Wed 14 Mar 01 15:12
Back to what Susannah asked about negative reviews. They're definitely easier for most critics to write; it's easy to be specific about what doesn't work, but what does work tends to be ineffable and hard to describe or capture. It simply is. Also, there's such an inflation of hyperbole that every positive adjective is worn pretty thin by now. The other thing about negative reviews is readers just LOVE them. I was on a panel with a noted critic recently and he said, and I concur, that you can write a huge rave about a writer and no one you know will mention it to you; you'll get no mail. But write a negative review, especially of a writer considered well-respected, and the phone rings off the hook. No one remembers your positive reviews. Everyone remembers when you decimate something.
Laura Miller (lauram) Wed 14 Mar 01 15:28
So, picking the NBCC Awards this year was both gratifying and frustrating. Here are our winners: Fiction: Being Dead by Jim Crace Nonfiction: Newjack: Guarding Sing-Sing by Ted Conover Criticism: Quarrel & Quandry by Cynthia Ozick Biography: Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert Bix Poetry: Carolina Ghost Woods by Judy Jordan The 25 board members of the NBCC pick the 5 winners from lists of 5 finalists in each category. There's been a tradition of heated and intemperate argument, but this year was supremely civil. I (who missed most of the fireworks having joined only 2 years ago) gather that this is because certain contentious individuals have since departed. It was still stimulating though. I'm always impressed with the high level of discourse about the books. It's a bit like the fantasy many people have of what literary life is like, even though most of the time literary life is nasty gossip. With the fiction award it was fascinating to see how it broke down between people who like economical, tight, very crafted fiction/novels and those who prefer the sprawling and energetic if occasionally messy books. Obviously, the first group won out this time with the Crace, a book I feel is not quite the best from an author I like, but also I book I've come to feel is more to admire than enjoy. I noticed also that most of the critics coming out for the spare fiction also tend to be the most involved in the poetry awards. I have a friend who thinks that literary fiction will soon go the way of poetry, appealing to an ever smaller and more specialized readership. I guess this wouldn't really bother the poetry people, since they're comfortable in that community, but it depresses me.
Susannah Indigo (sindigo) Thu 15 Mar 01 09:35
So your recommendation is not to rush to read the Crace book? Or perhaps just stand and... admire it...in the bookstore? That is a bit of a depressing vision for the future of literary fiction -- what would you attribute this to if it should happen? And while we're on the future of fiction, we have two long questions that came in from a reader outside the WELL - from L. Schone: You talked (in excerpts in Salon) about a "best of contemporary fiction" article in Esquire from the early sixties. Suppose time-compression applies to the "best of" field as well as to other things, that "The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors" is a runaway best seller, and that you're asked to reprise it in 2020 -- same rules, significant fiction authors of the prior 40 years (1980 to 2020). Which of the authors that made the first volume would you expect to see in the 2020 volume? And what's the hot new emerging style of the last five or fewer years that people will be looking back at in 2020 and saying, "sure, the turn of the century years were mostly dominated by..." Also - Unlike movies and television (at least so far), music and publishing have been experiencing a weird economic change where the cost of producing and manufacturing have dropped tremendously, mostly because of electronic assistance in the process, leaving the distribution costs far exceeding manufacturing, and allowing (in theory, at least) far faster production of titles. And, arguably anyway, the internet may have significantly reduced the cost of distribution (although not the cost of promotion) -- MP3 titles (in music), Salon.com and Clean Sheets (in publishing) being good examples of this. Is that going to further change the character of the "great American novel?" Is it likely to result in further Balkanization of the market? Could we be seeing "regional best sellers," or at least best sellers targeted to unusually narrowly defined special interests? As things move (as they seem inevitably to be) toward a more electronic format -- downloadable electronic books and the like -- will the ability to keep slow but steadily selling volumes without much in the way of physical inventory costs (5 megs of storage as opposed to 16 cubic feet of expensive warehouse space) increase the ability of a path-breaking author/book to "find its audience" over time, or will it accelerate the firefly-like attention span of distributors, hoping to find that new equivalent of the Ken Starr report in the commercial arena (multiple million copies downloaded in 48 hours -- that sort of thing)?
Laura Miller (lauram) Thu 15 Mar 01 15:35
Some people will *love* the Crace book, as many of my colleagues on the NBCC did. I liked it; I know some readers who *hated* it. I think it depends on how you respond tempermentally to fiction that's not strongly story-driven, and also how you feel about the idea that the material universe is the absolute limit of reality. (Crace is a pretty militant atheist.) Oprah is fine. I like Oprah. She's picked some very good books, and some more sentimental stuff that's not to my taste, but she's giving readers what they want: book recommendations from someone whose judgement they trust and a way to add a social dimension to the solitary and increasingly isolated experience of reading. The publishing industry should be as smart as Oprah. If that's possible, and I expect it isn't.
Laura Miller (lauram) Thu 15 Mar 01 15:40
Working for an internet co. has cured me of any tendancy to make predictions. I honestly can't say who will be the writers seen as "major" tomorrow. Obviously, nonfiction is really grabbing most readers' attention right now, from adventure stories like "A Perfect Storm" to the Dave Eggers memoir. I suspect that will continue because it's just so much easier for readers to sport the good/interesting nonfiction. There are barrels and barrels of fiction being published and it's really hard for readers to find books they like in the avalanche. The new writers I'm watching closely are Eggers, who has a new novel on the way and a publishing company that's trying to do something really innovative, Jonathan Lethem, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Colson Whitehead (whose new novel "John Henry Days" will, I expect, rock the world in May) and especially David Foster Wallace.
Laura Miller (lauram) Thu 15 Mar 01 15:48
Oh, I should also have added to the above that I don't think there will ever be the "red-hot center" described in that Esquire article. The fiction market is very much a matter of niches now, and I don't think that will change. I think electronic books are promising, but the technology and the marketing strategy have a long way to go. There are right now too many companies doing too many things that are too much alike and too similar to traditional publishing. Then, oh god, the reviewer's nightmare, the vanity press resurgence seen at iUniverse and XLibris. As I wrote in a recent Salon story, no one goes into a bookstore and says "Is this all you've got?" There are already enough books -- what we need is a way to bring people to the books they'll really love. I have a few friends who I've made some recommendations to, which is a very tricky business. People's tastes are idiosyncratic. The ones whose taste I've sussed out keep coming back to me demanding more, more, more. There's a hunger for that.
Neil Gaiman (neilgaiman) Thu 15 Mar 01 20:32
Readers may love negative reviews, but, in my experience, over the years it's much more fun as a reviewer to have people come up and say "That is so cool, I would never have discovered Jonathan Carroll (or whoever) if it wasn't for you!" then to have someone come up and say "Boy, you really destroyed Book X there." Book X will prosper or perish and it's rare that a review makes a ha'porth of difference in the long run, but turning on readers to an author who matters to them is something that lasts forever.
Martha Soukup (soukup) Fri 16 Mar 01 00:00
The thing is, bad books are usually bad in common and boring ways, whereas every really good book is good in its own unique way, which makes it much more interesting to try to figure out and explain.
Laura Miller (lauram) Sun 18 Mar 01 07:27
It definitely feels better to know that you've won new readers for an author who you really love, but it just doesn't happen that often. This one critic I mentioned before really pulled out all the stops to get people to read Alistair MacLeod, but no one so far has thanked him for his trouble; instead they're all thrilled that he spanked Margaret Atwood. I think readers like negative reviews partly because they suspect that reviewing hyperbole has become so inflated. Every first novel is a "luminous' near masterpiece.
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