Books April 2003

New & Noteworthy

What to read this month

In January the media and publishing world was, in its endearingly self-absorbed way, abuzz over the firing of Ann Godoff as head of the Random House Trade Group—a story that The New York Times decided warranted not one, not two, but ten articles. The real reasons for the dismissal of Godoff, who is widely regarded as a highbrow publisher of prestigious books (if not entirely justifiably—last year she spent $3 million for the second book by the authors of The Nanny Diaries), are complex and ultimately unascertainable. But the literary community seized on the event as an occasion to further bewail the decline of what it calls "serious" publishing. Verlyn Klinkenborg's hysteria on the Times editorial page—"Publishing is now driven wholly by the search for blockbuster books and blockbuster profits"—was seconded by the hyperbole of Samuel Freedman, the associate dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism: "When a decades-long career like Godoff's can be terminated ... the chill runs through the corridors of all large publishing houses and into the home offices of thousands of serious writers." Well, that chill didn't extend to "all" publishers—Godoff soon accepted Penguin Putnam's offer to become the president and publisher of a new imprint created for her, specializing in "serious" (that word again) nonfiction.

More important, though, it is simply untrue that the number of worthwhile titles published has diminished with the consolidation of publishing houses, the popularity of the Oprah and Today Show Book Clubs, and the proliferation of such chain bookstores as Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million. As the editor of this section, I spend several days every month combing through thousands of titles; I'm astonished that so much literary fiction and what can only be described as decidedly noncommercial nonfiction issues from an industry supposedly obsessed with the bottom line—and that publishing houses pay such large advances for so many of these books. Indeed, although the Authors Guild, the Authors Guild Foundation, and the Open Society Institute commissioned a report that seemed designed to expose the supposed crisis in "midlist" publishing (the book-business term for literary fiction and serious nonfiction), the report in fact concluded in 2000 that midlist sales continue to grow (although not quite as fast as best-seller sales). "More midlist titles than ever before are available," it found, "from both large commercial publishers and small presses. More and more shelf space is devoted to selling them." This is of course obvious to anyone who browses in those loathed chain bookstores—which devote far more shelf and display space to literary than to pulp fiction, and which make special efforts to promote obscure titles and unknown authors. And don't forget that the distinction between "best-selling" and "midlist" is fluid. In the last two years, for example, two of the biggest fiction best sellers were Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections and Ian McEwan's Atonement, both indisputably literary. Surely publishers should not be faulted because of the good taste of the reading public.

Some who perceive a dumbing-down in publishing concede the superabundance of literary titles available but assert that for a variety of reasons readers' attention is diverted from midlist titles toward blockbusters. Certainly, a commercial publisher will more widely advertise a novel by John Grisham (or Michael Chabon or Zadie Smith or John Updike or Alice McDermott) than, say, a debut novel translated from German. But a more worrisome problem is how easily attention can be diverted to a small number of those books that are heralded as "serious." Just as a certain type of person will unthinkingly buy a book anointed by Good Morning America, so, too, many self-described thinking readers will unthinkingly choose a title sanctified by The New York Times (and just as not all best sellers are bad, not all "serious" books are good—in fact, most aren't).

To illustrate this, let's take a look at one of Godoff's acclaimed titles from last year—David Rockefeller's Memoirs. Anyone in the book business would know that this title would receive a lot of critical attention—and anyone with a brain would know that it's not worth reading. Rockefeller, a man of conventional and cautious opinions, mediocre intellect, and exceedingly modest writerly ability, may be an important subject for a book, but he's obviously not the one to write it. His autobiography is, predictably, completely unrevealing. Yet the Times, predictably, ran two reviews and an excerpt. Its coverage undoubtedly helped to propel this soporific and self-important book onto the best-seller list (as such coverage almost certainly did another Godoff title, Paris 1919, a book that's bland, bloated, and—thanks also to a foreword by that darling of the Charlie Rose crowd, Richard Holbrooke—overrated).

Book snobs decried the literary clout of Oprah Winfrey—but why aren't they lamenting the influence of the Times, which, while spotlighting the execrable Memoirs, overlooked two recent, far more worthy nonfiction titles, Nicholas Orme's Medieval Children and Mark A. Noll's America's God (a history of American Protestantism), which were in turn ignored by the cultural elite that bemoans the sorry state of serious book publishing? (The United States may be the most religious country in the West, but the cultural tastemakers pay scant attention to books on religion—with the exception of titles on nearly every aspect of Judaism and on some of the unsavory aspects of Catholicism.) Rather than cast stones at publishers, who are releasing more serious titles than ever before, the literary doomsayers should ask themselves why they are failing to read these books.

Fiction

The Darts of Cupid and Other Stories
by Edith Templeton
Pantheon

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Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor of The Atlantic. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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