Heidi Julavits’ essay on book reviewing, which opens The Believer, the inaugural issue of the much-awaited literary journal from the McSweeney’s tribe, doesn’t have much that’s worth saying about the state of the art. But it does showcase a cultural chasm so wide that I have to talk with you about it.
I’m referring to the span between the world of the literati/glitterati, and the Real World in which we working journalists operate. It is Ms. Julavits’ contention that contemporary fiction is in a slump, and book reviewing is partly to blame. The way books are reviewed is either too acid (snarky) or too sweet (dumbed-down), she claims. Reviews are used either to show off the wit and perspicacity of the person writing them, or they gloss over the book’s shortcomings to serve as promotional arms for the publisher. What’s needed is a serious dialogue about books, she complains.
From a journalistic perspective, the essay has two serious problems: no discernible nut graph (you have to read the whole thing to figure out what the heck it’s about), and no real understanding of how book reviewing works — i.e., no reporting. The piece feels as if Julavits spent one too many evenings with her feet up, sipping wine, at an exclusive writer’s retreat such as Yaddo. Her view is exceedingly narrow. She dimly perceives that TV has something to do with the increasing cultural illiteracy in this country. But she can’t quite assign proportionality: As a result, book reviewers take more than their share of heat for replacing the world of ideas with personality journalism.
So, the book reviewer takes it in the hide in a publication that, although limited in its readership, has the potential of influencing the small band of literati/glitterati types to which Julavits belongs. It makes out reviewers as the problem rather than an indication of the problem, which I think any thoughtful analysis would conclude. Sure, some book reviewers and book editors are as dense as my dog (forgive me, Wolfie). But most are voices crying in the wilderness, imploring the decision-makers to consider just for a minute the problem of our collective cultural illiteracy. But the managers are so worried about readership that all they think about is appealing to the lowest common denominator. So, book reviewers are paid a pittance, and book coverage is often spotty and inane.
Which brings us back to the cultural gap: Wrapped in their insularity and snobbishness, people like Julavits can ignore the roll-up-the-shirtsleeves reality that you and I endure and move further and further to the margins. Their fiction reflects their position. So, Margo, do we see a self-fulfilling prophecy here? And are there solutions? We need something more constructive than Julavits’ whine.
Whining in our 20s is not only acceptable but appropriate. Okay, so Julavits is 34, according to a Los Angeles Times article on the inaugural issue of The Believer, but the magazine is aimed at 20-somethings. And maybe a few years into one’s 30s, whining is still okay. I hate to be a reversed ageist about this, but I think it’s important to remember that societies need their youth to be idealists.
I just can’t be as outraged as you by Julavits’ messy attempt to lash out at a system that obviously needs fixing. Maybe in her 9,000-word rant she doesn’t come up with much except angst, but it got your attention, didn’t it? Sure, we need something more constructive than Julavits’ whine, but we also could use some more of her passionate interest in books and writers. She may be, as you say, one of the literati/glitterati (her partner in The Believer enterprise is, after all, Vendela Vida, the fiancee of McSweeney golden boy Dave Eggers), but isn’t that just the group to rattle the cage?
Besides, it’s not as if any given author — even a member of the literati/glitterati of the moment — is ever as powerful as the establishments (yes, even New York Press and New York Observer) that Julavits criticizes. The Believer, Julavits told the L.A. Times, is a “pro-bono, pull-your-pennies-together real labor of love.” Like the staffs of all struggling purely literary magazines (even the most successful ones struggle), I think those giving their all for The Believer will learn soon enough about the realities of the marketplace — and the pain of working without pay. I do wish them success and hope next time that someone has the guts to edit Julavits’ excesses. But I also hope that, god forbid, if their magazine against all odds becomes a financial success, their love of books and concern for writers isn’t crushed out by some corporate steamroller.
Meanwhile, maybe we need to follow one of the rules that The Believer sets out for itself on its website: We will give people and books the benefit of the doubt.
I hate to be a hardliner about this, but there’s no way I’d listen to my kids whine until they’re 34. Or even 24. The mature response is not to bitch, but to understand the larger forces at work that constrain serious book criticism, or even consumer-friendly book criticism designed to help readers make sense of what’s out there. I congratulate Bob Hoover on his well-chosen words in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and recommend that Julavits and every New York publicist take at least one trip outside the literary beltway (Manhattan) for a perspective that’s broader than that found in the self-referential circles of New York intellectuals.
There’s a thirst for good books and good stories out in the hinterlands (where you and I live). Sure, it’s not as big a thirst as the one for blockbuster movies or professional sports, and it yields no advertising revenue, which are the two reasons why newspapers give it short shrift. But Americans are more educated and literate now than they’ve ever been. There’s opportunity out there to engage them, and I hope, like you, that Believer will become part of the solution, not just parrot the problem. Meanwhile, I’m a roll-up-the-shirtsleeves journalist, not just a ruminating writer. I have no time for elitist disdain.