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May 27, 2008

Comments

Scott

Mark,

If you actually read what I wrote you'll note that I did take into account "the overall quality of the books considered and the reviews as written."

I wrote:

"Now I respect where Bookforum has come from, and it needs to be said that it still generally provides better fiction reviews that you are likely to find elsewhere. And also, the nonfiction titles that Bookforum chooses to review tend to be the kind of nonfiction that interests me as someone who likes to read about art and literature."

Likewise, when considering the feature essays, I took into account not only the subjects they were on but the way in which the subjects were discussed.

When Bookforum announced its plans to change directions, a lot of bloggers took that as bad news. I think that the marked shift toward nonfiction in this most recent issue is a completely valid concern. Many of us liked Bookforum precisely because it seemed to eschew the dependence on nonfiction that characterizes so many other book reviews.

TEV

Scott, contra your use of the rhetorically limp "if only you'd read my post," I did, in fact read it more than once, and any caveats you may have made notwithstanding, the overall note your strike is one of grave concern - hence the slightly hysterical 911 of the post title. It's a concern (a) I don't share and (b) I find slightly silly, especially given the methodology. Yes, some bloggers may have been worried when the announcement was made, but what was silly and precipitous then doesn't seem any less silly and precipitous now. I am sure we are still permitted to disagree with one another?

Scott

Mark,

I'm pleased to hear that you read my blog so closely. I'm not sure what you find "silly and precipitous" about one of the best fiction reviews choosing to cut back its fiction coverage in an attempt to boost circulation . . . this has happened before elsewhere (TNR, The New York Times, to name a couple) and bloggers have been concerned and disappointed then, so why not now?

Also, I'd just like to add that I certainly didn't invent the practice of evaluating coverage by counting titles under review, and no one seems to have had a problem when it was employed elsewhere in the past.

In any event, you've made your case, I've made mine, so let's just move on.

TEV

Yes, do let's, but while we're on the subject of reading carefully, I think it's clear to everyone that "silly and precipitous" was a reference to the bloggish hue and cry, and was not describing decreasing book coverage. Not sure how you made such a leap but that might explain things. And I have always thought bean counting reviews - whether by gender of reviewers of type of book reviewed - was (and remains) silly.

Anna

I agree that counting reviews for any variable is hardly a comprehensive tool for evaluation, but it IS one important one. It simply serves as a map that can lead to conversations about a publication's priorities--whether it's the books it is most interested in featuring, or the authors who do or do not make it into reviews, who gets bylines and who doesn't.

Of course, other questions must come into play--about overarching quality, about cultural context, etc. But I don't think counting is an inherently silly device (though it can be used in silly ways). Rather, it can articulate what we might otherwise overlook (our own biases, etc.) that put limits on our literary conversation.

You might make an analogy to student demographic statistics at colleges. While you could say the numbers don't matter because the important thing is the "overall quality" of students, these statistics have been vital in recognizing our racial, gender, class, etc. biases that have historically limited our educational systems and our culture at large.

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TEV DEFINED


  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."

SECOND LOOK

  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

    Bs

    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe

    Rider_4

    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."