March 04, 2004



Mark, this is a terrific summary of all the reasons why I signed the petition. If I had to boil it down to a sentence, I think the Book Babes column should be informed, and informing. And it's really neither. Perfectly charming people who write perfectly well, but they don't fulfill the main criteria.

Daniel Green

An excellent post, Mark. Your critique of their handling of the Keller interview is exactly right. But, other than this rather high-profile failure of theirs, are the "Book Babes" really important enough to worry about?
(I speak as someone totally unfamiliar with them until the Keller furor.)


They're certainly not titanic voices in the literary fiction world, but Poynter is a respected media site, and I came to feel that the
problem was in those two being the only book view some media-types might get. I think it became about pushing out a bit past the book circles who
frequent our sites and bringing in a wider audience to these problems.

Rose Lewis

The other problem is that "babes" can be taken two ways. Yes, there is the "hot chick" connotation, but there's also the "newbie" connotation, which is what I sense when I read their work. Not women in love with books who may or may not be good looking, but women who really don't know that much about books.


I think it's worth mentioning that Book Babes is part of the Poynter Institute, the core audience of which is journalists. So it's sort of a biz journal. I've always thought Book Babes to be more about the publishing industry than about literature, and in that vein, I find it to be mildly informative. It's certainly no discussion of literature.


Actually, I don't find the column particularly informative about the industry, but that might just be me. As always, though, when Margo says things like, "Is serious fiction becoming too precious?" I have to ask whether she's from Bizarro World or unstuck in time. I mean, really, name a single "serious fiction" novel published by a major house that could both be described as unreadably precious and commercially and critically successful in the last five years. I'll even spot you Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves for the sake of argument.


okay, bub. enough. It's rude to call them ladies -- no matter what you think of their intellects or their column. Disagree with them all you like, scorn their word choice, scoff. In the end it's just you disagreeing with them. You've got one definition of 'good literature' and they have another. Mine is different than both yours and theirs. You don't make the rules. Get over it.

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  • 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."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    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.
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