Monday, April 07, 2008

Ouch ...

... Jane Smiley Is Snobby Enough to Aim Low.

Come on, folks: weigh in on this.

One thing I must say: The piece was edited and Mike Schaffer is one of the best in the business. But in editing as in all else, when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change. Like Mike, I would have let Jane Smiley say what she wanted the way she chose to say it.
I should also add that you can't presume that an editor agrees with a review just because he ran it. I ran plenty I didn't necessarily agree with.
And remember: If Mike hadn't run this review, we wouldn't have had the pleasure of Ed's spirited response! It would be nice if Smiley would engage her critics, but I'm not holding my breath.
The reason I would like others wto weigh in on this is that a whole slew of issues are touched upon here: authority - Smiley is a Pulitzer winner; the genre fiction vs. literary fiction dispute; the nature of reviews.


  1. I've never thought that Weiner's books have lived up to the hype (if you like chick lit, there's much better stuff out there), but why not let someone who's the target audience for the book review it? And who would write about the actual book? The cover isn't something to write about in the review, especially when most authors have little to say about their covers.

  2. Well, Frank, you forced me to go back and read Smiley’s review as it appeared in the Inq. That’s good, I guess.
    My reaction to Champion’s comments is that they are so hysterical I could not discern what his complaint was. Hence, I had to go back to the source. Also, he is WAY over his weight limit in adjectives; sorry, there will be a surcharge for all adjectives (and adverbs) after “this inept review.”
    I cannot comment on Weiner herself as I have not read any of her books. One central thing in Champion I agree with, and which seems to be at play in Smiley’s review, is Updike’s dictum “try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” Do not, in other words, tell the author he or she should have written another and different novel. Smiley, I think, has done that here. Furthermore, she shouldn't review the cover, any more than a reviewer should review a publisher's blurb (which has been done elsewhere).
    I would add that a review should not be a platform for propaganda, however related to the subject of the book at hand it might be. Tell us what you thought of the book and how it was written, not about the politics of publishing or of reviewing or of academia. There are venues for that. The relatively brief newspaper review –- and they are getting briefer and briefer -- is not one.
    If you do not like “genre” lit, then don’t review it, especially when asked to. If you do, then simply tell why the book was good. If you want to condescend, you can add the obligatory phrase about how it “transcends its genre.” Don’t forget to mention Chandler.
    Finally, I agree somewhat with Smiley that “somehow, in the last 10 years, American fiction has split again, into the boys' team and the girls' team.” I don’t know whether it has been in the last 10 years, exactly, or whether it is “again,” but there is something like that going on. Maybe it helps explain why I turn back to older fiction more and more. It is not entirely aging, or nostalgia, that drives me to Willa Cather and William Maxwell and Barbara Pym and John P. Marquand, to throw out as widely divergent examples as I can off the top of my head. There is in them, and many others, a kind of universal empathy or sympathy or understanding that can strike a chord across the reading public.

  3. Much that I agree with here, Roger. (Hardly surprising, since we were both book review editors.) In particular, I like what you say at the end about writers like Cather and Marquand, etc. They just seem to do a better job of letting you see real people in society as it actually is, thereby enriching your appreciation of both people and society. By which I do not mean to suggest that they gloss over imperfections in either. But they seem to be working from life, and not serving up a tract.
    Ed's point, as I see it, is that Smiley's review is condescending to both author and readers. And, as you note, she does violate a number of criteria for sound reviews.
    Of course, I think anything that gets a discussion going has at least that going for it.

  4. Anonymous2:33 PM

    The lead sucks. For one thing, readers are not a "target audience," they are, if anything (and that's the rub), the intended readership, n'est-ce pas? She lost my respect when she ended a sentence a preposition with, one of Safire's first rules of credible composition (but, then, perhaps Pulitzer-Prize Winners don't need such elementary Strunk & Whiticisms?).

    For another, I thought we would be treated to a foray into a work concerned with elements of Communism or aspects and issues surrounding Breast Cancer. How vague can one get and still stay on point? It's all over the case, IOW and, one thing one learns early in the trade is that each of the eight-hunnert-plus words one is granted must carry its weight. Or else. Writing short is difficult. We all know that. Writing slippery-slop is not. I would have cut the honorarium, were I the editor, to reflect the actual thoughtful content presented in this fatuous and flatulent piece of work.

    I have reviewed books for at least fifty well-known publications over the past thirty years. I am currently under contract to write for Canada's National Newspaper, The Globe and Mail. If I had submitted this review, it would have been edited. (Sorry, Frank.) No, it wouldn't have been edited, it would have been returned with instructions to say something about the book and eschew autobiography or fancy-schmancy dancy-prancy what-I-would-have — and-could-have — writtenisms.

    The task is to examine the contents of the book underhand in the context of the form in which it is presented, to absorb what the writer has created and to communicate what the reviewer considers the writer's aims and objectives to be (not to mention whether the book succeeds or fails on both its own merits as well as those in the field comparable with it that have either succeeded or failed).

    It's utterly inexcusable that the author is not given voice in this review. Not one quote, not even a line of dialogue? What gives? Who takes liberties like this? If the reviewer fails at description by deploying a crush of clichés, give a convincing example. It's your word against — in this case — 386 pages of work. If the plot's weak or the dialogue's dicey, say and show and tell why.

    Give the author the benefit of the doubt. It takes time to craft a novel. It is only respectful to take time crafting either a hit or diss of it. The repetition of the word "wit" is witless, IMO, and a waste of one of those precious 800-plus words I'd be granted by my gawdeditor whom I revere. He's the best; and, I strive to match him, not embarrass him. If I use repetition (as I did, say, in a review of Jamaica Kincaid's Mr. Potter (which is posted at Monsters & Critics), I justify it within the parameters provided (and, in this case, I imitated, obviously successfully or my Ed. would have returned it to me ipso-quicko, the style Ms. Kincaid used in that longish short-story or novella (as I prefer to call that "novel").

    I elected not to read the comments already posted so I apologise if I have duplicated points already made. I just dashed this off, oops, and I see I have fucked up with the ending of sentences a preposition with, too. Good. One good spurn deserves another, IMO. I simply wanted to give my impression of what Ms. Smiley did wrong and to see if I could discover what she'd aced.

    Sadly, in the latter department, I came up empty. If nothing else, I would suggest, politely, the PI editor in question (who is not to blame for what she wrote) ask another reviewer to examine this book in a way that looks good on both the paper and the genre. Fair's fair; the real fluff came from the one apparently lauded with the mantle of the Write Stuff. Enough shed. Now, I shall go read what the wonderful ones high above me have inked :).
    p.s. RKM? Congrats encore!!1!

  5. Anonymous2:50 PM

    As both a current MFA student and an occasional book reviewer, I understand the impulse to workshop a story (oh, it would be so much better if only...). But I also understand that the impulse is pretty useless: the book is finished. Review the book as it's been published. And yes, by all means, let it speak for itself. I have no idea what the tone of either narrator might be. I don't just want Smiley to tell me their voices are too close -- I want her to show me.

    Oops, I just workshopped Smiley's review. Damn.

  6. Anonymous3:03 PM

    Hello Mr. Wilson. I am leaving a comment on your blog for the first time. Along with, Patrick Kurp's blog, "Anecdotal Evidence", I visit your blog everyday. I am writing in response to Roger K. Miller's mention of the author, William Maxwell. Edith Wharton, along with Maxwell, are the two authors that are currently occupying my reading time. It seems to me that these two authors written work are so well done, that I look forward to reading them over and over. I don't believe I would ever pick up a book written by Jane Smiley. I know that sounds narrow minded but Patrick Kurp and you have introduced me to authors that are alot more worthy of my time.

  7. Speaking as an occasionally professional book designer (meaning I actually get paid to do it, sometimes), I have to disagree with Ed (and apparently most everyone else): The cover of a book matters very much towards setting the tone of the package's contents, setting a good first impression, etc. That the author usually does not have any say in the marketing or designer of the physical object of their book itself should be well-known, although perhaps a reminder to Smiley (and Champion) is due.

    Having said that, I do agree with Ed about that maybe Smiley spent too much ink on the Really Bad Book Cover in her review—but then, so did Ed.

    The fact of the matter is, there IS a lot of bad book design out there. (There always has been.) Bad typefaces, bad art. The worst offense, IMHO, is the use of an inappropriate type or style of cover for the material between the covers. Matching contents to the right container is what good design is all about. (Matching the right form for the poetic contents is what often distinguishes great from bad poetry, too.)

    There has been a wave of bad cover art that IS in fact attributable to genre fiction. Namely, chick lit cover design. There IS a noticeable sameness to a lot of those book covers; certain tropes and patterns do repeat. Ever noticed how many chick lit covers look identical—same colors, same typefaces, same basic illustration styles or contents? Don't blame the designers, though: blame the publishers for understanding, quite correctly, that an eye-catching cover means the book will get picked up off the racks. Grocery store or bookstore, the eye-appeal is the same. You just are expected to have to shout louder in the grocery store, when it comes to design.

    Here's one more arena in which "Serious Literature" likes to look down on genre fiction: book illustration. A lot of science fiction book covers do carry rather generic rocket-ship illustrations. A lot of mystery novels do carry generic post-film-noir-style illustrations.

    I'll stand by my opinion, however, that the writing in "genre fiction" is often at least as good, and often better, than in Serious Literature. I'll name several SF writers who are stylists of very high quality, and quite a bit better than most of the "Art Lit" I've read: Kate Wilhelm, Samuel R. Delany, etc. At the top of their game, mystery writers Tony Hillerman and Dana Stabenow have more in common with Hemingway or that ilk than do any Serious Lit novel currently on the fiction best-seller list, or the critical darling Serious Lit list. (At pretty much any time.)

    Not to mention subject matter. That Serious Lit. contains a great deal of angst-ridden urban characters with lives and problems that I just can't feel sympathetic about, should come as no surprise. Serious Lit is the product of the urban and academic centers. It almost always ignores the "flyover zone," except to mock it. That's too bad, because that's where the rich heart of storytelling still thrives and grows new writers. By further contrast, when I pick up a Dana Stabenow or Arthur C. Clarke story, I always know I'm in for a mind-expanding experience with characters who are NOT generic.

    Final thought on marketing:

    We can talk all we want about the purity of the art of writing, or of reviewing. The fact of the matter is, though, is that book publishing is largely a profit-driven business, like all other businesses. Speaking as someone who spent a full career in marketing, advertising, design, and illustration (I still keep my hand in), I can say with some certainty:

    If the publisher didn't think the book would sell, you wouldn't even have a copy in your hands in order to bitch about how it is being reviewed.

    Most the things we all are complaining about come down to the simple fact that publishing IS a business, there ARE financial decisions involved, and those who make the financial decisions are often clueless about writing quality, are not writers OR reviewers themselves, and have even less of a clue about design. But they DO know how to make money. And that's what they're doing. If writing of quality someone gets published, it can be a bit of luck, but one should not presume that publishers care about quality in writing the same way we do.

    I could tell you countless stories about meetings I've been in wherein the art director and designer was waging quiet battle with the idiot boss about what to do and what not to do, in terms of presentation and packaging. Usually the idiot boss wins. Sorry, that's the facts of life.

  8. Hi Frank,

    Well, when I first looked at the article yesterday, I skimmed off in quick jumps, because it wasn't for me. Even beginning with "Just so you know . . ." sounds so gabby. Today, it turns out that, sure enough, what we have her is a bird's view of chick lit.

    And I have no problem with that. In fact, I think this is precisely what the review is suppose to be, one girl writer (Smiley) talking, even gossiping about the cover, to other girl writers and readers about a third girl writer (Weiner).

    But how pink is it?, I wondered. Here is Barnes & Noble's page on it: Certain Girls. Significantly, we have excerpts and sample chapters that were for someone else (not me), but an audio interview with Weiner that I enjoyed listening to.


  9. Anonymous10:45 PM

    Wow. I reviewed Weiner's last book for the Inky (her collection of short stories) and I found two good tales in it and several substandard ones. The good ones were good in the way "In Her Shoes" is good -- great tales of sisters and mothers/daughters/grandmothers. But she even said in intro. to the book I reviewed (this is terrible -- I can't remember the title..."The Guy Not Taken"? Something like that) that her agent had urged her to dig out every ms. buried in her closet and fork it over for publication. Well, some of those mss. really shoulda stayed in the closet.

    Jane Smiley is a fine novelist; if you haven't read "The Age of Grief," "A Thousand Acres" or "Horse Heaven," you've missed some good tales. And I didn't find her review condescending at all. Au contraire, she noted that Weiner is too good a novelist to limit herself by genre. And Art D. is absolutely right that cover design tells us whether a book is a genre book (mystery, chicklit, sci-fi, etc.) or literary fiction. I can't believe the freak out going on here over this review. The only bull's eye point is that a good review always quotes the book under discussion to let us see the writing ourselves.

    Personally, I believe Jennifer Weiner *is* a good writer, but I don't think she's trying to get any better, or taking any risks. She keeps telling the same kinds of stories, at least as far as I can see. On the other hand, she seems to be making boo-coos of bucks (as we say in the South) and getting movie deals, so why shouldn't she?

  10. Ah, but even the cover designs for literary fiction have tropes and patterns. "Literary fiction" is itself such a trope, and that those who live in that domain look down upon all other literary (fiction) domains is surely relevant. This is reflected in the cover designs, which tend to be "serious" art rather than "illustration." There is also a typically self-serious choice of typography that is quite as self-serious as the words set in that type.

    Saying that literary fiction doesn't have its own style of cover design is ridiculous. It's like ignoring that the "no-style style" of bestseller plot-driven thrillers is not itself a style, when it clearly is, and a style distinct from literary fiction's tendency towards more experimental language, and frankly, less plot.

    One could go so far as to say that the cover designs for literary fiction are just as self-conscious as the fiction itself is.

    Once again, I detect a faint whiff of dismissal with regard to genre fiction; the relative quality of writing is, again, a relevant issue, and surely worth discussing.

    In which case, I do find Weiner's own comment about her publisher wanting her to fork over everything she's buried in her closet very indicative. It speaks to the points I made about what really drives the book publishing business: which is neither the inherent quality of the writing (as much as lit fiction authors would love to believe otherwise), nor the fact that good writing is only found in one domain of fiction and all others pale beside it (again, as much as lit fiction authors would like to believe otherwise). I'm quite sure that Wiener's publisher asking for those other ms. is a typical example of the "hey, we can sell this right now, so go for it" mentality.

  11. Anonymous8:27 AM

    Art, your comments on covers bear further scrutiny with sensitivity to the elementary truth you're communicating.

    (And, I note, you haven't even considered poetry-book covers, an assessment I'd like you to add to this otherwise comprehensive marshalling of points worth remembering, always, when it comes to the notion publishing is publicking and publishers would eat their tongue if it made for good back-cover copy, brill blurbs, or eye-snagging covers. Done there. Been that. Bought the dust <*ahem*> jacket handed me. Take it or love it. I have very rarely had a say or any input whatsonever into any cover on any of my twenty-odd books; but, for some wonderful reason, I've only really hated one [and, I shall not name it for fear of hurting its creator's feelings; their heart was in the write place].)

    A lot of companies in Canada cannot afford to hire independent fulltime book designers and cover artists. Some, Mercury Press, e.g., still do (on a freelance basis, natch). I am thinking especially of Gord Robertson, perhaps one of our best (to whom I sent a bottle of the world's finest single-malt usquebaugh after I saw the final results of a cover he'd created, an austerely streamlined work of juxtapositionary typographical and imaginatiive match-made incendiaria that really captured the spirit of the long poem, Rapturous Chronicles, no sweet feat by any stretch of the non-literal dimagination.

    IIRC, I recently read a piece cited here on Books, Inq. concerning the way in which readers do judge books by their covers. Could not disagree with its thrust-and-parry points. Can't remember who wrote it, sorry. Same goes for film, music, art, conference, event posters, et so forthia. Consider the artwork gracing The Anguish Patient's cinematic version by the recently released Anthony Minghella (RIP), The Graduate or, for that matter, A Streetcar Named Desire (directed by Elia Kazan). Unforgettable images forever imprinted on the projection screens of that which our collective consciousness effortlessly retains in the scheme of our subliminally impressionistic brains.

    Art, what do you believe remain timeless examples of both the best and / or worst covers / posters in any medium (even among those you designed)? ISTM, given the direction and wide-reaching grasp of this discussion, you would not be remiss identifying an effective couple or few.

    Too, often reviewers don't see covers since, with firm publication dates, most receive galleys or proof pages, another reason, perhaps, why more covers are not "reviewed," as it were; also, to be frankly forthcoming, an extended assessment of — gawd forbiddance — a given work's cover or its extra-literary elements, type, paper quality, print size, etc. suggests, to me, the "critic" in question's dancing around the contents of the volume underhand in order to maintain the veneer of political correctness or, more likely, judiciousness.

    Whatever else, Ms. Smiley elecantly conveys her contempt for both the work and the genre in which it was made-to-mingle.

    Finally, this reviewer did not err mentioning the cover; rather, she committed a sin of omission of the first order (since, again, IMO, those words might have been put to better use nailing the novel's alleged failure to the writing on the wallop).

  12. The principle is the same regardless of whether it's prose or poetry, or essays, or whatever:

    The cover needs to reflect the contents, and/or enhance them. It needs to be tied directly to the contents, not randomly applied. It can set the tone, the mood, the overall feel of a book, before you ever open the pages. That is what makes for great cover art.

    At the same time, this is harder to achieve with poetry than prose; I'll get to that later on.

    One thing to remember is that book cover illustrators don't always have the luxury of reading the book before making the art. The mechanics of publishing sometimes make that difficult. (Remember too that the illustration always has to leave a blank space somewhere in the art, over which the type will be superimposed.) In my opinion, though, the best artists insist on it, and achieve better results because they do have a sense of the tone and style of the book (serious or humorous, mysterious or plain-spoken, etc.).

    One of the best cover artists of recent decades is Wendell Minor; another is Michael Whelan. Both have published books of their cover art, often with background stories about the assignment; any aspiring cover illustrator can learn a great deal from books such as these.

    A great deal of "classic" book cover art is in the category of just putting the words on there in a classic typeface, in a subdued color, with no illustration. (For example, every edition of "Catcher in the Rye" so far.) A lot of classic cover designs look like law books on the shelf: leather-bound with gold type in small letters. The current Barnes&Noble reprint series of classic fiction follows this norm; as did the Reader's Digest reprint editions of, say, Mark Twain's books, in the 1990s. This is a particular style that is meant to say "this book is eternal." This is the classic conservative style of book covering.

    A lot of indifferent cover art is in the category just putting a random pretty painting on the cover. For poetry anthologies, this is very common. It's occasionally thoughtless design, but it's not bad design per se. The suggestion to the reader here is that, inside this book is Great Art, so we'll put a piece of Great Art on the cover to set the mood. So we get The Norton Anthology of Poetry which in one edition had a modern art masterpiece on the cover. (I think it was a Frank Stella.)

    A great cover illustration can evoke the story inside the covers, without strictly repeating it. In other words, it can be symbolic rather than literal.

    A lot of literal-minded cover art, for example in genre fiction, is actually a scene from within the book illustrated. An illustrative depiction of a pivotal moment within the book. Most young adult books use this type of cover illustration, or pictures of the lead character (or narrator) of the book. Most novelizations of movies do this, if they don't simply repeat the movie-poster art as the book cover, as a tie-in.

    It goes without saying that graphic novels always do this; although the best-ever graphic novels such as Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's "Signal To Noise" manage to create a cover of beauty as well as a beautiful inside of the book. But this is because Dave McKean is an illustrator of genius. (Books, CDs, graphic novels, even movies.)

    One of the best young adult book covers ever was the paperback edition of "Journey" by Patricia MacLachlan. It shows several imagess of people and elements of the story as though they were snapshots tacked onto a bulletin board. It manages to be both literal AND symbolic, in that the images do not depict scenes from the book so much as add details to situations that are in the narration but not explicitly described. The cover art then becomes an integrated, extra layer of storytelling for the novel itself: a complementary layer that adds meaning without taking anything away. You can't ask for better than that.

    Now, to poetry books, which have several problems in cover design that fiction and essay do not.

    Poetry books very often have "pretty picture" or "Great Art" illustrations on their covers. This is in part because poetry is usually non-narrative. (An exception being Vikram Seth's "Golden Gate," which had an evocative photo of the fog-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge on its cover; a nice cover, actually.) Non-narrative contents are harder for many art directors to pick illustrations for, or for artists to illustrate, so it is common practice to ask an artist for a work of art for the cover that has little or nothing to do with the book, other than that it is Fine Art. This is one reason a lot of poetry also just has the name and the title on the cover, and either no art, or some random shape-based color-form art. The name is supposed to sell the book, and poetry books are usually anthologies or collecteds, so there may be no coherent central theme around which to build a book cover illustration.

    Some poetry books can use representational or thematic art. For example, an anthology of Cubist poetry might use a Cubist painting on the cover. You get the idea.

    The thing is, with careful consideration, a pretty picture CAN set the mood or tone for the book, which is cover art's job. If the book is a book of classic and restrained poems, a classic and restrained design is appropriate. (I think of If the poems are funky, hip, and provocative, a suggestive woodcut can be appropriate. The point again is to be aware of the contents, and match the container to them.

    If the poet is a "name" poet, it's often the case that their photo is on the cover. Most Whitman collections do this. This is especially true with Collected Poems. The recent editions of Borges Collected Fictions and Selected Poems, for example, are a unified series in terms of design, and use portraits of the artist. The recent collections of Robinson Jeffers all use a portrait—which is a very good choice, since he was an interesting-looking man whose best portraits were often taken in his home overlooking the sea. So the poet is seen staring into the raw wind, surrounded by the stone house and tower that he himself built. That's a natural choice for cover art.

    I think that Copper Canyon Press is rather good at finding appropriate cover art for their books, because the designers do read the books and pick something illustrative of the title, or title poem. In some cases, with poets such as Odysseas Elytis who have also made visual art, they use that (cf. his "Eros, Eros, Eros").

    I thought the illustrated edition of Aimé Cesaire's "Lost Body" was well done; but that was easy, since Picasso illustrated the book, and one of his drawings for the book is on the cover.

    One recent example of very good poetry book design is Clayton Eshleman's "Juniper Fuse," his collection of poems and essays on the Late Paleolithic cave art of southern Europe. This is an example of a book that uses both cover and and interior illustration extremely well, both to tie everything together and enhance the words, but also to create what becomes a unified multi-media presentation. I wish more books were as well designed.

  13. Anonymous8:46 PM

    I read Smiley's review and thought it was well written and quite fair. Frankly, I get tired of reviews that are all praise, and where you have to read between the lines to figure out what the reviewer did not like about the book.

    If anyone believes that there is not a genre specifically known as Women's Fiction (I hate the term Chick Lit) that is specifically targeted toward female readers I don't know where they've been for the past several years. I don't blame Weiner for following a formula that works, but I don't blame Smiley for questioning the value of writing that is aimed at such a narrow audience.

    In fact, she gave Weiner a back handed compliment. Others who read her work might assume she is unable to break out of the formulaic. Smiley thinks she can and should.

  14. Anonymous11:24 AM

    Thank you, Art. What a mind you possess and yes, your assessment of Journey's cover as a complementary aspect of the book's contents says it all. I went and had a re-peek-see at the cover and remembered the contents, something a good cover also accomplishes, as you seem to suggest. S'pose the true test of a great cover might involve the idea of trying to imagine any other cover for the book under scrutiny.

    I LOVE Odysseus Elytis, how could you have guessed he's currently numero-uno poetuno in my pantheon? Eros, Eros, Eros simply slays me; and, yes, I love the cover; but, I think a lot of care goes into his covers for exactly the reason you cite. (And, again, the fact I can recall the cover without having to return to it physically says it all, I think.)

    Another excellent point you make that's worthy of re-consideration, the fact illustrators and designers don't have the opportunity to read the book and have only the title itself (most times) from which to create a visual universe at the time, speaks volumes and, natch, brings us back to the original point, that most reviewers don't see the book's cover because most review from galleys or page proofs.

    Appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughtful insights, perceptions, and knowledge of the art of book-covering; and, that got me to wondering why you'd not written a book about same (or, maybe you have and I haven't seen it); but, I think you ought to consider doing so. I can already imagine the contents; but, I'd love to see the cover for The Aesthetics of Covering Books (by A.D.).