Too many books?

Yet another journalist gives airtime to reviewers who bemoan the proliferation of books. She trots out the Laura Miller observation that a “‘throw it at the wall and see what sticks’ mentality prevails” in publishing:

Miller says she relies on a close community of reviewers, book scouts, editors and others in the business to help her decide what to review.

“I don’t know that I could do my job without talking to others,” she says.

“Even if I just read the first 50 pages of every reasonably serious fiction [book published each month], I’d have no time to do anything else,” says Miller, who writes about 30 reviews a year. She spends about 15 percent of her time just dealing with sorting and storing the copies she receives for possible reviews.

And while reviewing can be like being a kid let loose in a candy store, Miller points out that “there are a million jars and packages in that store, and a lot of it is joke candy that tastes really bad.”

When few books are published, critics (understandably) say the range of voices is too narrow; when more books end up on the shelves, they whine that it’s too hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. I must be confused. I thought the culling process was part of a critic’s job.

Maybe Miller would be satisfied if she could decide in advance which fifteen books should be published each year. She’d just have to wear dark glasses and hire bodyguards and stay away from Chuck Palahniuk fans. Most readers would be screwed, but at least Miller wouldn’t have to break any more fingernails while sorting and storing books.

Meanwhile, About Last Night’s Our Girl in Chicago continues to reflect on King’s call for the literary elite to give up their snobbish ways and read his work. Our Girl quotes from a 1999 essay, What Do People in Publishing Read?:

What would our reading lives be like if they weren’t preoccupied with, or nagged at by, the dream of literature? My poll suggests that in such a world the reader who finds Toni Morrison a hectoring drag and Salman Rushdie a radical-chic blowhard wouldn’t hesitate to say so. We would give serious thought to the argument that, for example, Elmore Leonard is more likely to be read 50 years from now than Martin Amis.

It’s true that distinctions between “high” and “low,” mostly genre, novels are sometimes arbitrary.

For instance, Jonathan Lethem used to be billed as a genre novelist. He earned this reputation mostly on the basis of his sci-fi/fantasy-inflected detective novel, Gun, With Occasional Music (which impressed me mightily when I first read it in 1994, and, through its many references to Raymond Chandler, led me to read The Big Sleep and then every other Chandler book I could get my hands on). Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn was in the detective vein, too, and an excellent novel by any standards. This year his fine The Fortress of Solitude is the critics’ darling. But the same reviewers praising the current novel tend to dismiss Lethem’s earlier books, which are at least as worthy of admiration as Fortress.

Still, it’s undeniable that some popular writers are just hacks. Take Tom Clancy. Please. (Sorry, I haven’t been sleeping enough lately.)

Seriously, not only does Clancy write putrid books, but he holds himself out as a credible judge of which 2003 selections you should consider giving your friends:

Peggy Noonan’s just a great thinker and writer. When I read her stuff, it makes me feel very inferior. What I Saw at the Revolution [Random House, $14.95] is the best political book I’ve ever read in my life. Her insights on Reagan are just captivating.

(Emphasis supplied; via Bookninja.)


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