Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Critical Confab (Bella's Excellent NY Adventure 3)

Author photographer extraordinaire Miriam Berkley snapped James Marcus, Ken Foster, Sarah Gold of PW and me at the National Book Critics Circle luncheon at Cafe Loup on March 8.

Last Thursday was the annual membership meeting of the National Book Critics Circle, followed by a luncheon, then awards and reception in the evening.

Those who accuse NBCC of being a secret society are partially right: it's the only professional organization I've belonged to that doesn't offer a membership directory. I received one when I joined 8 or so years ago, and every meeting since then I've asked when we're going to get a new one. It's always "in the works"; only now online instead of in print. I think I'll start calling for a secret handshake in the meantime.

Organizational irregularities aside, I love going to NBCC meetings because I so enjoy being with my tribe. I may not be writing reviews these days, but reviewers are my people and we speak the same language.

For the past few years, the second half of the annual meeting consists of a panel discussion with invited guests, moderated by an NBCC member. This year the topic was "The Mandarin at the Minimart: What We Talk about When We Talk about Mass Market Fiction."

Moderator Lev Grossman, Time book critic, sat on the far right. In a line next to him were Reagan Arthur, Little, Brown executive editor; Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly book editor; Louisa Ermelino, Publishers Weekly reviews director; and on the far left, novelist Walter Mosley (with carton below).

The discussion was quite lively, though it only addressed one of the stated topics: "Why does genre fiction get so little critical attention?" The others were glossed over: "Why do critics review genre fiction so condescendingly? Who are the hacks, and who are the pros, and how do we tell them apart – and do literary critics have the skills to do it?"

Mosley was the bad boy on the panel, though as usual he provided the most memorable (to me, anyway) lines. He berated NBCC three times for being all white--despite a clearly African-American member sitting directly opposite him. (I'd only seen photographs of the light-skinned Mosley, and before he was introduced to the group I thought he was some old Jewish guy.) The third time, board member Marcela Valdes called out from the back of the room, "We're not all white!" Mosley also made clear early and often how incensed he was at the bad review his "sex" book, Killing Johnny Fry, got from EW and others. Thom Geier was sitting well away from him--by prearrangement, I learned later.

The conversation turned to how books are classified. Various speakers noted that when certain authors write genre fiction, it's considered "literary." For example, Philip Roth's The Plot Against America is actually science fiction--and not very good sci-fi at that, several in the audience rumbled. Someone (Mosley?) said that science fiction is by our smartest writers, which was widely affirmed.

"Good writing is good writing," said Ermelino. Damn straight!

Arthur and Geier pointed out that PW and EW review genre fiction. It was generally agreed that romance sells whether it's reviewed or not. Sybil Steinberg, former fiction editor at PW, said that when she assigned reviews to romance enthusiasts, often the reviews' prose was as purple as the books'. My thought, which I didn't get to voice, is that "literary" reviewers look for good writing, whereas romance readers look for a satisfying story; they don't mind clunky prose. (I still remember a mastodon described as a "ponderous pachyderm" in Clan of the Cave Bear, which cured me of reading any more of the series.)

Mosley observed that he's only shelved in the Mystery section, never in African-American, whereas Toni Morrison is in Literature and Af-Am. "I would like to be in two sections," he said. Classifying books, he continued, "is pure capitalism: How do we sell it best?" In reference to his "straight" fiction, which doesn't receive the glowing reviews his mysteries do, he said, "You can only write one way. The publishing company won't support you if you write a different kind of book."

Chauncey Mabe, book editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, opined that literary fiction itself is a genre and has its conventions. (Hmm, maybe.) He said that his paper reviews genre fiction--except for romance, which elicited grimaces and grumbles from around the room.

The best quote of the day came from Mosley: "Fiction grows in the mind of the reader. And gains in meaning."

Despite his sometimes inflammatory statements, Mosley acted the consummate promoter by offering to sign copies of his latest book, This Year You Write Your Novel, which his editor, Arthur, had conveniently brought a carton-full. I took it as an omen (I've been procrastinating on several magnum opi for years), and had him sign one to me. I started reading it, and it's good: inspiring, sensible and succinct. If...ahem, when!...I finish my novel, I'll have Mosley to thank.


Katharine Weber said...

Bella! Reagan Arthur is the Little, Brown editor (responsible for so many superb books there, frm The Historian to the new Ferris novel Then We Cam to the End), and Luisa Ermellino is the PW editor!

Bella Stander said...

Gack! Got 'em switched; just corrected the post, per Critical Mass.