"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

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January 11, 2009

The Best-Dressed Books of 2008

The end of the old year and the beginning of the new one – yes, it’s the season of those tiresome, compulsory Best of! and Top Ten! lists, including, alas, ‘literary’ lists.  These bullet-point bonanzas are the expression of a marketing sensibility, which means that book-lists bear the same relationship to literature as a Hallmark Valentine does to love.  Yet participation in this annual ritual serves to reinforce certain ideological practices that are crucial to the reproduction of the current culture.  Here – for your post-holiday pleasure – are the top five ideological practices these lists reinforce:

  • the fashion-system (obsession with small differences in the context of a large but unregarded  sameness; the importance of being “up-to-date,” of knowing what the “trends” tell us about our irresistibly fascinating selves, etc.)
  • the star-system (which items are common to most lists? which item will “win”?)
  • the construction of a social and personal identity as the sum of market choices
  • manifest populism (anyone can do it – it’s fun!  What’s your list?)
  • latent elitism (the last word goes to the cultural arbiters)

There’s a spectrum, however, and some types of lists are more honest about functioning in the above terms (Best Dressed/Worst Dressed, for example) while others are more dishonest about it (Best Books lists).  Generally, the higher up the scale of cultural “quality,” the greater the dishonesty.

James Wood has issued his “Ten Favorite Books of 2008” in the New Yorker, but I’m more interested in a consideration of how his own release of the past year, How Fiction Works, fares in these year-end lists.  Here are two timely items from the web, which give us a snapshot of Wood’s place in our culture.

The first item comes from a post on “Book Group Buzz:  A Booklist Blog,” dated January 2, 2009.  Book Group Buzz advertises itself as a “blog about all things book group,” whose purpose is to help book-group coordinators by “talking to you about books that worked well (or books that bombed) and providing organizational tips [and] . . . pointing you to Web sites that offer book club ideas, reading guides, and other useful stuff.”  In other words, something from a rejected scenario for a low-key Christopher Guest-style mockumentary along the lines of Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show. 

One of the site’s bloggers, professional librarian Neil Hollands, posted the following on the topic of this year’s crop of “Best of” lists:

As each year ends, I compile a list of the best books from the lists published by the various newspapers, publishing journals, and other reviews. I use the list to create displays and distribute it to the readers in my library. This year, I’m getting more exact, using a spreadsheet to track how many votes different books receive. It’s important for book group leaders to watch these lists as well, as most of the books on them will be reprinted in paperback during the upcoming year and thus become prime fodder for selection by your group.

Here’s a preview: In literary fiction, the big winners are David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, and Joseph O’ Neill’s Netherland. Richard Price’s Lush Life leads the pack of mysteries and thrillers, Jo Graham’s Black Ships is pulling ahead in speculative fiction, and several books are vying for the historical fiction crown. In nonfiction, the leaders are Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution and James Wood’s How Fiction Works.

A spreadsheet and “prime fodder,” i.e., accountancy and cud – I couldn’t think of two more apt symbols for the industrial reality behind the sheen of “literary fiction.”  Hollands’ précis gives us a glimpse into the whole factory farm:  from the media megaconglomerates (what used, quaintly, to be called “publishers”), to the their list-making mouthpieces and shills (sometimes referred to as “critics”), to the libraries and book clubs, and from thence to the . . . consumer.  

Among the fiction bests that Holland has compiled we can see two of the novels that James Wood gave props to in the past year, Price’s high-end (well, sort of Business-Class-of-the-airport-novel) police procedural Lush Life, and O’Neill’s turd-in-treacle Ninnyland – the latter of which has the additional honor of being the first title mentioned in Wood’s own list of 2008 favorites (see my earlier post about how such a nominating process simultaneously constructs and dissimulates "literary fiction" as a marketing category). 

Among the nonfiction titles, we find Wood’s How Fiction Works neck in neck with Entertainment Weekly-writer Mark Harris’s book about five movies that changed Hollywood.

Let’s pause here for a moment of reflection.

Moving along, our second item comes from a January 4 article in the Books section of the Providence Journal online, called “Our reviewers pick their favorites for 2008, Part II”.  I am taking the liberty of reproducing the entire five-item list of one of their reviewers – you have to read through the whole thing to really get the flavor:

PANIC IN LEVEL 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses, and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science, by Richard Preston (Random House, $26). Through six essays in separate disciplines, Preston honors the scientists working to solve pressing scientific puzzles — a mathematical formula for Pi, species-jumping parasites, DNA, the Ebola virus — in prose clear enough for the novice to partially grasp.

SUPREME COURTSHIP, by Christopher Buckley (Hatchette Book Group, $24.99). As David Lodge is to Academe, Christopher Buckley is to Washington. Here he provides a hilarious take on the Supreme Court nominating process, the one we all suffer through when a justice dies or steps down. It’s astonishing how Buckley anticipates a magnetic frontier woman who bolts onto the national stage.

HOW FICTION WORKS, by James Wood (FSG, $24). Wood, book critic for The New Yorker and professor of the practice of literary criticism at Harvard, has produced a book for those seeking to upgrade their skills both as readers and as writers. The first chapter will pull you in where Wood finds a point of comparison between Henry James’ What Massie Knew and Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings.

MY THREE FATHERS, AND THE ELEGANT DECEPTIONS Of MY MOTHER SUSAN MARY ALSOP, by William Patten (Public Affairs, $27.95). At 47, Patten learned that his biological father was not the man he knew and loved, but in fact the British diplomat, Duff Cooper. Patten is no crybaby and made much of the life he was given, stumbling along the way like the rest of us. This memoir depicts a rarified and glittering era that has all but vanished, and Patten, ever forgiving, does not regret its departure.

GOSSIP Of THE STARLINGS, by Nina De Gramont (Algonquin Books, $22.95). Far and away my favorite novel of the year, De Gramont tells a coming-of-age story involving three privileged girls. With exuberant and sparkling prose, much like the adolescents it describes, she builds excruciating suspense as these alluring alpha girls flex their magnetic power with naive abandon.

The reviewer’s name is – Mandy Twaddell.

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