The New York Times remains an important venue for book reviewing. A positive write-up in its pages signals to the rest of the mass media machine that an author is worth lauding.
This past Monday, July 31, Janet Maslin came through with a rave review of yet another rich kid prep school novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Columbia grad Marisha Pessl. The novel is about a young woman and her professor father. According to Maslin it's filled with "tireless annotations and digressions," a "mock-academic" title, and "literary attributions or historical antecedents for every thought," some of them bogus. Sound exciting? Maslin admits we live in a world "wholly without need for additions to its Prep School Confidential bibliography." Still, she loved the book.
Maybe Pessl's novel really is as good as Janet Maslin claims. More likely it fulfills its intent: appealing to bonded members of the Establishment Literary Club.
Marisha Pessl's novel sounds like another example of information in place of knowledge and wisdom; yet one more literary product with an off-putting title and constant off-putting references: superficial reminders of one's expensive overeducation in the pattern of today's trendy lit scene from n+1 to McSweeney's. The motive is to separate themselves from the rest of the population. (Here's a case when Jonathan Franzen's reading of Thorsten Veblen may actually mean something. In place of the conspicuous consumption of products the elite, Franzen included, now rely on the conspicuous but meaningless flaunting of the names of intellectual theorists. Footnotes have replaced tails and top hat with this bunch. Thorsten Veblen isn't an author of ideas so much as a name to drop. Veblen has become a top hat.)
We're witnessing the suicide of an art form. Writers and publishers are deliberately narrowing their audience. For Insider Janet Maslin, Pessl's book is right up her alley. By hyping one more in an endless stream of prep-school lit, Maslin participates in the narrowing of literature.
Literature's Dirty Little Secret is that literary overdogs don't WANT the art to reach anyone outside their exclusive club. They figure the rest of us are illiterate economic slaves with no desire or need to read. The mystery of books is reserved for themselves. Anyway, this is the path they're on.
Would the Times choose an underground writer or editor to review an underground novelist? What if we arrange the re-release of the classic Fred Woodworth work Dream World? What about the upcoming release of ULA novels by Wred Fright and James Nowlan-- or the current release of books by Leopold McGinnis and Jack Saunders? But wait! Those are productions outside the Mono-Class to which Maslin and Pessl belong. These books might actually broaden literature's audience.
By its choices, the New York Times contributes to the ghettoization of an art.