Tuesday, March 20, 2007

About Book Reviewing

Occasionally I stray onto other lit-blogs, then have to catch myself and stop it. Even when I tone down my act I'm usually just a little too aggressive for everyone else. Which isn't my problem so much as that of the sheltered insularity of the literary world.

For instance, I recently put a couple comments onto the NBCC (National Book Critics Circle) blog, and was quickly cut off by blogmistress Rebecca Skloot (no lover of debate she), even though the introductory speaker John Freeman at the NBCC convention had spoken about a "fierce hunger" "to talk about" books in this country. Well, yes, but not really.

No one tells aspiring writers the truth about becoming a book reviewer in this country-- that you must be a tamed pet and fit squarely into a tidy box.

This was my experience anyway in 2000 when I was enlisted by a great writer to write something for the esteemed review journal Bookforum. I was originally told to write an article about the zeen (zine) movement, of which I'm part, but since I took zeensters seriously as writers, and not just as quirky hobbyists; since I took the movement itself seriously as an authentic expression of populist culture, of the American voice, this idea was hurriedly scrapped.

I was mailed books to review; book after book (a sign of the Great Writer's misplaced faith in me), but since they were all crap there was nothing acceptable I could come up with. The worst of them was Thumbsucker by Walter Kirn-- not the worst novel ever written, but close. (The title alone makes one wonder why it was ever published. Is an adult thumbsucker a subject YOU want to read about?) I wrote a review of Thumbsucker. Too harsh, too honest, by half.

The Great Writer was very patient with me. Extremely patient. Finally a book I'd have to like: Sarah, first novel by streetwise wonderkid J.T. Leroy. Sarah was a story about lot lizards-- the pathetic prostitutes who prey upon truck drivers in truck compounds, and are themselves preyed upon.

In reviewing the book I drew upon my experiences with the freight-forwarding business in and around Detroit over the years, in which I'd encountered lot lizards. In truth, Sarah was not a bad book. The Great Writer had faith in its author (she had faith in a lot of hopeless cases). I wrote a review that was half positive and half filled with misgivings about the glamorization of the lifestyle depicted (which in reality is pretty awful).

J.T. Leroy, as you know, became a famous individual a year or so ago, for not being J.T. Leroy. The Great Writer turned out to have been one of those conned. Which was surprising, because-- unlike most writers-- she'd truly been around in her life, and maybe should've seen through "him." (That she didn't, a reflection of the idealism and humanity which makes her a great writer.)

One would expect writers to be the most knowing of all persons in society. That's their role. Today, the reverse is the case. Oh, they're intelligent, yes. Highly intelligent. They're "intellectual." But most of them are five year-olds. (Reading Lindsay the Lit-blogger for instance, one sees all the knowledge of the world of a five year-old.) Dave Eggers for one has made a career out of conning the Lindsays and Rebecca Skloots of the world with the glow of his nascent sainthood; continuing to push the game to new levels to keep the cash register ringing.

(Darn, one of those anti-Eggers shots slipped out of me again. Note to Editor: Please edit the previous paragraph appropriately.)

A world of five year-olds. How would the sensitive Children of Literature handle someone dropped into their midst from something like the freight forwarding business?

As recently as '98-'99 I had a job running a tiny 24-hour import-bonding office at Detroit's riverfront keeping shipments moving from Canada. It was a job where the phone in the office never stopped ringing. Someone was always screaming on the other end-- literally screaming-- about this shipment or that one, in the harshest language! Auto parts usually that were supposed to be Just-In-Time but weren't, and so panic about a shut-down assembly line in Ohio costing thousands of dollars every minute. I did a lot of calling also, in very, VERY harsh language, to truck dispatchers and shippers and warehouse managers in Ontario or Quebec, trying to track down the missing pallets of auto parts. (It would often turn out that the trucker would be traced to a whorehouse someplace between London and Windsor, Ontario, or dawdling at a truck stop with a lot lizard. The synchronicity of the universe.)

Anyway, my review was rewritten several times until it was satisfactorily positive, then rearranged by the Great Writer herself. It was further amended by Bookforum's then chief editor. I noticed in the published version of "my" review the word "demimonde."

"Demimonde"? Would I be likely to ever use the word "demimonde"?? I had to look it up just to find out what it meant!

The Joys of Book Reviewing.
What has this rant been leading up to?

Only that the Underground Literary Alliance will soon present its own new place for book reviewing. The goal is that you'll discover there writing not to be found in stodgy newspapers, or in Bookforum. We hope you'll find instead gutsy and entertaining balls-to-the-wall commentary, along with unflinching truth.

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