It seems like every other day, someone in our bookish blogging world offers a theory for why major media book coverage is shrinking. Generally, these concepts involve the economy, the proliferation of blogs, the short attention spans of today’s consumers, and a few little green martians. But today, I’m going to offer another, admittedly outlandish, explanation:
One of the many reasons that major media markets are losing ground with their book coverage because they waste space and words providing criticisms that astound no one, surprise no one, and are in no way shocking, educational, or illuminating. In short, they waste our fucking time. They squander the precious little coverage on books they don’t like. A more effective strategy might be to focus on some hidden gem that is being overlooked. Maybe introduce new writers to the culture at large. But my advice to at least a certain segment of critics is “Stop your petty bullshit crusades against writers that, in the whole scheme of things, don’t make much of a dent in our pop culture.”
Case in point, the recent New York Times coverage of Bret Easton Ellis’s new novel Imperial Bedrooms. Now, in the interest of full disclosure: I am an unabashed Ellis fan. I did not like the new book quite as much as I had hoped, but as a whole, I am a huge fan of his body of work. I’ve stood in line at those sketchy booksignings he describes in Lunar Park, you know, the ones where the author sucked on throat lozanges and was sick with a “head cold” the whole time. I am an Ellis admirer and I honestly do think he gets a raw deal in my ways. With that out of the way, let’s look at the matter at hand.
The esteemed Gray Lady saw fit to publish not one, but two negative reviews of Imperial Bedrooms. First, Erica Wagner wrote on Thursday, June 17 that “I can well believe the haunted fascination that sparked off Imperial Bedrooms.” But the resulting novel falls flat.”
Okay, fine. Critics don’t have to enjoy every thing they read.
Then Janet Maslin wrote on Wednesday, June 23 that the book “is without shock value. It’s a work of limited imagination that all too deftly simulates the effects of having no imagination at all.” She even goes so far as to state that the sense of dread in the novel is because the “options have narrowed” for the author himself.
Which brings me to my point… well two points actually:
Did Anyone Expect Any Different?
Is there anyone in the book world who is surprised that The New York Times did not like Bret Easton Ellis’s new book? I mean, there’s a better shot at Fox News endorsing Nancy Pelosi for President or PETA suddenly throwing a dinner party featuring foie gras. Just take a look at their history of Ellis examination.
–In August 2005, A.O. Scott reviewed Lunar Park and wrote, “The problem with this novel is not that it is a fast, lurching ride to nowhere. Of course it is; it’s a Bret Easton Ellis novel. The problem is that it does not have the honesty to admit that it wants to be more, the faith that readers will accept more or the courage to try to be more. It is the portrait of a narcissist who is, in the end, terminally bored with himself; that it may also be a self-portrait doesn’t make it any more true.”
–In January 1999, Daniel Mendelsohn reviewed Glamorama by writing, “It’s a mystery to me why some people are complaining that Bret Easton Ellis’s latest novel is nothing more than a recycling of his controversially graphic ”American Psycho” (1991). ”American Psycho,” after all, was a bloated, stultifyingly repetitive, overhyped novel about a fabulously good-looking and expensively dressed Wall Street sociopath who tortures and dismembers beautiful young women, whereas ”Glamorama,” as anyone can see, is a bloated, stultifyingly repetitive, overhyped book about an entire gang of fabulously good-looking and expensively dressed sociopaths who torture and dismember both women and men — and lots of them. Clearly, Ellis’s authorial vision has grown broader and more inclusive over the past decade.”
–That same month, Michiko Kakutani also reviewed the same novel by writing that “Bret Easton Ellis doesn’t need the National Lampoon to turn him into a parody — with Glamorama, he’s done it himself. This glutinous hodgepodge of a book takes all the most glaring flaws of Mr. Ellis’s recent work — compulsive name-dropping, an obsession with designer clothing, a fascination with gratuitous, gruesome violence and a cast of interchangeable fatuous people — and tries to pass them off as a novel.
–In September 1987, Scott Spencer reviewed The Rules of Attraction and stated, “Yet these moments of humor are infrequent. Mr. Ellis has it within his grasp to become a satirist, but for now his method of aping the attitudes of the burnt-out works against him. He seems as passive in his regard of social rot as, say, the editors of Interview. Nothing seems to surprise, disturb or even affect him, and though this deadpan effect is surely deliberate and is in large part the reason for Mr. Ellis’s popularity and warm critical reception, one closes the book feeling that this time out the author has stumbled over the line separating cool from cold. Where we ought to be saying, ‘Oh my God, no,’ we are, instead, saying, ‘Who cares?'”
–In 1985, Mary Jo Salter reviewed Less Than Zero, and remarkably, had words that slightly, kinda, somewhat bordered on praise. “I hated reading the book for more than 20 minutes at a stretch, but that was partly because Mr. Ellis succeeded in making its world hellish,” Salter wrote. “The novelist is only 21 years old and has precociously fashioned, despite an obvious stylistic indebtedness to writers from Hemingway to Joan Didion, a tone so distant that he almost seems to write by remote control. That is control of a kind, and augurs well.”
Does the Times Have to Stand Strong to Stop the Ellis Juggernaut Sweeping the Nation?
As I stated earlier, I am a fan of Ellis’s work. And I do think he deserves are more respected place in our literary landscape. But I’m also not blind to the fact that Bret Easton Ellis is not exactly a cultural phenomenon. Imperial Bedrooms might flirt with the bestseller list, but it ain’t Harry Potter. Nor are kids choosing sides between “Team Clay” and “Team Rip.”
I can understand if a critic or group of critics feel like they need to strike a blow against a tidal wave of popular opinion. If someone at the Times wants to tilt at the Twilight-Potter-Gossip Girl-Skinny Bitch windmill, then be my guest.
I can also understand if a critic feels they need to be the lone dissenter against a prevailing attitude of critical acclaim. Bill Clegg’s Potrait of an Addict as a Young Man just wasn’t that impressive to me, yet, every other literary reader seems prepared to elevate it to pantheon-ic status. That’s a circumstance where I might feel like having my solitary voice of dissent heard.
But the National Book Award and the Pulitzer are safe, Bad Boy Bret won’t be hoisting those trophies any time soon.
So why should The New York Times bother wasting so much space on a book they don’t like? Ellis will sell however many copies of Imperial Bedrooms that he’s going to sell, with or without the critical negatives. Hardcore fans aren’t going to be dissuaded by Maslin and Wagner’s recent opinions, they’ll still slap down their twenty bucks. And how many middle-of-the-road Bret Easton Ellis fans are there? I don’t imagine there are too many people out there saying, “Whew, I was going to purchase that new book but the Times saved my bacon! I’ll know to avoid Imperial Bedrooms now.”
I don’t have an answer to that question. And while I want to be very clear that I’m not advocating book reviews to be wholly positive, cheerleading affairs, I have to wonder if the more than 2,000 words dedicated to completely predictable negative reviews could have been better allocated to other books.