Tag Archives: book reviewing

My Thoughts on Reviewing Translations

Or at least some of them, as part of Words Without Borders’ online symposium on reviewing translations.

As you can see, I was writing in prescriptivist mode.

Let us start by rejecting the ideal: a few reviewers that I know of still hold tough to the willfully naïve idea that the translation is a discrete work, separate from and equal to the original. Per this logic, all that has come before is immaterial—the translation is simply evaluated as is.

I’ll repeat it: let us reject that, while at the same time acknowledging the immense work performed by translators, those people who open up the literary world to us. And in fact, let us honor that work by agreeing that this naïve approach is not sufficient. The fact is that a translator’s job is an incredible balancing act, wherein so many things are considered at once: a different language, a different culture, a different writer, a different public, a different set of editorial and publishing standards, just to name a few. All of these things are bound up in each and every decision that a translator makes—in other words, each and every word in a manuscript. To pretend that these choices are immaterial is to choose ignorance and to do a disservice to both the author and the culture from which a book comes.

Like it or not these facts exist, and an honest reviewer must attempt to come to terms with them . . .

Los Angeles Review of Books

PW reports on the Los Angeles Review of Books, which has aspirations to be a major web presence and plans (hopes?) to get going in April.

Very few details are available at the moment, but I’m a little suspicious of this venture. Certainly a nonprofit review of books is a great model that I’m glad the LARoB is testing out (although, it must be said, it’s far from the first organization to go this route), but one look at the proposed content up there makes it appear scattershot.

What we’re beginning to see up on the web are literary reviews that attempt to cover an extraordinarily broad range of titles. I’m not sure that this helps things. Newspaper book pages could conceivably try to cover everything because the space limitations of a physical product meant that–in reality–they never would get close. Necessarily they played the role of choosing which books were worthy of attention, and thus they acted as a filter for “important” books.

With the Internet things are very different. Places like The Rumpus and the LARoB can cover as many titles as they can find people willing to write about them. So they cover lots and lots of titles. I’m not sure how useful this is.

From what I’ve seen of these pages, what they give you is a whole lot of boosterism–well-intentioned book reviews that may provide a decent snapshot of what a book is but that have very little critical value. More importantly, these pages have almost no sense of overarching aesthetic. When you combine that with the sheer array of books being covered, what you get is more like an enormous catalog than a review of books. It’s the “it’s all good in different ways for different people” approach to literary criticism, which certainly will boost your pageviews but won’t do much to advance the cause of criticism.

I prefer organizations like Words Without Borders or Three Percent that define the space they want to engage with very narrowly and thus necessarily articulate a set of values. (And that’s something I try to do with The Quarterly Conversation.) The Internet has certainly changed the mode of criticism, but (fatuous “death of criticism” predictions notwithstanding) it hasn’t changed its purpose or its importance. The reviews of books that appear online that will continue to matter 10 years from now will be those that articulate a worthwhile set of aesthetic principles, and all the literary journalism will be forgotten.

This coincides with something Chad Post wrote about recently:

The kids I talked to were recent grads and kids in grad school—the same people I think would be interested in Open Letter books, in “literature.” Well. First off, they read next to no book reviews. Not one of them ever bought a book based on a Twitter recommendation. Instead they rely upon word-of-mouth and serendipity. Each of them has a handful of “book friends” whose recommendations can tip the scales and cause them to actually seek out a particular book. Aside from that, they browse . . . they find the misfiled title (the ‘G’ author mistakenly placed among the ‘T’s), they occasionally Google their favorite authors to see if there’s something new available. They return to old patterns—favorite authors—and see what those people recommend. Overarching theme: they rely on people and chance.

This totally worked in the age of cluttered small bookshops with idiosyncratic collections and more eccentric owners. I was a bookstore brat. I memorized fiction sections and talked to the guys with the cardigans and tattoos who had read way more than I had. I took recommendations. I fell in love with bookstore girls. I remember losing my innocence when I entered a Waldenbooks and had the epiphany that there’s nothing special here. I remember my first experience of Barnes & Noble’s sterility. I remember the moment when I talked to a book buyer and realized that the pattern-shifting books just weren’t viable “for a store of our size.” I remember deciding that I had to get into publishing.

That moment has passed. Never again will a small-town Midwestern kid have the opportunity to peruse a hand-picked selection of literary fiction—one that might not appeal to the masses, but is dripping in cache and the cool of smartness. This is an exaggeration, clearly, but Saginaw, Michigan kids who end up interested in strange art will rely on Amazon.com—at least for the foreseeable future.

Critics worthy of the name help these kids find their books.

Do You Value the NYT More Than the HuffPo?

I don’t want to get too deeply into this issue, but since I’ve been covering the NYT’s paywall and digital media generally, I thought this was worth discussing.

Remember those sweet ’90s when any high school dropout with a website could pull a few million in start-up investment? Well, true, things aren’t quite as crazy now as they were then, but things like AOL’s purchase of the HuffPo do make me scratch my head (AOL-Time Warner Pt II, anyone?).

This, for instance, is why:

About 35% of the HuffPo’s users come form Google. They land on cleverly optimized content: stories borrowed from other (and consenting) medias that mostly generate blogging and comments. This is the machine that drove 28m unique visitors in January, which makes the HuffPo close to the New York Times/Herald Tribune audience of 30m UV. With one key difference: each viewer of the NYT websites yields an ARPU of $11, ten times more than the Arianna thing. Based on the HuffPo’s valuation, the NYT Digital would be worth billions.

The Times, in fact, is not worth billions; or, at least, they’re not getting nearly that revenue from their web presence. (As an aside, all valuations of websites at this point in history are, to not put too fine a point on it, horeshit. There are revenue models out there that no one has yet invented, and others will be dead in 5 years. This stuff is all still very young, inchoate, and hazy.)

In my opinion, the Times has a much more legit business model–creating first-rate journalism (and third-rate book reviews)–than the HuffPo’s which is one step above an eHow-esque content factory. (And see the above link for some fascinating tidbits behind the scenes of HuffPo.) I don’t doubt that there are genuinely worthwhile content strainers out there (yours truly attempts to do his humble part, along with some worthwhile original content), but what The Huffington Post does is more akin to a fire hose than a strainer. As users and search engines get more savvy, I don’t see this kind of business model sticking around.

Nor do I see it being a source of great revenue. The Times could make a legitimate case to charge for what it does–you can’t get what the Times does anywhere else. That’s not true for HuffPo. And I think the audience that the Times has built can be monetized in ways that HuffPo’s never will.

There’s a certain point when you go from taming the chaos to just being another part of the chaos, and HuffPo has passed that point. In fact, that’s its whole version of success. I’m not sure what AOL just bought, but at this point in history I’m not counting on AOL being a savvy player in the Internet game.

The Future of Harper’s

Guernica interviews ousted Harper’s editor Rodger Hodge. Obviously take this all with a grain of salt, given how Hodge left Harper’s, but there are still some provocative remarks on the future of magazine publishing in this interview.

Hodge certainly would be one who thinks the Internet is the future, and I don’t think it’s reading too much into what he says to think that he would be against New York Times-esque paywalls:

It’s a damn shame. And the story didn’t have to end this way. Harper’s remains a very good magazine—it still publishes excellent journalism and fiction, outstanding literary criticism. And, with the exception of the cover, which has been outsourced, it’s the most beautiful magazine I know. But all those riches are hidden from view. The newsstand industry is dying; direct mail is a failure; the Internet in all its gaudy diversity is the only hope. Contrary to the assertions of Harper’s management, magazines truly are using the web to build circulation. The Nation has a very successful model; the Atlantic, after a long struggle, is turning a profit; Mother Jones is thriving and has raised millions of dollars. There are people out there who know how to use the web to connect with readers. Some of them used to work for Harper’s.

Then there’s these remarks about Harper’s status as a non-profit. These are interesting, given that we’re seeing more and more arts and journalism organizations become non-profits and build donations right into their business model in a rather serious way.

No one owns Harper’s Magazine. It is a trust, a multi-generational American project. Those who have devoted years of their working lives to this project, who have made substantial material sacrifices in order to work there, have as much right to direct the course of its future as does the person who currently signs the checks. A moneyman can be replaced, but if you eliminate the editorial vision you kill the magazine.

More specifically, the way to save Harper’s is to exploit the full resources of its non-profit status; the magazine must raise funds on the web, it must hold galas and auctions and conferences. It must make use of the enormous reservoir of good will that liberal-minded Americans, people who care about independent thinking and writing, who care about literature and the arts, not to mention American history, feel for this institution.


Some fairly interesting items in the new issue, though behind the paywall. That would include Phillip Lopate on “The Best German Novelist of His Time,” aka Theodor Fontane.

Diane Johnson on TC Boyle’s new novel sounds fairly interesting.

Relatedly, the new BookForum is also out, although with most of the items grayed out at this point. Rivka Galchen’s essay on Lydia Davis’s new Madame Bovary strikes an unnecessarily grating tone at points, though is not without some insight and charm at other points.

And, if this is the kind of thing you like there’s a very fair and interesting review of Brian Greene’s latest book on our understanding of the cosmos:

But this was a vast mistake—the string community had unwittingly made a much more extreme underestimate than, say, calculating that the ocean contains a thimbleful of water. Physicists discovered in the early 2000s, much to their surprise, that there are at least 10⁵⁰⁰ Calabi-Yau manifolds out there. This is an ungodly—and unphysical—number. If you were to stick one hundred thousand manifolds on every single particle in the universe, you wouldn’t even make a dent in the catalogue. String theory was describing an unimaginably large, and perhaps even infinite, number of universes. In the mid-2000s, critics, such as physicist Lee Smolin, attacked string theory, arguing that it had become so all-encompassing, so accepting of the enormous landscape of fictional universes, that it had completely lost whatever tenuous connection with physical reality it had once had. Instead of a “theory of everything,” string theory had become a “theory of anything” and thus impervious to falsification. No matter what experiments might show, Smolin wrote in The Trouble with Physics (2006), “string theory cannot be disproved.”

The critics, however, were unable to dent Greene’s faith. If anything, his enthusiasm has grown stronger over the years. In The Hidden Reality, Greene answers naysayers by turning their most damning evidence against string theory into an asset. The panoply of universes described by string theory, argues Greene, isn’t a failure of an overbroad mathematical framework. Instead, string theory is, in fact, tapping into a mind-blowing truth: that our cosmos is just one of a nearly uncountable panoply of cosmoses—that we inhabit a “multiverse” rather than a single universe.

If this seems like a drastic solution to the landscape problem, it is. This is not an elegant universe; it’s a byzantine mess with enormous philosophical implications. For example, the inhabitant of a multiverse is shadowed by countless doppelgängers identical to her in every possible way, as well as infinite others who are subtly and bizarrely different. For example, there would be a copy of you reading this review in Fookborum right now—and stumbling across this sentence would cause you to scratch your head in amazement with your prehensile tail. “You might argue that the bizarre nature of where we’ve gotten—infinite copies of you and everyone and everything—is evidence of the faulty nature of one or more of the assumptions that led us here,” Greene writes. Even though the consequences are indeed bizarre, he is rightly able to draw on the support of a large number of scientists who are now being driven to the same conclusion for reasons that have nothing to do with string theory. The most commonly accepted versions of the physical processes that took hold shortly after the big bang, for example, lead to the widely held belief that we live in one of countless bubble universes that are floating in an infinite cosmic plenum. As Greene writes, multiverses are an almost inevitable conclusion of our current understanding of the laws of physics.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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