One-Minute Book Reviews

June 6, 2011

In Defense of Meghan Cox Gurdon, Children’s Book Reviewer

Does a reviewer have a right to say that books for adolescents are “ever-more-appalling”?

By Janice Harayda

For years Meghan Cox Gurdon has been reviewing books for children and teenagers for the Wall Street Journal – at first biweekly and, since the launch of the paper’s book review section in late 2010, weekly. Her reviews are consistently intelligent and well-written and almost always favorable.

Cox Gurdon clearly has made it her mission to look for and call attention to high-quality books for children and teenagers on many topics and in a variety of genres. She has praised books as different as Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which won the 2008 Caldecott Medal from the American Library Association, and Ruth Krauss’s reissued classic The Backward Day.

Over the weekend the Wall Street Journal published “Darkness Too Visible,” one of the rare articles by Cox Gurdon that faulted a major trend — the burgeoning array of novels for adolescents that involve violence, abuse or other bleak topics. For this she has been pilloried in blogs and on Twitter at the hashtag #YASaves, which was created  in response her story and has generated more than 15,000 responses, according to the trade newsletter ShelfAwareness. Cox Gurdon has been called “biased” (@KelliTrapnell), “idiotic” (@fvanhorne), “a right-wing nut” (@annejumps), full of “ugliness” (@AprilHenryBooks), and “brittle, ignorant, shrewish” (@Breznian).

What did Cox Gurdon do to earn this torrent of vitriol? She did what critics are supposed to do – to look beyond plot and characterization and consider the deeper themes and issues raised by novels. In “Darkness Too Visible,” she questioned the effects of books like Jackie Morse Kessler’s Rage, a “gruesome but inventive” 2011 book about a girl whose secret practice of cutting herself “turns nightmarish after a sadistic sexual prank.” Cox Gurdon quotes a passage from the novel that says: “She had sliced her arms to ribbons, but the badness remained, staining her insides like cancer. She had gouged her belly until it was a mess of meat and blood, but she still couldn’t breathe.”

It is entirely legitimate for a reviewer to ask, as Cox Gurdon does, how this might affect a vulnerable child or teenager:

“The argument in favor of such novels is that they validate the teen experience, giving voice to tortured adolescents who would otherwise be voiceless. If a teen has been abused, the logic follows, reading about another teen in the same straits will be comforting. If a girl cuts her flesh with a razor to relieve surging feelings of self-loathing, she will find succor in reading about another girl who cuts, mops up the blood with towels and eventually learns to manage her emotional turbulence without a knife.

“Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care.”

Anyone who writes about children’s books regularly knows that Cox Gurdon hasn’t made up this trend: Books, like movies, keep getting more lurid. Or, as she puts it, the publishing industry is serving up “ever-more-appalling offerings for adolescent readers.” If this issue might not concern all adults, it would surely concern some, given how many buy books as gifts for children without having time to look at much more than the cover and flap copy. And Cox Gurdon isn’t saying: Never read young-adult books. She’s saying: Know what’s in those books, and use judgment, as you would with movies.

Contemporary child-rearing experts urge parents to protect their children in ways that would have been unthinkable a couple of generations ago, when psychologists warned of about the dangers of “overprotectiveness.” This shift has resulted from social changes that require more caution, and Cox Gurdon has encouraged adults to apply to their children’s reading the level of care that they bring to all other areas of their lives. Is this so terrible? Thousands of people on Twitter have said, “Yes.” Anyone who believes that adolescents’ reading habits matter as much as their viewing habits may disagree. In her latest article and others, Cox Gurdon has paid young people’s literature the highest compliment:  She has given children’s books the close scrutiny that, in an age of shrinking book-review sections, typically goes only to those for adults. For that, she deserves gratitude.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer, the book columnist for Glamour, and vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She has written for the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, and many other publications Since 2006 she has edited One-Minute Book Reviews, named one of New Jersey’s best blogs in the April 2011 issue of New Jersey Monthly. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

(c) 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 12, 2010

Fake Book News #2 — National Book Critics Circle

Filed under: Fake Book News,Humor,Late Night With Jan Harayda,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:32 pm
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National Book Critics Circle changes its name to National Association of Unemployed Former Book Editors.

Fake Book News is new category on this site that satirizes American literary culture, including the publishing industry, in posts after 10 p.m. Eastern Time. All posts consist of made-up news items that are intended to be entertaining — not taken seriously — and many will also appear on the FakeBookNews page (@fakebooknews) on Twitter (www.twitter.com/fakebooknews). Some Fake Book News may appear on One-Minute Book Reviews but not on Twitter and vice versa.

October 4, 2009

How Reviewing Opens Your Mind to Books — My Comments on the 35th Anniversary of the National Book Critics Circle

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:03 pm
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A copy of my remarks at the National Book Critics Circle’s recent 35th anniversary celebration has been posted on the NBCC site, and if you’re interested, you can find my comments here.

September 13, 2009

John Ashbery, E.L. Doctorow Help Critics Celebrate Their 35th Anniversary

The winner of the first National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry

Update: 2:25 p.m. Monday: A video of John Ashbery’s entertaining talk has been posted on the NBCC blog.

You might expect an anniversary party for a literary-critics’ organization to resemble a wake now that so many book-review sections have folded or shrunk. But the mood was lively at the festivities that marked the 35th year of the National Book Critics Circle last night at the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space in downtown Manhattan.

I spoke at the event along with the poet John Ashbery, the novelist E. L. Doctorow and dozens of current and former NBCC board members. Ashbery, born nearly a half century before the critics’ organization was founded, received the first NBCC Award for poetry in 1975 for his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which also won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. And he set the tone  of the anniversary celebration when he said: “It’s great to be back here. Actually, it’s great to be anywhere.”

Ashbery praised the Rain Taxi Review of Books and offered it as partial evidence that serious criticism of poetry and other art forms exists amid the meltdown at newspapers. The NBCC has posted a brief news report on his speech on its blog. You’ll find excerpts from other speakers’ comments, including mine, in a separate post there. The full text of all the speeches is scheduled to appear soon the NBCC site.

August 14, 2009

The Benefits of Reviewing Even When the Pay Is Terrible, the Books Are Bad, and the Authors Are Only Going to Hate You, Anyway – Quote of the Day / Rebecca West

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:52 am
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You could earn more per hour as a migrant grape-picker than you can by reviewing for many newspapers, and the odds are that an editor will ask you to write about a bad book and that the author will hate you afterward. So why volunteer for the work?

One of the best answers I’ve heard came from the novelist and critic Rebecca West in a Paris Review interview, collected in Writers at Work: Sixth Series (Viking, 1984) and in Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (Modern Library, 1998). Marina Warner asked West if she enjoyed reviewing for the Sunday Telegraph, then as now a leading national newspaper in Britain. West replied:

“Yes, I do. I do. I would feel awfully cut off if I didn’t review; I think it’s such a good discipline. It makes you really open your mind to a book. Probably you wouldn’t, if you just read it.”

Many critics like the serendipity or reviewing, or getting assigned books they wouldn’t otherwise have picked up, and I do, too. But I also like having to focus on books in a way that I don’t usually do when I’m reading for pleasure. You have to look harder at books when you’re reviewing them – you can never skim, ever — and when you do, you see more.

www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

August 13, 2009

Sam Anderson Pans Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Inherent Vice’ With a Brio That Shows Why He Won a National Award for Excellence in Reviewing

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:04 pm
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Sam Anderson won the 2007 Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle and shows again why he deserved it with a stylish pan of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice in the August 10–17 issue of New York. Don’t miss this one if you admire the merciless wit that readers of the New Yorker used to get from Dorothy Parker, one of Anderson’s favorite critics.

July 2, 2009

Is the State of Contemporary Poetry Healthy? – Quote of the Day / William Logan

Just picked up Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue (Columbia University Press, 368 pp., $29.50), the new book of poetry criticism by William Logan, who won a National Book Critics Circle Award for The Undiscovered Country. I’d read and enjoyed many of the pieces in Our Savage Art when they appeared in The New Criterion and elsewhere. (Sample opening line: “John Ashbery has long threatened to become a public monument, visited mainly by schoolchildren and pigeons.”) But I’d missed a 2002 Contemporary Poetry Review interview with Logan by the poet and critic Garrick Davis that’s reprinted in the new book.

In the interview, Davis asks, “What do you think of the present situation of poetry? Of its current health as an art?” Logan replies:

“I distrust the motives of the question. Much of what we dislike about the poetry around us won’t bother the readers of the future, because it will have been forgotten. I doubt even the Pulitzer Prize winners of the past two decades will have many poems in anthologies half a century from now. This isn’t simply a problem with the prize, though it’s a scandal that Amy Clampitt never won it and another that Gjertrud Schnackenberg has yet to win it.

“Our poetry is healthy, if the sole measure is that there’s a hell of a lot of it. Much is mediocre, but most poetry in any period is mediocre. What bothers me, as a reader, is how slim current ambitions are – too many contemporary poems start small and end smaller. They don’t bite off more than they can chew – they bite off so little they don’t need to chew.”

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 16, 2009

Can There Be ‘Too Many Reviews’ of Books? — Late Night With Jan Harayda

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:05 pm
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Fewer book reviews are appearing in print because of recent cutbacks at newspaper book-review sections, but is the smaller number necessarily a bad thing? Most critics seem to think it is, in part because it tends to result in an uneven distribution of literary wealth: As the review space shrinks, a larger share of it is going to established authors who don’t need the attention – but whom editors believe they can’t ignore – at the expense of unknowns who do need it.

A slightly different view informs North Toward Home, the acclaimed 1967 memoir by Willie Morris, the late editor of Harper’s. Morris suggests that “too many reviews and too much talk about reviews” can hurt writers by eroding their faith in the importance of their work in its own right. That argument may have been stronger when good new authors could usually take for granted that they would get reviews in respected newspapers. Now those authors may receive none. And neglect can erode a writer’s faith as much as too many reviews of the wrong sort. But Morris makes a worthy point that’s in danger of getting lost amid the din about shrinking book-review sections: Reviews are often a mixed blessing.

Here’s more of his argument:

“A young writer’s work rests in a very real way on his own private ego – on his own personal faith that what he has to write and the way he writes it are important in themselves, important to his own time and to future generations. Why else subject oneself to the miseries of writing? When one is too closely involved in the world of publishing, this private faith can wear very thin. There are too many books, too many reviews and too much talk about reviews, too much concern about books as commodities, books as items of merchandise, book quotas, book prizes, book sales figures, book promotions. There is too much literary activity and too much literary talk, having little or nothing to do with the intensely private and precarious act of writing. There is too much predictable flattery. All this is necessary to the trade, but it generates a total atmosphere which can be destructive of one’s own literary values.”

This is the latest in a series of “Late Night With Jan Harayda” posts that appear after 10 p.m. Eastern Time and do not include reviews, which usually appear early in the day.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

March 4, 2009

‘The Writer Is Insane’ — Flannery O’Connor and Her Critics

'Wise Blood' was a commercial flop.

Just picked up Brad Gooch’s new Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (Little, Brown, 416 pp., $30). After a few chapters, I agree with Jonathan Yardley, who wrote in his Washington Post review that “the book is for the most part lucidly written and neither excessively long nor riddled with extraneous detail.”

Good provides a context for the obtuseness of so much recent book reviewing in a report on the initial response to O’Connor, a major American writer of the 20th century. He writes of her first novel, Wise Blood, edited by Robert Giroux:

“‘I can tell you that from a publishing point of view Wise Blood was a flop,’ says Robert Giroux. ‘It got three or four bad reviews right off. Then a good one came that began to see something. But I was shocked at the stupidity of these, the lack of perception, or even the lack of having an open mind. The review in the New York Times Book Review was by a Southern writer. He was embarrassed later, too late. Another reviewer said that it’s a work of insanity, the writer is insane.'”

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

October 31, 2008

And Today’s Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole Goes to …

Filed under: Gusher Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:03 am
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And today’s Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing goes to …

Frances Kiernan for a line in a Wall Street Journal column earlier this year in which she named The Bonfire of the Vanities one of the five best books about New York society:

“Few New Yorkers cross the Triborough Bridge without recalling Sherman McCoy’s disastrous detour into the South Bronx.”

Actually, few New Yorkers cross the Triborough without a) praying that they’ll get to the airport on time, b) hoping they have the five dollars for the toll, or c) wondering if the bicyclists are closing in on mental instability.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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