One-Minute Book Reviews

May 31, 2012

Against the Term ‘Literary Fiction’ / Quote of the Day, John Updike

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“I am dismayed by the recent rise of the term ‘literary fiction’ …” John Updike

By Janice Harayda

There’s a lot of competition for the title of the Worst Publishing Trend of the 21st century. Best sellers written at a third-grade level. Ebooks with no proofreading and bad formatting. Pink covers on novels by women when books of comparable quality by men don’t get bound in baby blue.

Then there’s a trend that, if less obvious, may be the worst of all — the increasing practice of labeling novels either “literary” or “commercial,” or high or low culture. The trend gained force about two decades ago as the largest bookstore chains were becoming more important. And it may exist in part because when you have thousands of feet of floor space to fill, you need an easy way to classify books.

But if the “literary” and “commercial” labels help big-box stores, they hurt others. The artificial divisions set up misleading expectations. All novels don’t fall neatly into one of two categories. The terms “literary” and “commercial” – if they are valid at all – aren’t absolutes. They are points on a continuum. Some “literary” novels sell millions of copies, and some “commercial” never find a following. And the terms often have little to do with the quality of a book.

Complaints about this taxonomy typically come from authors who rightly or wrongly see themselves as misclassified as “commercial” when they deserve better. So it’s refreshing that the late John Updike – as “literary” as they come – takes stand on the issue in his posthumous essay collection, Higher Gossip. Updike writes: “I am dismayed by the recent rise of the term ‘literary fiction,’ denoting a genre almost as rarefied and special and ‘curious’ in appeal, to contemporary Americans, as poetry.” His words a welcome reminder that no authors – even members of the publishing elite – benefit from capricious labeling.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 6, 2012

Alcohol in Novels, or the Liquor Also Rises / Quote of the Day

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:25 pm
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Some of America’s best writers drank so heavily that their books bear witness to an “epidemic of alcoholism,” Donald W. Goodwin says in Alcohol and the Writer. That was especially true in the first half of the 20th century. Writers of the era who might meet today’s definition an alcoholic included William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, and Eugene O’Neill. And even during Prohibition (1919–1933), the drinks kept flowing in fiction. In his recent One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900, Barron Lerner writes of the 1920s and 1930s:

“As the pendulum swung away from a dry mindset, literature and the cinema increasingly celebrated alcohol and inebriation. Alcohol played a central role in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel of the Jazz Age, The Great Gatsby, and eased the ennui and alienation of characters in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929). Thorne Smith’s 1926 novel Topper, which became a 1937 movie starring Cary Grant, romanticized the heavy-drinking couple George and Marion Kerby, who were killed when an inebriated George drives into a tree. Friends and acquaintances are none too distraught over the demise of the Kerbys, who wind up coming back as good-natured – and still drunk – ghosts. ‘A gay life and quick death,’ remarked one character. ‘They liked it that way and they got what they wanted,’ mused another. Nick and Nora Charles, heroine and heroine of The Thin Man films of the 1930s [based on Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man], liked to compete with one another to see how many martins they could down at one sitting.”

April 6, 2012

Do You “Celebrate” or “Observe” Passover and Easter? Quote of the Day

Filed under: Easter,Passover,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:13 am
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I’ve been celebrating Easter all my life, but I paid little attention to the difference between “celebrate” and “observe” until I read S.I. Wisenberg’s breast-cancer memoir, The Adventures of Cancer Bitch (University of Iowa Press, 2009). It includes this quote from the comedian Lenny Bruce:

“Lenny Bruce said Jews observe; goyim celebrate.”

April 4, 2012

What Is Poetry? Quote of the Day / John Updike

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:53 am
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You can define poetry in many ways. You can focus its form, its content, its language, its purposes or its differences from prose. Or you can define it as John Updike — the poet, novelist and critic — did in Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism. He said that poetry is “the exercise of language at its highest pitch.”

April 1, 2012

What Made the ‘The Little Engine That Could’ So Popular? / Quote of the Day

Filed under: Children's Books,Classics,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:12 am
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Few picture books influenced mid-20th-century children as did The Little Engine That Could, written by the pseudonymous Watty Piper. Its pictures lack the high distinction of other favorites of the era, including The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. But  some baby boomers who recall no other line from their early reading remember: “I-Think-I-Can …” What explains the appeal of this story of a small engine that agrees to pull a long train up a hill after larger engines refuse to help? An answer appears in The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived, which ranks the “little engine” as No. 31 on a list compiled by authors Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan and Jeremy Salter. They write:

“Each of us has reserves of strength, imagination, and intelligence. If we concentrate and focus our attention, we can tap those reservoirs and meet challenges that might otherwise have seemed overwhelming. This is the simple yet powerful lesson of The Little Engine That Could. It is especially worth the attention of its target audience because The Little Engine That Could is a morality play for children. It is also very much an American tale in which an individual accomplishes what the establishment is unable or unwilling to do. …

“A valuable lesson for children is that being big doesn’t always make the difference. Those big engines refused to do what the tiny hero of our story accomplished. And she teaches us that we should believe in ourselves, to believe we can do it.”

March 22, 2012

Why We Need Bookstores / Quote of the Day From Scott Turow

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:41 am
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Why do we need brick-and-mortar bookstores? Scott Turow, the novelist and president of the Authors Guild, gives an often neglected reason in this quote:

“Marketing studies consistently show that readers are far more adventurous in their choice of books when in a bookstore than when shopping online. In bookstores, readers are open to trying new genres and new authors: it’s by far the best way for new works to be discovered.” 

March 15, 2012

Can Books Be ‘Compelling’? Quote of the Day From Robert Silvers

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:14 am
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Critics have an armada of fuzzy words that they deploy when they want to avoid taking a stand on books. Editors, agents and others translated some of the reviewers’ evasions in my posts 40 Publishing Buzzwords, Clichés and Euphemisms Decoded, More Publishing Buzzwords Decoded and 23 British Publishing Euphemisms Decoded. The critic Daniel Mendelsohn mentioned another while introducing lifetime-achievement award winner Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books, at the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Awards ceremony. Mendelsohn said that Silvers asked when a critic described a book as “compelling”:

“Compelling? Compelled to do what?”

You watch Mendelsohn’s introduction to Silvers in a video of the NBCC ceremony.

March 5, 2012

‘The Average American Author Earns About $9,000 a Year’ / Quote of the Day

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:51 am
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Herman Melville died broke after his publisher refused to give him an advance for Moby-Dick, one of America’s greatest novels. Do contemporary writers fare better? You might wonder after reading a recent essay by Scott Turow, the president of the Authors Guild. Turow noted that American publishers want to pay authors a royalty on e-books that is about half of what they pay for books on paper:

“The problem is that the average American author earns about $9,000 a year from writing as it is. Decreasing the rewards will inevitably drive more people out of the profession. And it is hugely unfair, because publishers do quite well with e-books. They have no costs for paper, printing, warehousing or distribution — and no risk, as is the case with physical books, that the volume will be returned for full credit by the bookseller, which is the great bugaboo of publishing.”

The plight of writers looks worse when you consider what Turow didn’t say: The federal poverty level (the threshold for government benefits) is $11,170 for one person. And the $9,000 a year figure he cited appears to have changed little in the past half century. More than 30 years ago, the American Society of Journalists and Authors surveyed its members and found that they earned slightly more than $10,000 a year from writing. The Authors Guild and ASJA figures suggest that writers earn roughly as much as migrant farmworkers, who have a median annual income of about $11,000.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

February 13, 2012

Emma Darwin to Charles – Valentine’s Day Quote of the Day

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:55 pm
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“I should be most unhappy if I thought we did not belong to each other forever.”
Emma Darwin to her husband, Charles, c. February 1839, as quoted in Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Holt, 2009), a National Book Award finalist

February 9, 2012

Cruelty in Creative Writing Workshops — Quote of the Day / Francine Prose

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:02 am
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An old joke says that a sadist is someone who’s nice to a masochist. By that standard, you find both types in creative writing workshops that require students to submit their work for critiques by their classmates. Francine Prose suggests why in an interview with Jessica Murphy Moo in The Atlantic online, reprinted in Reading Like a Writer, that includes these comments:

Francine Prose: “I think that the idea of writing by committee, or learning to write by committee is insanity. It’s just simply insanity. I mean, writing is all about being different from everything else – not the same. So when you’re writing to satisfy the tastes of a group, and presumably you know those tastes after a while, that’s actually quite dangerous.

“ … there’s something essentially sadistic about the whole [workshop] process. I mean to sit there and have the love of your life – your work – something that close to your heart and soul, just ripped apart by strangers. …

Jessica Murphy Moo: “And not to be able to say anything.”

Francine Prose: “Yes – and not to be able to say anything. Who thought that up? It’s so cruel. And everybody essentially knows it’s so cruel, but that’s one of the many things you’re not allowed to say. This whole language of euphemism has sprung up around the inability to be honest. You can’t say, ‘This just bored the hell out of me.’ So instead you say, desperately, ‘I think you should show instead of tell.’ Where’d  that come from? I mean, tell that to Jane Austen!”

Comment from Jan:

Philip Hensher was right that a creative writing workshop “can be wonderful, with the right group, with a proper level of trust; or it can be atrociously unhelpful.” Journalist Cheryl Reed got little help from students’ comments she received while getting an MFA. “Most contributors offered terrible and conflicting advice,” she said on her blog. Reed added that although she received many favorable comments on her fiction, the workshop process on the whole wasn’t helpful: “It was mean and mean-spirited.”

I had to submit my work to peers in my undergraduate journalism classes and found the process neutral, neither helpful nor harmful. Perhaps the experience was benign because I had a gifted professor or because the rules for news-writing are clearer than for fiction: Your story has an inverted-pyramid structure or it doesn’t. I’ve also led workshops in college journalism classes I’ve taught, and they had more flexibility than those Prose describes: My students could respond to comments. But I’ve used workshops sparingly for reasons implicit in Reed’s remarks: They can amount to — if not in the blind leading the blind — the nearsighted leading the nearsighted. Some creative writing programs may require workshops partly because, in writing classes that last for several hours, they give everyone a break from the lecture format. For that reason alone, some students and professors welcome them.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter, where she often tweets about writing, by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

(c) 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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