One-Minute Book Reviews

April 18, 2012

In Defense of the Pulitzer Board’s Decision to Give No 2012 Fiction Prize

Update, Thursday, 2:50 p.m.: I’ve learned since writing this post that when juror Michael Cunningham was an unknown, nominee Denis Johnson helped to launch his career by providing a blurb for his first novel, Golden States (Crown, 1984). Johnson helped Cunningham again more recently by allowing Cunningham to reprint his work in an anthology he edited, Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown (Crown, 2002). Juror Maureen Corrigan says in today’s Washington Post that the jurors “unanimously agreed” on the books they nominated for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. If she is right, Cunningham failed to recuse himself from the judging as would be required by many other awards, including the National Book Critics Circle awards. Cunningham’s conflict of interest in promoting the career of someone who promoted his work is all the more reason why the Pulitzer Prize Board acted correctly in rejecting Johnson. Jan Harayda 

The Pulitzer board angered people when it gave no fiction award Monday, but it made the right call

By Janice Harayda

My newspaper nominated me for a Pulitzer when I was the book critic for the Plain Dealer, and I didn’t win. Many of my colleagues who have done worthy work have failed to earn a medal. And Pulitzers have often gone to books that, as a critic, I saw as less deserving than those that went unrecognized.

So I know that the loss of a prize can hurt. And I know that the Pulitzer Prize Board, the ultimate arbiter of the awards, has at times appeared to wield its power with the neutrality of a Soviet-era figure-skating judge.

But the board made the right call when it said on Monday that for the first time in 35 years, it would give no fiction prize, a decision that caused an uproar in the publishing industry. Choosing a winner sounds straightforward: Every year a three-member Pulitzer jury selects three finalists for the award, and from among those nominations, the Pulitzer board picks a winner. Or it rejects all candidates and gives no prize. That’s what happened Monday when the board declined without explanation to give a medal to any of the jury’s choices: Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, all books by authors much-honored for their work.

The torrent of protests that followed gushed with the strongest force from publishers and others who would have profited from the sales bump the award provides. One of the more bizarre outbursts came from Ann Patchett, the novelist and Nashville bookseller. Patchett said in a New York Times op-ed piece that  she “can’t imagine” a year that had more “need” of a fiction Pulitzer even though none was given in 1941 when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Was the board’s decision so terrible? Consider the books nominated by the jury. Johnson’s Train Dreams is a long short story that appeared in the Paris Review, that had about 50 pages when reprinted in a PEN/O. Henry Prize anthology, and that its publisher repackaged to look like a novel by using a large font. Foster Wallace left The Pale King unfinished, and his editor, Michael Pietsch, completed it after his death. Russell’s Swamplandia!, the strongest candidate, is a B/B-minus novel substantially less deserving of an award than many previous winners.

Whatever their merits, these three books comprised a seriously flawed shortlist. Should the board have honored a single short story by Johnson, however good, when it gave the Pulitzer to an entire book full great ones in The Stories of John Cheever? Should it have rewarded Foster Wallace for a novel written partly by someone else? Should it have given a medal to Russell’s B/B-minus book instead of to the A/A+ work that a Pulitzer implies?

Choosing any of those books would have had drawbacks that outweighed benefits such as a sales boost for the winner. Rewarding unworthy books fosters cynicism among readers and devalues literary prizes. In this case, it would also have lent the imprimatur of the board to nominations that seemed almost willfully perverse, given that the list ignored a host of more deserving candidates, including Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision (a National Book Award finalist that won the National Book Critics Circle prize for fiction) and Pulitzer winner Steven Millhauser’s We Others (which won the Story Prize for short fiction).

Ann Patchett rightly notes that reading fiction matters because it allows us to imagine lives other than our own. But no evidence shows that the failure to award a Pulitzer will keep people from doing that. On the contrary, research has found that by adulthood, people generally have a habit of reading or they don’t. Those who have it won’t give it up because the Pulitzer board fails to pick a winner. They will instead get literary recommendations from friends, bookstores and libraries, reviews in print and online, and other sources. That process will lead some people to fiction they will enjoy more than the three books nominated by the Pulitzer jury. For that, we should be grateful.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor and critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button.

(c) 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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.” 

December 26, 2011

The Pros and Cons of Book Clubs – Quote of the Day / Francine Prose

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:02 pm
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“ … book clubs have had both a positive and negative effect. On the one hand, they do get people reading and talking about reading. But on the other hand, when you’re reading for a book club, the whole time you’re thinking, I have to have an opinion and I’m going to have to defend it to these people. The whole notion of being swept away by a book pretty much goes out the window.”

Francine Prose in an interview conducted by Jessica Murphy for The Atlantic online, July 18, 2006, reprinted in the “About the Book” section of the paperback edition of Prose’s Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (HarperPerennial, 2007).

August 31, 2011

More Publishing Buzzwords Decoded With Wit on Twitter

Filed under: Humor,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:09 am
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“Haunting.” “Powerful.” “Wake-up call.” Why do we keep seeing words like these recycled over and over in book reviews and on dust jackets? Whether it’s because book sections are shrinking or some writers don’t recognize a cliché, such overused terms often amount to spin or doubletalk.

Not long ago editor Marian Lizzi wrote that in publishing circles the phrase “labor of love” often means “the advance orders are disappointing.” Inspired by her comment, I asked industry veterans to decode other euphemisms and to attach the hashtag #pubcode on Twitter. I collected 40 of their answers, and others poured in afterward. And if many responses were tongue-in-cheek, they also pointed to a truth. Novelist Mat Johnson was right, for example, when he said that “nominated for the Pulitzer” means only that a publisher paid the $50 entry fee, though the prize sponsor discourages such uses of the word.

Here are more explanations of terms that editors, publishers and critics use when describing books.

“affecting” = “I felt something. Could’ve been the book. Could’ve been my lunch.” @jenniferweiner Jennifer Weiner, novelist (Then Came You) and television producer (State of Georgia)

“a book for the ages” = “no need to read it now” @MarkKohut Mark Kohut, writer and publisher of Redburn Press

“brilliant debut collection” = “yet another friggin’ MFA thesis” @ajsomerset A.J. Somerset, novelist (Combat Camera) and photographer

“dazzling” = “We hope you’ll find the prose so gorgeous that you won’t really notice that nothing happens” @autsentwit “Miss Bennet,” editor

“dedicated fan base” = “Mom and spouse” @mat_johnson Mat Johnson, novelist (Pym)

“endearing” = “heavy on the treacle” @lolacalifornia Edie Meidav, novelist (Lola, California)

“game-changer” = “the Betamax of print” @glossaria, librarian

“ground breaking romantic comedy” = “heroine hit by a car at the end. By a man.” @PhillipaAshley Phillipa Ashley, novelist (Wish You Were Here and Fever Cure)

“haunting” = “Sat unfinished on my nightstand for months while I read other stuff.” @saraeckel Sara Eckel, a freelance writer for the New York Times and other publications

“heartwarming” = “major character is a dog, an old guy, or both” @kathapollitt Katha Pollitt, poet and columnist for the Nation

“historical” novel = “American = dust, prairies & drab clothing; Italian = poison & plots; English = sex, beautiful clothes & beheadings.” @JVNLA Jennifer Weltz, literary agent at Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency .

“Hemingwayesque” = “Hemingwayesque = short sentences. Faulkneresque = long sentences. Fitzgeraldesque = regret, longing, rich people.” @arthurphillips Arthur Phillips, novelist (The Tragedy of Arthur)

“it grabs you by the throat and won’t let go” = “it’s gonna hurt” @hangingnoodles Jag Bhalla, author of I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears 

“national besteller” = “made list in Buffalo & Fresno. International bestseller = made list in Irkutsk” @BloomsburyPress Peter Ginna, publisher, Bloomsbury Press

“nominated for the Pulitzer” = “publisher paid $50 application fee.” @mat_johnson Mat Johnson, novelist (Pym)

“powerful” = “all plot, with attitude” @MarkKohut MarkKohut, writer and president of Redburn Press

“reminiscent of Ellison and Baldwin” = “black guy” @mat_johnson Mat Johnson, novelist, Pym

“quirky” = “about half the length you’d expect and/or no capital letters” @tamarapaulin Tamara Paulin, writer and former CBC Radio One co-host

“Shakespearean” = “everyone dies, uh, like HamletMark Kohut, writer and publisher of Redburn Press

“She divides her time between New York City and The Ozarks” = “She lives in Manhattan, submits fellowship apps from Arkansas.” @saraeckel Sara Eckel, a freelance writer for the New York Times and other publications. Also: “got the second home in the divorce” @janiceharayda Jan Harayda, novelist and editor of One-Minute Book Reviews

“a stirring commentary on the human condition” = “a book about feelings written by a man. @saraeckel Sara Eckel, a freelance writer for the New York Times and other publications

“sweeping family saga” = “your mother might like this” @MarkKohut Mark Kohut, writer and publisher of Redburn Press

“a wake-up call for America” = “a bad-tempered diatribe by a member of the previous administration” @garykrist Gary Krist, journalist and author of the forthcoming City of Scoundrels. Also: “a delusional rant by a conspiracy theorist” @DianeFarr Diane Farr, novelist (Fair Game and Duel of Hearts)

“uneven” = “feel free to skip and skim” @patebooks Nancy Pate, former book editor of the Orlando Sentinel and co-author of the Caroline Cousins mystery series patebooks.wordpress.com/.

Jan Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist. You can follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. One-Minute Book Reviews was named one of New Jersey’s best blogs in the April 2011 issue of New Jersey Monthly.


August 21, 2011

40 Publishing Buzzwords, Clichés and Euphemisms Decoded

Filed under: Humor,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:36 am
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Ever wonder what editors, publishers and critics mean when they describe books as “lyrical,” “provocative” or “ripped from the headlines”? Let industry veterans explain it to you. I asked experts on Twitter to decode common publishing terms and attach the hashtag #pubcode. Here are some of their answers:

“absorbing”: “makes a great coaster” @DonLinn Don Linn, publishing consultant

“accessible”: “not too many big words” @MarkKohut Mark Kohut, writer and consultant

“acclaimed”: “poorly selling” @BloomsburyPress Peter Ginna, publisher, Bloomsbury Press

breakout book”: “Hail Mary pass” @BookFlack Larry Hughes, associate director of publicity, the Free Press at Simon & Schuster

brilliantly defies categorization”: “even the author has no clue what he’s turned in” @james_meader James Meader, publicity director of Picador USA

“captures the times we live in”: “captures the times we were living in two years ago” @mathitak Mark Athitakis, critic

“classroom-friendly”: “kids won’t read it unless they have to” @LindaWonder, Linda White, book promoter at Wonder Communications

“continues in the proud tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien”: “this book has a dwarf in it” @jasonpinter Jason Pinter, author of the Zeke Bartholomew series for young readers

“definitive”: “could have used an editor” @kalenski, “Book Babe Extraordinaire”

“an eBook original”: “still no proofreading and bad formatting” @mikecane Mike Cane, writer and digital book advocate

“edgy”: “contains no adult voices of reason” @wmpreston William Preston, English teacher

“epic”: “very long” @sheilaoflanagan Sheila O’Flanagan, novelist (Stand by Me)

“erotic”: “porn” @BloomsburyPress Peter Ginna, publisher, Bloomsbury Press

“ethnic literature”: “stuff written by nonwhite people” @elprofe316 Rich Villar, executive director of Acentos

“frothy romp”: “funny book by lady” “Funny = funny book by a man” @jenniferweiner Jennifer Weiner, novelist (Then Came You) and television producer (State of Georgia)

“gripping”: “I turned the pages fast but didn’t read them” @sarahw Sarah Weinman, news editor of Publishers Marketplace

“gritty street tale”: “Black author from the hood. Run.” @DuchessCadbury, graduate student in literature

“I’ve been a fan of Author X for a long time”: “I slept with them regrettably, in MFA school.” @Weegee Kevin Smokler, vice-president of marketing for Byliner.

“lapidary prose”: “I did not know what half of these words meant” @jenniferweiner Jennifer Weiner, novelist (Then Came You) and television producer (State of Georgia)

“literary”: “plotless” @MarkKohut Mark Kohut, writer and consultant

“long-awaited”: “late” @janiceharayda Jan Harayda, novelist and editor of One-Minute Book Reviews

“luminous” or “lyrical”: “not much happens” @BloomsburyPress Peter Ginna, publisher, Bloomsbury Press

“magisterial”: “long” @BloomsburyPress Peter Ginna, publisher, Bloomsbury Press

“meticulously researched”: “overloaded with footnotes” @BookFlack Larry Hughes, associate director of publicity, the Free Press at Simon & Schuster

“memoir”: “nonfiction until proven otherwise” @BookFlack Larry Hughes, associate director of publicity, the Free Press at Simon & Schuster

“the next Elmore Leonard”: “This book has criminals or Detroit or maybe Florida in it” @bryonq Bryon Quertermous, fiction writer

novella”: “short story with large font” @BookFlack Larry Hughes, associate director of publicity, the Free Press at Simon & Schuster

“a real tear-jerker”: “writing so bad it makes you cry” @DrewSGoodman Drew Goodman, writer and social media analyst

“ripped from the headlines”: “no original plot line” @jdeval Jacqueline Deval, author (Publicize Your Book!) and book publicist

“rollicking”: “chaotic” @BloomsburyPress Peter Ginna, publisher, Bloomsbury Press

“sensual”: “soft porn” @BloomsburyPress Peter Ginna, publisher, Bloomsbury Press

“stunning”: “major character dies” @mathitak Mark Athitakis, critic

“provocative”: “about race/religion” @mathitak Mark Athitakis, critic

“promising debut”: “many flaws, but not unforgivably bad” @mathitak Mark Athitakis, critic

“unflinching”: “has a lot of bad words” @isabelkaplan Isabel Kaplan, novelist (Hancock Park)

“visionary”: “can’t be proved wrong yet” @IsabelAnders Isabel Anders, author (Blessings and Prayers for Married Couples)

voice of a generation”: “instantly dated” @MarkKohut Mark Kohut, writer and consultant

“weighty”: “I had to lug this dense historical monster all over town and I still can’t bring myself to finish it” @emilynussbaum Emily Nussbaum, writer for New York magazine and other publicatons

“wildly imaginative”: “wrote book high on mescaline” @simonm223 Simon McNeil, novelist

“a writer to watch”: “as opposed to one you are actually going to want to read” @janiceharayda Jan Harayda, novelist and editor of One-Minute Book Reviews

You’ll find more publishing buzzwords decoded in the sequel to this post at http://bit.ly/pubcode2.

You can follow Jan on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

June 28, 2011

Does Reading to Your Child Every Day Lead to Success in School? Quote of the Day / ‘Freakonomics’

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:42 pm
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Parents tend to take it on faith that reading to children every day has benefits. Why shouldn’t they? The “Read to your child every day” mantra has advocates that include the American Library Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other professional organizations.

But such authorities may have oversold the benefits of sitting down with a preschooler and a copy of Where the Wild Things Are, especially if parents hope that the habit will lead to success in school. Some of the evidence appears in Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s bestselling Freakonomics, an exploration of many assumptions that Americans take for granted.

Levitt and Dubner note that in the late 1990s, the U.S. Department of Education launched the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which aimed to measure the academic progress of 20,000 American children from kindergarten through fifth grade. That project found that, at least insofar as test scores are concerned, reading to your child every day has no benefit. Children with many books in their home do perform well on school tests, the survey found. “But,” the authors write, “regularly reading to a child doesn’t affect test scores.”

February 24, 2010

Finalists for the Delete Key Awards for Bad Writing in Books — Tomorrow Starting at 10 a.m. ET

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:35 pm
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How badly can you write and still get a book published in America? Find out tomorrow when the shortlist for the Fourth Annual Delete Key Awards for bad writing in books is announced on One-Minute Book Reviews starting at 10 a.m. Eastern Time. These literary booby prizes do not honor the year’s worst books but badly written sentences, paragraphs or passages, which will be posted with the shortlist. The awards recognize defects such as clichés, bad grammar, psychobabble, redundancy, pomposity, dumbing-down or overall inanity.

The Delete Key Awards grand-prize winner and runners up will be announced on March 15, and until then, you may vote for or against candidates leaving comments on their nomination on this site. You can also read about the awards at @janiceharayda on Twitter.

December 4, 2009

The Most Unpromising First Sentence of a 2009 Book — Quote of the Day / Sophie Kinsella

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:33 am
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The most unpromising first sentence of a book I’ve read this year …
“Of all the crap, crap, crappy nights I’ve ever had in the whole of my crap life.”
— The first sentence of Sophie Kinsella’s novel Remember Me? (Dell, 2009)

November 30, 2009

Jonathan Littell Wins 2009 Bad Sex in Fiction Award — Read All the Shortlisted Passages Here

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:17 pm
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Is it a coincidence that the winner of annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award is typically named in England at about the time Americans are thinking of turkeys? If so, the judges aren’t saying, but the Literary Review in the U.K. announced today that Jonathan Littell has taken top honors this year for a passage from The Kindly Ones, which defeated work by Philip Roth, Paul Theroux, Amos Oz and others. You can read Littell’s winner and all the shortlisted passages here.

Great Books About Scotland — A St. Andrew’s Day Celebration

Filed under: Biography,Fiction,Memoirs,News,Nonfiction,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:03 am
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The Scots — who gave us classics that range from Treasure Island to James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson — celebrate their heritage on St. Andrew’s Day, Nov. 30, the feast day of the patron saint of Scotland. Here, in its honor, are some of my favorite books about the land of my maternal ancestors:

The Crofter and the Laird (FSG, 1992), by John McPhee. More than three decades ago, McPhee moved with his wife and four young daughters to a small island in the inner Hebrides, just off the Scottish mainland, which had fewer than 200 residents. He tells the story of that visit to the land of his ancestors in The Crofter and the Laird, a fascinating of study of a place that refracts the history of Colonsay through his family’s experiences. The book is especially noteworthy for its portrait of changing relations between crofters or tenant farmers and their English laird (then, a glorified landlord who owned the island) long before the establishment of a Scottish Parliament. McPhee won a Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World. First published in 1969.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (HarperPerennial, 2009), by Muriel Spark. This great novella is a brilliant psychological study of female power as deployed by a teacher at an Edinburgh girls’ school in the early 1930s. The 1969 movie version had a memorable star turn by Maggie Smith but didn’t capture the most remarkable aspect of the book: It is a masterpiece of tone. Spark neither sentimentalizes nor demonizes her heroine, but describes her with the kind of cool detachment rarely found in novels about the sexually overheated world of girls’ and boys’ schools.  First published in 1961.

The Thirty-Nine Steps (Oxford University Press, 2009),by John Buchan. This slender, classic spy thriller is the first of Buchan’s five novels about Richard Hannay, a 37-year-old Scottish-born engineer who became a prototype for generations of adventurous patriots. In The Thirty-Nine Steps Hannary shelters a spy who has learned of a secret German plan to invade England. When the man is murdered, Hannay flees to the Scotland, where he hopes to lie low amid remote glens and moors. He soon finds himself hunted both by the British police who consider him a suspect and by the Germans who have killed the spy. After being spotted from an airplane, Hannay tries to elude his pursuers by adopting disguises and traveling by foot, bicycle and train through Scotland. This story is better known today for its movie version by Alfred Hitchcock. But Hitchcock changed so much of the plot that no matter often you’ve seen the film, you can enjoy the book. First published in 1915.

Other good books about Scotland include Israel Shenker’s In the Footsteps of Johnson and Boswell : A Modern Day Journey through Scotland, a re-tracing of one of the most famous literary excursions in history, and the two books that inspired it: Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and James Boswell’s A Tour to the Hebrides. You can find them together in one edition.

A fine golf book for serious readers (as opposed to serious picture-gazers) is A Season in Dornoch: Golf and Life in the Scottish Highlands, the journalist Lorne Rubenstein’s account of a summer of playing on the Royal Dornoch Golf Course. And Liza Campbell writes of her life as the daughter of a Thane of Cawdor in A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle, a memoir that offers a stars-without-makeup view of 20th-century Scottish aristocrats. Campbell’s book isn’t perfect, but the British class system is dissolving fast enough that her story may be one of the last of its kind.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter (@janiceharayda) www.Twitter.com/janiceharayda, where you’ll find others’ favorite books on Scotland by reading her home page or searching Twitter for the hashtag #scots.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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