About the C-word...and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's "The Thing Around Your Neck"
Yeah, that's right. I'm gonna say it. Right out loud. The C-word:
I was just having a moment here, appreciating the shift in sensibilities I see in the Houston Chronicle's book coverage. I was optimistic when I saw Maggie Galehouse had been anointed book editor earlier this year, and (while I wish, oh, how I wish there was more book coverage, and I wish, oh, wish there was a modicum of local and regional author love) sure enough, the Chron's book coverage is better than it has been in a long, long time for the simple reason that it features books people actually read. Books that are -- gasp! choke! cough! -- commercial. They sell. People buy and read them, and not just because they're forced to order it for the author's 400 level nonfiction course.
A lot of the content in the Chron's book coverage is imported now. Sad for reviewers making their way through grad school forty bucks at a time trashing the literary debuts of the unlucky innocent; good for reviewers who are working their way through life as actual journalists. This means the books getting covered are the big books, but that doesn't mean only books with big names -- it means books with (potentially) big audiences. Some reviewers are predisposed to hate books that a lot of people are going to love, because -- well, dang, if I love a book everybody else loves, then how do I cling to the belief that I'm way smarter than them?
Yesterday, Galehouse's own contribution to the book section was a clear, not gushy, informative review of a book I really love: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's beautiful short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck. I haven't read any of Adichie's other books, but a couple of the stories included in this collection were previously in The New Yorker, and they were lovely, so I was stunned when I saw the book dismissively panned by PW, who slammed the stories as "deflated" and "familiar." Whiffing the dusty frunge of snobbery, I wanted to support the author, so I bought the book on it's pub date and loved it. (Note to self: Post reader review on Amazon. Note to PW: Go screw yourself.)
The stories in The Thing Around Your Neck are beautifully written, the book is of excellent literary quality, and yes -- as God is my witness, Chimamanda will never go hungry again! -- it's commercial. A LOT of people are going to buy and love this book, and that in my humble opinion, is a good thing, even though it makes certain people predisposed to hate it.
What particularly killed me was how the author kind of skewers that predictable PW review in advance with the hilarious story "Jumping Monkey Hill" -- about an African writer's workshop taught by a pompous Englishman. This "old man in a summer hat" poo poos the work of the writers in attendance as "terribly passé" and not "reflective of Africa."
"I wasn't really attacking this man," Adichie said in an interview. "For me the story is about the larger question of who determines what an African story is. You have this workshop of African writers, it's completely organised by the British, then this person who has his own ideas ... imposes them on these young, very impressionable people. I remember feeling helpless. You're sitting there thinking, this is the result of 200 years of history: we can sit here and be told what our story is."
Now apply that dynamic to young American novelists, struggling to break through in this economy. When I see a debut novel trashed by some snuff-huffing academic, I'm not nearly as worried for the sales of the book as I am for the soul of the writer, who shouldn't have to be lectured by some Uncle Vanya about what her story ought to be.
Reviewers are an important part of the book business. It stands to reason that they would want the business to thrive, and that's not helped by a preponderance of negative, snarky smack-downs that often condemn a book simply because it's commercial, and the reviewer wants desperately to believe that he or she is not one of the herd.
Commercial isn't a dirty word, people. It's the objective: to have your work embraced by a wide audience. And that doesn't mean we, as an industry, should be pandering to Joe the Plumberians. It means we should support good literary work that will raise a wider readership to a more intelligent level, much like -- gasp! choke! cough! -- Oprah tried to do for years with her book club, despite the dismissive egging she took from the snotty literati.
Perhaps what it comes down to is respect for people in general and more specifically for readers. The difference between me and the cleverati is that I think PTO moms are smart. I think babes who read on the beach are going to do a spectacular job running the world someday. I believe that when an accessible, excellent book is placed in their hands, readers will read it.
I'm encouraged by what I see in the Chronicle these days, and I hope the crush on the newspaper biz will be a refiner's fire that creates a better book coverage across the country. And I would love to see books on a par with The Thing Around Your Neck become the standard for the craft of commercial fiction.