This weekend, The NY Times Book Review reviewed a first book by a new literary fiction author named Molly Ringwald. In it, the reviewer Dan Kois spends a significant amount of time talking about Ringwald’s career as an actor and how, at an early age, she took risks to prove herself a serious actress. He notes that while some of those efforts, most especially the movie “Fresh Horses,” demonstrated her pluck and ambition, they were not in any way successful. So too does it appear to be with Ringwald’s novel in stories, “When It Happens to You,” which Kois says would have been criticized in the first week of an MFA program for its amateur mistakes and “is sort of bad. But! It’s not so bad that you don’t think she might get there someday.”
Kois is obviously a fan of the person if not the author, though he clearly wants to be a fan of both. He wants Ringwald to succeed in this newly tested terrain she’s entered. That’s sweet, but it’s also grossly misguided and is the fundamental reason why this review enraged me as much as it did.
Granted, it’s not the only reason for my rage. The most obvious, of course, is that the Times has taken up page space on a book that probably wouldn’t have been published had it not been written by a celebrity. That’s the petty, struggling writer in me, the one who is not only frustrated by her own challenges at getting her first book published, but also by the knowledge that there are literally hundreds and well likely thousands of more deserving writers, writers who could be judged on the artistic merit of their work alone, whose books will never be reviewed in the Times because those authors don’t have the connections or the persona to get themselves there.
Fine. I get it. It’s the way the world works.
But what troubles me more is this: sometimes, when I open up the Times Book Review, there’s not a single review of fiction in it. This past weekend, the same weekend that Ringwald’s book was reviewed, there was one other book included in the fiction category. In general, there are even fewer reviews of short story collections there and when there are these are in more often in the new hybrid form of “a novel in stories” (which oftentimes is just a euphemism for “short story collection”). This is not just true for the Times, but it’s true everywhere. Several years back, The Atlantic Monthly ceased including short fiction in its monthly editions; now it is relegated to a single, special issue. There are fewer reviews of fiction than ever, even fewer for short fiction. And while we in the writing world may delude ourselves into thinking there are opportunities for us in the independent small press publishing world the delusion can’t go on forever, not only because books just aren’t getting reviewed as much there, but also because many of these presses won’t exist in five years. The ones that will exist, may only publish one or two works of fiction a year on their generally in-the-red budgets, and those will likely be novels.
Ultimately, do I believe that literary fiction will survive? Well, yeah, sure. But maybe not in mainstream culture and maybe not even anywhere where people may read it. It might just exist people’s basements where they secretly write it for hours. Who knows? But when the few remaining sources of influence choose to spend their valuable page space on a book by an actress that isn’t even (according to the reviewer) good, where does that leave us? It seems to me that it’s the imperative that places like the New York Times Book Review take time on books of present and potentially future value, books based on artistic merit, books they like. This last statement’s controversial, I know; a lot of people will disagree with me. But what’s the point of a book review anyway, if not ultimately to persuade others to read something you loved, even more so than to avoid something you didn’t? More than ever, readers need to hear about books worth loving–passionately, deeply, and for the long haul.