Saturday, June 16, 2012

Go support AnimeJune and the cause of honesty ...

I'll have a longer post in here fairly soonish, but meanwhile I just wanted to point out that AnimeJune, in her "Gossamer Obsession" blog, has come in right on the money on the whole subject of what book blogging should be about.  (I dropped in a lengthy comment to spell out just how right I think she is; sensible folk, go do likewise).  The book industry's current troubles may have exacerbated it, but there has always been a spirit of delighted mediocrity abroad since at least the day the ALA started to talk with publishers, and the latest manifestation is that apparently many panels at BEA were overrun with "boost don't knock," "if you can't say anything nice ..."*  and other such positions.

The idea that all reading is good and that it's wonderful as long as it's a book makes sense for the people in the industry who would really rather be selling breakfast cereal anyway.  But for those of us who want the Commonwealth of Literature to be worth settling and living in, the idea of an eternal world where everyone only gushes about how they like things is more than a little Stepfordian.

The usual counterarguments are:

 "at least people are reading"(presumably when they subsist entirely on Cheetos and Hershey bars, at least they're eating; when they swim in the Monangahela, at least they're swimming; and when they have a favorite goat in the herd, whom they like to dress in fishnets and a corset, at least they're developing individual taste and forming an emotional attachment). 

"you can't change what people like" (Sure you can. I know tons of people who read much but not well when younger, but eventually came to realize, for example, that some of their favorite tropes were emotionally manipulative, and subsequently escaped from that particular author or genre into something they liked better that widened rather than narrowed their world.  If you never hear anyone diss C.S. Forester, you might miss seeing what's great in Joseph Conrad; to hear the great music of Farewell, My Lovely you have to let go of the pounding repetitive riffs in  I, The Jury.  All great real works eventually develop thousands of bogus shadows; the harsh light of negative criticism is what clears them away so you can find the real stuff.)

"we should all support each other in the reading community" (Are gangs of thugs snatching books out of your hands? Or anyone's?  Do you honestly share all your values with everyone in the bookstore -- Ann Coulter, Anne Rice, Anne Perry, Anne McCaffrey, Ann Landers, Anne Frank, and Anne Tyler?  -- and that doesn't even begin to cover the ones named Ann(e).  Is there a terrible danger that if people don't hear from other readers daily, they will take up bocce, television, or macrame instead, and never touch a book again?  Why are we circling the wagons when no one is attacking, supporting when no one is falling, and trying to create norms and boundaries in a mob of individuals bent on escaping?  Yes, I know that the various busybody agencies concerned with enforcing dumbed-down psychology onto hapless workers, students, and citizens are deeply suspicious of reading because they want it to be a vehicle for spreading their correct values and ensuring willing compliance, but people do it on their own and away from each other and you can't watch what they're doing, so it makes the sort of people who have MA's in Busybodyness* nervous.  But the correct answer to all such people, and their censors and promoters and boosters and program-scripters, is "Shut up, I'm reading.")

So I was glad to see a spirited defense of book blasting and general negativity.  As I noted in my comment, my experience is that books sell best when the positive 4s and 5s AND the harshly negative 1s outnumber the tepid 3s (and timid 2s, which always seem to me to be oxymoronic the way that the silly D grade is: "poor performance but acceptable.") Even the best "comfy books" can and do get blasted because some readers, looking to have their emotions yanked rough and raw or their pulse raced and thundered, find themselves reading page after page in which a kindly old guy named Gramps dispenses homely wisdom to his mischievous but goodhearted grandson and are outraged at the sheer cheat that this crap was packed into book covers when anyone with any sense knows that a good book should have serial killers, wholesale slaughtered orphanages, atom bombs, desperate races against time, or at least A COUPLE OF PIRATES! and, in my totally unsupported by data opinion, when a bland book sells well it is in part because it is aggressively, even offensively, bland. 

For one thing, anything with a solid story, well told, will go right up the nose of someone who was reading to get another story entirely; some readers will enjoy literary bait and switch but others willl never forgive it. One of my favorite 1's of all time was a guy where I checked back on his Amazon reviews and found he was a passionate reader of men's military fiction; he gave a 1 to Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls because he just could not see how it could possibly take so long to blow a damned bridge.

The book blogs are where real reading, and thus literature generally, are being kept alive, in what the academic critics I like best have often compared to a game.  Ideally the literary blogosphere should resemble something like Bill Cosby's Street Football, Mad's 43-Man Squamish, or that mother-banned game of my childhood, Tackle Capture the Flag.  It should definitely not resemble the PTA's bicycle safety rodeo, or the keep-no-score version of little-kid soccer. 


 *a phrase which should only be completed a la Dorothy Parker.

**often disguised with titles like as Human Relations, Student Services, Human Services, Human Resources, Community Relations, Community Services, Human Vegetation, and the Office of Moron Entitlement ...