Sunday, February 06, 2011

Bibliobits: Michael Dirda, Bad PR, and Susan Hill

Michael Dirda.  Inspired by Susan Hill's Howards End Is on the Landing, I'm reading other books about books.  Michael Dirda, a Washington Post book critic, has a gift for extolling books--poetry, literature, science fiction, reference books, translations--that might not otherwise get reviewed.  Reviewers often desperately over-puff books, and I think this is because book sections have been cut so severely that space is no longer wasted on the bad. As a Pulitzer-winning columnist and editor for the Washington Post Book World, Dirda can do what he wants and often revisits classics.  I reread Oblomov a few years ago because he praised a new translation.  

I have begun Dirda's Bound to Please:  An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education, a collection of "20 percent of the reviews and essays" he's written for the Washington Post Book World.  These columns emphasize lesser-known writers like Fernando Pessoa, Raymond Quenoa,and Flann O'Brien, but he also includes famous writers like Herodotus and Thomas Pynchon.  

He admits he doesn't have a lot of time to write:  he is a literary journalist.  He reads slowly, researches in libraries, often adds a personal slant to his column, and has two days away from his editorial duties to write his weekly essay. 

In the essay "Reading Beyond the Best-Seller List:  A Polemic and a Plea," he muses about the 2005 National Endowment for the Arts report on "readers at risk."  Only one in six Americans reads 12 or more books in a year.  

Dirda thinks this is appalling, and that junk accounts for many of those books. He thinks quality has gone down.   He writes:  
"More and more, we have been straitjacketed and brainwashed by the books of the moment, the passing moment.  Publishers know that they can promote almost any title to best-sellerdom.  Glittery names and hot topics guarantee big sales..."
This is too often true.  Dirda believes The Da Vinci Code accounted for many of the 12 or more books read by one in six Americans in 2005.  

Best-sellers actually discourage me, though.  I didn't read Franzen's Freedom, ignored Keith Richards' memoir, and only recently picked up Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, a science fiction/speculative fiction/satire.

I was put off by the publicity.  That didn't hurt sales.

Dirda can help us sort out the good from the bad.

Bad PR. Many bloggers declare they write only about books they enjoy. The bad books ooze and trickle through their hands like melting bubble gum on a hot day. Sometimes things get a little PRish online.  Am I a PR firm?  No, I am otherwise employed.  We are not very ladylike here, and ponder the bad with the good, and hope to do it fairly enough that you can figure out which books you'll enjoy, whether I laud or deplore them.

Susan Hill.  Sorry, I can't read Susan Hill. Honestly, I've heard so much good about her that I feel guilty about casting off her books.  I very much enjoyed Howards End Is on the Landing, but have put aside two of her novels, The Man in the Picture: A Ghost Story and The Shadows in the Street:  A Simon Serrailer Mystery. These are not my kind of books.

Bloggers push her atmospheric ghost stories, but often add to adulatory reviews that they are predictable. 

Are her earlier books better?  The Woman in Black is commercially successful.  Made into a TV movie.   But her spare style in two recent books (2005 and 2010) is dull and cliche-driven.

Quote from The Man in the Picture (p. 66):

"There was a brief instant when what I saw made me experience a wave of shock so tremendous that I felt rising nausea and the room seemed to lurch crazily from side to side.  What had been at the back of my mind came to the very front of it and clicked into place.  Yet how could I believe what I was seeing?  How could this be?"

Reminds me a little of Emma Tennant, another award-winning writer I can't read. On the basis of Adele:  Jane Eyre's Hidden Story, the story of Jane Eyre's pupil, Adele, at Thornfield Hall, I dismissed Tennant as a writer of sequels to women's books. But apparently she also has written post-modern novels.

Hill is a Booker judge this year.  Let's hope she picks a good book. 

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