The Problem With Reviewing “Holy Crap” Books

by evanmcmurry

Christopher Beha has a lengthy, well thought out post up on Jennifer Weiner’s monomaniacal quest to get the Times Book Review to cover more commercial fiction. Quickly: he agrees with her that the TBR publishes too many uninteresting reviews of pedestrian literary fiction, but disagrees that this space should be given over to commercial fiction in the interest of genre parity. Instead, Beha says, the TBR should devote itself to reviewing “Holy crap” fiction: works of any genre that confound genre or reader expectations, even if they fail as novels in doing so.

There’s an obvious problem with this, one Beha gestures at but never explicitly addresses: to review “holy crap” fiction presupposes one knows which books are holy crap fiction, which defeats the point of reviewing them. We read reviews to find out about a book and how (or whether) it works. “Mediocre” literary fiction isn’t mediocre until at least one person decides so, and neither is holy crap fiction truly holy crap until somebody—or, more helpfully, a consensus of somebodies—reads the book and goes, “holy crap.” And, of course, thinking minds may disagree on these judgments.

To ask that books be reviewed based on distinctions that are made in part by reviews is to put the cart before the horse. Beha gets at this problem on a practical level, imagining that an assigning reviewer would have to rely on blurbs and press releases to gauge the holycraptality of each new release. He sounds appropriately unsatisfied with this arrangement.

But this strikes me as a mere categorical mistake. What Beha seems to want is a publication less dedicated to reviewing books than one that gathers exceptional novels (exceptional in the literal sense) and explores their exceptionality. Those exist: they’re called reviews of books, not book reviews, an admittedly ridiculous wrinkle of nomenclature. The old guard is the New York Review of Books and London Review of Books, where novels are merely hooks on which expansive, exploratory essays are hung.

The new guy is the Los Angeles Review of Books, a publication that meets, if not exceeds, every one of Beha’s criteria, especially in the attention it pays to works that bend, blur, or elide genre barriers. In fact, were you to have shown me Beha’s conception of an ideal publication out of the context of his post, I would have assumed it was from an article describing the LARB.

I like LARB, but I certainly don’t go there for book reviews; I go there for fascinating articles on fascinating corners of contemporary literature. LARB isn’t in the business of providing any survey of new releases, and has no expectations of  timeliness. It has the luxury of allowing a book to breathe like an opened bottle of wine, giving it the ability to spot a novel that might have seemed unremarkable upon release but is now wiggling out from its surrounding culture or literary precedents. It also gets to skip milquetoast literary fiction because it can allow milquetoast works to reveal themselves as such. LARB is, more than any other publication out there, a site devoted to “holy crap” fiction. Given this, do we really want the Times Book Review to become it?

ADDENDUM: There’s been oddly little discussion in this debate of Stephen King, the last person to wage such a holy war against the TBR. He eventually won, but only by changing his writing significantly to more closely match the type of literary fiction the TBR respects. It would be interesting to read an article by someone more familiar with both King and Weiner to weigh in on any context one might provide the other.

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