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It’s abstractly depressing when you hear the statistics of independent bookstores closing in droves; it’s concretely depressing to see favorite bookstores in your town get the axe. First Dutton’s of Beverly Hills was forced to shut down; now the news is that the original Dutton’s will be remodeled out of existence. The LA Times reports that the landlord, Charles T. Munger, wants to build luxury condos. Apparently, Munger’s $1.7 billion net worth isn’t enough – he also needs some extra pocket change from rent. The claim is that the condos will be built atop a sleek, modern bookstore, but I have my doubts. One, that a sleek modern bookstore can ever replace the idiosyncratic layout of Dutton’s, and two, that once Munger starts remodeling, the plans will change to either eliminate Duttons completely or give it only a token space.
I did not appreciate William T. Vollmann’s review of Anthony Swofford’s Exit A in the New York Times Book Review yesterday. It’s not that I believe he was wrong about the strengths of Swofford’s first book, Jarhead, or even that he was wrong about the weaknesses of Swofford’s first novel Exit A. It’s because I found the tone of the review to be excessively harsh for a first novel. In my Manual of Book Reviewing Principles (yes, I just made that up), I think it’s necessary to reserve different level of harshness for authors in various stages of their careers. For a literary great, if a no-holds-barred takedown is necessary, then so be it. The same goes for a mid-career author, perhaps with employing a pinch more carefulness. But a first time novelist (Jarhead was nonfiction) should be handled with kid gloves. Of course there are flaws in the novel, and Vollmann does the reader a service by pointing out how serious they are, but few first novelists come out of the gate at a sprint (If they do, they are often feted for it). More often, it does take a few novels, as Vollmann points out at the end of the article, to achieve a measure of literary competence, much less greatness.
Now I don’t mean that a review of Swofford should be saccharine or cloyingly nice or even avoid saying harsh things. I appreciate a bad review because it tells me not to buy the book (as well as performing the pedagogical task of judging and analyzing types of literary flaws). And since Vollmann obviously didn’t like Exit A, I don’t mean that he should write empty praises. But his review, through and through, is ruthlessly demeaning (other than the compliments he pays to Jarhead). It’s a scarring, eviscerating, decapitation. I think there is some way to express a strong dislike for a novel without a employing such a harsh tone. Ultimately, it’s not the content of his complaints that bothers me as much as the dismissive tone in which it is conveyed.
I do appreciate the match-up: Well-established author reviewing beginning author. What I appreciate less is the obverse: beginning author reviewing established author. But both of these unequal match-ups can have their flaws. For the beginning author who is reviewing an established author, the danger is that the beginner critiques the wrong things, misses the point. For the well-established author reviewing the beginning author, the danger is that the review comes from such a high place (with a retrousse nose) that the review feels dismissive.
Vollmann says he "hate[s] to write reviews like this." I believe him. I believe that he was compelled by the poor execution of the prose and the flat characters to deliver a verdict that characterizes the novel as poor quality. But the way and extent to which he did it made first time novelists everywhere cringe over their computers.
Most literary journals say they’re going to get back to you within 4 months. Some give themselves a little bigger of a window – 4 to 6 months, they say, with that six looming pretty ominously (half a year! What?) Now I know that literary journals are understaffed, underpaid, and near drowning in beige manila envelopes, and on the whole, in a platonic ideal sense, I pay them a great deal of respect. They are holding up the small people, the beginners, the short story world, and that deserves our admiration. Some of the journals, though, do far better in responding promptly than others. For instance, what prompted this post was receiving a rejection slip from Zoetrope – the journal started by Francis Ford Coppola – a high level journal, well respected. I received it yesterday, January 9th. Only trouble is, I sent the short story to them January 5th. That’s right, 2006. So they’re coming in with a reply at just a couple days over a year. I had emailed them twice during the year, both times at which they told me my story had been logged into the system on March 3rd (two months just to get logged in?) and that the editors were experiencing a backlog. A backlog might be the right term for an eight-month delay. When you take over a year to reply, that’s more like an impasse.
You would expect a journal like Zoetrope – one so exquisitely funded, I mean – to be more prompt. Or if they weren’t being prompt, to hire more editors. But what I’ve been observing is that size, reputation, and financial backing have nothing to do with expediency in the journal world. I’ll have a tiny journal like Apple Valley Review reject my short shorts in less than a week, while a heavy hitter like Columbia Journal still hasn’t responded to a story I mailed out in January 2006 (and neither have they responded to email queries, and my last short story I sent them took a year and a half to receive a reply). On the other hand, Glimmer Train is practically a model for speed. Zyzzyva is another one that has been prompt, and as a plus, Howard Junker’s rejection slip is the nicest I’ve ever read. Kenyon Review and One-Story have both been pretty quick. I’ve had multiple relative die while waiting to hear back from The Chattahoochee Review (and still have an outstanding story. . .) and Notre Dame Review clocked in at a snail pace of 8 months and 9 months for two separate submissions.
I am aware of all the variables that are at play (and that’s why I’m not writing about any journals that I’ve only sent to once). There’s the time of year, there is the quality of my submission (which may take longer if they are considering it), and there is the staffing snafus that leave a journal shorthanded. But the length of time to receive a reply makes barring simultaneous submissions quite a joke, and ultimately, anything over eight months makes me extremely reluctant to send any more submissions.
Labels: Literary Journals
I’m back from my Belizean honeymoon all fired up for 2007. Whoopee! That’s what scuba diving in the carribean and cave tubing will do for you. Now I promised a report on the reading going on down there in Central America, and I always make good on my promises, so here: I reread Richard Ford’s Rock Springs (Great short stories set in Montana) started John Banville’s The Sea, and got most of the way through Mrs. BookFox’s selection, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. On that last title, I can’t remember a time when a non-fiction book threatened my lifestyle so much. I can’t eat now. In every little morsel I see Corn: corn starch, corn syrup, and chemicals-I-can’t-pronounce-made-from-corn. And even with my organic food, I think (derisively) “this is only commercial organic.” Although I couldn’t imagine a better book to inform you of all the ways your food is killing you, I can’t help but feel sorry for anyone who reads it, simply because they’re in for a whole helping of lifestyle-change. And if I thought Mrs. BookFox was picky about restaurants before . . .
One of my readers asked me to report on how the bookstores were down in Belize, so I will. I didn’t see any. The only collections of books I found were ones at Hostels and Internet Cafe’s and Travel Agents, available on a book-swap basis, and these collections consisted of a heaping mess of irksome pop trash with the occasional tolerable title. Luckily for me, I happened upon quite a good book – a nice hardback of Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, not only a relatively new title but one that won the 2006 Man Booker prize. I pilfered a loose copy of some James Patterson paperback in my hotel room and traded it for the Desai copy – now that’s a great trade.