Monday, November 09, 2009

The End of Civilization in the Penny Press?

By now I'm sure you've all seen the New York Times Book Review from Sunday, and I swear by Crom and Mitra, I originally intended simply to ignore it here at Stevereads. But you know what? The more of these little things we ignore, the more we give these little things not only power but legitimacy, and then forty years from now we look around at a world both mad and stupid and dare to ask "How on Earth did this happen?"

For those of you who perhaps don't take in the Book Review, a quick recap: James Parker (a Boston resident! How mortifying!) turned in a 1500-word review of the new Stephen King doorstop, Under the Dome, and the Book Review editors decided to run the thing on the cover. The New York Times Book Review is the single most influential yardstick and tastemaker in the book-selling world, of course; not only does 'New York Times bestseller' do wonders for the sale of any book from here to Lahore, but the Book Review actually determines the buying habits of countless thousands of over-moneyed middle-aged people all across the country, people who'll hand over their credit cards for anything between hard covers as long as it carries the Times seal of approval. Authors are paid bonuses entirely dependent on whether or not - and for how long - their book shows up on the Times list, because publishers know there's no advertising like it anywhere on the planet.

And as a great philosopher once said, with great power comes great responsibility.

James Parker confesses to be a lifelong fan of King's work, and that's fine. And millions of people read King's books, which is also fine (some reading being better than none at all). But Parker's piece isn't a book review - it's a barely-coherent fan letter, and it's the lead-off piece in the New York Times Book Review. Genuine, serious authors have new books out, and yet some Times editor decided the most coveted spot in book-press should go to an 1,100-page pulp novel Stephen King wrote in 480 days - and the book is given no legitimate criticism in that lead-off piece. And all of that is really, really bad.

King's novel is as tedious as a reformed drunk. An impenetrable dome suddenly appears over a small town in (yawn) Maine, and suddenly the local bullies are taking over, the local nutjobs are getting nuttier, and King has about a dozen dystopian tropes he can swat around for however the hell long he feels like it. There is nothing whatsoever noteworthy in this enormous book (the author so arrogantly flaunting how little time it took him to produce it looks downright dimwitted when set against the backdrop of how aggressively ordinary a book it is) - all the characters are stock characters, all the subplot outcomes can be predicted on page 2, all the dumb plot-contrivances are simply presented to the reader, linearly and in a sleepwalker's monotone.

And if Parker wants to like this crap, that's fine by me. But he does more than that - it's not that he praises it, it's that he writes his piece under the assumption that its worth as a book is immaterial, as if the mere fact that it was written by Stephen King not only warrants it our attention but exempts it from scrutiny. Parker was somehow allowed to write dark, malevolent nonsense like this:

As for the prose, it's not all smooth sailing. Given King's extraordinary career-long dominance, we might expect him at this point to be stylistically complete, turning perfect sentences, as breezily at home in his idiom as P. G. Wodehouse. But he isn't, quite. "Then it came down on her again, like unpleasant presents raining from a poison pinata: the realization that Howie was dead." (it's the accidental rhyme of "unpleasant" and "presents" that makes that one such a stinker.)

Where to start with this garbage? First, I guarantee Parker that rhyme wasn't accidental - I guarantee King intended it and sat back from 'unpleasant,' 'presents,' 'poison,' and 'pinata' with a proud little smile on his face. He's that far away from having any idea what good writing looks like. He isn't quite Wodehouse? Outhouse is more like it, and it's always been that way - the moronic shift Parker makes here from 'dominance' (which is a question of sales) to 'stylistically complete' (which isn't) is done with a fluidity only given to somebody who hasn't done fifteen minutes of genuine thinking about what he's typing - it's a sure sign that Parker couldn't have disliked this book, regardless of its contents. In fact, its contents get a complete pass:

We shouldn't be too squeamish about the odd half-baked simile or lapse into B-movie dialogue, is my point. Writing flat-out keeps him close to his story, close to his source.

I was going to ignore this whole thing, I swear. But when the front-page essay of the New York Times Book Review slavishly praises Stephen King and mocks with words like "squeamish" those of us who dislike bad, lazy, cliched writing, something serious is going on - something perhaps worthy of comment, and something surely that should shame the Times. The Book Review has praised unworthy authors in the past, Gawd knows - but this is the first time they've allowed a reviewer to admit an author is unworthy and then praise him anyway, working on the assumption that all this hoity-toity palaver about bad writing is just so much squeamishness. It's quite literally the worst precedent any review journal could possibly set. Regardless of how many books Stephen King sells, his first drafts (what you get when you write 'flat-out' and then don't revise) are no more worth reading than anybody else's. James Parker is perfectly free to disagree - but he doesn't disagree. He admits the book is rushed and shoddy, then he tells us those things don't really matter.

That kind of sophomoric idiocy walks a quick path to intellectual irrelevance, and the fact that the Times either doesn't know that or knows it and is willing to risk it in order to win a few populist votes of sympathy ... well, that's the real horror story here.


briankirker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
briankirker said...
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brian said...

Maybe Stephen King should have reviewed it for Entertainment Weekly?

I'll never read this, but I can't wait for the movie!

Kevin said...

Classic Stevereading - the slap-worthy are suitably slapped.

*sits back with a proud little smile on his face, admiring his own alliteration*

steve said...

Hey! that's so good it's almost motto-worthy! "the slap-worthy are suitably slapped"! I like it!

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