Last month’s column on the state of traditional book reviews and on “outsider” and self-published books drew some great reactions, a couple we thought we’d share.
Your October 17 column on the diminishing world of reviewing is right on target with the dilemma faced by librarians: credible reviews. Contrary to the thinking of nonlibrarians, we don’t sit around reading all day, but instead trust a variety of sources to choose materials. Social media is wonderful for marketing, but there is a quality control filter I still seek.
As a librarian with a healthy collection budget, I especially need credible sources for purchasing nonmainstream books. So my library has been supporting writers who are moving into self-publishing. One of the things I’ve done is establish a panel of experienced reviewers to read self-published books and write short reviews, which we post on our Web site. I’ve also partnered with two local independent booksellers to consider these authors’ work for consignment selling in their stores (which I found through PW articles earlier this year—Books, Inc., and Green Apple).
—Sharon Miller, Director, Mechanics’ Institute Library, San Francisco
Nancy, I think the world of you, but I don’t think it was correct or helpful to knock publishers for “commercial” books in your October 17 column. People have always bought and read “commercial” books. Look at the PW book of a hundred years of bestsellers—you’ll howl at some of the bestsellers from the ’30s, ’50s and ’70s! Like you, I love Unbridled and Melville House and presses of all sizes, but I also know that editors at the big houses are always championing books of high quality and merit. Pick the term: underdog, sleeper, gem—every house continues to strive to find and publish and promote them. The latest sensation: Murakami—a modest printing years back, Murakami was nurtured by booksellers and librarians. Every day, a new Murakami, Kerouac or Kingsolver is finding their way. And, likewise, thank goodness, more Dan Browns. Reading is reading.
—Carl Lennertz, executive director, World Book Night, U.S.
And the Winner Is?
Q: Recently, a group of agents and publishers announced they were starting their own book award, taking a not-so subtle shot at the Man Booker Prize’s selection criteria. This kicked off a discussion of what book awards are meant to do. Sell books? Expose great writing? Reflect common tastes? What do you think—do awards help you, as a librarian or as a reader?
A: Full disclosure: I was a Pulitzer fiction judge in 2009 (Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge won), and I enjoyed that experience immensely. I also served on RUSA/ALA’s Notable Books Council for a number of years. I like book awards. I pay attention to longlists, shortlists, and the winners not only of the U.S.’s “big three” awards, but also Canada’s Governor-General Awards, the Giller Prizes, the Orange Prize, the Costa Book Awards, the Betty Trask Award, the Whitbread Book Awards, among others. These books make up my to-read list. With their great writing and three-dimensional characters, these are the sort of books I enjoy, books that force you to slow down and appreciate the author’s ability to put words together in unexpected, intriguing ways.
But I remember doing a library staff development workshop in which we listed the sort of novels written by authors that win these awards—Peter Matthiessen, Marilynne Robinson, Annie Dillard, T.C. Boyle. “What,” I asked the group, “do these authors have in common?” A heartfelt reply came from a young librarian in the back row. “I’ll never read their novels,” she said. “They’re too slow and boring.” Now, telling this librarian that these authors are frequent contenders for major book awards wasn’t going change her mind. Their books are nothing like what she enjoys reading.
To me, comparing books is like comparing different kinds of apples. Personally, I love Northern Spies and Granny Smiths. Their crispness and tartness appeal to my sense of taste. I wouldn’t eat a Red Delicious if you paid me. You, however, may not agree. The same applies to books. Perhaps the winner of the Miles Franklin Award will sell more copies to Australia’s readers than if it hadn’t won, but that’s about it. Book awards serve a purpose, but they reflect the particular taste of whoever the judges happen to be that year. Does winning an award make a book objectively better than any other? I don’t think so.
Books to Read Before You Die:All in the Family
Reading novels about sibling relationships can be reassuring, cathartic, and sometimes troubling, often all at the same time. This month I share some of my favorite family-dynamics novels.
The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown
The Brothers K by David James Duncan
The Funnies by J. Robert Lennon
Ancestral Truths by Sara Maitland
No Ordinary Matter by Jenny McPhee
Living to Tell by Antonya Nelson
Nine Months in the Life of an Old Maid by Judith Rossner
Plum & Jaggers by Susan Richards Shreve
Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta
Glimmer by Annie Waters
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
Nancy Pearl, a veteran Seattle librarian, is a regular commentator about books on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.