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Saturday, October 31, 2009

They Just Can't Get No Respect

I love the New York Times Book Review; it and the Sunday puzzle are my favorite parts of the NYT, and I impatiently wait every Saturday morning for the newspaper to hit the curb so I can go fetch it in my pajamas and settle in to reading it when I am not refereeing toy disputes between the Beadboys. The Book Review, however, is rather notorious for ignoring genre fiction. So this week I took note of the essay on the last page, Picking a Genre -- a mildly amusing look at different genres. And even here, certain genres get short shrift. For example, romance is in the illustration, but not discussed. Science fiction and fantasy are not mentioned at all, unless you count the blurb on "fabulism" or magic realism. And so continues a longstanding tradition of ignoring genre.

Remember when the Book Review announced Dave Itzkoff would be doing a regular column (Across the Universe) on science fiction? I nearly cheered out loud, but apparently the NYT's definition of "regular" differs from mine -- according to the NYT archives, he has written a grand total of 14 reviews and articles on science fiction (depending on how you classify certain novels), and none in the last year. They dropped the "Across the Universe bit back in 2006. A perfect illustration of the Book Review's disdain for genre fiction, and rather foolish given the growing popularity (and mainstreaming) of science fiction.

The Book Review does review mysteries (called "crime", I guess for the same reasons some publishers try to gussy up scifi/fantasy by calling it "speculative fiction"), but the books reviewed are overwhelmingly of a type. Because God knows it's not worth reading if it doesn't have a brooding, lonely recovering alcoholic with health issues, a tortured past, a dead lover, a dismal apartment, and too much familiarity with the seedy underbelly of the city. That's it for genre fiction, however; scifi is barely touched and I think the editors think the civilization would collapse if they reviewed a romance. Reportedly, an editor once said, in explanation, "Well, we have to draw the line somewhere." Why? What does that mean? Isn't the point of the Book Review to highlight both "important" books and good books, books the readers of the NYT would be interested in? Are they aware of the diversity of taste in the city? Are they actually arguing that it is impossible to find a well-written, smart book in certain genres? That sort of attitude just encourages the idea that the NYT is a snooty paper for the upper class. Which it kind of is, if you only look at the styles section and the book review and the way they ignore local news. But its front page journalism is far superior to that of other local papers, and more to the point, they review populist music, shows, and movies all the time. So why not populist books? Good populist books -- there is a lot of schlock in scifi and romance (and "crime" and fiction and non-fiction . . .) and I think readers would love to be pointed to the best of the genres. It's simple, really; at the very least, once a month they could omit a review of yet another quickly written, irrelevant in a year, political book (or just cut it in half) and insert a page or half page with quick reviews in a genre. C'mon, NYT, you can do it. It might even increase readership and ad revenue.

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