The morning panel on the publishing industry in Canada, perhaps, suffered in my estimation because of differing expectations. What we got was more of an introduction to the industry, from big houses (Random House and Simon & Schuster Canada) to the big box bookstores (Indigo, which owns Chapters & Coles) to the warehouses (yes, Sam’s Club is on its way to taking over Ontario, and let’s not forget Costco and Canada’s Superstore, aka Loblaws but evil in a different way) and the indies (as represented by Paul McNally of McNally-Robinson fame.) And all well and good, especially when the discussion turned to how the Canadian dollar’s massive rise in the last year or so has profundly affected how to price hardcovers, but I was hoping for a fuller discussion on how to navigate rights issues – since Canada is sometimes Commonwealth, sometimes North American, and sometimes all by its lonesome. Never mind that most of the audience was comprised of Canadian industry folk…so it was more like preaching to the choir.
After taking an extended lunch break (aka getting to see the Phillips Collection’s “Masterworks” exhibition for free) and catching the tail-end – pun not really intended – of Chris Anderson’s presentation on his Long Tail Theory, along came the NYTBR panel with a decidedly defensive looking Sam Tanenhaus. It was as if the edge creeped into his voice right before the proceedings began and never let up. The topic, of course, was the much-talked-about “Best American Novel of the last 25 years” which is the main subject of the May 21 issue. It took a while before all the panelists were fully engaged (the beginning was the “Sam and Greg” show, aka Tanenhaus and the Book Review’s research analyst explaining why they used the 1965 poll from the defunct Herald-Tribune as a model…and then didn’t) and for Cynthia Ozick and Liesl Schillinger, especially, to perk up and contribute.
Things became decidedly more entertaining in the Q&A, much in part due to Ed Champion’s back-and-forth (he’s got more details, but I will say it was immensely amusing to sit next to him the whole time) which elicited the admission alluded to in the subject header: Sam Tanenhaus is not a brownie fan. Lost a bit in the hubbub was the fact that the pickings were short on women, and if Tanenhaus’s assertion that most of those who declined to take part were, indeed, women, why was this the case? Did they feel that their votes weren’t worthy or were meaningless? Perhaps there is room for such a discussion in the future.
Ron adds: Unfortunately, because Ed folded the question about the paucity of women into another question about why Tanenhaus has never said ‘thank you’ for the brownies Ed sent, the gender disparity issue got lost in the shuffle, as Tanenhaus sighed, “Where to start?” and then laid out the basic counter-arguments. (1) A lot of the women he asked had better things to do with their time than answer his questions. (2) Tanenhaus challenged Champion to name a book review section in the country that paid more attention to serious fiction (to which my mental response was, “You did not just say that in Book World’s hometown. I know you ain’t that crazy”). (3) “I’m under no obligation to acknowledge your brownies.”
I got a little more productivity out of approaching one of the other panelists, Thomas Mallon, and asking him what it meant that such a significant percentage of American literary culture’s gatekeepers seemed to think that everything peaked sixteen years ago with the publication of Beloved. What have we been doing since 1990, I thought to myself, marking time? (Also, Mallon’s Henry and Clara was completely robbed, but don’t take my word for it; it’s an amazingly beautiful novel which I insist you read for yourself. Likewise his Two Moons.) And Liesl Schillinger had some very thoughtful comments to make about the experimentalism of younger writers who, for whatever reason, didn’t wind up on the NYTBR radar. I’m not 100% sure of where I would point to the most accomplished literature of the last few years coming from, but after talking to them, I got the strong sense that there’s hope beyond Toni Morrison yet…