Archive for Thursday, February 21, 2002

Books not really literature

February 21, 2002


In visions of a more literate America, most literate Americans never imagined a time when every respectable shopping mall would have at least one bookstore, even if it was one operated by those chains that value huge displays of books by vapid authors as a way of supporting slim inventories of serious titles.

The result of this literary nirvana has been mixed to wretched. Some recent beneficiaries of this burst of literacy have been TV celebrities such as former CBS reporter Bernard Goldberg, whose book which claims that CBS distorts the news is described as "almost unreadable" by Entertainment Weekly, and Fox News anchorman Bill O'Reilly who, if he had a literary style, would be classified as aggressively dumb.

I suppose there's hope readers will move up to books that, unlike O'Reilly's and Goldberg's, don't sound like the monotonous grinding of a dull ax.

In any event, the economics of book publishing suggest that best-seller lists will continue to bulge with philistine authors at the expense of those who have something original to say. A priceless example of a derivative book that outgrew its own reputation and roared to sales records on a greased track is the novel "Me Times Three," recently typed by Alex Witchel. With the ink barely dry on its pages, Hollywood has already announced the actress Gwyneth Paltrow who will star in it. This led to unkind suggestions that Witchel imagined her movie first and then got around to writing the book that would make it marketable in Hollywood.

What got the book its head start was not one, but two, gushing reviews in The New York Times, which is where Witchel works in what is called the style section. Normally, she writes stuff promoting things like shopaholism. A December piece was headlined "New Kit Bags, to Send Troubles Packing." It was, of course, interesting that the Times couldn't come up with a critic who'd say something rotten about it. Meanwhile, syndicated columnist Liz Smith reported that the volume is "flying off the bookshelves" and has prompted swoons of raves from her friend, Barbara Walters.

Other critics have not been as charitable. Anne Stephenson in The Arizona Republic wrote, "This book can be funny in a Bridget Jones kind of way but it takes forever to get to the multiple fiancees." Of the characters she asks, "Would you want to spend an entire novel with one of them?" The Boston Globe lamented that "it's a shame that Witchel's witty idea got lost," and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch dismissed the book as "poolside reading" and "not particularly memorable." USA Today said it was "entertaining if you can forgive its predictability and tendency towards glibness" and that "unfortunately, Witchel never met a clever phrase she didn't like, and some of her quips feel forced."

The Montreal Gazette called it "a guilty pleasure, like reading People magazine at the checkout counter." Another reviewer said that while "witty and fun," the book suffered from "plot development and creativity" that are "noticeably lacking."

Actually, the novel is not half as offensive as some of the hype that lubricated its success, and Witchel would do herself a favor to giggle all the way to the bank. I'm convinced this is what she had in mind.

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