Molly Templeton pointed out that the New York Times Book Review‘s recent “How-To” issue was painfully sexist. Only two female writers, and they wrote about cooking and raising children. I mean, the year is 1952, so we shouldn’t be too surprised, right? Molly Templeton was annoyed enough to start a How-To blog with submissions from female writers. Since I’ve had problems with the New York Times Book Review for a while now, I decided to write a little how-to guide to being their ideal reader.
How to be the New York Times Book Review’s Ideal Reader
First, it helps to be white and at least middle-class. If you’re not, well, you can still read the New York Times Book Review, but you’ll do it with the nagging suspicion that it isn’t directed at people like you. This isn’t anything new, as you feel like that about most aspects of American society.
Now, you don’t have to agree with every review. In fact, it’s good to cultivate some disagreement so you can go to dinner parties and say, “I disagree with their opinion of David Foster Wallace!” This demonstrates critical thinking. It doesn’t matter what their opinion is or what your opinion is, as long as you aggressively attack or defend your point. Now, it would help to have actually read David Foster Wallace’s books, but that’s really not essential.
When a lovely young woman writes a breathtakingly original first novel, agree with the New York Times Book Review that she’s a genius. When she writes a riskier second novel, join with the New York Times Book Review in condemning her as a one-hit wonder. As you do this, you may notice the acid taste of unexamined misogyny in the back of your throat. A pretty girl can write one decent book, but raising her to the pantheon of Serious Writers? Please.
The New York Times Book Review will be pleased with you if you’re quick to defend them on charges of racism and sexism. Hey, they always review Jhumpa Lahiri, right? She’s both ethnic and a woman at the same time. The fact that the rest of the pages are dominated by white men isn’t really worth noting. Just settle back and read more reviews of books about rootless unhappy upper middle class white people. For example, in this one, a Young Woman Uncovers a Dark Family Secret. Don’t tell me there’s no variety – why, every issue is bound to review a vaguely exploitive story about white trash. There’s also the occasional non-Westerner who’s written a sad and lyrical novel about how much stuff sucks for the people of his country. Read it and pity them.
Fall in love with magical realism. Scorn sci-fi/fantasy as pulpy escapism. Get flustered when someone asks you to explain the difference.
It’s also good to cultivate a fondness for long lists of words, especially if the words are plant names that most people wouldn’t recognize. “He pissed into the river, looking at the cat-tails, star-grass, watermeal, bladderwort, pondweed, and floating arrowhead.” Whether or not you can viscerally imagine these plants doesn’t matter – lists of names are very popular lately. Also, get excited about absurd word choices, such as “The twilight was speckled with soup-can stars.” What does that even mean? Does it matter? It’s serious writing, so if you don’t get it, the onus is on you.
Of course, when we’re talking about popular tropes, we’re only talking about popular tropes in literature. Wildly popular fiction is for the masses. Make sure you constantly draw a distinction between the two in general, between high art for people like you and low popular art for everyone else. Young adult dystopias and paranormal romances are for crass idiots. Be careful – it’s possible that one of your beloved literary works could become too popular. If Oprah recommends a book you enjoyed, be quick to disavow it as trash.
You’re also going to need a certain snobbery about your method of book consumption. Your options are, 1) proud book-buying technophobe who comments online about how technology is the death of civilization or 2) complete technophile who gets unnaturally excited about the latest iPad app. If you’re a technophobe, glare at people reading Kindles. If you’re a technophile, smirk at people reading paperbacks.
The most important thing to remember is that it isn’t about the books. It’s about wrapping yourself in a warm blanket of cultural dominance.