It’s Time for a More Inclusive Book Review

For more than a few years now, America’s literary community has been talking about the the gender imbalances that take place in mainstream book reviewing. Each year, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts compiles the data to show that male writers are still getting reviewed disproportionately in comparison to women writers; each year, the mainstream media sniffs at the so-called bean-counting approach to literary criticism and attempts to turn its deficiencies into strengths by claiming they’re focused on the books that “really will endure,” as former New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus put it.

New York TImes Book Review, Authors Reviewed 2010-2012

I’ve talked about this a lot over the years. I’ve even described how, as a reviewer, I’ve fallen into the same traps despite my best efforts when I’m writing about books here or for other outlets. And the gender gap is only part of the problem: Though it’s gotten less media attention, some critics have pointed out that, if we look at the ethnic backgrounds of the writers getting reviewed by the mainstream press, it’s an awfully white looking field. So, after all this time spent clamoring for change and not seeing it, I began asking myself: What do I want to do about this?

Here’s what I came up with.

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20 January 2014 | uncategorized |

A2A: Scott Elliott & Lamar Herrin

The novels Fractures and Temple Grove are set at opposite ends of the United States, and their environmentalist concerns are different: the one with hydrofracking in Pennsylvania, the other with logging in the Pacific Northwest. But their authors, Lamar Herrin and Scott Elliott, found plenty of common ground during a recent e-mail exchange… not least of all in their ability to draw out the characters and the relationships that make these more than just “a book about hydrofracking” or “a book about the logging controversy.” In a way, those may be the least of what these two novels are “about.”

Scott ElliottScott Elliott: Fractures is masterful in its ability to take us into interior lives. It’s been some time since I’ve read a novel so invested in multiple characters and the tenuous connections between them, and so ambitious and successful at seamlessly moving us into and out of different characters’ heads. Plumbing the depths of characters’ psyches and putting pressure on them would seem to have a ready analogue in the central subject matter and source of conflict that the book takes up in all of its complexity—the hydrofracking in which deep drilling and the pressure of lots of water laced with chemicals releases natural gas.

I wonder if you could talk about your research into natural gas drilling and also the degree to which you thought about the notion of hydrofracking in a metaphorical sense when you were writing the novel and within the novel—as an analogue for the process of fiction writing, and for the way pressure tests bonds between characters in the novel’s extended family.

Lamar Herrin

Lamar Herrin: My research into natural gas drilling took place mostly on the ground, wandering around drilling sites in northern Pennsylvania and making a bit of a nuisance of myself. Talking to anybody who would talk back and keeping my senses alert. I never managed to get onto a drilling rig floor, at least not in person. But as I began to do parallel wandering on the web, and as one video led me to four or five others, I did manage to accumulate a lot of impressions. It turns out drill workers like to video themselves working, sound effects and all. It didn’t take a great leap of the imagination to smell the smells. I talked to certain people at Cornell University and did the reading I could, but mostly it was groundwork and moving around on the web.

And I talked to people in the towns. Friends have asked me what got me thinking of a novel, and I’ve come to believe it was the moment I walked into the Susquehanna County Court House in Montrose, Pennsylvania (I had gone there, and to Dimock, which is close by, to simply get enlightened, to see what might be coming our way in the Southern Tier of New York State). But in the court house a policeman on duty explained that the desks I saw lined up and down the long central hall had been set out so that property owners could come check their deeds, and so that competing family members (or so the policeman claimed) could see who owned what. Almost all of my novels have had to do with families, and here, I quickly realized, was a plot.

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8 December 2013 | uncategorized |

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