Book reviewer predictably upset at author's big advance

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney read from her debut novel The Nest at Elliott Bay Book Company last night. I didn't attend because I had writing to do. (Nothing takes away from your time to attend readings, I've found, like co-founding a book review site.) This review by Tom LeClair at the Daily Beast makes me wish I had gone to Sweeney's reading — not because the review is so good, but because it's so unfair that I wish I could have shown up to personally apologize to Sweeney on behalf of book reviewers everywhere. The first paragraph of the review ends like this:

The Nest is not just about money — a multi-million dollar trust fund—but is being promoted by money, the million-dollar advance the publisher proudly announced was paid for this first novel by an unknown writer. Sweeney and some other recent debut novelists who have been paid huge advances seem to be shaping a new genre for fledgling writers.

And then he continues, later in the piece:

I understand the economic strategy: a novelist with no history (of mediocre sales) can be publicized as the Big New Find because the author has been given a Big Old Advance. But I worry that Sweeney’s book and some other fairly recent first novels with huge advances—Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves, and Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire — suggest young writers are creating what I’ll call commercialit. All of these novels have at least one character who is either an English teacher or a writer, the existence of whom in the text implies that the novel must be literary. But the literariness of the four is a patina of fictional sophistication scumbled over conventional and therefore commercial components. Even if the characters don’t end up well, at least some readers do — entertained, unthreatened, and pleased to feel they’ve not been reading commercialock: commercial schlock.

Perhaps what I’m describing used to be called “middlebrow” fiction, but the four MFA-holding authors work in just enough evidence of literary knowingness — which gives a high tone to the gossip of The Nest — to make their novels commercialit.

Okay. There's a lot to unpack here. First of all, I don't care if marketing materials mention the author advance explicitly: there is almost no good reason for a book critic to ever mention an advance in a review. Everyone knows book criticism doesn't pay well; when a critic focuses on money, it always smacks of jealousy. To make your review pivot on salary is a choice that always feels petty and small.

But more importantly, the Creation of a Term to Identify a Publishing Trend You Just Now Noticed is a bad reviewing trope. LeClair shoehorned four different books into a category — "commercialit" — that doesn't even make sense. So these books are well-written but "safe," whatever that means? And LeClair thinks these authors are capable of better, and so he's disappointed? But he enjoyed reading The Nest and only felt scammed when he didn't like the way it ended? (I could stock a mid-sized bookstore with brilliant novels that have bad endings, Mr. LeClair. This is not a trend that was created by a new generation of writers.) And none of these young authors are William Gaddis? Okay.

Here's a rule of book reviewing: review what's on the page, not the buzz surrounding a book. And here's a corollary: don't turn your review into a trend piece if the only evidence you have is a bunch of books by young authors that you recently read. Complaining about the kids these days in a book review is about the most boring idea I can conjure.

This is not to say that there isn't an interesting piece to be written about the publishing industry spending too much money on debut novels. But that piece is not a book review. It's a reported piece, with interviews and supporting evidence and facts and sales numbers. To slather all this publishing gossip into a book review, and to round four young authors into a pen and demand that they do battle with Gaddis is frankly ridiculous. Stop trying to make "commercialit" happen, Mr. LeClair. It's not going to happen.