As I’ve reported now and then, the magazine Publishers Weekly has been indispensable to me for decades, even as the book-world and the magazine-world (and PW in particular) have changed dramatically. Every week I go through PW’s brief reviews of fiction and nonfiction (not to mention the special issues with forecasts for the upcoming season; those are much slimmer than they used to be, but still valuable). Apart from alerting me to specific titles, the reviews in PW also serve as reports on “the culture” from one influential angle.
So, for example, the fiction reviews in the issue for July 31, 2023, begin with Marie NDiaye’s Vengeance Is Mine, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (Knopf), a “ferocious tale,” followed by Karma Brown’s What Wild Women Do (Dutton) and John Manuel Arias’s Where There Was Fire (Flatiron), the author’s “lush and ambitious debut” in which “the women of a Costa Rican family wrestle with their resentments in the long shadow of a banana plantation.” Hmmm. A couple of pages later, there’s a featured novel: C Pam Zhang’s Land of Milk and Honey (Riverhead), an “exquisite and seductive second novel” that “centers on an unnamed chef, 29, who is trying to survive in the way of an environmental catastrophe that wreaked havoc on the earth’s biodiversity.” (Havoc is often wreaked in these pages, alas.) Later in the boxed review there’s a poignant reference to “a surprising storehouse with the world’s last strawberries.”
And we haven’t even reached the ample SF/Fantasy/Horror section (“Horror” is very big right now, in case you hadn’t noticed), which concludes with A Darker Shade of Noir: New Stories of Body Horror by Women Writers (Akashic), edited by Joyce Carol Oates. I love the review’s conclusion: “the thematic probe into bodily autonomy makes this a must-read for fans of feminist horror.” I should add that the cover of the issue features a striking photo of the aforementioned C Pam Zhang: “In Land of Milk and Honey, Zhang delivers a mesmerizing novel about trying to find joy in a world undone by catastrophe.”
You may suspect me of cherry-picking a few bits to make a point. Not guilty. If you read a year’s worth of PW, or even a month’s worth, or if you limit yourself to reading the author’s interview in a half-dozen issues (in the issue at hand, Zadie Smith is the interview-subject), you’ll find a mind-boggling consistency of ideological and thematic emphasis, resonant with the perspective of many other cultural gatekeepers.
Why isn’t there any comparable publication covering the world of books and publishing from a perspective quite different from that of PW, one that would offer another angle on books and authors and publishing more generally, not supplanting the venerable trade mag but supplementing it, and serving as a gadfly now and then? Now especially, with challenges ranging from the technological to the sharply ideological, this would be an indispensable resource.
Above all, such a new enterprise should be undertaken not with a pitiful defensiveness nor with huffing and puffing but rather with wit, energy, and high spirits. There is so much to think about and write about, to lament and to celebrate, to get angry at and to laugh at, to investigate and to remember. Is there a surprising conjunction of books about “the deep,” about the oceans and the creatures therein? Let’s devote an entire issue to that, and another to new books on Mars and “outer space” more generally (drawing not least on splendid pieces published in The New Atlantis). Let others chew endlessly on the same old subjects, addressed of course in the manner approved by our ideological masters. (They make me want to vomit.)
“But who would pay for it?” Are you kidding me? Who pays for all the stuff that gets routinely served up already? Why this defeatism? (Cue evangelical thought-leaders ceremonially rending their garments.) Small-o orthodox Christians and kindred spirits are ill-served by many of their standard-bearers. They should revolt.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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