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The New York Times Gets It Wrong

Posted: 04/19/10 02:49 PM ET

Yann Martel published a new book this past week titled Beatrice and Virgil. Mr. Martel is best known for his Man Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi. After the phenomenal success of Life of Pi, expectations were high for this new book. However in the past few days, The New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani and several other critics have issued harsh verdicts about Beatrice and Virgil.

The Booksmith also received advance copies and we've judged this latest offering for ourselves. Our view is that Beatrice and Virgil is a beautifully written, unconventional and intriguing book that should be read and discussed broadly. It would be a real shame for readers to summarily dismiss this book because it disappointed a few critics. Inspired by Mr. Martel's work, we have written a fictionalized dialog between a bookseller who has recently read Beatrice and Virgil, and a customer who is holding a copy of this book in her hand trying to decide if she should buy it. The scene takes place at the Booksmith, an independent bookstore in San Francisco and is reminiscent of the scores of similar conversations we (and other independent booksellers) have with our customers every day about books. We hope this will enable readers to assess for themselves if they should read this book.

CUSTOMER: So, what is this book about?
BOOKSELLER: It's hard to describe because it touches on a lot of topics many of which are hard to describe. It seems that the author is trying to describe the indescribable.

CUSTOMER: Hmm.. What's the indescribable the book is trying to describe?
BOOKSELLER: It tries to cover a lot of topics - the Holocaust, human violence, disappearance of two-thirds of animals from the planet, taxidermy, a pear...

CUSTOMER: A pear? What's so indescribable about a pear?
BOOKSELLER: Well, how would you describe a pear to someone who has never seen or tasted one?

CUSTOMER: Hmm... I don't know.
BOOKSELLER: He has a beautiful seven page long description of a pear. It's worth reading all by itself. It's like an essay inside a work of fiction.

CUSTOMER: Well, it's fiction, so what's the overall story about?
BOOKSELLER: It's not about one thing, its complex, multi-layered and there are several stories going on simultaneously.

CUSTOMER: I love complex, multi-layered stories. So, who are the main characters?
BOOKSELLER: There are four main characters - Henry, the writer; Henry, the taxidermist, Beatrice, a donkey, and Virgil, a monkey.

CUSTOMER: It seems that Martel loves to use animal characters. Why do you suppose he likes to use animal characters?
BOOKSELLER: Actually he talks about that in the book too. Let me read you this little part - it's really interesting -- "The use of animals in his novel, he explained, was for reasons of craft rather than of sentiment... We are cynical about our own species, but less so about animals, especially wild ones...if I tell a story about a dentist from Bavaria or Saskatchewan, I have to deal with readers' notions about dentists from Bavaria or Saskatchewan, those preconceptions and stereotypes that lock people and stories into small boxes. But if it's a rhinoceros from Bavaria or Saskatchewan who is the dentist, then it's an entirely different matter. The reader pays closer attention, because he or she has no preconceptions about rhinoceros dentists -- from Bavaria or anywhere else. The reader's disbelief begins to lift... Now the story can unfold more easily. There's nothing like the unimaginable to make people believe."

CUSTOMER: Why do critics hate this book? I saw The New York Times had a really negative review, and the (SF) Chronicle's reviewer said don't bother reading it.
BOOKSELLER: I am glad you bring that up. I think The New York Times just flat out got it wrong on this one, as did some of the other critics. And it's not the first time they have been wrong on an important book. I think part of the issue is that most newspaper critics try to judge books according to their own personal taste. So, when Michiko Kakutani says she found this book to be "offensive" and "perverse" she is saying something about her own personal taste. I didn't find the book to be least bit offensive or perverse. In fact, I would summarize my emotional reaction to the book as "very intriguing."

The other problem with critics is that they often approach books with a set of expectations about what the book or any good book is supposed to be and they are not very good at articulating what those expectations are. So, when a critic is negative about a particular title, it can likely be a result of a mismatch in their expectations. Not every book is going to be appreciated by everyone. Sure, as a society we consider some books to be universally good and others to be universally bad. But those group tastes are always evolving. And a book like Beatrice and Virgil is pushing the boundaries of that zeitgeist because with this book Martel is trying to break new ground in so many ways. He is breaking new ground in literary form because he is blurring the line between fiction and non-fiction - the book is fiction overall but parts of it feel autobiographical, other parts read like a non-fiction essay, and then there is a play that is being written inside the plot. And he is breaking new ground because he talks about the Holocaust in a new and different way.

Frankly, that last bit will probably get him in more trouble than anything else. People tend to be very rigid about how they talk about the Holocaust and any attempt to diverge from what's politically correct can attract accusations of "trivializing the Holocaust" and perhaps even anti-semitism. I wouldn't be surprised if someone actually tries to ban the book -- kind of like what they did with Rushdie's Satanic Verses. Of course, that would be great for book sales (smiles). Lastly, and this one is speculation on my part, but many of the book critics are writers themselves and there might be a bit of professional jealousy at work. Not many writers enjoy the kind of success and fame Martel did with Life of Pi, and there would be a kind of perverse pleasure in knocking him down.

CUSTOMER: How do you review books at the Booksmith? Do you have a different approach than critics?
BOOKSELLER: As a bookseller, we approach book reviews very differently because for us it's more an exercise in matchmaking and helping each reader figure out what books she wants to read, what books she is going to enjoy, and what books are going to push her thinking and challenge her. So, generally it's a very personalized recommendation. And when we read books and buy new titles for the store, we are always trying to inform ourselves so we know who to recommend each book to.

CUSTOMER: Well, DID you like the book?
BOOKSELLER: Very much! I loved it actually. I might read it again and I hardly ever read books a second time. But my colleague here didn't love it as much. Like most books, this is not a book that everyone is going to love.

CUSTOMER: What did you like about it?
BOOKSELLER: It made me think, and I like books that make me think. It's insightful -- the essay about the different roles of fiction and non-fiction and the importance of the narrative form -- lays out the framework for an important conversation that's overdue - especially for all of us involved with literature. The description of taxidermy impacted me so much that I don't think I will ever look at a stuffed animal head the same way again. The book also had some great one-liners that I really enjoyed like "Colonialism is a terrible bane for a people upon whom it is imposed, but a blessing for a language." I think the book is beautifully written with intricate descriptions and observations, but it's not verbose. I don't like books where the language takes precedence over substance. This is a very accessible book -- it's easy to read. And, what I enjoyed the most was exactly what some critics are complaining about -- the fact that the writer is trying to break new ground in so many ways -- and I tend to give a lot of latitude to someone who tries something as hard and complex as this book.

CUSTOMER: So, who would like this book?
BOOKSELLER: I think lots of people are going to like this book -- including people who like complex multi-layered stories that are lucidly written, people who are still trying to understand the Holocaust and are open to new literary treatments of the subject, and people who are open to new literary forms and like to judge things for themselves instead of taking The New York Times' word as the definitive review. As of this morning, more than two-thirds of the reviews on Amazon were 4 & 5 star reviews. That's a pretty good, though unscientific, indicator that the newspaper critics are out of touch with readers. One other thing, Beatrice and Virgil is very different than the other book Yann Martel is famous for -- Life of Pi. It's important that people not approach it with the expectation of reading another Life of Pi.

CUSTOMER: Should I read it?
BOOKSELLER: I think it's an important book and it's a relatively quick read, so if you want to judge it for yourself, you should definitely read it. You will be better informed about why the critics are getting so emotionally worked up and you can add your own voice to the discussion. But not every book is for everyone, and if you are not intrigued by what I told you so far, we can always recommend something else you might enjoy.

***

Writer's note: The Booksmith is pleased to host Yann Martel in conversation with local San Francisco writer Laura Fraser on Wednesday April 21st. If you can't join us, but have a burning question for Yann Martel, please email us at events (at) Booksmith (dot) com.

 

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