Thursday, November 05, 2009


My three minutes, my two cents

The NBCC threw itself a nifty 35th anniversary bash a few weeks ago. The highlights were speeches by two of the earliest winners, John Ashbery (antic) and E.L. Doctorow (gloomy), as well as shorter addresses by a cavalcade of former board members. I was among that cavalcade, toward the end, when there was no time left. That obliged me to speak very quickly, with no pauses between the words, like the man disclosing the side effects on the Viagra commercial. (If you have an erection lasting longer than four hours....) My remarks have now been posted over at Critical Mass, along with those of many other board members. I'll paste in the mini-speech here, but I urge visitors to check out the proceedings of the entire evening, including video of Ashbery and Doctorow:
According to tonight's program, I'm batting for the 21st century. In fact I was on the NBCC Board back in the storied Nineties. I left the board in 2001, spent some time in detox, and have now fallen off the wagon again. So here I am.

Anyway, I think this positions me nicely to note the sea change that has taken place here over the past decade. During my first tenure on the board, things had gotten a little sleepy. This is no criticism of my excellent and energetic colleagues of that era. But I think we all had a premonition that the old world of print and Sunday book supplements was about to go the way of the dodo. None of us knew exactly how fast that transformation would take place. Nobody operating a butter churn foresees the advent of margarine, either. Before we knew it, the Age of Margarine was upon us--not golden, but bright yellow, and full of suspicious adulterants.

Now, I know that sounds awfully negative. So I will change tack, retire the margarine metaphor, and argue that the NBCC is now a much more vibrant organization than it was ten years ago. The Internet, which was supposed to torpedo what was left of our trade and leave us on par with thimble makers, has given the conversation about books a massive shot in the arm.

Yes, the dust is still settling. The shrinkage or outright disappearance of the old reviewing outlets is painful to watch. The drastic redefinition of those cherished terms, professional and amateur, has given many a seasoned critic a bad case of the psychological bends. But the audience has multiplied, and gone global, and the barriers to entry for a young critic have fallen. So I'm going to look on the bright side, and argue that the best work still rise to the top--like cream, or margarine. I promise.
Afterwards, while I fought my way toward the wine-and-cheese area, a member of the audience told me margarine was a very, very bad substance. I countered with a fact I had just learned from Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist (I think): unsalted butter often has butter flavoring in it. And with that, the War of the Condiments was over.

Labels: ,

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?