By Nathan C. Martin
It’s hard to tell at first which is more depressing—the Gambit’s current “Book Issue” in and of itself, which consists of one profile, two reviews, and a bunch of listings, or what its (very) meager effort and accomplishments say about the larger public conversation about books and writing in what is allegedly a bit of a “literary” city. Of course, it’s the latter, since a single issue of the Gambit is just that—one underwhelming issue of an alt weekly that we throw away on top of all the others—and the dumbed-down level of discourse surrounding books is something we’ll have to live with long after the “Book Issue” is in the trash.
The Gambit, like basically all print periodicals, is in a sorry financial state, but it’s editors knew that to have a credible “Book Issue” they would have to pull out the big guns—or, rather, gun (singular), Susan Larson, whose name is likely the only one in the city universally recognized by people who don’t just read books, but read about them. To give Larson her due, she’s earned the recognition. She’s been one of the city’s most consistent book advocates for more than two decades, most notably as books editor of the Times-Picayune, but also as a host of the radio show “The Reading Life,” a literary programmer for the Tennessee Williams Festival, and a founding force behind the New Orleans chapter of the Women’s National Book Association. (She was also one of three judges on this year’s committee for the Pulitzer Prize in literature, about which Room 220 interviewed her after the Pulitzer judges failed to select a winner).
So, she’s got credibility, and apparently all you need to do to have a “Book Issue” is to slap her name on the cover and let her trot out one of her new favorite native writers—in this case, T. Geronimo Johnson, author of the recently released novel Hold it ‘Til it Hurts. Larson conducted an interview with Johnson that resulted in the “Book Issue”s keystone piece, in which Johnson speaks in elegant block quotes about how he finished a draft of a novel, then Katrina happened, then he went back and added Katrina into the book. The rest of the article is mostly his describing his family’s Katrina story, which is painfully ordinary (ordinary because we’ve read it a thousand times before, and, of course, painful because it happened to enough people to make it ordinary). On the next page, Larson “reviews” Johnson’s novel, though by any thoughtful estimation, the review is essentially a summary. Then, on the next page, Gambit staff writer Will Coviello launches into a page-long cluster review of four new nonfiction books that relate to Jazz Era New Orleans, then there’s the listings, and that’s it. “Book Issue” complete.
[Full Disclosure: Room 220 is hosting a reading with Johnson as part of its LIVE PROSE series on Sept. 27, though the location is still TBD.]
It’s not that the articles in the “Book Issue” are awful—but they’re not good. Larson’s pieces are ho-hum, and although Coviello’s is a dense, energetic read, it feels like his editor gave him 3,000 words and ordered him to cram absolutely as much as he could into them. It’s like the Micro Machine Man wrote it. But three mediocre articles isn’t really the problem—certainly the history of alt weeklies has seen worse—it’s the fact that three mediocre articles is all our only alt weekly could come up for their fucking “Book Issue”! This city is not only lousy with writers, but it’s also the subject of about a published book a day. There should be three mediocre book articles in EVERY ISSUE (or, shucks, at least one in every other issue). To cobble together three lousy articles and give boilerplate information that anyone could find online about some festivals and call it a “Book Issue” is a disgrace.
Shortly after I moved to New Orleans, I found out that an author named Bill Cotter, who now lives in Austin, was coming to town for a reading. His novel, Fever Chart, which follows a mentally unstable young man through varying New Orleans escapades, is the closest thing we have to a contemporary Confederacy of Dunces—and, in fact, because many of the jokes in Dunces have grown stale, I’d prefer to re-read Fever Chart. I was excited! And I wanted to write about Cotter, maybe conduct an interview with him, let people in town know how great his book is and that they should come and witness it live! I looked around at my options to publish such a piece. Hmmm. The T-P had axed its book section years earlier, and pitching to them proved to be shouting down a hole. NolaVie hadn’t been invented yet. I pitched the Gambit, and after several emails without reply, they said they would “keep it in mind.” Well, I knew what that meant. I looked at their site to try to find other book coverage. Michael Ondaatje had recently spoken at Tulane as part of the university’s Great Writers Series, and although Ondaatje is roundly considered one of his generation’s best writers in English and he wrote a fictionalized biography of New Orleans’ own Buddy Bolden, his coming to town warranted a whole paragraph on the Gambit’s website, which I’m not sure even made it into print. So, I thought, this is what it’s like. No one here gives a shit about books. A couple days later, Cotter canceled his reading.
The upside to all this, I suppose, was that I launched Room 220. I was complaining about the Cotter episode to Anne Gisleson, who helps run Press Street, and she mentioned that there was some “spare room” on the Press Street website (I’m still not sure exactly what that meant, but I took it). Since then, well, I’ve managed a bit of writing about books and authors who live here and who visit, and although the whole thing is done completely in my spare time, for free, I can pretty comfortably argue that it’s the best (read: only) outlet in the city dedicated to serious discussion of books. As a reader, this is important to me. Discussion of books outside the actual texts provides a means by which reading can become an engaging exercise that’s more emotionally moving and intellectually stimulating than, say, watching television. When we understand how books work, they become more than simple stories—they become works of art that flesh out the larger issues of life in vivid, tangible moments and cacophonies that can teach us about the world, about love, death, ourselves … in short: life.
I understand that the Gambit’s readership is not exactly the New York Review of Books’, and I get that financial and related staffing restraints prevent them from regularly covering books in lieu of more popular topics (i.e. The Saints, food, drinking, etc.), but seeing such a sorry sack passed off as a “Book Issue” suggests such a sincere half-heartedness that I wonder why they even bother. I suppose it’s good to remind non-book-readers who pick up the Gambit in coffee shops that there are still people out there who think books are important. But in doing so, why not make a real effort and put together something a bit more imaginative and substantial, something that doesn’t depict the world of books as a dying, unenthusiastic realm of undercooked ideas and conversation—because, in my experience, despite the difficulties of publishing and decreased attention spans, the world of books is still a vital part of our societal fabric, and it deserves better.