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Blockbusters Unbusted

April 26, 1987|JACK MILES | Times Book Editor

On April 12, two changes in The Times' book reviewing were announced: first, the addition of a weekly poem, always from a recently published collection of poetry, largely (not entirely) in lieu of standard poetry reviewing; and second, the transformation of Jonathan Kirsch from bi-weekly paperback columnist in The Book Review to weekly reviewer in View, specializing in (but no longer confined to) paperback originals. Today we discuss changes affecting two other kinds of book: best-selling fiction and children's books.

The most difficult fiction to find reviewers for is, oddly, not the most literary but the most popular fiction. The reason is to be found in the relationship of popular fiction to literary criticism as to a kind of writing.

The gross ingredients of all fiction are plot, setting, character, and language or style; but popular fiction usually emphasizes plot and setting, while literary fiction usually emphasizes character and language. There are certainly exceptions to this rule of thumb: Proust was deeply interested in setting; some detective fiction relies heavily on character. But what kind of review is more common than one in which a blockbuster novel is faulted, sarcastically and at length, for its cardboard characters and its wooden language while being complimented, grudgingly and in brief, for its "page-turner" plot and the convincing detail of its setting?

What kind of review is more common and, more to the point, what kind is more utterly superfluous? Reviews of this sort, which judge popular fiction by the canons of literary fiction, neither deter readers of popular fiction nor charm readers of literary fiction. Those who adore popular fiction buy the latest exemplar of it anyway. Those who find popular fiction boring find reviews of it more boring still.

The publishers of popular fiction are wont to ask why their biggest sellers' latest work cannot be reviewed "for what it is." A fair question, but to be answered, it must be made more precise: Why are there so few writers who can review popular fiction for what it is?

Few? I hear you cry. Aren't there many? No, I answer, risking the anger of the many who volunteer each week to review just this kind of fiction: There are not. The habits of mind that incline a reader to literary fiction--love of rich, complex language and an introspective, analytic approach to character--incline a writer quite nicely to literary criticism, an analytic activity, after all, in which most of the pleasure comes from the subtle distinction and the mot juste . By the same token, the habits of mind that incline a reader to popular fiction--a joy in pure rollicking story and an appetite for the specificity of a setting--do not always incline a writer to literary criticism even of popular fiction. In short, and oversimplifying only slightly, those who can write at all well about fiction often do not like popular fiction, while those who do like popular fiction often cannot write well about it, even "for what it is."

Therefore what? Silence? Surely not: Hundreds of thousands of Times readers (dare I say 2.5 million?) are eager for news about upcoming bestsellers. A newspaper selling in the millions can scarcely confine itself to fiction selling in the hundreds.

Therefore what? Therefore (what else?): The news .

Each month, on the second Sunday of the month, The Book Review will publish Bestseller Preview, a column that, in lieu of longer reviews, will take an educated guess about which titles will be among the bestsellers of the coming month. Thus the first Bestseller Preview, scheduled for May 10, will make its guess about the bestsellers of June. The column will talk informally about the contents of these potential blockbusters. Though it will not depart altogether from the critical function (mention in the column will not in every case rule out full review later), criticism will not be its principal function.

Bestseller Preview will take its place in an informal four-week rotation of Book Review features in which the other entries will be: The Book Trade, by Elizabeth Mehren, now to appear just once a month, on the first Sunday of the month; Endpapers, by Richard Eder, third Sunday; Endpapers, by Jack Miles, fourth Sunday. Not all bestsellers are fiction, of course; but nonfiction bestsellers will not often be mentioned in the column, for the reviewing of popular nonfiction presents few of the difficulties that attend the reviewing of popular fiction.

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