It was Ladies Night Out on Wednesday, and this time the talk was all literary.
My writing group, North 24th, went to Larkspur in Marin County to eat at the restaurant Left Bank. After a wonderful dinner of vegetarian risotto, Salade Nicoise, onion soup and bouillabaisse, we crossed the street to the Larkspur Café Theater for a panel discussion featuring the editor and critics of the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. My dining companions were mostly writers, one with a book coming out in April, another with a book set to be released in 2007, others with books in progress, so naturally we wanted to learn what piques the interest of the reviewers.
The evening’s moderator was Sedge Thompson, whose deep, melodious voice is featured weekly on the radio show “West Coast Live.” The panelists included Oscar Villalon, the book editor of the Chronicle, David Kipen, the paper’s book critic, and Heidi Benson, the reporter who covers the publishing industry.
The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review is one of the most respected in the country. Its best-seller list is decidedly more literary than that of the New York Times. On the list for February 13th, for example, the Chronicle listed Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, and Sight Hound by Pam Houston. The Times, in contrast, only had one literary title in its top ten, I am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe.
As a West Coast writer and reader, I am often frustrated by the East Coast-centric nature of the literary world. It was clear Wednesday night that those on the book review are too.
“There’s this fallacy that all these things are going on on the East Coast,” said Villalon. “People are cultured to look back East to see what’s happening.”
But that East Coast dominance is losing its grip, he insisted. Even Sam Tanenhaus, the new editor of the New York Times Book Review, acknowledged in a recent interview that the cutting edge writers are now coming from the West Coast. This region’s blend of multiculturalism and openness to new ideas has produced lots of wonderful authors.
“It’s no surprise the country should be turning their eyes here,” said Villalon. “It’s where all the great things are happening.”
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini is an example of a multicultural book from the Bay Area that has become a national bestseller. The book tells the story of a young boy in Afghanistan who reveres his father and has a close relationship with the son of a servant. There are currently 70 holds on the book in the Larkspur Library.
But David Kipen, the Chronicle’s critic, gave the book a mixed review and said it exemplifies a crass commercialism in the publishing industry.
“I think the Kite Runner is an example of where a publisher said get me a warm body who can write about Afghanistan,” said Kipen. “They got one, he had a manuscript and they sold the bejezus out of it. It taught me a lot about the history of Afghanistan and about the Afghani community in Fremont, but as a novel, it was only passable.”
It is a daunting task to get reviewed in the Chronicle, which is ranked as one of the top five reviews in the country, along with those from the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times.
Villalon says he gets 200-300 galleys a week. How does he choose what to review? He likes to look for local authors, seek out good writing and interesting subject matter.
Kipen likes to review books that are relevant to West Coast culture and history, among others. He delights in finding new authors from small presses. It’s a lot more thrilling to feature them than the latest “hot” author put forward from a New York publishing house, he said.