Monday, January 24, 2011

Judging a book by its coverage UPDATED

This afternoon, cheapness demanded that I return a 25-euro water-heater to Monoprix, then go a few blocks out of my way to Carrefour, where store-brand seltzer is cheaper than Badoit, the best option at Franprix. Accompanying me on this journey was none other than Amy Chua* - her interview on the Leonard Lopate show, that is. And, having heard her speak for herself, I must say I'm... a whole lot less sympathetic than I was after reading the WSJ excerpt. (Before proceeding, I should ask PG, does Chua claim this interview was also unfairly edited?)

Anyway. In the interview, Chua refers to her book - her own book - as both "complex" and "funny." These are not claims one is allowed to make about one's own writing. One can say a book was intended as humorous. Not that it is funny, but that some readers just don't get it. She also said it's about how her then-13-year-old daughter taught her "humility." Hmm.

Yes, the message comes across that didn't in the WSJ, that the book is a memoir and not a parenting guide, and that she learns at the end... not exactly that the "Chinese" method is wrong (and indeed, she quite vehemently defends the most outrageous WSJ-excerpted examples in the interview), but that it's not perfect. The nuance, lesson-learned angle feels artificial, externally or editorially imposed, and not consistent with what Chua really believes, which is perhaps (if the book in its entirety is what Chua said it is in this interview, and no I'm not having it shipped to me in France to find out) why the WSJ chose to ignore that bit. She seems to want it both ways - to admonish the parents of "Western" brats, while claiming to have written a book that does no such thing.

It gets more confusing. After she'd explained that "Chinese" means "immigrant," Lopate mentions that he lived for a long time in NY's Chinatown - a Chinese and immigrant neighborhood, if the name wasn't enough of a giveaway - and that the "Western" plagues of teen pregnancy and drug abuse were plenty common. At which point, more clarification: the "immigrants" she refers to are those who come to the US as graduate students or skilled workers. Well, in that case. Of course such individuals would be high-achieving themselves, and produce above-average achieving offspring. (I'm tempted to suggest to my boyfriend's mother that she write a parenting memoir about how to produce an astrophysicist, the Flemish way. With recipes, for sure, because good food is part of it, and because that would probably sell more books.)

But if this story continues to fascinate me, it's not because of the parenting angle, but because of the questions it poses about the control an author should have over a book's reception, particularly if that book is a memoir. If this interview I just listened to made me less sympathetic, less sympathetic to what? The book? Chua-as-a-person? The phenomenon, I suppose...

With books generally, does an author have the right (right as in reasonable expectation, not First Amendment) to expect all who judge to have read the thing? As a rule, yes - thus the whole thing about not judging books by their covers - but does this change if the author has publicized it like crazy, published an excerpt as an article, taken high-profile interviews, and otherwise made sure that those who haven't read the book have plenty of material to work with? Hype may sell books, but taken to a certain level, it absolves would-be readers of the responsibility for having consumed any one particular text of the many claiming to represent the phenomenon.

And, more specifically, do memoirists have the right to ask that their fans take what they say as truth, but that their detractors not judge them as people for what is, after all, only a sliver - and an externally-edited one at that - of their true selves? Believing it's "real," the true account of a real human being, is fine and well when the response is favorable, but feels mean-spirited if unfavorable. How dare anyone - readers of the excerpt, the book, or any other installment of this multimedia extravaganza - judge Chua as a person? This phenomenon is especially true of the online overshare, but in an age when comments sections can overflow with what are ostensibly responses to a memoir, the line is blurry.

*I realize that everything anyone writes about Chua as of a week ago is "the last thing" they have to say on something that's already "so yesterday." But the discussion continues, who are we kidding? Not over till it's over.

UPDATE

I think there's a new First World Problem come out of this: Life is so tough, my Style-Section-ready upper-middle-class Ivy-league-seal-of-approval lifestyle book is so popular that people won't stop talking about it and buying copies.

16 comments:

PG said...

I'm not sure why there's labeling of Chua's book to be everything (parenting guide, "lifestyle book") except what she says it is: a memoir. Nor do I get why you think Chua has said people buying her memoir are a problem, First World or otherwise; the only thing I saw in your links was a complaint about people judging her book *without* reading it (ie presumably people who haven't bought it, either). She keeps saying that people who do read the book generally understand it as a literary endeavor (complete with an occasionally-unreliable narrator) and even those who disagree with what she did in its totality are more thoughtful and sympathetic than those who just read stuff about the book.

The one exception I've seen is WaPo columnist Courtland Milloy, who seems to have at least flipped through the book or run a Kindle word search in it, and concluded therefrom that Chua is an object lesson to single men about how them bitches can turn on you once you marry 'em.

Phoebe said...

PG,

In the WNYC interview, she did speak disdainfully of the people who read the book but fail to appreciate how humorous it is. Her problem isn't only with those who've merely read about it, but also with readers who don't interpret it how she'd like.

In the Jezebel one, she's assuming Joy Behar hadn't read the book on account of her having not had the interpretation of it Chua would have preferred. I mean, she was being interviewed on a TV show, so perhaps an assistant or intern read the book, not Behar herself, but that would, I would think, be normal in those situations. Or maybe Behar read it and didn't have precisely the reading the author intended.

But more broadly, it's the fact that people are talking so much about the book that's leading so, so many people to buy and presumably read it. If the buzz has created some misinformation, it's also (aside from selling her books, something that presumably softens the blow a bit, and that makes her victim act hard to stomach) that which corrects whatever misconceptions the buzz itself created. If the book's as misunderstood as she claims, the whole thing will blow over within a week of the books arriving from Amazon.

That, and she appears to be in fine control of the buzz at the moment, to the extent that this point, even those who haven't read the book (out of curiosity, have you?) know that the author intends it as a memoir, a journey, a humble, ironic, and nuanced literary narrative, etc. So even if - and this is a big if - the buzz was out-of-proportion with anything she expected or desired, she's savvy enough to know how to spin things back in her favor. Thus the Jezebel commenters who earnestly admonish anyone with thoughts on the Chua phenomenon to read her book.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Also, to clarify what I meant re: FWP and lifestyle book...

FWP, not because it's not tragedy of tragedies, but because Chua makes a poor poster child for the cause of misinterpreted or not-read-in-full writing being held against an author. Normally when this happens, the author's not in a position to reverse the spin and get a bestseller in the process. Maybe FWP's not the best way of putting this - it's kind of a FWP when commenters gang up on anyone for having written something incendiary, in that it implies leisure time/internet connections. But it just feels off to make her the hero for all of us who've written something we thought was innocuous, but was viewed otherwise.

Lifestyle book not because it's a parenting guide - Chua has shouted from the rooftops that it isn't, so we'll set aside that she went on to discuss the bratty or troubled kids that result from "Western" parenting on the WNYC interview - but because it covers so much of the Style-section/lifestyle article/what a certain sort of person is discussing these days checklist: parenting, mommying, the power couple and the marriage behind it, adolescent girlhood, Ivies, childhood achievement, race, and the rise of China.

But what I'm really curious to know is what you think it should mean that a book is, by the author's own definition, a memoir. That it may be read as relevant only to the author's personal experiences? If so, why, for those of us who had no prior interest in or knowledge of (for example) Chua, would it be worth considering? Literary merit? Some books in virtually any genre have it, some don't, but the quality Chua offers as evidence that hers does - the unreliable narrator - only shows that she is able to speak about her own book using literary terminology. But literary merit seems a bit beside the point - that a book is well-written or complex doesn't mean it doesn't send a message, a few messages, whatever. A less in-your-face one, typically, but that's the only difference.

Britta said...

In China, her book is being explicitly marketed as a parenting manual. So...presumably she has some control over that, and she realized if spinned it as "Yale law professor tells you how to raise your children," it would sell hundreds of millions of copies, but "Yale law professor's memoirs" would probably be a giant flop in China. (The best selling book in China that I know of is "Harvard Girl," an advice book on how to get your child into Harvard.)

Phoebe said...

Britta,

Chua has been accused all over the place of backpedaling. But there was a great comment on Jezebel, that I now can't find, about how she's not backpedaling, she's honing her marketing campaign. Which sounds about right. If I had to guess, it's not that she didn't want people talking about the book rather than - which can easily translate to, prior to - reading it. Rather, she was unhappy with the fact that rather than 'starting a discussion,' as a contrarian parenting book (guide or not, it's a parenting book) might, she inspired something more along the lines of a ganging-up. So, having taken the temperature of her audience, she switched to emphasizing the nuance/memoir/learned-a-lesson angle. This was, it seems, the angle absent from the WSJ article... which might well have gone over fine, had highlighting the most controversial bits just attracted attention to her book, sold more copies, etc., without anyone claiming that views like hers lead young Asian women to kill themselves. In other words, it's not that the parenting-manual aspect is absent even in what she's marketing to Americans - why else go on WNYC and talk about bratty Western kids who demand iPods, and how it's totally OK to tell your 4-year-old a handmade birthday isn't good enough, that we're just supposed to trust that within the context of her family, this was sensible?

Look, even in America, it's far more likely her book will sell by tapping into yuppie parental/China takeover anxieties than it will 'as a memoir,' whatever that means in this context. I mean, Chua's successful enough, but not a household name until this month, so we're not interested in the phenomenon to find out more about someone we already cared about. Nor are we so blown away by the quality of her prose that we simply must buy a copy, content irrelevant.

PG, the other question I have for you, aside from re: memoirs, is whether you think Chua would have preferred to sell fewer copies, not make her name in the general yuppie population, but have more accurately conveyed to her three readers that her book is about a humbling journey.

PG said...

PG, the other question I have for you, aside from re: memoirs, is whether you think Chua would have preferred to sell fewer copies, not make her name in the general yuppie population, but have more accurately conveyed to her three readers that her book is about a humbling journey.

Chua has written two previous nonfiction books, at least one of which (World on Fire) made it to the NYT bestseller list (see the nonfiction list for March 2, 2003). This ain't her first time at the rodeo. It's not even her first time as a source for a David Brooks NYT column (Dec. 25, 2005). What's your basis for thinking that absent the WSJ cut-and-paste and resulting furor, her book would have been a publishing failure?

Her book "Day of Empire" partly draws on her own family's experiences as ethnic-Chinese minorities in both the Philippines and the U.S. While not all the reviews of that book agreed with its thesis, I don't know of any that actually claimed Chua must be lying about her family.

Similarly, her book "World on Fire" makes a pretty controversial argument -- that democracy and free-market capitalism can make for a toxic combo in countries with "market-dominant minorities" like Jews in Europe or Chinese in Southeast Asia -- and one that she discussed in terms that might be deemed insulting to Westerners, calling them naive about and blind to ethnicity. "World on Fire" also refers to family experiences, such as her Chinese relatives' difficulties in the Philippines (her aunt was stabbed to death by her Filipino chauffeur). Again, none of the reviewers seemed to think it appropriate to say that Chua must be misrepresenting those experiences, even when they disputed her conclusions.

So I think it's reasonable for Chua to have thought her third nonfiction work could be excerpted in the same straightforward way her past books had been. That it could be discussed and debated and even dismissed (one analyst said "World on Fire" was "based on a straw man of U.S. policy") without questioning the author's motives and personal veracity. I don't know of anyone's reviewing "World on Fire" and saying the author clearly has a grudge against her rich relatives in the Philippines, despite her saying in interviews that she hasn't told them about the book and its "share the wealth" prescription for wealthy minority groups.

PG said...

If it's only for backpedaling purposes that Chua "switched to emphasizing the nuance/memoir/learned-a-lesson angle," it's strange that she put that very angle on the book's cover as its subtitle: "This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. It’s also about Mozart and Mendelssohn, the piano and the violin, and how we made it to Carnegie Hall.
This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones.
But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old."

Considering that the WSJ excerpt was precisely the "supposed to be" story, do you really think it was representative of the book as Chua intended it?

As for what it means for a book to be a memoir, obviously a memoir can carry messages. Pat Conroy's "The Water Is Wide" is a memoir of his brief time teaching an all-black island school in a still-segregated South. It carries very strong messages about how disgracefully these children were being treated; about the internalized racism of his black teaching colleague; about the difficulties of getting past the white hierarchy in order to get the smallest things for his students (all the more difficult with the whites who believed themselves benevolent toward blacks). These political elements are presumably what garnered Conroy (whose only other book had been self-published and sold poorly) attention and awards for his memoir. But it's still a memoir. It's about his life; he's self-deprecating and acknowledges his own mistakes and weaknesses while also arguing in favor of his actions. I don't see why a book about one's own life experience that goes beyond simple navel-gazing therefore has forfeited its claim to being a memoir.

Phoebe said...

PG,

A couple questions left before I answer yours - have you read this book, or have you just read more about it than I have? And what of what Britta points out - that Chua seems to have agreed to market the book as a parenting guide in China?

Now to answer yours:

"What's your basis for thinking that absent the WSJ cut-and-paste and resulting furor, her book would have been a publishing failure?"

Not a publishing failure (my remark about 3 readers was an obvious exaggeration - even this blog counts more than that), but not an unprecedented number of comments to the WSJ online, not something generating this level of buzz. Sure, Chua has written other books, was already something of a public intellectual, but for the bulk of even the elite-yuppie classes, she's a new name to be hearing about. So are you saying that you think she wanted this book to have the same reception as the previous? And you don't think the "mommy" angle is one she might have anticipated would be more hot-button (aka controversial and accessible) than something abstract about the West, economy, and minorities?

"Considering that the WSJ excerpt was precisely the "supposed to be" story, do you really think it was representative of the book as Chua intended it?"

What I would guess, having not read the book, is that, as with controversial books often enough, she goes back and forth between making you think she thinks something outrageous, then tempering it a bit with a but-of-course-I-don't-really-think-that. "The Israel Lobby," at any rate, is written in that manner. But also, going by her interview, yes, indeed, the "supposed to be" story is in there, or is at least something she continues to present herself as believing, when not claiming it's something she no longer believes. I suspect that she gives the impression of thinking the "Chinese" way is right and at the same time gives the impression that she does not, has evolved, etc. An inconsistent narrator and all that.

"I don't see why a book about one's own life experience that goes beyond simple navel-gazing therefore has forfeited its claim to being a memoir."

The issue is not whether Chua can claim her book is a memoir, but whether this absolves the book/the author of any of the accusations it/she has faced. How is it any different, for the purposes of the discussion, if her book is a memoir than if it were an ambivalent, complex parenting guide? Her claim wrt the book being a memoir is, she's not telling others how to live their lives. But memoirs absolutely can and do tell others how to live, just (ideally) in more literary terms than would, say, a book about eating fewer carbs.

PG said...

I've read the free sample you can download from Amazon (I might get the whole book when I get back to a connection that can handle large downloads). The free sample is all about Chua's family experiences and repeatedly points to instances of people in her family breaking away from what their parents wanted: her dad refusing to go into the rich Philippines plastics trade; she and her sisters refusing to go to Berkeley and live at home for college; her failure to marry a Chinese guy. The theme developing thus far seems to be that even if you don't give your parents what they say they want, they'll reconcile themselves to your choices. Her husband's role seems to be as a realistic counterpoint to Chua's flights of parental vanity. Example: "By the time Sophia was three, she was reading Sartre, doing simple set theory, and could write 100 Chinese characters. (Jed's translation: She recognized the words 'No Exit,' could draw two overlapping circles, and okay maybe on the Chinese characters.)"

An incident that many people have pointed to as abusive -- Chua's putting her daughter outside in 20 degree weather for being disobedient -- is much more complicated in the book. Chua opens the door and tells her daughter that she can't stay in the house if she's going to keep screaming and yelling when she doesn't get her way. Her daughter steps outside and faces Chua. She's stopped yelling, and Chua tells her to come back inside now. Her daughter refuses to do so -- even as her teeth start chattering -- until Chua begs and bribes her into it.

The Library of Congress catalog data is that the book's a biography about Amy Chua, a Chinese-American mother with daughters. There's no reason to shelve this with parenting guides.

I don't know enough about China to assess Britta's statement that the book is marketed as a parenting guide there. If it's being bought in the same spirit as "Harvard Girl" and its various Ivy spinoffs, Chinese readers will be very disappointed, because the bulk of the book is about Chua's difficulties with the daughter who didn't make to Carnegie Hall. And neither of Chua's daughters has been accepted to an Ivy, thus she's probably less competent to write a guide of that type than my mom. To the extent that China is like India, readers there are not interested in how to get your kid to Carnegie Hall unless that then garnered a Harvard admission. I remember my relatives in India being disappointed because I didn't get accepted to Harvard --regardless of various accomplishments I'd had along the way. For people who've never heard of Amherst or the University of Virginia, it's all about the brand name.

PG said...

"How is it any different, for the purposes of the discussion, if her book is a memoir than if it were an ambivalent, complex parenting guide?"

I've read some complex parenting guides. For example, when I was in a difficult stage in middle school, someone gave my parents "Homework Without Tears," which offers a wide variety of ideas about how to get a child to complete homework to the best of his ability. However, I think I'm the only one in the family who read it -- as I have an Asian mom, she was not convinced by my passing on the book's suggestion that I be rewarded with candy for doing and turning in my homework in a timely, tidy manner. I've never read a parenting guide that focuses entirely on one person's family experience. I've never even read a guide that uses the pronoun "I" more than "you." Chua's book is no more a parenting guide than Conroy's book was a guide to educating poor black children who are behind their appropriate grade level. The fact that a memoir describes one doing an activity, and the author evidences some pride in his achievements in that activity, does not mean that memoir is the equivalent of a guide to performing that activity.

Phoebe said...

PG,

If you haven't read the book, either, I think we're talking in circles here. Maybe she picked the Amazon excerpt on the basis of it counteracting the WSJ one? You're arguing that those who haven't read the book are getting it wrong, an argument it probably requires reading the book to make. I mean, at this point, from the publicity alone, we know that it's intended just to be her experiences, but that it also makes Western parents question themselves, etc., etc. I don't know precisely what's in the book, but I have a good sense of what Chua thinks people should take from it.

"I've never read a parenting guide that focuses entirely on one person's family experience."

Self-help and memoir aren't mutually exclusive. I know zilch about parenting guides in particular, but the premise behind "French Women Don't Get Fat" (which no, I haven't read in its entirety, and which, if the excerpt she provides is anything to go by, would be a cringe-inducing read) is that the author, a French woman, studied abroad in the US and, well, got fat. A book has to be shelved somewhere, and if Giuliano's falls more into the diet-book category, and Chua's the memoir one, so be it. But genres overlap, and even silly books can be read not incorrectly in more than one way. Chua's clearly in a conversation with her audience/potential audience/whatever, and is clearly tailoring what she does and doesn't emphasize to the perceived response. Had the response to Chua in the US been, wow, we really need to question the way we're raising our bratty Western children (and some did respond this way, but this was hardly dominant), I suspect Chua would accept the praise for having written a book that will get that conversation started, not berated fans for missing the point.

PG said...

The Amazon sample is the first 20-odd pages of the book starting from the cover, which is how I know the Library of Congress data. The author doesn't pick an excerpt. It's how the Kindle sample system works, automatically grabbing those first few chapters from the Kindle version of the book, whether it's a law prof's memoir or Julia Quinn Regency romance. I think you're putting more thought into how Chua marketed her book than she did ;-)

At this point, I find it unlikely that even if I'd said I had read the entire book already rather than just its beginning, you'd find my arguments any more convincing. You see the book purely in marketing terms, so my summarizing and quoting it in comments to show how it's been misunderstood would be taken as more of Chua's manipulations in pursuit of sales. The things I find endearing in the book thus far, like her quoting a country music song I like to describe her younger daughter, can just as easily be spun as "Ah, here Chua attempts to reach flyover country and avoid being seen as an out-of-touch elite."

The comparison to "French Women Don't Get Fat" doesn't make much sense to me. Guiliano uses her experience in the U.S. as a brief cautionary tale to kick off a book full of "you" statements. Page 5 of the paperback explicitly declares, "This book aims to explain how I do it and, more important, how you can, too." There's nothing of that "Everyone can and should do it!" spirit at the beginning of Chua's book; at most, she says that being a "Chinese mom" doesn't require being Chinese or even a mom, and that many mothers who are ethnically Chinese aren't "Chinese moms." Perhaps most importantly, Chua from literally the first page -- the cover -- of her book acknowledges that her method didn't work quite as she expected, something that I doubt you'd find in Guiliano's book.

Phoebe said...

PG,

"At this point, I find it unlikely that even if I'd said I had read the entire book already rather than just its beginning, you'd find my arguments any more convincing."

Fully convincing or not, it would at least be consistent, and I'd be more potentially convinced. Your argument, in part, if I understood correctly, is that those who haven't read the book are not in a position to judge Chua or her book. What you gleaned from, for example, interviewing the author is, I believe, marketing. Marketing more favorable to the author than something the WSJ put together, but still marketing.

"You see the book purely in marketing terms"

Not exactly. I believe that that which people who haven't read the book know about it is from a mix of marketing, reaction to that marketing, and reaction from the three people who so far have actually read the thing. My question was in part whether Chua relinquishes her right to tell people how to read her book if its success, which she's enjoying, comes from its so-called misinterpretation. (I question also whether it's really such a tragedy for her that she was misunderstood.) "Marketing" is complicated here, because what's any memoir if not self-marketing? The humility is always meant to endear the reader. This isn't something specific to Chua. And the text can still be differentiated from the marketing of the text.

Giuliano... I brought this up not to say it's the exactly the same situation, but to point out that genres aren't absolute, but spectrums. So maybe (for the sake of argument) Giuliano's is 70% diet book, 30% memoir, while Chua's is 85% memoir, 15% urging "western" parents to expand their horizons and consider the flaws in their approach.

PG said...

But I didn't cite interviews of the author; I cited the actual book. Its cover, its LOC data, its actual words in their actual order as one would read them if one read the book from its beginning. Is the actual book now marketing too? Evidently so, if every memoir is self-marketing.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Citing part of a book one has not read in full, to make a point about the book in full, is a step up from just having heard about it, but not entirely convincing, no. Because sometimes - often - what an author claims will follow is not what follows.

I'll have another response to this in its own post - I just listened to the Slate audio book club podcast, and from what at least some intelligent people who at least purport to have read the whole thing. The podcast made me more inclined to read it, and vindicated some of both of our speculations about it - I'll get into why in the post.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Sorry, didn't address the specific point - reading just the first chapter isn't citing "marketing," no. It's just not enough to undercut what was learned about the book via marketing, because it could well be (and I'll get into this, as I said, in another post) that one reads the book in full only to discover that the marketing did not give the overall wrong impression.