What A First! New York Times Reviews A Self-Published Book

Well, I would like to think this is good news: the fact that on December 3rd, the New York Times reviewed its first ever self-published book: Alan Sepinwall’s “The Revolution Was Televised.”

Let’s be clear about the importance of this, perhaps. Self-published books never get any love from such reputable book review sources as the NYT. So it’s definitely a start.

But Amy Edelman, founder of indiereader, asked in a Huffingtonpost article, “Does this mean that The Times will start reviewing other indie titles? Doubtful. In her piece in Forbes announcing the news, Suw Charman-Anderson states that “Most reviewers don’t want to deal with self-published authors directly because they don’t really want to deal with any authors directly…” (emphasis mine)… and that “reviewers depend on publishers acting as winnowers, sorting out the wheat from the chaff, and at least attempting to make sure that they are sent books they are actually interested in.”

Edelman claims that this will lead self-published authors back to the drawing board of where they’ve always been; having to rely on word of mouth and other such sources to get their names out there.

And even Forbes acknowledges that “If there’s one thing every self-published author yearns for, it’s to be reviewed alongside traditionally published books, but for most that’s a dream that is unlikely to come true. Book reviewers, whether for traditional book review columns or book blogs, frequently don’t accept submissions from self-published authors. Instead, there’s a web of professional relationships between traditional publishers and reviewers which keeps the books and the reviews flowing.”

Again, one review in the NYT is likely to change that. It’s also important to remember that Alan Sepinwall is not a complete unknown, but writes for a blog called “What’s Alan Watching?,” which is best known for its observant episode-by-episode television commentary.

And yet, dare I say, it is a start. I hope that in the months and years, NYT will have no choice to but to cave into the growing pressure of reviewing well-produced SP books, or look foolish ignoring such a large new literary population.

In the meantime, here is the review in its entirety. Thanks for help opening some literary doors, Alan.

As the television critic Alan Sepinwall points out in his incisive new book, the joke on Tony is “that the show that told his story represented not the end of something, but the thrilling ground floor.” Though other series like “NYPD Blue,” “Twin Peaks” and “Oz” made the revolution possible, “The Sopranos” is “the one that made the world realize something special was happening on television,” he says. “It rewrote the rules and made TV a better, happier place for thinking viewers, even as it was telling the story of a bunch of stubborn, ignorant, miserable excuses for human beings.”

In “The Revolution Was Televised,” Mr. Sepinwall — who writes the blog “What’s Alan Watching?,” best known for its observant episode-by-episode commentary — analyzes a dozen “great millennial dramas” that have forged a new golden age in TV: bold, innovative shows that have pushed the boundaries of storytelling, mixed high and low culture, and demonstrated that the small screen could be an ideal medium for writers and directors eager to create complex, challenging narratives with “moral shades of gray.”

Series like “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “24,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” Mr. Sepinwall argues, have transformed the television landscape, and allowed TV to “step out from the shadow of the cinema.”

Mr. Sepinwall’s book, which was self-published, has all the immediacy and attention to detail that has won his blog so many followers (including this one). It also stands as a spirited and insightful cultural history. In these pages he examines how the artists behind 12 groundbreaking series used the time and space and intimacy afforded by the medium of TV to pioneer new means of storytelling, while at the same time explicating the philosophical visions behind their work.

“ ‘The Sopranos’ comes across as deeply cynical about humanity,” he writes, “while ‘The Wire’ believes that any innate goodness within people eventually gets ground down by the institutions that they serve. They are shows about the end of the American dream.” In contrast, he goes on, David Milch’s period western “Deadwood” — set in a lawless mining camp in the Dakota Territory in the 1870s — is about the birth of that dream, “about selfish loners existing on society’s fringes finding ways to come together in service of something greater than themselves.”

Readers may quibble with Mr. Sepinwall’s selection of shows: No “West Wing”? No “Freaks and Geeks”? Was it really too early in the show’s run to include a chapter on “Homeland”? And they will doubtless contest some of his interpretations. Regarding the endlessly debated cut-to-black ending of “The Sopranos,” for instance, he concludes that “Tony’s life goes on (and, as Journey’s Steve Perry sang, on and on and on),” that “the idea that Tony dies flies too much in the face of everything the show had previously done in terms of narrative and theme” and that besides, at that moment, “there’s no one we know of who had murder in his heart for the guy.”

He amiably concedes, however, that he doesn’t think there is a concrete answer, and that “there are very persuasive arguments to be made for the idea” that Tony has, in fact, been shot dead in the final scene (one such argument is put forth, at great length, in an online essay titled “The Sopranos: Definitive Explanation of ‘The END’ ”).

Whether the reader agrees with Mr. Sepinwall, however, is beside the point. As he does with his blog, he is throwing out smart, fair-minded assessments meant to provoke discussion. He deconstructs the underlying mythology of shows like “Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica” and assesses the crucial role that casting — of, say, Michael Chiklis as Vic Mackey in “The Shield,” Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer in “24” or Bryan Cranston as Walter White in “Breaking Bad” — played in defining characters.

Mr. Sepinwall also uses interviews with the writers, directors, producers and executives involved with such series to tell the story of their genesis and evolution. In the case of “The Sopranos,” he writes, David Chase “didn’t set out to write a mob drama” but “a show about his troubled relationship with his late mother,” who would eventually be embodied by “the marvelously passive-aggressive Livia Soprano.” He made Tony a mobster, Mr. Sepinwall writes, because he wanted “to find a way to make the stakes high enough that viewers would care,” much the way David Milch used salacious material in “NYPD Blue” as “a come-on to get people to watch the subject matter he really wanted to deal with” — namely, the psychological toll of police work and “the moral depths” people can find themselves sinking to.

Before becoming a critic at the Web site Hitfix (and before that, The Star-Ledger in New Jersey) Mr. Sepinwall was writing about television as an informed fan — in college he started a blog about “NYPD Blue” — but his fan-boy history hasn’t clouded his critical eye. He writes astutely here about, say, the flaws of Season 4 of “The Sopranos” and the confusing, unfocused pilot of “The Wire.” But he is probably most compelling in this volume explaining the magnetic pull of certain shows and their emotional power, articulating just why we fell in love with the characters in “Friday Night Lights,” or why ordinary viewers can find stone-cold killers like Tony Soprano or Walt White so “relatable.”

At the same time Mr. Sepinwall’s reporting opens a breezy window on the creative process behind these shows — and the combination of talent, luck, timing and obsessive work that go into their making. He tells us about the long, winding road that “Mad Men” took to get to the screen and how the one significant (and, it turns out, invaluable) note that an AMC executive reportedly gave the show’s creator Matt Weiner was this: “Don Draper needs to have a secret.”

In another chapter Mr. Sepinwall conveys the demands on writers working on breakneck series like “24,” which “consumed plot ideas like Pringles.” As Howard Gordon, an executive producer of that show, observed, “It’s like driving at 65 miles per hour on the highway and you’re building the highway as you’re driving.”

As Mr. Sepinwall sees it, shifts in the television business and changes in the ways in which people watched TV helped pave the way for the millennial golden age in drama. The proliferation of cable channels and the fracturing of network television’s big-tent audience, he writes, made smart executives realize that “they could do very well making shows those smaller audiences would care passionately about.”

As “the middle-class movie” — which couldn’t “be made on the cheap or guarantee an opening weekend of $50 million or more” — became increasingly difficult to get made, artists who might once have gravitated to the big screen moved to the little one. And all this happened, Mr. Sepinwall notes, at “the perfect technological time,” as DVRs, video on demand, DVD boxed sets and video streaming made it easier for people to catch up on “that great-but-complicated new show they’d heard so much about.”

Fans could pass DVDs around the way they used to share record albums or mixtapes, and most of all, he says, they could turn to the Internet to share their enthusiasms, and to “discuss and make sense of shows that might have seemed too challenging back in the day, whether you were trying to solve the mysteries of ‘Lost’ or understand what Tony Soprano’s dreams meant.”

The Internet, in Mr. Sepinwall’s opinion, wasn’t a rival to TV, but a kind of partner. And for Mr. Sepinwall himself, the Internet has been the launching pad for an increasingly high-profile career — and now, a terrific book.

 

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4 comments

Patricia says: January 07, 2013 at 9:55 pm

I am disappointed because the book is not-fiction, but I am not surprised by their choice to review a non-fiction book.

    A. Yamina Collins says: January 07, 2013 at 11:03 pm

    True, but at least it’s a start. I have a feeling we will soon see self-published fiction reviewed. It’s going to come to a point where publishers can’t keep ignoring those self-published break-out hits, in my opinion.

    Thanks for commenting.
    Yamina

Dale Coy says: January 20, 2013 at 9:25 am

I hope I have that first novel. Responsible social activism. Morton’s Fork. An emotional story of a doctor who can’t take it anymore.

    A. Yamina Collins says: January 21, 2013 at 8:09 pm

    I wish you well with your endeavor, Dale!

    Best,

    Yamina