Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Who Should Review Books? And Where?

Posting has been light lately, as W6HQ has been overwhelmed with scheduling oddities, including one of us (Rhian) working the polls for Super Tuesday. Personally, I threw in for Obama. Hillary looks just as good on paper, if not better (Paul Krugman is very persuasive on the subject of their competing health care plans), but Obama's got the mojo, and America could use a little of that stuff right now. In any event, tonight's result will neither make my day nor break my heart.

What would make my day, though, is the magical appearance of excellent book reviews all across the land. Fat chance of that! I don't think there's any aspect of literary culture that people complain about more than book reviews. The superstar reviewers are routinely disdained, sometimes because their superstar status seems undeserved, mostly because, if you disagree with them, their prominence only serves to remind you how powerless you and your opinion really are. Everyone hates The New York Times Book Review--in part because they're the primary popular book section in the country, but mostly because they let lightweight writers review other lightweight writers, resulting in embarrassing over-praising of work that shouldn't be featured in the first place. And because, ever since McGrath swept through town, they appear to consider fiction and poetry to be less important than nonfiction. And then there are the jacket-blurb factories, Kirkus et al., who review book many months before they're published, and can cause entire publicity departments to give up on a writer in an instant--all under an anonymous catchall that leaves nobody at all responsible. We do, of course, have The New York Review of Books, Bookforum, The London Review of Books--genuinely excellent publications that nevertheless are not widely read by the masses of people we hope will want to buy our books. These magazines are about as good as book reviewing gets, but they leave me unsatisfied--not in my reading of them, which is enjoyable, but in the way they make me long for writing that was more succinct but just as intelligent, and widely available.

What do I really want in a critic? I used to think that professional critics were no good--that writers should be judged by other writers. But that's even worse--the whole thing would just be horribly incestuous and overwhelmed by blatant logrolling and the discharging of vendettas.

No, what I want is for smart readers to review books. Intelligent, incisive people who praise reluctantly, criticize respectfully, and take the time to figure out what makes a writer tick. The reviews of my own work which I most treasure are not necessarily positive--indeed, the best one ever went out of its way to observe how undercooked my first couple of novels were--but rigorous, respectful, honest, and even-handed. And these are rare.

The best thing said in recent years about critics was said by a critic: Anton Ego, of the Pixar movie Ratatouille, which I consider to be very nearly a masterpiece of a flick. (You should see it if you haven't--it's a children's picture about artistic integrity!) Over the closing scenes, the dour Frenchman intones:

In many ways the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgement. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But, the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things... the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something... and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.

The discovery and defense of the new! That's what book reviewing should be all about--accepting the new and different at face value, and trying to judge it on its own terms. If it falls flat, so be it--but take it seriously.

Rhian might already have said this, but I think she's right--some of the most useful book reviewing of recent years has appeared in the customer comments of Amazon.com. (I don't need to hotlink that, right?) It's true! There are smart people on there, saying what they think, without guile, without preconceptions. Of course, most customer comments are crap, or worse, but it turns out to be very easy to weed these out. The good ones are by readers who are rooting for the new and interesting--they want books to be excellent, because they want to have a good time reading them. They're not getting paid, either--they're offering up their opinions because their opinions mean something to them, and they want them out there.

The internet is not entirely there yet, I think, as an organ of cultural evaluation. It needs to develop a history, a track record. But it's coming along. People bitch about bloggers all the time, but we don't need less of them--we need more. It doesn't matter if most of them suck. Most of everything sucks. What matters is that they're honest. And this is increasingly how I feel about book reviews--excellence would be wonderful, but when you get down to it, shitty honesty is better than brilliant disingenuousness.

Now go Barack the vote!


rmellis said...

I think the last time I mentioned Amamzon comments I was sneering at them, but I've since changed my view. If you read them correctly, you can learn an awful lot from them.

I've become a little bit obsessed with one-star reviews, actually... what makes a person loathe a book so much they get on the internet to warn everyone off it? Many different things, as it turns out...

Apostata said...

A good perspective on the issue (of both literary criticism and lit-blogging).

I sometimes wonder if the contempt print-media holds for bloggers is based upon the fact that the average reader will, over the course of finding several smaller, more personal reviews of a book, actually walks away with a better sense of what it is that is being reviewed, rather than an overwhelming suspicion of bias on the part of any single reviewer.

myles said...

Weblogs are a good way of taking an average measure of a book. And after a while, I figure out who I can trust, or whose tastes roughly coincide with mine.

The big important journals (NYRB and LRB, in partickler) have brilliant essays inspired by the books under review, but often fail to inspire me to actually buy the thing.

Their fiction reviews are more like criticism than reviews, discussing the book in a way that is useful only for someone who's already read it. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- James Wood is brilliant, but small bloggers have persuaded me to buy more books. There more enthusiasm, it seems, in blogland. More passion, or something. And more diversity: I wouldn't care if I never read anything else by,say, Martin Amis, but I'm real happy to hear about so many obscure writers such as Alan Harrington and others.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I think you're right...the LRB and NYRB are more about criticism...a good "book review" should serve as an intelligent recommendation (or non-recommendation).

In theory, the Times Book Review is a superb format. I wish it were more intelligently written, though.

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