October 11, 2009

Book Reviews

As it happens, just before I read Peter Stothard's post about the 'decline' of the book review I had finished my weekly browse through the book section of the Globe and Mail and wondered aloud to my husband what it is that makes this, which should in theory be my favourite section of our "national" paper, so unengaging for me week after week. Or, to look at the question from a slightly different angle, what makes me read a review? I don't pretend to have a theory about the big picture, but I'm a reasonably bookish person, after all. I wonder, if enough of us bookish types went through this mental exercise and wrote about it, if we might be able to provide some suggestions for those poor struggling editors!

Basically, I think there are really only two reasons I read a book review.

The short version:
  1. I'm interested in the book.
  2. I'm interested in the reviewer.
The long version:

I will pretty much always read a review of a book that's somehow on my radar, a book I'm already interested in. This, however, is a useless principle to guide the editor of a book review section. Given just how many books are published and just how diverse individual readers' interests and tastes are, it is impossible for a book section to cater to every reader's idiosyncratic taste on a regular basis. Indeed, from this perspective, we should probably be more surprised when there is a review we want to read than when there isn't! Further, while it would be nice for me, in a way, if there were a review section that perfectly reflected my existing taste and interests, on the other hand it would discourage me from challenging my taste and trying new things: my reading life would stagnate. Still, choice of books is surely an issue; I was struck by Stothard's comment that the TLS reviews a lot of books nobody else does, and perhaps the predictable focus of so many mainstream publications on the same 'best-selling' titles is one of the problems. Stothard touches on debates about including 'popular' titles along with the more seriously (or at least aspirationally) literary; I'm too much of an outsider to the realities of publishing to know for sure, but I wonder if Dan Brown (to give just one example) is worth reviewing in the NYT, not just because, well, because, but because the vast majority of his readers surely don't care what the NYTimes has to say about his books anyway, while the majority of NYTBR readers don't care about Dan Brown. But here, I'm just guessing. If I had any suggestions, it would be, aim higher, not wider. If you try to be all things to all people, you become something like the horrible mish-mash that is now CBC Radio 2. People will tune in--or browse your pages--to see if there's something they like, but they won't love and value and (most important) fight for you if you don't stand for anything in particular.

The second reason I'll read a review is that it is by a reviewer who has caught my interest and earned my respect by his or her critical (or other) work. Given the impossibility (and undesirability) of a review section focusing exclusively on books I already know I want to know more about, I need the lure of good writing and good thinking: a distinct, engaging critical voice. I want a lot less plot summary than I'm usually offered, and a lot more critical reflection on the book, whether it's providing historical or literary contexts or doing a more thematically-focused close reading. While I can be caught up in a critic's more personal approach, I generally prefer to read criticism that does not tend towards the autobiographical (as I've said before here, I don't like critical approaches that assume it's all about the reader). In the past I have pointed to some of the early work of James Wood as exemplary. Here's a bit of what I wrote about his review of Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go:
He also takes Ishiguro's offering and gives it a different kind of life: the conversation is not over when the book ends, and Ishiguro's is not the final word. Now we see something that Ishiguro has shown us, or as he has perceived it, and we can talk about it too. Ishiguro has described the novelist's work as a way of saying "It's like this, isn't it? Don't you see it this way too?" (I'm paraphrasing)--and so when he's done talking, we see what we think, or say something back. But Wood is also interested in the novel as an art form, in how and why specific kinds of narration, for instance, create certain effects, or generate (or control) affect and emotion. The trained eye sees better, understands the alternatives better. In the mini-series "From the Earth to the Moon," there's a wonderful episode in which a geologist is assigned to train the astronauts to collect rock samples from the moon. The crucial step is getting them to see, not just undifferentiated rocks, but specific kinds of rocks that tell their own stories and accrue meaning and significance through their shapes, composition, and location. Critics (any experts, really) help less experienced readers in the same way, telling them some of the things they can look for and why they might be interesting. They train you in appreciation and make you excited about the aesthetic and intellectual experience of reading attentively.
A great review has the effect of bringing something into focus for you, like a microscope bringing out the details on a biologist's slide. Mind you, this effect is most powerful in retrospect, once you have read the novel for yourself, though a compelling review also gives you a preliminary (not definitive) guide to carry with you on your first reading, a sense of what you might be looking for, or at, against which to test your own perceptions. A good review gives you a lively sense of what it is like to be involved with the book. Strong subjective opinions or idiosyncratic taste are fine-- and certainly preferable to the unbearable blandness of something like the Globe and Mail's weekly survey of recent crime fiction, which basically tells you over and over that this book is (or, occasionally, is not) a lot like the author's other books--provided those idiosyncracies do not simply stand as dogmatic and limiting assertions but provide the motivation for searching and self-conscious analysis (not, again, of the critic, but of the book).

As I concede the point about which books are reviewed, then, for me the success or failure of a book review section really hangs on the quality of the writing and thinking it offers. On average, I find the Globe reviews trivial and uninteresting. I wonder about the wisdom of their apparent editorial policy of inviting so many creative writers to review each other's work. There is such a thing as expertise in criticism, and it does not necessarily coincide with the skills and experience (or interests) of novelists or poets. (On the other hand, as I'm well aware, those with the most expertise about literature, namely academics, can be woefully bad at the journalistic skills of brevity--ahem--and wit, not to mention clarity.) I wonder too if the editors sell their audience short, or if their fundamental mistake or futility is just trying to be all things to all people, trying to find that elusive 'common reader' with no distinctly defined tastes or preferences and no patience for the kind of (sometimes excessively) specialized coverage of the TLS.

In any case, I don't find there is any shortage of good reviewing going on. It's just that not much of it is going on in newspapers, from what I can tell. I read all of Adam Roberts's reviews at The Valve, not just out of team spirit, but because even when he writes about books I'll almost certainly never read, he's interesting about them (see his recent comments on Wolf Hall, for instance, or on Byatt's Booker contender The Children's Book). I'm looking forward to Steve Donoghue's forthcoming full-length review of Wolf Hall at Open Letters, too, not least because his brief but pithy posts on the excerpts which appeared in the New York Review of Books in the summer were what first put the book on my own radar. Both writers convey a strong sense of their own reading personalities (which are, I think, quite different) while giving me plenty of ideas about the book in question. There are all kinds of smart, interesting people writing about books informally in blogs and more formally in online publications: the downside here is the difficulty of finding the kind of informed, substantial commentary that rewards careful attention, the way the best print criticism also does. I don't have a suggestion here, except perhaps that print editors should keep exploring online reviewing, as the rest of us do, looking for voices that are distinct and engaging and well-informed. At the very least, they could expand their blogrolls. Bookslut and Maud Newton are not the only games in town.

So, the rest of you? Any ideas about what book review sections could or should do differently? How do you feel about the review section of your local paper--if it even still has one?


nicole said...

It's a bit sad, but I've almost completely given up reading book reviews from print publications. I still read one in the NYT here and there, if it's a book or author I'm interested in, but it's hardly ever anything special. Which is pretty much the same way I felt about The Globe and Mail when I lived in Canada.

But the TLS, the TLS...my kingdom for the TLS! I used to read my boyfriend's copy religiously, cover to cover, learning more from reviews of books I'd probably never read than from any other publication I looked at. By orders of magnitude. I've promised myself a subscription of my own for Christmas this year.

So I have no idea what any of the Chicago papers review, or even if they do. The New York Times disappoints me in this department as they do in almost all others. The niche approach seems to make a lot more sense. As you say, what's the point of the Times reviewing Dan Brown? Just trying to be all things to all people. I'd rather cast my lot in with the small bunch of weirdos that want to read some serious reviews of books I actually won't read about anywhere else.

Colleen said...

I too have given up reading reviews from print publications (the closest one being the Globe's; I agree with you on why it's generally unreadable.)

I too want more critical engagement with a book and less plot summary; yet, I tend to shy away somewhat from the analytical approach until after I've read the book myself. Just as I did when I was an academic, I prefer to come to my own conclusions before being confronted with anyone else's.

Vanity Fair, which I'm not sure is a very good magazine, used to provide one-sentence book "reviews" (perhaps they still do) - they weren't reviews really, just tantalizing tidbits and when well-written, often entirely irresistible.

I may be one of your idiosyncratic review readers who is impossible to please. I think what I want is a short flash of a review to get me reading, and the analytical, well-written review to engage with later. And this, combined with the fact that I'm hardly up to date on contemporary fiction, is why I think online sources are the only things that can work for me.

Internet reviews remain readily available for a much longer period of time than paper reviews do, and while many bloggers, etc take advanced reading copies of new books on from publishers, many, like me, are reading backwards. I love that I can read say a Dickens novel and then read a review of said book online by a Victorian professor like you and another review of the same book by an "amateur" with an entirely different approach. For me, I want as much of a semblance of community discussion as possible and the paper review just doesn't fit that model.

Perhaps the "death" of the paper review reflects our culture's changing notion of what it means to study literature, in spite of how much these things are mean to appeal to a general public not engaged in any educational project whatsoever - instead of the so-called experts, who used to arbitrate the boundaries of taste and quality in literature, it is more conversational, sometimes in the highest sense and sometimes in the most semi-literate omg this book is like SO awesome! way.

Those who would maintain the predominance of the paper/arbiters of taste model would have us believe that blogging and other online forms of book reviewing are inferior, no doubt in part because that's often true in the senses of both quality of writing and in perceptive observations of what books are doing; but I suspect it's fear too. Times they are a changin' and readers are less interested, I believe, in being told what to read and more in discussing what they have and want to read with others.

My apologies for this long rant/reflection which is both incomplete and highly disorganized.

Jeanne said...

Mostly I read reviews if I know the reviewer in some way--maybe just by reputation. I agree about not being interested in plot summary (nor in reading a list of quotations divorced from context).

In general, I think I'm more interested in the personal than you are. I like to find out how reading the same book affects different people.

Amateur Reader said...

Here we see why a reviewer can't please everyone. Because I demand a list of quotations divorced from context! How else can I tell if the prose is any good? Gimme a p. 90 test.

One reason I have grown to distrust ordinary print book reviewers is that the prose they single out as "lyrical" and "luminous" and whatnot often turns out to be a jumble of overwritten clich├ęs.

nicole said...

AR's remarks make me want to clarify mine a bit. First, the huge majority of TLS reviews I read and enjoy are of nonfiction, and I'm not going to say the prose doesn't matter there but it's not as important and also, these are books I'm probably never going to read. But the reviews are super interesting all the same and often provide some good intellectual history.

Second, the fiction reviews that do appear function more to get me to hear of things I would literally never hear of elsewhere. The criticism is still of a much higher caliber, but these really are books I would probably not know about for years to come, if at all, if I were only reading the mainstream, paper-of-record reviews.

Besides, quotations divorced from context are what people read our blogs for.

Finn Harvor said...

"On average, I find the Globe reviews trivial and uninteresting. I wonder about the wisdom of their apparent editorial policy of inviting so many creative writers to review each other's work."

Dear Rohan, this is an interesting post overall, and an intriguing comment specifically. However, if you're suggesting a conflict of interest, why not come out and say it? It might lead to lively further discussion.

As well, and in the FWIW category, Alex Good had a strong piece in the Globe a while back about the necessity of negative reviews. Zachariah Wells commented soon after that it was ironic that the Globe, of all places, would publish a piece calling for intelligent negative criticism given the paper's reputation for "stifling same". Perhaps better criticism is being written by writers as newspaper reviews and simply not making it into print. (This incidentally, would serve as a timely metaphor for what is arguably happening in Canadian publishing generally these days ... but I digress.)

Rohan Maitzen said...

Finn, you're right that potential conflicts of interest was one thing I was thinking about: if you know your book will be reviewed soon, that may incline you towards being nice, or you may just be more sympathetic towards fellow writers and inclined to give them a break. But what I've been thinking about more is that literature and criticism are not, in the end, the same thing, and talking about literature is a critical activity, not necessarily a peer activity--or at least, not if the object is not to workshop the process but to think about the end product. It's not negative reviews I'm looking for but reviews that do more than recapitulate the plot and then say a few throwaway remarks about whether things 'work' or not (if you saw Jack Kirchhoff's review of Michael Connelly's Nine Dragons this weekend, but it exemplifies the kind of review I'd like to see fewer of. Here's its concluding analysis:

"There are more twists and turns in the final 40 or 50 pages of Nine Dragons than most books contain in their entirety, but it all makes perfect sense and ties together most satisfyingly." (Here's the full review.)

NigelBeale said...

A generous dose of honest, high spirited evaluative criticism is what we need here...more passionate argument too damn it.