3 for Thursday: 3 Perspectives on the Art of Book Reviewing

From the perspective of the reviewer, what is the purpose of a book review? To point out a book’s every flaw? To enthuse about your favorite arguments or characters? To get the author to like you? Over the last 2 weeks, a series of essays spontaneously teased out these issues in a gratifying flurry of critical expression that seems rarer than ever these days. Here’s what happened.

1. Lev Grossman of Time started the conversation with “I Hate This Book So Much: A Meditation.” He gives some logical reasons why he’s “given up writing really nasty reviews” even when he hates a book, and perhaps the most compelling reason is that it might just be him.

As far as I can tell what happens when a reader loves a book isn’t actually a wondrous explosion of literary greatness, an inevitable consequence of that book’s inherent value, it’s a complicated combination of all sorts of circumstances: like who the reader is, where they are in their lives, what else they’ve read, what mood they’re in at the exact moment when they pick up the book, whether they’re drunk or sober, what sorts of bullshit they will or won’t put up with (and all novels contain a certain amount of bullshit), whether the author photo looks like their ex-girl/boyfriend, etc. etc.

Likewise a similar confluence of events takes place when a person hates a book. Like I’m hating this book I’m reading now.

Why spoil it for someone else? is the takeaway.

2. To which Slate’s Jacob Silverman took issue in “Against Enthusiasm: An Epidemic of Niceness in Online Book Culture.” Silverman longs for the old days of hard-hitting criticism and blames the world-shrinking internet for making people want to be liked instead of respected.

…if you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres, you’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan. It’s not only shallow, it’s untrue, and it’s having a chilling effect on literary culture, creating an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page.

It’s a good point. How many books in your stack are there because the writer’s skill astounds and thrills you, and how many are there because you saw a cute photo of the author and her dog on Tumblr?

Instead of such a thoughtless state of affairs, Silverman proposes:

A better literary culture would be one that’s not so dependent on personal esteem and mutual reinforcement. It would not treat offense or disagreement as toxic. We wouldn’t want so badly to be liked above all. We’d tolerate barbed reviews, some quarrels, and blistering critiques, because they make our culture more interesting and because they are often more sincere reflections of our passions.

3. To which Ron Charles of the Washington Post then responded with “Has Twitter made book reviewers too nice?” His answer is: maybe it does make us more likely to play nice, but also maybe the real issue isn’t authors on Twitter but the massive changes to the publishing industry in general. Book sections are largely gone and many reviews are written by freelancers. Positive reviews get more traffic, and reviews with more traffic get the reviewers more assignments. Thus, lots of people enthusing about the same books.

He agrees with Silverman that, for professional reviewers:

…it’s essential for some of us to throw sand into the gears of the publicity machine that encourages readers to buy novels that aren’t very good. If we renounce that role, who’s left to do it in a marketplace of RTs, likes and +1s?

But Charles also insists that, contrary to Silverman’s lament, there are plenty of critical reviewers in prominent places, and “sharp, honest book reviews are still just a click away.”

I read each of these essays with great interest because, here at the Discarded Image, we review a lot of books, interview authors and spend a considerable amount of time on social media. And we do it for love, as they say, since there’s no paycheck involved. Like Lev Grossman, we’d rather not put our energy into books that we think have already received more attention than they deserve–though on a few occasions we’ve done as Ron Charles and tossed sand into the publicity gears. And we take Jacob Silverman’s concerns to heart, aware that the temptation to enthuse increases when you know the author’s Twitter handle; but we also want to genuinely promote books we consider worth reading.

Ultimately our purpose here is to identify what a given book (fiction or non-fiction, academic or popular) tells us about how we might better understand the world and respond to it, to evaluate the author’s contribution to ideas and the articulation of ideas. We’re well aware that other critics will judge these same books on different bases that some readers will find better aligned with their reading purposes.

Which is, perhaps, the point of all this: readers turn to reviewers for a vast variety of reasons, and the beauty of the internet is its ability to serve those looking for effusive raves, literary fisticuffs or anything in between.

  • It seems to me that the era in which reviewers could operate without interaction with the community, making pronouncements that could only be answered by letters to the edtior, was actually a brief time in history.  Originally people told stories to people who were present and available to react immediately.  Later we had the printing press and one way communication.  Now we are able to have both the long distance distribution of the old one way communication with the immediate feedback.  It is a change from recent history, but it is probably more in line with the way stories have been transmitted over the long haul. 

  • Mindy Withrow

    Laura, that’s a great observation. I hadn’t thought of this discussion in light of the oral tradition.  Someone should write an essay about that (hint, hint!).

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