Sunday, January 22, 2006

Anne Burke and Reviewers

The following is a little something called "Reviewing the Reviewers" by Anne Burke: well worth reading, for those who think reviewers of writing can also write...

"The state of book reviewing is, in a word, abominable. Although each day, week, and month, reviews appear in newspapers and magazines, the average reader (that is, someone not in the publishing business) will read perhaps no more than one review of any given book and so the influence of any particular review can be enormous––either the reader sees a point in getting the book or doesn't. Despite this influence, no one––except perhaps a disgruntled author––ever questions the credentials, intelligence, or biases of the reviewers and the places wherein they review. Do book-review editors assign books that should be reviewed because of their importance or the books that they are expected to have reviewed? Are the reviewers hand-selected for their knowledge of the subject or, except perhaps for the "most important" books, more or less picked at random? Are there unquestioned aesthetic judgments at work in selecting the books to be reviewed and are we as readers more or less stuck with these judgments? The answer to this last question is yes, as in the New York Times's insistence upon, when in the presence of any fiction that is unconventional, providing readers with the warning that "this book is not for everyone," as though the Times had contracted with the Surgeon General's office to safeguard the public from fiction that demands more from them than the typical Hollywood movie. This column will be given to inspecting the reviewers and their publications.

The Times Literary Supplement is an odd place to begin this inspection because it is perhaps the most reliable, intelligent review source in both the United States and England; it assumes its readers know something and are part of an ongoing conversation about serious books, the opposite assumptions being the métier of the New York Times. Further, TLS has a "point of view," of sorts at least, though this viewpoint irritatingly changes from time to time. However, in the January 29, 1999 issue, Terry Eagleton reviewed Denis Donoghue's The Practice of Reading. Why would TLS assign this book to someone who the editors knew ahead of time could have little good to say about Donoghue? This practice goes on so commonly at the New York Times as to have become commonplace, but it is a strange thing for TLS to engage in. What's more, Eagleton is blatantly stupid in his attempts to savage Donoghue, trying to reduce him to a caricature of an old-fashioned critic who is railing against theorists without knowing enough to rail. Eagleton points to Donoghue's objections to the theorists' jargon, and then claims that the old-fashioned terms are just as confusing to the common man as the words that have emerged from new-fashioned theorists, pointing out that the word symbol is as foreign as signifier: "It is a distinction which might be lost on quite a few lorry drivers." Well, now, I don't know which lorry drivers Eagleton has been hanging around with (I assume not many), but I think even the lowliest of them might understand the word symbol but would still be thrown by signifier. I suspect that they hear symbol almost nightly on the tellie, and I doubt they are left scratching their heads. Oh well, oh well, perhaps lorry drivers don't read TLS. . . . In the February 5 issue of the same publication we have Lucy Dallas (quite a name) giving a rather negative review to two collections of stories by John Taylor. While basically missing the boat about Taylor's fiction, she does praise them for a "keen sense of place and cultural identity." These are apparently good things to have in fiction, though for the life of me I can't imagine what a "cultural identity" might be as related to the art of fiction. More to the point, however: why is having "cultural identity" a good thing? I don't know and Ms. Dallas doesn't tell us. But writers beware: get it into your writing. . . .

When identifying the do's and don'ts of fiction, one must always check out the New York Times Book Review because it is there, almost any Sunday, that one finds an incredible, if usually inconsistent, list of these. Let's look at the February 14, 1999 issue to see what we have. Anita Gates, who is an editor in the Arts & Leisure section of the Times (how can one argue with these credentials?) has a snippy review of a British novel by Sebastian Faulks. The novel does sound rather miserable, but Gates along the way points to what she thinks is a good inclination in Faulks's fiction: "[It] has something serious to say about the human condition." Ah, yes, the good old human condition. Hurrah for the human condition! So, in addition to cultural identity, we have another criterion for good fiction. Mary Hawthorne (on the editorial staff at the New Yorker) gives a favorable review to Haruki Murakami's new novel, ending with: "This wise and beautiful book is full of hidden truths . . . ." Okay, now we have truth as a value for what constitutes good fiction, preferably a truth that is served to us in a beautiful way. Michael Specter (yet another staffer at the New Yorker) has a mixed review of Robert Harris's political novel (I wonder if this is the same Robert Harris who is an editor for the Time's review section), ending the review with some hardy praise: "Harris never loses sight of the big picture. He understands that the Russian people are desperate, that they long for anything that could transport them to a better place . . . ." All right, we now have "what the author understands about something" as a measure. Cultural identity, human condition, beautiful truth, and understanding. In Jacqueline Carey's review of Beverly Gologorsky's novel, we find another golden criterion: "Ignoring plot . . . can be painfully unfair to the reader." Her specific objection is that the author doesn't always tell us what happens and this is "maddening." We need a plot, and one that actually comes to an end so that we know where we stand. Can you imagine what this reviewer would do with, let's say, a Samuel Beckett novel? . . . Susan Bolotin's review of Alice Adams's collection of stories is very positive. One "roots" for the "heroine" and the collection yields up a lesson for us: "And perhaps that is Adams's point: when we search for love, we are not always lovable." Does one have to read 192 pages to get this sophomoric lesson? Apparently one does, or should want to. . . . In a very positive review of the Scottish writer A. L. Kennedy's new novel, Thomas Lynch reconfirms some of the criteria identified above, but adds his own. One of Kennedy's strengths is that she lets "her characters inhabit her text in full flesh." Does the reviewer truly believe that the characters are there in their full flesh? Further, how could they be there in such a way since they are (dare I say it?) characters, not people? Characters are literary inventions, as someone should tell this and other Times reviewers. But Mr. Lynch also displays another glorious characteristic of Times reviewers, the ability to speak to the common man through the use of words or phrases which assure us that, though we may be in the presence of something literary, we need not fear because we can find parallels to other things that are much safer. He tells us for instance that "Kennedy is a world-class fiction writer," which I assume means that she ranks right up there with gymnasts and swimmers; and at the end of the review we find out that the novel is a "Fully Monty experience." Thank God! Now I feel at home and less intimidated. Though the reviewer likes the novel, why would anyone except a moron want to read the book in light of the reasons supplied for it being good? . . . In the last full review of fiction in this NYTBR, William J. Cobb has mixed feelings about Joseph Clark's collection of stories. And here we get new criteria: one weakness is that the stories lack a "moral or intellectual center." It appears that Cobb isn't sure whether he wants a moral or an intellectual center, or perhaps he's not sure of the difference. I am not even sure what in the hell such a center would be, but I suspect Cobb is returning us to something along the lines of John Gardner's moral literary universe. A second problem the reviewer has is that he suspects that the author himself, while criticizing two "dim-witted and shallow" male characters, also kind of envies them. This may bring us back to one of the criteria above (the likeable character routine), but I think Cobb in fact is original here: the author's own feelings or dispositions are open to question and are a legitimate basis for liking or disliking the fiction. Along these lines, we might well ask whether Flaubert wanted to get into Madame Bovary's pants, or at least under her dress, and if he did, then we wind up with a very different kind of reading of that book. We apparently cannot make artistic judgments about characterization, but we can speculate on the writer's motives. . . . I could look at the fiction reviewed in "Books in Brief," but these reviews are usually so dumb that they are not worth commenting on, and the reviewers are the second-stringers, those to whom the Times give the unimportant books. In summary, we have a typical issue of the Times Book Review, though more fiction was reviewed than usual. The criteria for judging good and bad books is, finally, reducible to almost anything and everything. Our national review source, our national embarrassment.

The quality of the thinking and writing among Times reviewers makes one wonder whether there are no intelligent reviewers out there or whether the Times takes pride in having idiots write for it. My guess is that the Times, despite the common assumption, is attempting to reach the "average" reader, which it defines as rather dull and poorly read. Therefore, cast the reviews to match the mind-set of its presumed readers. Of course, what is insidious about this is that, God help us, the Times is still the most influential review source in the country and few people dare speak out against it or else risk its wrath.

On to the Washington Post Book World, February 7, 1999. This will be easy because so little "serious" fiction is reviewed there. David Plante's novel is covered by Jonathan Yardley, who seems to plead, "I am a fish in a barrel, please shoot me!" He generally likes David Plante's fiction because, though Plante is bleak, he is also hopeful (another warning to writers: don't just be bleak!). But he does have problems with the book because it "borders on" (not a good border to be on) and "occasionally laps[es]" into "self-consciousness." What in the world is wrong with self-consciousness? I don't know, but it is a bad thing, a very bad thing. Look out for it, it may be contagious. Yardley never shows us any examples of this self-consciousness and does not explain what he means by it, apparently assuming that the word speaks for itself, the way that syphilis does. His other problem is that Plante's plot is "far more circular than linear." I am sorry, but again Yardley does not explain why this is a problem, and I myself do not know why (can't the same be said for such writers as Laurence Sterne, Joyce, Faulkner, but perhaps this is the problem). So, if you are going to be bleak, then also be hopeful, unselfconscious, and linear. . . . And then we have Michael Dirda writing about two romance novels, beginning with: "O.k., so here's where I completely lose any credibility I might have ever had as a critic" (and one might add, "and as Senior Editor of Book World"). Dirda, I am afraid, says it all and leaves little room for me to argue with his judgment about losing credibility. What valuable space was surrendered to make room for this full-page review of romance novels? The presence of this review suggests the downward trend at the Post for the past few years. Of late, it has fewer reviews, replacing them with hip, smart, short, fun pieces, something along the lines of "Writers Tell Us What Their Favorite Bathroom Novels Are." Pure dreck. The Post used to be the most adventuresome newspaper review section in the country but has now become a shorter version of the Times.

Finally, NPR. Reviewing and coverage of authors at NPR deserves far more space than I will give it this time around. Imagine Terry Gross's wispy voice as she asks a novelist such a penetrating question as, "And when you were writing your novel in Rome, what was your favorite restaurant?" But let's skip Terry and go to Alan Cheuse who recently gave a retrospective review to Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel. After admitting that this is a novel best read when one is young and romantic, Cheuse proceeds to read what he calls a Whitmanesque section, attempting to capture what he must think was Wolfe's star-struck, breathless immediacy. What struck me in his rendition was a dimension of Wolfe's art that until now had escaped me: these supposed romantic passages are not, in fact, romantic, though Cheuse thinks that they are. Reading them (or, rather, misreading them) in his Whitmanesque way revealed, for me at least, that Wolfe, rather than trying to recapture the glories of a lost past, holds up his catalog of objects in stark isolation, sucked dry of the very energy that Cheuse was attempting to impart to them; in short, the objects, though lodged in memory, are dead. In any event, Cheuse concludes (still being a bit apologetic for liking Wolfe) by saying that, while reading Wolfe, he felt nineteen years old again. Wonderful! Another criterion.

Better to go read the alternative magazines and newspapers than to place any trust in such mainline review sources as the Times and Post or NPR. Or go to the Internet magazines. Or even to readers' comments on But we will continue to inspect these reviewers in future issues because they are accountable to no one. And soon we will turn to Nation, that grand hypocritical bastion of corporate culture."

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