"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
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
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
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
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 amazon.com. 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."