Sunday, July 7, 2013

A Preface to Book Reviewing

Reader-- beware the book reviewer; he is a scheming and duplicitous beast.  He may aspire to many things in practicing his craft, but rest assured that reviewing books is not one of them.  This is true for the single and tragic reason that the vast majority of books published in any given year, on any given subject, are no good at all.  Odds are that you have already read books just like them and will do so again, and you will gain nothing by spending time on them.  If they are fiction, they probably tell you the story of an idealistic young MFA student who studies poststructuralism in grad school and has an affair with an older woman or man (features, surely, of the universal human drama).  If they are nonfiction, they probably contain one familiar idea which is adequately conveyed in the introduction, or even in the title (saving you the trouble of even turning to the front flap of the dust jacket).

If it seems like these books only get worse and worse over time, it is not because people were smarter or more humane in the past, but because the books we recall from those days have already been run through the strainer of our collective memory, with the very worst specimens being filtered out.  There were Slavoj Zizeks and Niall Fergusons in the past too, but they have been justly consigned to oblivion, whereas their modern heirs are still very much with us.

The book reviewer, who usually chose her unamiable profession because of a love of some small number of really decent books from forty years ago or more, probably didn't realize just how flatly uninteresting and redundant most books are until it was too late.  She therefore devotes her time and attention to waiting breathlessly for some mediocre biography of a famous 19th-century author or some new collection of previously unedited letters by a literary gadfly of the 'Thirties so she can blithely ignore the biographer or editor and write instead about their subjects-- the authors she had wanted to write about, no doubt, when she first set out on this path.  This is why you can purchase the New York Review of Books every month now for years on end and never read about any novel published later than 1975, unless it is some posthumous work by Norman Mailer found in his attic, etc.

When the book reviewer is forced, however, as sometimes occurs, by an unforeseen drought of these biographies and letter collections to actually write about contemporary books by living authors, he is faced with four possibilities, and the choice between them depends not on him but on the nature of the contemporary book he is forced to review.  The first (and most likely) eventuality is that the book is bad and he disapproves of its ethical purpose.  In this case, he will probably only read the first and last chapters of it on the assumption (never yet proven wrong) that no new arguments or information will be found sandwiched between them.  In the second case, the book is still lousy, but he approves of its general purposes.  He won't even read the conclusion of that one, since he doesn't need to worry that its author will be upset with him and write an angry response pointing out some striking omission.  On the basis of the preface and introduction, he writes a glowing comradely endorsement and leaves it at that.

Possibility #3: the book is quite good, but written to some malign purpose.  In this case, the book reviewer will read at least two thirds of it, and will probably write down all the most sinister bits as he goes in order to savor them more fully when the time is right.  If some right-winger he is reviewing states baldly that the Palestinians are not a people or that the United States fought in Vietnam to make the world safe for democracy, or some leftist that internal dissidents in Iran are lackeys of Western colonialism, the crafty book reviewer wastes no time in being appalled-- he considers these an excellent harvest for his day's labor and files them away for the purposes of some gasp-producing moment at the end of his article.

A fourth and final possibility suggests itself: that the book is not only good, but is written with some wholesome end in view which the reviewer can endorse in good conscience.  This last possibility is a sacred event.  It is to be treated by the reviewer as something like seeing a snow leopard or laughing at a joke on A Prairie Home Companion-- wonderful, but certainly not a routine occurrence.  Most books that are interesting enough to read all the way through have some deplorable motive at their heart.  New ideas, even rotten ones, are interesting, after all, whereas most good ideas are pretty old and therefore boring-- they refer to things we feel we probably ought to do but don't want to, like paying higher taxes to support social services.  The new ideas are more exciting-- they tell us things like: actually, you'd be doing the poor a favor by paying even lower taxes than you do currently!  Who wouldn't rather read a book like that?  For something to be both interesting and wholesome you need an author with a special depth of humanity and intellect and moral integrity-- in short, the sort of person who is elbowed out of the way early on in the publishing game by the Slavoj Zizeks and the Niall Fergusons.

As desirable as it is to land the assignment of writing this last sort of review-- the review of a good book with a moral purpose-- it is death to read such a review.  They are the worst and least interesting reviews of all, because the reviewer has nothing to add to what the book has already said.  He is only reviewing the book because he wishes he had written it himself and blandly summarizing its contents and extracting block quotes from its text is as close as he can come to doing so.  The best books therefore provoke the most egregiously wasteful reviews.

Have I been unfair to contemporary books and their reviewers so far?  You may insist that contemporary books have more merit than I've granted here, or at least, that I shouldn't pronounce judgment on whether or not they do until I've read more of them.  You may point out that reviews these days are not written by the sort of "professionals" who were once made to plow through seven novels a week for America's literary magazines, but by people deeply engaged in a given subject matter who know what they're talking about and can find the time and the inclination to read the book they are discussing all the way through.

Perhaps.  But I think not.  In general, if the prodigies of erudition people claim to have achieved sound too impressive to be true, that's because they are.  Most historians have not read every book listed in their bibliographies, at least not all the way through.  If there is a footnote on the eight-hundredth page of one of them which refutes her whole theory, the historian will probably never be apprised of it, unless a malicious colleague hunts it down (more likely than her finding it for herself, since malice is a stronger impetus to arcane scholarship than intellectual curiosity).  Similarly, the book reviewer knows, deep down, that she does not read all the books she reviews, and more importantly-- that she shouldn't.  Most reviews are so short and are limited to so few pages by popular demand that the more you know about a book, the harder it becomes to say anything at all about it.  You're better off coming up with a profound and independent thought suggested by one page of a book, or even one sentence, than making trite observations about three hundred of its pages in 2500 words.

Most book reviewers, I suspect, don't even feel guilty for not finishing each book.  As George Orwell laid bare his own practices with characteristic honesty:  "At about nine p.m. [the mind of the book reviewer] will grow relatively clear, and until the small hours he will sit in a room which grows colder and colder [...] skipping expertly through one book after another and laying each down with a final comment, ‘God, what tripe!’ In the morning, blear-eyed, surly and unshaven, he will gaze for an hour or two at a blank sheet of paper until the menacing finger of the clock frightens him into action. Then suddenly he will snap into it. All the stale old phrases — ‘a book that no one should miss’, ‘something memorable on every page’, ‘of special value are the chapters dealing with, etc. etc.’ — will jump into their places like iron filings obeying the magnet, and the review will end up at exactly the right length and with just about three minutes to go."

It seems to me that whatever justification exists for book reviewing, given all of the above, it is not to provide information about some current literature which has been half-read and half-digested by the reviewer.  Book reviewing may have some role to play in pointing out new directions to bibliophiles in their future reading, but it does a very imperfect job even of that, because the nature of the craft demands that the reviewer be constantly "faking it" such that the reader has no idea what he truly believes and what is a lie. As Orwell again points out, the worst part of reviewing is not having to read dull books, but having to "constantly invent[] reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever."  Nine times out of ten, if a reviewer recommends a book to you, it is not because of any merit it possesses, but because he wishes its author well, personally or politically, or-- even more likely, because it is just so much easier to come up with 2500 words of praise than with 2500 ways to say that a book did not provoke in you a single stray thought or relevant emotion-- other than boredom.

The only really solid justification for book reviewing, then, is none of these things-- it is, rather, if the review is treated as a self-contained literary work.  If the book being discussed, its author, and its contemporary subject matter are purely incidental-- if they serve as a mere springboard for the reviewer's far more interesting personality, sensibility, and unique intelligence, then that review deserved to be written.

I said at the beginning that the reviewer is a schemer and the following fact is the root of his scheming tendencies: in all likelihood, he does not want, and never wanted, to review contemporary books at all.  He wants to expound his own superior opinions and regale us with his more interesting anecdotal insights on the human condition.  Either that or he wants to talk about history, to write about William Blake or George Eliot or someone else who is actually a good writer, but he is artificially constrained by the need to be "current."

If he is actually good, his opinions will be genuinely worthwhile and his anecdotes illuminating and his history top notch, and we should not regret the egoistic impulses which lead him to insert his own personality into reviews about other people's books.  We should only be sorry that he is constrained by the demands of the New Yorker editorial staff or whomever to churn out copy on David Mamet's political screeds or Alain de Botton's musings on Proust rather than an essay about politics or Proust himself.  We should rest assured, however, that if he is really good, he is probably in touch with his own scheming and duplicitous nature already and knows how to get around such obstacles in order to write history, or philosophy, or political theory, or whatever he likes, and dress it up nicely in contemporary garb[age].  Edmund Wilson, one of the greatest of all reviewers, once gave this frank advice to aspiring hacks:

“To write what you are interested in writing and to succeed in getting editors to pay for it, is a feat that may require pretty close calculation and a good deal of ingenuity [....] You have to learn to load solid matter into notices of ephemeral happenings; you have to develop a resourcefulness at pursuing a line of thought through pieces on miscellaneous and more or less fortuitous subjects; and you have to acquire a technique of slipping over on the routine of editors the deeper independent work which their over-anxious intentness on the fashions of the month or the week have conditioned them automatically to reject."

This is the great secret of all the truly worthy book reviewers: Edmund Wilson, George Orwell, Mencken, Hazlitt, and, in our own day, George Scialabba: you are left at the end of reading one of their reviews with a much stronger impression of them and their own personality than of the book they are discussing, or its author.  (Nobody today reads No Orchids for Miss Blandish, e.g. but Orwell's essay on the book does not in the least suffer for that fact.)  When you do recall the author and book in question, it is largely because they have served as a useful foil for the reviewer rather than being especially interesting in their own right.  Generations who will never read Thomas Malthus, and with good cause, may still read Hazlitt's take on him for what it reveals of the Hazlittian personality rather than of the dismal scientist he was refuting.  I've never waded through one of Theodore Dreiser's tomes, but I am grateful to them for providing fodder to a classic Mencken essay.  It is much more of an incentive for me to read Thomas Friedman's words when they are quoted in a Scialabba review which brilliantly excoriates them than when they are bound in one of their creator's volumes.

If book reviews are to have value, in short, it is because they are worth reading for their own sakes, and not for some spurious information they probably don't contain about their subjects.  We should have no illusions about this-- though fortunately for us, the best reviewers do not, and they go about their scheming and their duplicity with no shame whatsoever at their beastly nature.

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