What I Think I Might Think
Wow. You folks surely do enjoy a good argument. If my stats tracker was a seismograph we’d be sending lifeboats to California…
I feel like apologizing to Chris Banks, who I may have unfairly painted, in that last blog post, as equally prone to pantomime as his peers. Chris has been going out of his way to try and speak about reviewing culture in a legitimate way. I think he made an error when he first breached the subject by including a review of his own book in his examples of poorly-handled reviews, as this invited the personal in right off the bat, but I should not be painting enablers and addicts with the same brush. Sorry, Chris.
This has gotten me thinking about reviewing in general. Paul Vermeersch is hosting an interesting conversation about it over at his blog this morning. And so too is Brain Palmu, though they are unlikely to find all that much to agree on, and it was Palmu’s review that got this whole thing started in the first place.
I am not much of a critic. I believe that, to this point in my life, I’ve written 12 book reviews, “book review” being defined as an essay judging the successfulness of a new work, not something like this Knotting-Off series (which I haven’t forgotten about) which considers older titles already subject to the public reaction. Of those 12 real reviews, I’d say that I successfully described my feelings on the book maybe once or twice. The rest of the time those feelings were too mixed, or maybe too new, to get it right like the book deserved. That being said, I think I’ve read some pretty successful reviews of my work, both positive and less-positive.
I’ll try and put into words what I want from a reviewer:
1. A book reviewer’s primary job outcome should be the promotion of literature. This is not to say that reviewers need to be promoters, but they should follow the logic that A. They are fans of reading and B. Their audience is made up of fans of reading, so these two parties should have an inherently symbiotic relationship, sharing their diet of good books. Sometimes that involves identifying the distractions, the books that aren’t “good”, that aren’t moving literature forward. This should be done with the full arsenal of the reviewer’s vocabulary, but it should also be done without malice or ignorance towards the overall cause. The message should be: this book isn’t helping us, and here’s why.
2. In order to get to that why, you need a series of organizing principles, crafted into some sort of consistent, but permeable, worldview. We can call that worldview an idealism, or a reviewer bias, or whatever, but the truth is it’s an absolute necessity. Otherwise a reviewer is helpless, s/he’s just walking in the dark–and the books, though mostly inert, are innumerable. The responsible reviewer should be aware of this both while reading, and responding, and they should know that a book that breaks their assumptions, that bends their paradigm, is the ultimate gift. Revelations are breakthroughs, they are how a reviewer evolves. And I’d want my reviewer to always be evolving.
3. The whole product of the book should be up for discussion, not just the text. It’s an insult to our industry for authors to lay claim to the full creative output of the book we put our names on. The contributions (or lack thereof) of all of the following are fair game: editors, publishers, marketing strategists, publicists, agents, book designers, cover artists, proofreaders, and copyeditors. That being said, a reviewer shouldn’t confuse blame when they take exception to some element of the final product’s creation. They should be familiar enough with the process to deduce the source of their complain. Also, it’s more than fair to say that a book’s greatest single contributor is almost always its author(s), and they deserve the majority of the critical attention, up to an including all of it, if the reviewer so decides.
4. That being said, it’s a waste of time to reduce every finished product to an island, an object that exists on a plane of negative space. I am disappointed in any review that begins with a close reading of the text, no matter how deep that reading may be, and never pulls back to take in a wider angle. Books happen in context. Not just the context of other books, but the context of every single thing from the big-bang, to the author’s favourite childhood movie, down to what the layout artist had for breakfast that morning. Obviously, a reviewer is unlikely to have been party to any of those three things, but s/he should know history, know anthropology, know psychology and philosophy from the high-branches of abstract thinking to the blood-and-guts ephemera of everyday experience.
If a book review reads like a consumer report on a microwave, the reviewer has failed to take any chances, to have vision, and has let me down. While both books and microwaves are able to change the culture they are introduced into, books do it with much more regularity, and it is expected of them by a greater percentage of their consumers. Surely, the very first microwave changed the world in ways very few books can dream of, but that’s the exception to the rule.
5. Reviewers should note that they are not cultural commentators, in the purest sense. They are cultural instigators. They are not supposed to comment on how much a book has impacted its surroundings, but how much those surroundings would be impacted IF the book got the public attention it deserves. Reviewing is inherently anti-capitalist, even though critics have their voices modulated (as do authors) by capitalist variables. The circulation numbers of their newspapers is one example. I’d want my reviewer to be happily tricked into thinking that everyone who cares about books is reading their every opinion, even if the reality is so very different from that. Only a reviewer who acts in accordance with this hallucination is free to say what they need to say. A reviewer should be humble before the entirety of art, but they should being egotists in the extreme when considering how much what they write matters.
6. Ideally, a reviewer should find review-writing difficult. I believe that a good review is harder to write than a good poem, a good story, or whatever equivalent artistic output. If it’s something you can laugh off without much thought, likely you’ve failed in the task. Because a review, in the end, is an incredible contortion of thought, stretched as it is across three dynamic bodies: the evolving tastes of the critic, the diverse and often untraceable intentions of the author, and the nameless, faceless, hypothetical that both refer to as their “readership”. If you can’t appreciate the likelihood of failure, I’m not interest in watching you stroll casually towards it.