Is This Book Bad, or Is It Just Me? The Anatomy of Book Reviews

September 11, 2012 | 7 books mentioned 38 9 min read

1.
The book review is dead. At the very least, it’s very obviously dying. Anyway, we can all agree that it should be killed off, because it’s gotten to be irrelevant. If not downright parasitic. (Though maybe it might be salvaged if the average review was a little meaner.)

I exaggerate only slightly here. This past August, a pair of meta-critical essays by Dwight Garner in The New York Times and Jacob Silverman in Slate sent everyone who fancied him- or herself a critic — whether institutionalized or not — into a collective fit. It was probably the biggest literary-cultural dustup since the Great MFA Debate of 2010-2011, when Elif Batuman’s London Review of Books article, “Get a Real Degree,” made everyone feel just a little bit bad about the existence of MFA programs.

I found it hard to get terribly worked up about literary criticism’s emotional register. For every Laura Miller or Lev Grossman who has foresworn negative reviews, I know that there will be just as many qualifiers for the Hatchet Job of the Year Award to fulfill the angry review quota. For every purchased five-star review, there will be that lady on Goodreads who says that the only good thing about the new Junot Diaz novel is that it taught her the Spanish word sucio.

But enough about the State of the Art! I enjoyed all of these essays, but the one thing that struck me was that they were all essentially negative, in the sense that they set out to describe how things were going wrong or why things ought not to be the way that they are. What they didn’t do a very good job of was describing what criticism or book reviewing is, or what it should be.

Okay, there were some nice, bold mission statements thrown in there. Here’s Dwight Garner: “What we need more of…are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics.” Agreed. Or Daniel Mendelsohn, in the New Yorker: “the critic is someone who, when his knowledge, operated on by his taste in the presence of some new example of the genre he’s interested in…hungers to make sense of that new thing, to analyze it, interpret it, make it mean something.” Sounds great. Or Richard Brody, again in the New Yorker: “Criticism is the turning of the secondary (the critic’s judgment) into the primary.” Sure, why not.

So I think we can all agree that A) the “book review” is a prestigious class of writing that people aspire to write, and B) there is a continuum of, shall we say, critical perceptiveness — what in the pre-everyone-gets-a-trophy age we might call “value” or “quality” — on which the multiple-thousand-word, tightly-argued essays of the New York/London/L.A. Review of Books reside at one end, and the rapid reactions of John Q. Tumblr reside at the other.

cover(By the way, I don’t want to suggest that there is something philosophically corrupt or intrinsically wrong about the latter, or that just because something is edited and not self-published, it is automatically better than a blog post. Advanced degrees, journalistic credentials, and/or getting published in hard copy is not a guarantee that a book review is any good. See, for example Janet Maslin’s misreading of This Bright River.)

But what should this excellence and interpretation and maybe a little bit of hard-headedness actually look like, in practice? Why has it been absent? And why does any discussion about literary criticism turn into a giant game of dodging the question, as if the concept of a book review were like the concept of pornography, in that you might not know how to define it, but you’d know it when you see it?

In the interest of getting everyone on the same page (book pun!), I thought it would be an interesting exercise to dissect a book review, to pick apart what makes it work or not work, what makes some book reviews great and others — most of them, really — bland and unhelpful and immediately forgettable. Because book reviewing is a genre with its own conventions, just as every murder mystery must start with a body, and every epic fantasy must feature elvish words with too many apostrophes. It’s worth figuring out what those conventions are.

2.
In the beginning, there is ego. As George Orwell put it in his essay “Writers and Leviathan”: “One’s real reaction to a book, when one has a reaction at all, is usually ‘I like this book’ or ‘I don’t like it,’ and what follows is a rationalization.”

The decision to like or not like a book is where every book review begins. This is what gives the genre its underlying suspense — will Michiko Kakutani like this book or won’t she? — but also its frustrating sense of chaos, because no matter how technically sound or philosophically sophisticated or beautiful a book might be, something minor or tangential can turn off a reviewer so much that he or she decides the book is not good.

A lot of book reviews never get past this first stage, and this is where the whole free-for-all of online reviewing can get frustrating. For instance, the Goodreads lady on Junot Diaz, or the people who unironically give one-star reviews to classic literature: all of these reviews consist entirely of the initial response and a subsequent explanation, and no self-reflection about whether there might be more to the book — and to the reviewer’s response — than that initial, emotional decision. If the nauseating chumminess of the publishing world is the Scylla of book criticism, than this kind of reviewerly narcissism is surely its Charybdis.

But hopefully, no matter how much reviewers are in love with themselves, they will at least step aside and say a few things about the book. In the case of fiction, its plot, its characters, some of the backstory, and the setting. In the case of nonfiction, the overall narrative or argument of the book, the author’s source material and expertise in the subject matter.

This is the next stage in the evolution of a book review, and it is plain nuts and bolts kind of stuff. But it’s so important to do readers this simple courtesy because, unlike an oil filter or a frying pan, the world of literature is so expansive and dependent on authorial decisions and whims that two books within a genre, or a sub-genre, or even a sub-sub-genre, may vary wildly in so many ways. Is the protagonist of this hard science-fiction story an astrobiologist on a generation ship or a detective on an asteroid base? And so on.

This is where things start to get complicated. The average paid reviewer gets one scant paragraph in Publisher’s Weekly, maybe four or six in your average major metropolitan daily, to appraise a book. And more often than not, they splurge on summary — often to the exclusion of everything else. So their concluding paragraphs tend to be a little overstuffed, as these recent examples show:
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But finally, of course, this kind of rigidity exacts its own price, and Natalie can’t avoid paying. Each of the novel’s sections ends with a scene of violence, something Ms. Smith presents as inescapable in northwest London. Some characters die from it, others survive, but none are unscathed. What Ms. Smith offers in this absorbing novel is a study in the limits of freedom, the way family and class constrain the adult selves we make. In England, the margin for self-invention is notoriously smaller than it is in the U.S. — which is one reason why Ms. Smith, with NW, seems more than ever a great English novelist.

(Adam Kirsch, review of NW in The Wall Street Journal)

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There are moments here and there in Telegraph Avenue where Mr. Chabon, himself sounds as if he’s trying very hard “to sound like he was from the ’hood,” but for the most part he does such a graceful job of ventriloquism with his characters that the reader forgets they are fictional creations. His people become so real to us, their problems so palpably netted in the author’s buoyant, expressionistic prose, that the novel gradually becomes a genuinely immersive experience — something increasingly rare in our ADD age.

(Michiko Kakutani, review of Telegraph Avenue in The New York Times)

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The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving deals with sorrow and disability and all the things that can go wrong in life. But mostly Evison has given us a salty-sweet story about absorbing those hits and taking a risk to reach beyond them. What a great ride.

(Ellen Emry Heitzel, review of The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving in The Seattle Times)

In other words, you can see where these reviews are trying to do too much with too little space. Trying to sum up the quality of the prose with a few abstract descriptors. Making a final plea for the cultural relevance of the book. Ending on a gnomic, life-affirming mantra. And all this in fewer than 100 words.

The fact that these reviewers are reaching for something beyond what they have space to cover is, to me, a tacit admission that there is more to be done here; that saying “Here is the plot of the book, and here is a pile of adjectives to show how much I (dis)liked it” just barely scratches the surface of what book criticism can cover. But if you’ve already done all that and you still feel that readers ought to take away one more big idea — what do you do?

3.
covercoverMatt Taibbi hated The World is Flat and Hot, Flat, and Crowded. He hated their titles. He hated their premise. Hated their predictability, their utter lack of real insights, and most memorably of all, hated their language. In his reviews of Thomas Friedman’s two books, Taibbi tracked dozens of bizarre proclamations and just plain bad writing, from the first confusion between herd animals with hunting animals to his last, triumphant-until-you-think-about-it graph of freedom vs. oil prices, which used four data points selected basically at random to make a point about the march of democracy across the globe. (“What can’t you argue, if that’s how you’re going to make your point??” wrote Taibbi, two question marks included.)

This might make Taibbi sound like a prescriptivist grump, a Grammar Nazi who just happened to find the one guy who was famous enough and bad at writing enough to deserve this kind of thrashing. Except that the reviews do more than that. It turns out that Friedman’s “anti-ear” is actually the most obvious symptom of a larger case of intellectual and moral fraud. In Friedman’s world, the rules of basic logic and historical causation do not exist; he invents new realities out of a few cherry-picked events and the limited frame of reference of a privileged, jet-setting columnist based out of New York City.

On the one hand, this entire review stems from an act that we all can do: to try and gauge the quality of Friedman’s writing and thought. But Taibbi manages to do more than wag his finger at Friedman for writing poorly — he discovers something important and true that we didn’t know before, and more importantly, couldn’t know just by taking Friedman at his word. So Taibbi passes Daniel Mendelsohn’s “meaning” test, because we now know something new about Friedman’s book that we didn’t before. He certainly passes Dwight Garner’s bar for being both excellent and punishing. This is not simple aesthetic snobbery: it’s formal criticism that actually matters.

coverThen there is the big picture. It’s hard to get much bigger than James Wood’s famous 2000 proclamation: “A genre is hardening.” In it, he identifies the “perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity” that characterized novelists like Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, and mainly, Zadie Smith, whose then-new book White Teeth Wood was reviewing. These practitioners of “hysterical realism,” Wood argued, were to the novel what the van Eyck brothers were to medieval painting — artists who thought that conceptual virtuosity and an inexhaustible supply of detail substituted for a plausible, profound exploration of the human experience.

Instead of treating the text as a mirror for the writer’s psyche, this kind of criticism assumes that the novel in question is a mirror of some kind of shared worldview, brought on not just by the writer’s personal choices (of character, setting, plot, and so on) but also by the context in which he or she is writing. In the case of the hysterical realists, they are all too in love with their grand, underlying, and basically untrue idea — everything and everyone is interconnected in ambition and subject to the same fate — that they have to make their characters essentially inhuman to make their plots work.

But not everyone has to be present at the birth of a genre to do this sort of criticism. Rosecrans Baldwin discovered a trope that’s almost as old as the modern novel — the “distant-dog impulse” — from Tolstoy to Picoult.

Evgeny Morozov tracked not only the intellectual vacuousness, but also the stylistic commonalities imposed by the new line of TED Books.

What’s going on here? Elif Batuman explains that all of these reviewers are looking for context in the morass of personal and artistic choices that go into every piece of writing:

Literature viewed in this way becomes a gigantic multifarious dream produced by a historical moment. The role of the critic is then less to exhaustively explain any single work than to identify, in a group of works, a reflection of some conditioned aspect of reality.

Maybe it doesn’t sound great when reduced to a mission statement like this — in fact, I think it sounds vaguely totalitarian, especially when you consider that this sort of criticism is called “Marxist criticism” in academic circles. But in practice, it definitely works.

4.
So. Reaction. Summary. Aesthetic and historical appraisal: these are the four classical elements of literary criticism. To that I might add that it helps to be negative — of the twelve reviews I quote here, eight are at least moderately negative, and about five are relentlessly so.

That people are even having this conversation about the supposed niceness of book reviews is great: it shows that book reviews are anything but irrelevant. And now that we’ve teased out the ground rules of what can and should go into a book review, it’s time to turn you loose. You now have the tools to cut through the morass of literary criticism and decide for yourself not only if a book review is worthwhile, but why. You can critique the critics. You can be a meta-Michiko. Use this knowledge wisely.

As for me, I eagerly await the next big, invented crisis to strike the world of literature. I hope it involves deckled edges.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

lives in Seattle, edits The Bygone Bureau, tweets as @djcampb, and will appear as a contestant on Jeopardy! on June 27, 2013.

38 comments:

  1. Terrific analysis, great examples, detailed argument–but I am not at all sure Daryll Campbell is right that “it helps to be negative.” That’s just what he likes and chose to foreground.

    There’s a difference between fawning and naming what’s truly good. Where others see a landscape littered with overpraise (and ok, I do too, most often in the cases of “ambitious novels” by, forgive me, men), I see way too much snark and posturing. It’s amusing, and human; everyone looks at a car wreck. But a predisposition to shake downs is good for a mobster, bad in the business of assessing what in literature should be fostered. It’s easier to glint-edge the negative than it is to be thrillingly intelligent in praise, but that doesn’t make it “better.” Any predisposition, whether toward the positive or the negative, is an astigmatism in viewing what is actually on the page.

  2. Shelley: My dog is in my lap, and I am petting him right now.

    anonymous: I was being a little facetious there — I don’t mean to imply that a negative review is better in an ontological sense than a positive or neutral one. I don’t think a book deserves to be the subject of a “take-down” when it is sloppy or poorly structured but not harmful or ill-conceived or grammatically/syntactically deficient. Boring is not the same as bad, and getting that confused can lead to an overwhelmingly disproportionate response.

    Generally, though, I find it easier to get through a negative review just because that feeling of “I didn’t like this book” tends to give those sorts of reviews a little more structure and narrative momentum. When a writer doesn’t tip his or her hand until the very last paragraph, and then gives a glowing judgment out of nowhere, I find those a little confusing.

  3. This was great. I have to thank you for linking the dog barking essay by Baldwin. I rarely look at Slate but now I want to read everything by him. I also want to go through my books and see if I have a dog barking. Hilarious and yet, a real point is made.

  4. Thoughtful piece. There should be room for negative reviews of books both popular and obscure, and for that we can now be happy to have the Internet, which can provide unlimited content to anyone who’s interested. But print media publishes so terribly few book reviews of any kind these days, anyone in that business should focus on reviewing books they liked, especially obscure books they liked, and definitely not waste space on obscure books they didn’t like. Any negative review in a newspapers limited pages should have a larger editorial purpose–such as debunking a top-selling work of political propaganda or of deliberate misinformation masquerading as historical revisionism, of which too many now pass unchallenged.

  5. “When a writer doesn’t tip his or her hand until the very last paragraph, and then gives a glowing judgment out of nowhere, I find those a little confusing.”

    In one case where I didn’t state baldly that I liked a book under review, the editor asked for a firm declaration. The review picked out salient passages and indicated their worth, but some people want things spelt out overmuch.

    I enjoyed this article. May I add that there are reviews printed where the title under consideration is treated only as an opportunity for the expert in the same field (always a man, in my reading experience) to talk about what he knows with absolutely no reference to the book.

    “In the case of fiction, its plot, its characters, some of the backstory, and the setting.” I find these to be the boring aspects of a review. Reviews that recapitulate the plot are often just advertisements. And whatever happened to examining the language and the poetry of the lines? Ah, but it’s all just personal taste.

  6. I really don’t care about book reviewers. What I miss are the literary critics. I miss someone like Gore Vidal who could resurrect a writer’s reputation with a single essay – as he did with Dawn Powell’s oeuvre. Also, I miss the single most decisive sign of a real literary critics – the ability to inspire writers to produce the kind of works the critic herself champions. This has always been the gold standard for a critic, whether in music, art, film or literature.

    And this, by the way, is the real ambition of someone like James Wood. He is trying to come up with a prescriptive framework to guide, and therefore create, other writers in his image. Doesn’t seem to be going so well for him. Perhaps he’s just not the right person.

    But the culture of “I liked this/I didn’t like that” isn’t going to revive literary criticism for us. It will only hasten its final disappearance.

  7. This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz is a short story collection, not a novel.

  8. Re: The (distant) Barking Dog tradition: I used one, once, but he or she is a feature of the tale (which is called “I am Philly Dawg”):

    “Bobbi just didn’t have it in her to pretend to be too busy to visit her depressing parents. All of her school friends had 5-year-old sons and careers and Bobbi had a part time job and an easel. She rarely watched television. She was trying to be a painter, devouring winsome biographies of Picasso and Chagall and Modigliani over canned ravioli for dinner and then painting in stinkless, unserious acrylic well into the strangely suburban Philadelphia night by candle light, listening to the thick shiver of the breezed leaves of the Elms and the hourly clatter of the number 26 trolley up Wayne avenue and the lonely attenuated bark of a dog in another neighborhood. The dog became her mascot and her familiar. You bark and I paint. We are faithful to our given tasks while the lockstep world is sleeping.”

    https://staugustinian.wordpress.com/2007/04/05/i-am-philly-dawg/

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