I’d like you to do me a small favor. I’d like you to find a copy of your local daily newspaper and read an account of a ballgame in the sports section. You probably don’t read a printed newspaper anymore, but they do still circulate in most cities and you can find one in one of those brightly colored sidewalk news boxes you walk by every day. So, go buy a paper – it won’t cost you much – and find an account of a sports game played last night.
The details of game itself don’t much concern us here. What I’d like you to look at is how the reporter has chosen to tell the story. If the sport is relatively obscure or if the game wasn’t on TV or radio, the story will most likely open with a hard-news lead: the final score, who scored the go-ahead goal, how the decisive play of the game came about, and so on.
If, on the other hand, the sport is popular enough to have been televised, chances are the story will open with a classic feature lead: some inside dope from the clubhouse, an analysis of a crafty move by the team’s manager, a human-interest tale of a scrappy veteran who overcame injury to make an important play. This is because the reporter knows that anyone who cares about the game watched it the night before or at the very least caught the highlights on ESPN. The outcome of the game has ceased to be news, and to stave off irrelevance, the sportswriter has shifted the focus from what happened to why it happened and what it means.
What you are seeing is the natural evolution of news reporting in the face of technological innovation, and it’s nothing new. For nearly two centuries now, a relentless cycle of innovation, from the steam-operated printing press, to radio, to television, and now the Web, has brought news consumers closer in time and sensual proximity to the information that interests them, and at each step along the way, reporters and editors have had to change how they report the news to accommodate this new reality. This has been true for almost every category of news coverage, with the glaring exception of book reviews, which all too often are written as if the digital revolution of the last twenty years never happened.
You know the kind of book reviews I mean. They are between 800 and 1200 words long, include some basic information about the author and the premise of the book, and offer an opinion on whether the book is worth reading. These sorts of reviews are an artifact of a time before the Internet browser when solid information about the latest books being published was hard to come by. But those days are long gone. Today, anyone trying to decide whether to plunk down $26 for, say, George Saunders’s Tenth of December can log onto Amazon and read nearly 400 reviews of the story collection, helpfully sorted into categories from the wildly positive (five stars) to the extremely negative (one star). If that’s not enough information, a reader can switch over to GoodReads, newly acquired by Amazon, and read dozens more reviews and enter into online discussions with other readers about the book.
Those wishing to escape the Amazon plantation can go to the publisher’s website to learn what the book is about and click around the blogosphere to read any one of dozens of reviews of Saunders’s book. If all that information fails to arouse interest, the reader can bounce back to Amazon or GoodReads or Apple’s iTunes store and let their recommendation engines help point the way to other books that might appeal to a Saunders fan.
None of these sites is without its flaws, of course, but the point is that readers have more information at their fingertips about the content and relative quality of the books they want to read than at any time in history. No wonder standard book reviews are disappearing from newspaper culture pages. Newspapers are designed to deliver news, which by definition means things that their readers don’t already know, and in a world where the contents and quality of a given book have been debated endlessly online, a standard book review that tells readers what a book is about and whether it is any good just isn’t news anymore.
Intelligent literary criticism still matters, and there will always be a place for old-fashioned book reviews, especially when a critic stumbles upon a gem of a book published by a small press that can’t muscle its way into the public consciousness. In those cases, when a book has been unjustly ignored or passed over, a positive review is news. But as the machinery that has enabled what used to be known as “word of mouth” to go online steadily improves and grows, those of us who review books need to stop thinking of ourselves as reporters delivering news and start thinking of ourselves as analysts helping readers make sense of the vast stream of information available about the books our readers want to read.
For those who aren’t news junkies, perhaps the easiest way to understand the difference between hard-news and feature reporting is to think of the two announcers most television and radio stations use to broadcast a game. One of them, Joe Buck, for instance, will do play-by-play, telling you what’s happening on the field. That’s hard news. The other guy, Tim McCarver, say, is the color commentator, offering analysis of strategy and context on the personalities of the players to help you make sense of what you’re seeing. That’s feature reporting, and in an increasingly digital world, literary critics need to become less like Joe Buck and more like Tim McCarver.
That doesn’t mean critics should become pedantic know-it-alls lecturing their readers on the history of the modern novel and spouting a lot of French critical theory. It also doesn’t mean reviewers should start dishing publishing-industry gossip, most of which is trivial, anyway, and has little to do with what’s on the page. It means that we all, those of us who care about books and want to share them with others, need to think more deeply about what we can add to the conversation beyond the premise of the book under review and whether we thought it worked. We need to stop merely dispensing facts and opinions, and start telling stories.
The word “conversation” is key here because in an age of instant information, that is what anyone writing about books is doing: entering an ongoing conversation. I wrote for newspapers once upon a time, and as small-time as those papers were, I wrote in the knowledge that I was the only one talking. My readers couldn’t talk back, nor could my sources. That one-way street is history, and I write now knowing that what I say, when it isn’t simply ignored, can be swept up instantly into a global conversation taking place on far-flung Facebook pages and Twitter feeds over which I have no control and often never even hear about. It is deeply odd to click a link and find your prose translated, badly, into Russian or Portuguese, but it forever changes the way you write.
In the old dead-tree days, a newspaper circulated in a town and people read whatever landed on their doorstep. They had no choice – it was that or the back of the cereal box. Today, everyone writing online has a potentially global platform, but no one is guaranteed an audience, which means that if you are going to be read, you have to offer something no one else has. That can mean eye-catching “charticles” and breathless lists of the “Ten Steamiest Sex Scenes in American Literature” sumptuously illustrated with pictures of pretty young things in various states of undress, but it doesn’t have to. It can mean saying something smart and original that makes people think about a book in a new way.
Every reviewer will tackle the challenges of writing about books in the Internet era in his or her own way, but at the very least anyone hoping to be heard above the digital din needs to approach each review not as an exercise in personal taste – I liked/didn’t like this book, and here’s why – but as a mini-essay using the book under review as the focal point of a larger, more interesting story. In a great many cases, this will mean reviewers having the sense to shut up when they have an opinion about a book but have nothing to add to the conversation beyond whether they liked or didn’t like it. This might be called The Thumper Rule of Literary Criticism: “If you can’t say something interesting – Shh! Say nothing!”
When critics do wade into the conversation, they should be thinking how they can bring a special talent or experience they possess to the table. This can be as simple as having an unusually good eye for how narrative and language works, like James Wood of The New Yorker, whose reviews are worth reading even if you don’t agree with him or intend to read the book he’s talking about. Other times it can entail bringing a deeper knowledge of a subject to bear on a review, such as was the case in Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker’s legendary 2009 front-page evisceration of Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw in the Times’ Book Review. But you don’t have to be a celebrated Harvard prof to have something interesting to say. Maybe you’re a new parent, or a teacher of at-risk kids, or an aficionado of 1950s-era sci-fi, or maybe you’re like my Millions colleague Janet Potter who has set out to read biographies of all the American presidents. All of us has something we know and care about, and when we take on a book, we have to use that insight and passion to provide context – color commentary, if you will – to the reviews we write.
However critics rise to the challenge of the information overload facing readers today, rise we must, because as much information there is on sites like Amazon and GoodReads and the rest, there is too often precious little real intelligence. This is the paradox of the information age: the proliferation of data points makes smart criticism more relevant, not less. We are all swimming in information, not just about books but about sports teams and political parties and cooking tips, and what we need are smart, thoughtful commentators to sift through all that data and make it mean something.
Image via Wikimedia Commons