Often, I’ll buy books because of these reviews.
However, for books that I know I absolutely must read, I’ll resist the reviews until after I’ve read the book. For example, I’m not going to read reviews for the new Chris Bachelder novel, Abbott Awaits, which I ordered last night through Amazon. Afterwards, I’ll hunt down reviews relentlessly, comparing my impressions against those reviews. It’s what I do for fun: reading reviews to books I’ve already read.
I’ve noticed an uptick recently in the number of articles and blog posts about the book reviewing process.
Over at Ward Six, Rhian Ellis wrote,
“There's really no defending a negative review of a small press book by a non-famous writer -- ignoring that book, if you don't like it, is enough. Since so much of reviewing is a matter of taste, you risk sinking a person's nascent career because of your fickle whims. I don't approve.”
On the surface, this seems big-hearted. Even if one were predisposed to writing negative reviews, it’s kinda dinky to set your sights on small press books when so many utterly wretched books are being published by major houses.
Then I read this article which suggested that bad reviews might actually be a good thing for small press books published by non-famous writers. Even bad reviews provide greater exposure for those books, thus increasing the likelihood of purchases.
However, when consumers are already familiar with the book or author, bad reviews will not only depress sales but also decrease the likelihood that the book will be reviewed elsewhere (“negative information usually cuts down the number of product reviews”).
Meanwhile, at The Millions, Emily St. John Mandel wrote about what it’s like to receive bad reviews. She accepts them gracefully, showing more class than Alice Hoffman and Richard Ford, whose pathetically horrible reactions to bad reviews are chronicled within her essay.
The most problematic book review essay is Charles Baxter’s “Owl Criticism,” which appeared last week in Fiction Writers Review. Baxter has ideas about what a book review should accomplish, and how it ought to be accomplished.
“The marks of a trustworthy review, therefore, have a kind of doubleness: the reviewer manages to assert somehow that the book under discussion is of some importance for one reason or another; and second, a good review provides a formal description of the book’s properties, so that you could reconstruct it from the reviewer’s sketch of it.”
He adds that “a formal description” is “not the same as a plot summary, although a plot summary may figure into it.”
There’s nothing radical about this approach. Baxter’s saying that a good review ought to provide a contextual frame through which to view the book AND allow readers enough insight about the book to make their own judgment about its value.
These criteria are valid.
Establishing such criteria however is only half of Baxter’s project. Throughout much of the essay, he derides the surface-level this book is boring criticism one finds in Amazon.com customer reviews.
“They are made up of what I call Owl Criticism. With Owl Criticism, you have statements like, ‘This book has an owl in it, and I don’t like owls.’”
Owl Criticism provides no understanding of the works in question. It is “pointless.”
Taking potshots at amateur Amazon reviews sounds like good fun, but Baxter goes a step further: he states that only those with “technical knowledge” about “how novels are constructed” ought to be writing reviews.
Setting exclusionary standards for participation in literary discussions is a dangerous practice. It’s not that hard to write a half-decent book review. Especially now, during the publishing industry’s moment of crisis, we ought to be encouraging as many people as possible to be debating the merits of the books they love, and the books they hate.
Book buyers are intelligent people. They know how to distinguish meaningful reviews from pointless Amazon chatter.
What makes Baxter’s faith in credentialed reviewers laughable is that, in the essay’s very next paragraph, he demonstrates that The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly, two organs that rely on the credentialed reviewers he prefers, are also susceptible to practicing Owl Criticism.
There’s another troubling point that Baxter makes: he’d prefer to squelch further discussion about canonized classics like Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina.
“I’d assert that all these [people who write comments about canonized books] …are reviewing … novels that don’t need reviews, partly because the jury is no longer out; the jury has returned a verdict on these books by now, and it’s just plain obtuse to pretend that it hasn’t.”
In effect, he’s saying that we ought not challenge the wisdom of past authorities; yesterday’s critics, he implies, know what’s best for us today.
This too is dangerous.
A constant and aggressive re-assessment of past masterpieces is necessary to sustain a thriving culture. Literature is, in part, a conversation. Our understanding of our literary heritage informs our understanding of contemporary writing. When one cuts debate of these past classics, rigidifying our understanding of them, contemporary literature’s potential to change will be hampered.
To a point, I understand why Baxter thinks it’s pointless to continue to re-evaluate someone whose reputation seems everlastingly secure. Take Shakespeare. My children’s children’s children will still read him in their English lit classes. I mean, it’s doubtful that Shakespeare will ever fall into neglect, right?
However, it’s conceivable that the Shakespearean works we prize most can change. At the present moment, we privilege his tragedies. But imagine what could happen if, over time, the comedies or histories gain ascendency. Such a re-evaluation would likely a huge impact on contemporary aesthetics.
Over time, reputations fall and rise. Cynthia Ozick, in her review of Saul Bellow’s letters, notes an enormous list of mid-twentieth century writers who are fading fast into irrelevancy. No doubt, interest in some of those writers will undergo a resurgence, thus re-shaping contemporary writers’ understanding of their craft.
Ars longa, Hippocrates wrote.
But reviews need not be shorted.
I first heard about Baxter’s essay through Gabriel Blackwell, The Collagist’s Book Review editor who ably edits reviews that I’ve written. Earlier this week, Mark Athitakis also discussed the essay in his American Fiction Notes blog. Scroll through the comments and you’ll find John Updike’s thoughts about writing book reviews. Updike’s ideas seem about right, don’t they?