Book reviews straddle this divide between economic and 'literary' valure, which is made more difficult by the fact that most literary types tend to ignore the fact that works of literature are also commodities. Given the fact that reviews, by their very nature, have their feet planted in these two irreconcilable notions of value, it's not surprising that book reviews have always been (and always will be) a deeply problematic genre.
It's also worth noting that the problems with Australian book reviewing are largely economic; very few people in this country can afford to live off of book reviewing alone, because the work is typically undertaken on a freelance basis (which is always feast or famine) and there are a paucity of Australian outlets for these reviews. I'll also note that, given the gruelling and deadline-based nature of this kind of work, I don't think that the few reviewers who occupy themselves this way are necessarily producing the best work (although there are definitely exceptions to this).
I acknowledge the commercial nature of reviews; they ultimately do attempt to tell readers whether or not to buy a book; it's for this reason that you will rarely see negative reviews on this site (or hear me give negative reviews on Triple R). It's not that I like everything I read (indeed, the amount of fiction I like would comprise a tiny fraction of what's published--certainly less than 5%), but rather that I only try to review books that I actually like. Doing this requires selecting carefully and reading a bit of a book before I decide to review it, but I see this as one excellent possibile mode for book reviewing: review only the books that you enjoy reading.
This modest proposal for book reviewing is quite different from, say, The Believer's touchy-feely diatribes against 'snarky reviewing'; I have no interest in privileging being earnest as a discursive mode. Rather, my position is practical: there are an incredible number of books published each week, and, rather than spend my time readings books that I don't like, why not discuss only the books that I actually think merit discussion? In this sense, I critique by omission, and praise by inclusion. I also have one other important criterion: I try to give preference to books that have not already received significant media attention (with some notable exceptions, of course). These successful books don't need any extra press, so I try, instead, to focus on those that do (this, again, is another way of acknowledging the book as commodity). Lastly, about one out of every five reviews I do actually covers an older work--by reviewing these 'lost classics', I try to include works that aren't simply new goods in the marketplace.
Anyway, there's much more to say on this issue, but, for now, here are a few links of interest:
- UPDATE: Rebecca Starford (the Editor of Kill Your Darlings, who was on the Critical Failure panel) has a nice post up about the night and reviewing in general; to me, the points she makes are spot-on, especially the need for more diversity in book reviews.
- On the topic of reviewing, Infinite Patience has a post on the problems with Australian Book reviews.
- Novelist Christopher Sorrentino gives an interesting interview in which he primarily discusses the work of his father--the late, great Gilbert Sorrentino.
- For years, I've been joking about making T-Shirts that say 'Make Poetry History'; well, not surprisingly, someone has already thought of the idea. Anyone want to buy me one?
- The Quarterly Review has a review of David Shields's Reality Hunger, written in Shields's own epigrammatic style. As some of you may recall, I was not fond of this book.