“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Friday, September 10, 2010

Literary Links: Reviewing the Reviewers

This week, virtually everyone that I've spoken to seems to have attended the event 'Critical Failure' at the Wheeler Centre, which considered the state of book reviewing in Australia. There is a weirdness, however, in bemoaning the problems with book reviewing, given that reviews, at worst, are simply a form of indirect marketing, and, at best, are a sort of informed consumer recommendation. Of course, reviews may contain incisive analysis as well (indeed, it may appear as if they only contain such analysis), but reviews are absolutely tied to the notion of the book as commodity, and it is for this reason that virtually all book reviews cover new releases. In this sense, the book review is a deeply strange hybrid genre, which combines literary criticism, advertising and news reporting (since the publication of a book is a newsworthy 'event'). 
     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:


genevieve said...

Great post, Emmett, thank you.
It was quite incredible how each panellist continued to bring the discussion back to reviewing, and to shaming/blaming re same, though perhaps this reflected one of two things: either the tendency of all present not to read much further afield in Australian letters than the broadsheet pages, or their fear that the audience would be intimidated by a discussion of anything meatier.
I tend to agree with H.McPhee that writers can learn from better reviewing, all the same.
I found a great quote from Auden about reviewing a while back that you might be interested in - posted it on my blog when I was quite a newbie, here. Kerryn G was good enough to give me some feedback. I've since been published as a reviewer and learned quite a lot more (I hope).

Anonymous said...

I'm interested in what you say about 'virtually all book reviews cover new releases'. Of course that's true of the print media and professional reviewing, but perhaps not quite so true of what's online. The amateur book reviewer with a blog usually can't access all the new releases and tends to write about what's on the TBR, which may (depending on the size of the TBR LOL) be several years old or more. As I wrote in a blog post called "Reviews Online and a Second Wind' (http://tinyurl.com/2g6fre5)
we amateurs don’t have time to read all the new releases, and we can’t afford to buy them all anyway, but by coming to a book some time after the initial flurry of publicity has died down, book bloggers can give it a ‘second wind’ and maybe generate further interest in it.
So although what's online can vary greatly in quality and one needs to be selective, there is actually a greater diversity of reviews there.
Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers, Melbourne

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