Print Edition - 2015-02-07  |  On Saturday

Is book reviewing a public service or an art?

  • The point of the review, after all, is not the reviewer: It’s the book. The book that somebody else wrote
- James Parker
Is book reviewing a public service or an art?

Feb 6, 2015-

Oh, a public service, definitely. Like keeping the drains clear. Book reviewing is an act of cultural hygiene, and in a republic more symbolically tuned-in than ours the book reviewers would all be wearing boiler suits and big rubber gloves. Think about what they do: From the great porridgey swell of incoming print, its level always rising, they pluck out the good stuff and kind of sluice the rest away. Hard work, dirty work, underappreciated and not well paid. And do they get it right all the time? Certainly not. Gems are overlooked, mediocrities are exalted; it happens every day. But somebody’s got to process this stuff, as it bellies up against the levee—offer an analysis, pass a judgment, make a call. Somebody’s got to read the book before you do.

Having said that (and here the columnist makes his neat little pivot), there is an art to book reviewing. Or a craft, I should say—because if the reviewer tries to be artistic, if he once abandons the secondary zone of criticism for the primary zone of creation, he’s sunk. The point of the review, after all, is not him: It’s the book. The book that somebody else wrote. So good reviewing demands a certain transparency of language, and an absence of prancing and posturing, of which I myself am regrettably incapable. I can write about the grotesque—the grotesquely bad, the grotesquely good, the grotesquely generic—but anything in the quiet midrange tends to confound me. Assign me a pretty good novel, or a fairly interesting memoir, and watch me sweat.

So much for me, anyway. There are plenty of other ways to go wrong. As inert as it might look on the page, the book review is a weirdly pressurised and verbally jeopardised space, crisscrossed with potential errors. There’s a huge pull toward pomposity, for one thing. Drop your guard, mid-review, and you’ll find yourself holding forth like a drunken bishop. “Insofar as our author blah blah blah. . . . ” Book review bombast comes in three flavours: highbrow (“Every page witnesses the overflow of his vast erudition”), middlebrow (“magisterial . . . that rare thing”) or lowbrow (“Wade through burning gasoline to get this book”). And everybody does it, automatically as it were. It’s why blurbs all sound like blurbs. My sub-psychoanalytic theory: The reviewer desires not-quite-consciously to “master” the text, to prove his superiority to the book under review—otherwise why should anybody listen to him?—and this desire, unless acknowledged, warps his lexicon and inflates his language.

Consider the various operations that are going on, simultaneously, inside a proper, 360-degree book review. You need to describe, nimbly and briefly, the contents of the book. You need to offer a considered, but not ponderous, critique. And most trickily, you need somehow to solidify in the reader’s mind the aesthetic criteria by which this critique is being made. Let them know, in other words, who is doing the reviewing. It’s a kind of sleight of hand, this— you do it with tone, and frame of reference, and hints and jabs and nudges. Have reviewers always had to do it? I’m not sure they have. Aesthetics used to be more of a communal business. So it may be a symptom of modernity, this desolate feeling as you begin to write a review that you are writing the first book review ever — that you are, in fact, inventing the form. There is also a minor obligation to entertain the reader, or at least get him painlessly to the end of the column.

Which is—oh, look!—where we are now. So I’ll say in conclusion: Book reviewer, I salute thee. You absorb whole books and rotate them slowly in your mind. You stagger to the keyboard. You fulminate, you glorify. You try and think of something clever to say. Then you take off your rubber gloves, and fall asleep.

James Parker is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and has written for Slate, The Boston Globe and Arthur magazine

Published: 07-02-2015 09:53

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