Books, Reviews, and Critics

Interesting discussion on the aim and function of book reviews, and whether novelists make good reviewers, at Sarah’s and Dan’s.

Jumping off a criticism of a review in the Washington Post, Sara has this to say:

The bigger problem, and why I keep bitching about it here and elsewhere, is that too often an assigned review goes off on a particular tangent, caters to a specific agenda or has to do with everything else other than the book in question. All that should matter is whether the book has merit, and whether readers should buy it. There are all sorts of tricks used to fill up the space — I’m as guilty of this as anyone else — but they should be in service of that final judgment call: buy the book, or not?

Dan Green begs to differ:

Reviewers should feel they have an obligation to literature. The standards being used ought to be of the sort first of all grounded in a familiarity with the practices generally associated with the “literary,” and the final measure of a given book is whether it illuminates or extends those practices in some interesting way. If this sounds too pretentious, then the reviewer should at least feel a responsibility to the ideal of good writing (opinions about this can vary, of course), and, if the book in question is genre fiction, to the standards established by the writers, readers, and critics of that genre. More is at stake than just the particular book under review.

The last thing a reviewer should think about (sorry, Sarah), is whether he/she has provided good consumer guidance. In my opinion, it’s this practice that has corrupted mainstream book reviewing in the first place.

I actually think they are both right, in a sense. I think they are talking about different things. Sarah’s point I think it well taken when it comes to book reviews. By book reviews I mean the kind you find in the local paper and other popular publications. These reviews do have a consumer component that Dan rejects. Although the reader might not actually purchase the book, the review should inform the readers choice about whether to pick the book up or not. This is similar to a movie review; it should help you decide if you want to see it or not.

I think what Dan is talking about is a different form of “review.” I would label this as criticism. Criticism takes the process a little deeper and has a different perspective. This is where concern for and judgments about “literature” come into play. Often these type of reviews engage the work at a deeper level and the result is more of an essay than a review. Criticism is for people who have already read the work and have a background with which to judge more broadly. There is no attempt to leave plot twists or unique characters unexplored. Criticism seeks to unpack a work, judge its effectiveness, and place it within the larger body of the author’s work and within the larger scope of literature.

The type of book reviews I think Sarah is talking about don’t have this complexity. They are written for people who haven’t read the work in question; and they usually avoid giving too much away. They are usually quite simple: what is the book about, what does it do well, where does it come up short, why you might enjoy it, why you might not enjoy it, etc. In a world now flooded with books, readers are looking for help in choosing their next read; this isn’t consumerism so much as it is intelligent choice.

It is worth noting that reviews can fall in between these two poles; falling anywhere between pure academic paper and breezy blurb. The point is, different goals mean different tools. Dan’s criticism seems ill suited to deciding whether or not to buy the latest Elmore Leonard and Sarah’s standard for reviewing isn’t much help in studying why Nabokov matters.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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