Book Review Nation

We are said to be undergoing a book review crisis. In Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Francisco, the book supplement sections of major regional newspapers—the traditional place for reviews with a wide audience, the vast and essential center of the book trade—have been cut down and folded into other parts of the paper. The book critics’ guild organizes resistance, but the market has spoken: Book publishers are no longer willing to dole out for advertising in the city papers when all the wealthier readers seem to be online, and the newspapers know they’ll get better short-term circulation figures if they devote more room to celebrity profiles. It’s impossible not to regret this, because even aside from forming a public “commons,” where ideas and thought were accorded the dignified status of news, those old book reviews were like movie reviews plus: They told you whether a book was good or bad alongside a plot summary (the movie review); and then they told you some of the ideas, or linguistic turns, or sly allusions, contained in the book, since you might never read it yourself (the plus). Now in your local paper (if you still have a local paper) you’re going to have to settle for movie reviews of actual movies, and what’s more they’ll be syndicated from the Associated Press. The doomsayers have been predicting all this for a while; but here it is finally happening, and far more swiftly than anyone expected.

Yet even as this kind of book reviewing appears genuinely endangered, the preeminent intellectual publication in the English language continues to be—after nearly fifty years in existence—the New York Review of Books. This is incredible—the thing was practically a lark, launched in 1963 when there were a whole raft of non-review journals (Partisan, Commentary, Dissent, even the early National Review), simply because there was a printer’s strike for newspaper supplements. The NYRB seized the opportunity to bring the middlebrow review to a higher level. It wasn’t then supposed to stand at the gravesides or sit at the bedsides of all those other noble journals of thought! But it has. Nowadays the NYRB is like a gnarled yew in the middle of a field where all the taller trees have died around it, holding up the intellectual firmament. Two saplings—skeptical downtown Bookforum, bright Bay Area Believer—grow by its side. But the only towering member of its species is its younger, pricklier counterpart across the ocean, the London Review of Books; over there, too, the LRB seems to exist alone on a Wuthering Heights–like heath, bare of journals, leaving wanderers to measure the distance from its noble form, until they locate . . . the TLS.

Back to weird America. Because meanwhile, still in the era of our supposed book-reviewing crisis, we see bubbling up from below, without clear outlets, making the ground muddy instead of erupting forth in springs—more and further 1,000-word reviews of books! People are desperate to write these things. Who can explain it? If you start a journal of any kind, you will be besieged by book reviews—of forgotten writers; of writers in danger of being forgotten; of writers not the least bit forgotten but perhaps underappreciated; of writers clearly, definitely not forgotten, truly famous writers, except maybe, out there somewhere, someone might not have read all of their books in sequence? And if you don’t start a journal, fine: the kids will start their own. You can see the reviewing craze on the campuses, where the old-line “lit mags” devote more and more room to book reviews and “literary journalism,” stealing pages away from the traditional collegiate fiction and poetry, and the new publications to spring up (instead of the conservative publications of two decades ago) are—book reviews! In the past few years, students at Yale created the Yale Review of Books; Harvard has its Harvard Book Review. These publications are brand new, and they’re the work of students earnestly preparing themselves for a kind of intellectual future that’s apparently diminishing. More courses exist in criticism; major critics and reviewers appear as faculty, guest or semi-permanent.

But even more powerfully and surprisingly and taking on an almost mass character, online, next to the reviews of toaster ovens and laptop computers, you find—book reviews. And they are great! For almost a decade now, the anonymous customer reviews of Amazon.com have done in chaotic, eccentric, bizarre fashion what the professional book reviewers promise but can’t deliver. On Amazon, people really will write reviews of long-out-of-print books, for no reason at all. They really do review forgotten titles that shouldn’t be forgotten. They write about books that would never be reputable enough for a professional to review: people review conspiracy theory books, academic monographs, cat calendars. Over the years the reviews have been manipulated, hijacked, and reviled; Amazon has tried to brand them with its “Top 500 Reviewers”; the reviews qua reviews are often unfair, ill-informed, and poorly argued. (“Not only does Portrait of the Artist make no sense, but it also steals all of its tricks from Faulkner.”) And yet, nearly ten years after their advent, the Amazon reviews are still essentially anonymous, unfiltered glimpses into the habits of red-blooded American readers. These Amazonians are like their ancestors, the huntresses and women warriors of mythology, whose girdle might be stolen once in a while by some celebrity like Hercules but who could never really be shut down. With notable exceptions (and it’s not that hard to spot them), the reviewers have no institutional affiliation; no investment of ego; no recompense; and, most important of all, no one goes on Amazon to write up a book he hasn’t read. That’s what blogs are for.

And so you begin to think that really, like the gangs of LA, the book review will never die. Having read a book, you want to discuss it, but there’s no one to discuss it with. So you have no choice. Not a human right, perhaps, but a genuine human need: to comment, annotate, respond, and then give a rating based on a five-star rating system—this must be what separates us from the animals.

Still, what separates us from, say, Edmund Wilson? It is not taste; it is not even erudition. The profounder difference is the ability to place the products of literary work into a system of belief that appeals to something outside the literary work and the literary culture that produced it. This—not the status of the outlets for reviews, not their forum in newsprint or online—is what marks a distinction in reviewing.

And we can conceive of two groups of literary reviewers who serve the two branches of the reviewing art: ad hoc vitalism, we’ll call it, and programmatic criticism. The first—the ones who want books to bring them into contact with life for the first time, remaining perfectly open to whatever is on the page—should be entirely composed of reviewers who are 24 years old. A 24-year-old brings to the work of reading, and therefore to the work of reviewing, the most fundamental questions of all: How should I live? What should I do? What on earth is this book about? The 24-year-old will seek true answers in the works he reads, and those books that lack novelty and wisdom he will justly ignore; those books that give some hint of the bright world, some piece of sound advice, will be praised. But once the book reviewer has gotten comfortable with these major questions—and, in the process, begun to risk accepting the values of the literary marketplace (chiefly that a book should be praised if it is slightly better than the other books published that month)—that book reviewer is kaput, as he should be. The tree of literature must be watered, every six months, with the blood of book reviewers who have turned 25.

The second group of reviewers should consist of those survivors, perhaps 40 years old, in need of a jolt to their systems (and bank accounts), who bring to the task of reviewing a specific aesthetic directive. They already have answers to their questions: now the world needs their help! In 1919, as the civil war wound down, the Formalist literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky took a one-year post as a theater critic at the broadsheet Life and Art. It was as remarkable a performance as anything he could see on stage. Shklovsky polemicized with the vulgar Marxists on staff. He refused to kowtow to workers’ performances of old Russian folk plays! He attended the circus and enjoyed it; he insulted Merezhkovsky, and enjoyed that too. He was skeptical of some of the excesses of the avant-garde—but Malevich, Shklovsky saw, was a true artist. Tatlin’s project for the Palace of Soviets was made of “iron, glass, and revolution.” Shklovsky advanced the campaign of the Formalists—formerly confined to studies of Tolstoy, Gogol, and avant-garde poetry—on material that was foreign to it, leading to renewal. Maybe such reviewers—programmatic reviewers—can be any age (wildly precocious Shklovsky was still in his twenties), but they, too, should really only do such reviewing for a year. Then they can be sent back to finish Theory of Prose.

Book reviewing is a humble art, and it should know itself to be such. It is also a necessary consumer help (“Twenty-five bucks for that?” Well, sometimes); a human impulse; and a high calling, occasionally. It is genetically connected to the greatest, most pliable, most durable art—literature. So what will the poor book reviewer do, shut out of book reviewing (except for Amazon-ing, of course) because he is neither 24 nor 40? Isn’t that the “middle,” the storied middle? Isn’t that us? The answer is that he or she should go off and produce the literature that is to be reviewed, if he can. There are more things in heaven and earth, after all, than book reviews.

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