The Forgotten Art of Reviewing
In lives often lived five minutes at a time, with attention focused just barely ahead, we tend to leave behind the little, but vital, spaces for contemplation. Book reviews are one of the devices that have traditionally taken us to those spaces, but their power is fading.
Writing in the latest issue of Prospect magazine, William Skidelsky pronounces the book review in near terminal decline, squeezed dry by aloof critics, picked over by second-rate journalists and struggling for anything close to depth online. I think he overstates the case, but there’s always room for agreement alongside disparity.
Smug critics are certainly out there in force. A recent exemplar is Adam Gopnik, reviewing the life and writing of Philip K. Dick in the New Yorker. Hitting back at claims that Dick was an underappreciated science-fiction genius during his lifetime, Gopnick assures us that we will “end up admiring every one of his conceits and not a single one of his sentences.” Who do you trust, he seems to be saying, the man with clever ideas or the man who crushes the pot-boiler prose?
At the other end of the scale, the print media publish many an uncritical review. In an earlier post I mentioned newspaper coverage of David Michaelis’ Schulz and Peanuts, some of which chose only to outline the book’s narrative. How does that show us the ideas writ small in the book printed large across the many pages of our own lives?
Online reviewers often fare no better. Debra Hamel’s Book-Blog, for instance, tends toward narrative summaries, and Heather Froeschl’s Book Review Journal ventures into explanation only to strengthen the brief description already given. The disappointment here is that Froeschl is a professional author, editor and reviewer.
Amazon has taken the summarising review in a different direction by offering comparisons of the highest-rating most and least favourable reader reviews. But look closely at the comparisons for Anthony Everitt’s Augustus and you’ll notice that the most favourable review summarises the narrative and the least favourable attacks its perceived shortcomings: blank summary and smug review yet again.
So much for the reign of the amateur in the freedom of cyberspace.
What, then, are we in danger of leaving behind? Reviews that draw us into the world of literature and then push us somewhere else, into a grander scheme of things. Allow me to give you an example; C.S. Lewis reviewing his friend J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit:
The publishers claim that The Hobbit, though very unlike Alice, resembles it in being the work of a professor at play. A more important truth is that both belong to a very small class of books which have nothing in common save that each admits us to a world of its own – a world that seems to have been going on long before we stumbled into it but which, once found by the right reader, becomes indispensable to him. Its place is with Alice, Flatland, Phantastes, The Wind in the Willows.
In his very first passage Lewis takes us inside the novel, shows us the space it shares and offers us a hint of what we might find there. That special substance is, of course, wonder, but in Lewis’ hands it echoes of literature once written and ideas still to come.
Can we reclaim that sort of wonder? Yes, I think we can. More of us need to become critical readers, willing to question each book and every review, not just reading the words but reading through the words to see the deeper ideas within. Then – and this is where I disagree with Skidelsky’s gloom in Prospect – we can more easily identify newspapers, magazines, blogs and other websites that offer true insight rather than smugness and summaries.
So the path will be long, but worth travelling regardless. Still, the paradox of a masterful review is that it could well dissuade you from reading the book at all. Sometimes a perceptive retake on a novel, or a proactive account of history reworked, is story enough itself. But one day you might take to the original anyway and form an entirely different view.
View, review, re-view; it’s all grist to the mill in a puzzling world.