Seven Things I Think I Think About Book Reviews

Last Sunday I took part in a panel at the Writer’s Center titled “The Future of the Book Review,” joined by the Washington Post‘s Dennis Drabelle and the Washington Independent Review of BooksDavid O. Stewart. In advance of the panel, moderator Mia Cortez sent along some questions for discussion. With Cortez’ permission, I’m sharing her questions and my responses below. Some of this is likely old hat for people who spend a lot of time discussing books online, but one thing I learn from going to these events is that there are a lot of people who care about books but who don’t keep up with the universe of blogs and online book-review outlets.

How are book reviews evolving with books in the digital era, and how has technology changed the life of a book reviewer?

The digital age has been an enormous blessing for the consumer: The explosion of tweets, blogs, literary websites, and user-generated reviews means that somebody can gather up a diversity of opinions and use them to efficiently make a decision about a book they’re thinking about reading. And it’s a curse as well: Where do you start? Who do you trust?

For the “book reviewer” as we’ve understood it 10 or 15 years ago, a lot has changed: Their authority and standing doesn’t mean as much. Practically speaking, there are fewer full-time book reviewing jobs out there, and freelance outlets pay less, if they pay at all. Experienced book reviewers can and should trade on their experience and knowledge, but they’ve had to understand that those two things don’t hold a lot of value for many readers.

How have readers’ expectations of book reviews changed? What about authors’ expectations for book reviewers?

In some ways, I don’t think much has changed in terms of readers’ expectations. There have always been people who want thoughtful, essayistic writing about books, and those readers are as well served now by the London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, New York Times Book Review, Harper’s, the New Yorker, etc, as they ever were. For readers who don’t necessarily want that kind of deep-dive into a book—if you just want to have a sense of whether you’d like it or not—you have many more options. This may mean that more people feel that the job of a book review is just to give them a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. I don’t know. I will say that as daily newspapers have cut down their books pages, and cut the lengths of book reviews, they’ve jeopardized their role as a kind of middle place—more nuanced than the quick-hit recommendation of a friend but not as weighty as the literary essay. That’s unfortunate, I think.

Authors have had to broaden their definition of what a “book review” is now, and they have to undertake much of the publicity work for themselves to acquire those reviews. Publishers have cut their budgets and reviews have cut space, so authors have to make themselves more available to blog interviews, call-ins to book clubs, etc. This may hurt the pride of older writers who still feel that a New York Times is the gold standard and can’t differentiate one blog from another, but there’s a net increase in the number of outlets available to review a book (if not an increase in the total audience reading).

What about citizen reviews? How do reviews posted on Amazon & other book sites affect the dynamic?

I should say that I don’t have a wholly negative attitude about Amazon user reviews—they’re useful to get a gloss how people are responding to a book. But—and exceptions abound, I know—I don’t go to Amazon reviewers to be surprised by an insight, impressed by the writing, or provoked into thinking about something in a way I haven’t before.

Have blogs become a significant factor in book reviewing? Do they bring a different element to the equation?

One great thing that blogs have done is removed the Olympian tone of the traditional book review—bloggers are freer to write personally and passionately, play with style, and agitate for better coverage of topics that mainstream outlets ignore. Any book blog that lasts for a while is a reflection of the enthusiasm somebody brings to it—because they’re more likely than not writing for free they’re doing it because they care about books. In the past decade more book review outlets have recognized this and brought bloggers into their ranks. It’s practically axiomatic that the next generation of book critics who’ll write for LRB, NYRB, Harper’s, etc, on a regular basis will be people who started writing about books on a blog.

How is critique in the press by an experienced journalist/book reviewer still important?

Experienced reviewers have a long view on things—they’re less likely to be suckered into thinking something is original, and in turn they can keep readers from being suckered themselves. Experienced reviewers can not only say that a book succeeds or fails, but can articulate the reasons why something succeeds or fails. Experienced reviewers know how to write for a general audience in a way a blogger may not. Experienced reviewers may have a better sense of what’s fair game in a review (style, tone, accuracy) and what’s not (size of advance, cover design). Experienced reviewers have a recognizable name against which you can bounce your own preferences and biases. That’s not to say that online reviewers and bloggers lack those things. But outlets that publish experienced reviewers are explicitly looking for those skills.

How have reviewers adjusted to the changes in the publishing industry? Do reviewers maintain a loyalty to books that come from reputable publishing houses? Are self-published books more heavily scrutinized?

By and large, reviewers still succumb to many of the same problems that made bloggers cranky a decade ago—book-review sections will reflexively cover the big new books by the Roths, Updikes, Chabons, etc, leaving scant room for the debut author (except a heavily hyped one), the small-press novel, the work in translation, poetry, the long-suffering midlist novelist. So not a lot has changed. Given that, the typical self-published book simply doesn’t have a prayer for mainstream press attention. Rightfully so: I’d sooner see press attention for marginalized categories of books that are published by serious houses, Big Six or indie, before covering books where there’s scant evidence that anybody besides the author cared about its existence in the marketplace. The disappointment (if not anger) many self-published authors express at being ignored by newspapers and magazines baffles me. If the traditional publication process wasn’t meaningful to you, why is the traditional reviewing process meaningful to you?

What do you foresee for the future of this industry? Will book reviews uphold their importance and continue to thrive?

As long as we have books, we’ll have book reviews. I think we’ll have an overabundance of them, in fact—if you have a favorite niche category of book, you’ll be increasingly likely to find some kind of online outlet that will give you a satisfying amount of in-depth coverage. What’s up in the air is the kind of book review that might prompt a person who’s never heard of a particular book to consider exploring it. Michael Dirda, for instance, routinely introduces me to books that I hadn’t heard of but which I wish I had the time to read, right now. I think we’re losing the kind of culture of readers who are open to being surprised by something, and we’re losing the kind of outlets and the kind of reviewers who are capable of serving them.


“There’s something amiss,” fumed Michael Cunningham, one of the three members of the Pulitzer Prize fiction jury whose work was undone—or at least unsettled—by the Pulitzer board, which couldn’t pick a winner. People look to awards to either settle a discussion (This won an award, I’ll read that next) or open one up (Is that really the best thing out there?). What grates people about the Pulitzer’s non-decision is that it accomplishes neither—we’re back on our own again, lacking the benchmark for discussion that such awards are meant to provide.

In Salon, Laura Miller suggests that the matter reflects the general disinterest in fiction among the wider Pulitzer board. “Chances are good that the three novels recommended by this year’s Pulitzer jury—‘Swamplandia!’ by Karen Russell, ‘Train Dreams’ by Denis Johnson, and ‘The Pale King’ by David Foster Wallace—are the only three serious new novels many of the board members read last year, apart, perhaps, from one or two others,” she writes. “In that, they truly are representative of American readers, and that bodes worse for our national literature than a year without a Pulitzer winner.” But hang on: Juries and judging panels, in my experience, don’t reach a deadlock because they’re disinterested. It happens because something was in dispute. It may be that the Pulitzer board doesn’t care much about fiction in general, but they were charged with caring about three works of it, and for the sake of literary discussion—if not sales—it would have been interesting to hear what the squabbling was about. That’s the other grating thing—a prominent group of people had some kind of disagreement about what qualifies as a good work of fiction, but we didn’t get to find out what they disagreed about.

And because board deliberations are secret, we’ll likely never know. Maybe the Pulitzer bylaws could be tweaked in some way to force the issue. In the case of a no-decision in any category, the board shall be obligated to release a statement detailing the nature of its disagreement—a fate so godawful that the board will select a winner just to avoid it.

Me, I thought The Pale King and Swamplandia! were both interesting but flawed novels, and Train Dreams remains, as it has been for a while, one of the countless novels I hope to get to soon. Like Janice Harayda, I would have liked to have seen Steven Millhauser‘s magisterial, elegant, and strange short-story omnibus, We Others, capture the Pulitzer’s attention. It would have been nice: It would have made a few people ask, “Is this really the best thing out there?” and I could’ve said, yes, it’s pretty close.

Some Housekeeping Notes

1. Ron Slate, who runs the thoughtful blog Above the Seawall, invited me and 11 other writers to recommend a recent work of fiction. I wrote about Lionel Shriver‘s new novel, The New Republic, which you may have heard is not new—she tabled the book for more than a decade, and many critics have dinged it for growing musty in that time. Me too. But it would be unfortunate if the novel simply became “that novel about journalism and terrorism back then that doesn’t have anything to say about journalism and terrorism right now.” A snip:

This setup has aged poorly. The idea of an writer landing a gig at national paper’s foreign bureau on the basis of a mere handful of clips would be mildly ridiculous in the mid- to late 90s; today, with most foreign bureaus shuttered, it’s pure fantasy. Shriver’s vision of terrorism resembles less Islamic radicalism than Irish republicanism; the SOBs and its semilegitimate political wing, O Crème de Barbear (referred to with the intentionally revolting term the Creamies) evoke the IRA and Sinn Fein. And even the most cynical, seen-it-all reporter would have a hard time embracing Shriver’s argument that the media perpetuates terrorism as a kind of act of job preservation. The New Republic is an artifact from a time when we could look at both journalism and terrorism more callously — as if the former would always be there and the latter might affect us, but not too terribly much.

Yet personality crises never get old, and the novel’s strength is in Edgar’s character reinvention, his reckoning with second selves past and present. We’re reminded often that Kellogg was the stereotypical fat kid as child, until he obsessively pursued a fitness regimen upon which his sense of confidence hinges. It’s a shallow way to frame your sense of well being, and Edgar will slowly grow aware of that. But he also knows that perception is often reality: “[P]eople will exonerate sadists, braggarts, liars, and even slack-jawed morons before they’ll pardon eyesores. If you’re attractive, people need a reason to dislike you; if you’re ugly, people need a reason to like you. They don’t usually find one.”

2. If you’re in the D.C. area, on Saturday, April 21, I’ll be at the Annapolis Book Festival, where I’ll be interviewing novelist Howard Norman about his work. I highly recommend his 1994 novel, The Bird Artist, and I hope we’ll touch on his most recent novel, What Is Left the Daughter, as well as his forthcoming memoir, I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place. (I wrote a bit about Norman here last May.)

3. The following day, April 22, I’ll be at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, taking part in a panel about “The Future of the Book Review.” Yes, it has one. I’ll be joined by Washington Post reviewer Dennis Drabelle and biographer David O. Stewart, founder of the new-ish literary website, the Washington Independent Review of Books. Hope to see you there.

A Novel Is a Pattern

Colm Toibin:

The novel is not a moral fable or a tale from the Bible, or an exploration of the individual’s role in society; it is not our job to like or dislike characters in fiction, or make judgments on their worth, or learn from them how to live. We can do that with real people and, if we like, figures from history. They are for moralists to feast on. A novel is a pattern and it is our job to relish and see clearly its textures and its tones, to notice how the textures were woven and the tones put into place…. A novel is a set of strategies, closer to something in mathematics or quantum physics than something ethics or sociology. It is a release of certain energies and a dramatization of how these energies might be controlled, given shape.

Toibin isn’t writing about contemporary postmodernists or post-postmodernists who emphasize pattern; he’s writing about Henry James and Jane Austen. More specifically, he’s writing about how those two authors tend to remove mothers from their plots. The passage comes from Toibin’s forthcoming essay collection, New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families. (The essay is also available at the London Review of Books website, albeit behind a paywall.)

The Discipline of Form and the Love of an Educated Heart

From a 1959 essay, “Epitaph for the Beat Generation,” included the new anthology of John Leonard‘s essays, Reading for My Life:

[The Beats] proved at least one thing more. That poetry, painting, music, and fiction are products of the individual. That the great American novel will be written by some antisocial SOB who can’t stand espresso and never heard of Wilhelm Reich—the guy who sits up all night at a typewriter and brings to his particular vision the discipline of form and the love of an educated heart. A generation may be disenchanted, but it takes a man alone to chronicle that disenchantment. Art-by-citadel won’t work. It’s in league with brainstorming and Groupthink and government-by-committee. Movements, Generations, Subcultures—these are the strewn carcasses of sterile imaginations, conjured up to explain lamely the why and how of genius.

Leonard is more or less new to me; while he was alive (he died in 2008), I preferred to read music or film criticism. I’m still reading, but I’ve noticed two terms show up a few times in the essays collected in the book. One is “Author-God,” which is meant to be mildly critical of the magisterial novelist who’s a lot artful and a little disengaged with the wider world. (John Updike would be the exemplar of that.) The other is “unbuttoned,” a word he uses to praise a writer who’s done plenty of hard thinking but projects it casually. (Think Pynchon.) Leonard’s own prose echoes what he praised and criticized in others’ writing. It’s loose, often nut-graf-less, thick with lists of ideas, writers, politicians, philosophers, a millennium’s worth of cultural detritus, all rattling by like boxcars—Leonard makes you want to write like him, something few critics do—smart but always presented in plain speech. He’ll never convince me to read Harlot’s Ghost, but he makes you want to spend time with every writer he discusses, a rarer feat for a critic than it ought to be.