By Lise Funderburg
Poets & Writers
May June 2003
A guide through the thicket of available books for readers, a potential sales booster for publishers, a reputation-maker (or breaker) for authors. Whether critical or laudatory, book reviews fill many bills. But what should they accomplish? What are the ethics involved in writing one? Who should be called upon to pen them? And is the book review of the 21st century an evolution or degeneration of the critical form?
Featured in this issue and our next two, the three-part series On Reviews explores these and other questions. Each installment approaches the subject from a distinct point-of-view: the authors whose books fall under the critical eye; the editors who, with their audiences in mind, assign reviews; and the critics who put forth their judgments.
We begin with Lise Funderburg’s survey of poets and writers who have been subjected to critics’ verdicts about their work and an argument against book bashing by debut author Steve Almond.
BEFORE she plunged into writing full-time, Abigail Thomas spent five years working as a literary agent. She has since published two short story collections, a novel, and an “unmoir,” Safekeeping: Some True Stories From a Life (Knopf, 2000). Thomas says that a good part of her previous job was consoling clients when they got terrible reviews. “I remember pretending it didn’t matter,” she recalls. “You’d say, ‘God. What stupid idiot reviewed this!’ But of course it all matters.”
Reviews sell books, create buzz, affect future reviews, provide flap copy, and give agents arguments for bigger advances on the next deal. They matter indeed. And competition for attention is fierce: Approximately 136,000 new books (and new editions) were published in the U.S. in 2001 (the most recent year tabulated), according to the Books in Print database, but only a small percentage were reviewed in the most prominent consumer and trade organs. Those 10 or 12 publications—including the New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post, Library Journal, and Booklist—review many of the same titles; the 50,000 reviews they generate each year may actually cover only 15,000 to 20,000 books, according to publishing company R. R. Bowker.
Budget cutbacks in the last year or two have resulted in fewer reviewing venues, despite the seemingly endless available space on the Internet. Currently, the largest outputs come from Kirkus (5,000 trade reviews annually, 1,500 of which are of children’s or young adult books) and Publishers Weekly (9,000 forecasts in 2001). In consumer publications, the numbers drop drastically. The Los Angeles Times, which actually bucked trends by expanding its coverage last year, reviews only 1,500 books per year. BookForum covers fewer than 200 titles, and each Sunday the New York Times Book Review prints only 15 to 20 full-length reviews and 6 In Briefs.
Receiving coverage is the first hurdle for writers, but once that’s achieved, what exactly can they expect from reviews?
Poet John Yau, whose latest collection is Borrowed Love Poems (Penguin, 2002), believes reviewers should perform reflective and advisory functions, “illuminat[ing] what the author does in terms of language and writing and subject matter—all the formal things. And to suggest through that why someone might or might not want to read the book.” The book should also be placed in a larger literary context, he says. If a writer plays with Victorian conventions, for example, the competent reviewer would recognize that.
Most reviewers are too young or insufficiently well read to bring that depth of knowledge to the task, says Jay Parini, a poet and fiction writer whose most recent novel is The Apprentice Lover (HarperCollins, 2002). “The only thing that would solve this problem would be for American culture to undergo some kind of sea change,” he says. “It would require us actually having an educational system, and that’s not going to happen in the near future.”
Still, Parini expects reviews to at least cover the bare necessities. “I’d like an accurate description of the plot,” he says, “and a fairly open-minded approach to what I intended. Essentially I think a reviewer should always ask him or herself, What did the writer set out to achieve and did he or she come anywhere near achieving those things?”
Fiction writer Rick Moody doesn’t find value in the inclusion of plot summary in reviews. “I find it incredibly irrelevant. Who gives a fuck?” But all authors expect reviewers to acknowledge a writer’s intentions and to weigh a book’s success against those intentions. This doesn’t happen often enough, says Thomas. Instead, too many reviewers focus on how they themselves might have conceived the book. “The same thing happens in writing groups: ‘Why don’t you start this on page thirty and change this character into a man?’ You don’t want your book corrected,” she says. “You want someone who will take the book for what it is.”
Daniel Mendelsohn was a critic long before he published his first book in 1999, a memoir entitled The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity (Knopf, 1999) that explores his identity as a gay man who embraces the conventional role of father figure to his friend’s child. His favorite review of the book appeared in the New York Observer. “It was as if the person had read my proposal: what I wanted to do, how I planned to achieve it, what forces were at work.”
Sharon Mesmer, author of The Empty Quarter (Hanging Loose Press, 2000), a short story collection, and Half Angel, Half Lunch (Hard Press Editions, 1999), a book of poetry, received a rave in PW for The Empty Quarter, but the reviewer seemed unaware of the humor in her stories. “That was kind of odd,” Mesmer says. “It made me think [the reviewer] didn’t even read the book.”
Another complaint leveled at reviewers is unoriginal thinking. It is the worst sin, according to Lisa Zeidner, a poet and auther of the novel Layover (Random House, 1999), as well as a book critic herself. Too many reviews, she says, read like sixth-grade book reports. “If you get together all of the extant reviews of a particular book, most just reword and accept the flap copy, which is written by editors’ assistants fresh out of undergrad,” Zeidner says.
Moody agrees: “The summarizing impulse is so epidemic,” he says. “What happens now, especially in these hundred-fifty-word magazine ‘reviewlets,’ is that somebody didn’t read the book but read the flap copy to come up with a tag line. It tends to dumb down books. Who wants less? Borges said the perfect map of the world would be the size of the world. The same is true of reviews.”
If reviewers aren’t regurgitating flap copy, then they’re responding to high-profile reviews, says Zeidner. “There is a whole group of lemminglike reviewers who either accept or respond to the position the Times took.”
Just as content matters, so does visibility. Thomas was disappointed in the New York Times review of Safekeeping, in large part, she says, because “that was the review that counted.” Mendelsohn, too, regretted that his review in the Times by philosopher and psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear turned out the way it did. “It was very favorable, but it was so badly written and so incoherent, I was just afraid people wouldn’t get through it. It didn’t say what kind of book it was, how it was structured. It talked around the book. It was the nice straight-person’s review, in that warm, bath-salts-aromatherapy kind of way that says they’re happy about who you are but don’t want to think about it too closely.”
Poets who write in styles that are considered outside of the mainstream have little hope of making it into the more visible review spaces, says Yau. “The New York Times, for instance, promotes poetry that’s accessible. They’re quite willing to review paintings that are difficult, but if poetry is not accessible, it’s immediately deemed bad or irrelevant.”
One type of review that consistently rankles writers is the one that focuses on the author and not the work itself. “The thing with poetry is they’re always trying to locate you—you’re a surrealist or a New York School poet,” Yau says. “If you’re an ethnic person, if you don’t fit into a certain mold that’s predetermined by mainstream society on one side and people of the same ethnicity on the other, you’re in trouble. I wrote a book on Jasper Johns, and in an Asian literary magazine I was quite thoroughly attacked for writing about a white painter. What is the presumption on the part of the young Asian reviewer who said me writing about Johns was like a black man writing about Elvis Presley?”
Mendelsohn saw his book put through a similar sieve. “There were the gay reviews that thought I was trying to pass: ‘Why do gay people have to have children? It’s a step backwards for the community.'” Mendelsohn says he prayed his book wouldn’t automatically be given to gay reviewers. “It’s stupid as a practice in general. It’s antiliterary, because literature is about breaking down barriers of thought and telling you something you didn’t already know.”
Where Yau’s Chineseness and Mendelsohn’s gayness were under scrutiny, Edwidge Danticat and Myla Goldberg are rarely written about without mention of their heritage. Danticat, author of five books, most recently After the Dance: A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti (Crown, 2002), doesn’t mind being given a “Haitian writer” label, but notes that reviewers frequently assume her work is autobiographical. Furthermore, her ethnicity tends to drive the choice of reviewers assigned to her work. “I’ll be reviewed not by fiction writers but Haiti experts, who will often show how much more they know than me. So the review won’t even be about the work, it’ll be about Haiti. I see that with writers of different ethnicities; they’ll be reviewed by a scholar in their field. It’s not done as often with mainstream, white male fiction. They’ll get another novelist.”
When Goldberg’s book Bee Season (Doubleday, 2000) was covered in the New York Times, the author was likened to fellow Jewish writer Allegra Goodman. “And by the end of the review,” Goldberg remembers, “they had transmogrified my name into Goldman. They were horrified and embarrassed and very nice about it, but it was funny at the time.” She says the people who tended to point out her Jewishness were other Jewish writers. “My next book has nothing to do with Jews at all, so I’ll be very interested to see what they’ll do. I’m interested in what makes a Jewish writer Jewish. I don’t have a problem with it, but I hate to be pigeonholed, any writer does. So I hope that people who call me a Jewish writer continue to call me one with the next book, because it will show that they believe a Jewish writer is capable of writing more broadly.”
While some reviews are too much about the author rather than the book, others are too much about the reviewer—those who need to “buff their own Oscars,” as Thomas puts it, or whose “thrill in getting attention to themselves utterly supersedes their interest in the work,” as Zeidner says. One reviewer said of Thomas’s novel (which the author had always considered horribly sad), “If you liked Eloise at the Plaza, you will really like An Actual Life.” Thomas felt the observation suggested that the reviewer was aiming for cleverness rather than insight.
Dale Peck’s review of Moody’s memoir, The Black Veil: A Memoir With Digressions (Little, Brown & Co., 2002), began: “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.” The review, which appeared in the July 1, 2002, issue of the New Republic and which went on (at extraordinary length) to accuse Moody’s work of being “pretentious, muddled, derivative, [and] bathetic,” was the gossip of choice in literary circles for months. Other reviewers wrote in protest and support, calling Peck’s review alternately “degrading” and “invigorating.” Moody, following the unwritten rule not to respond to negative press, won’t talk about the piece. He won’t even talk about why he won’t talk about it. Negative reviews sting, but those such as Peck’s that are extreme in their position strike many writers as suspicious. “The writer’s worst nightmare is a reviewer with an agenda,” says Parini, whose pet peeve is “when reviewers are making a name for themselves and being smart-alecky and my book is just an excuse to show off.” Mendelsohn describes the Publishers Weekly review of his book as bilious. “It had the flavor of someone who’d been waiting to say something bad about me. It was too packed. But what was interesting was it was the first review, and it didn’t feel so terrible because it was uncomprehending. I didn’t respect it. And it seemed to be filled with animus.”
Writers usually don’t respond to an attack both because they don’t want to extend its shelf life and because they feel they have to take their knocks. “It’s bad form to write back,” says Mesmer. “It always comes off as sour grapes. The overarching idea is that if you put a book out, you should just suck it up.”
This is not to say that writers don’t appreciate fair critiques of their work. “I’ll have what I call ‘my writing workshop moment,'” says Danticat. “With After the Dance, a lot of the reviews said it was quote-heavy and I thought, ‘Yeah, that was true.'” While the reviews of Goldberg’s Bee Season were for the most part positive, one reviewer took the author to task for the book’s hazy setting. “I didn’t set it carefully in time,” Goldberg explains. “The pop references referred to several periods in the eighties. So that was pretty cool that someone could be that careful in their reading. It reminded me that if you’re going to place something, you should be very careful of where you’re doing it.”
Parini considers reviewers’ points but prefers readers’ comments. “Apprentice Lover had many good reviews, but they didn’t interest me,” he says. “I often didn’t recognize the book being described. But I’ve gotten long letters from readers telling me about what they’ve liked and didn’t like, and they were helpful to me, reading in the quiet and patience of their studies. I feel like you’re getting an honest response because the person isn’t dancing on a stage. So if they say the humor worked well or they couldn’t understand a certain character’s motivation, that’s useful and I’m very appreciative.”
Of course, all writers welcome positive reviews—Thomas savors a great review of Safekeeping, if a little guiltily: “I can only remember the warm happy glow that broke over my head like an egg.” But glowing reviews that ooze hyperbole and lack substance possess little more lasting value than those that slam a book without reason. Goldberg remembers one review of Bee Season that even she found slightly over the top. “It said something about Eliza being the most likeable protagonist since Harper Lee’s Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, I thought, my goodness, what a thing to say!” And Jay Parini’s favorite line was from John Bailey, reviewing his novel The Last Station in the Times Literary Supplement. “He called it a subtle masterpiece that even Tolstoy would have recognized as a work of stature,” Parini says. “Those are consoling [words] in dark moments in the middle of the night. When you wake up and ask, “Who am I, and am I any good? It’s a little bit of a crutch you can lean on. But I took even that for what it was, and I didn’t think my book was that good. I didn’t think it was a ‘subtle masterpiece’ that Tolstoy would have admired, but I liked hearing it.”
Whether positive or negative, reviews can affect the artistic process. Mesmer is wary of paying too much attention to them, for fear that she’ll be so influenced by what other people say she does well, she’ll be reluctant to explore new ground. She knows she’s susceptible to praise. “I’m like Pavlov’s dog,” she admits. Goldberg reads reviews of her own work with enthusiasm and then lets them go. But she pretty much avoids reading reviews of anyone else’s work. “I like keeping a separation between myself and the book world, for my sanity. I’m working on my own stuff, and I don’t want to be influenced by other people’s projects. I don’t want to know what the fashion of the moment is.”
And there are those who avoid reading reviews of their work altogether. Moody has his partner screen them for him. “That’s not to say I don’t want to know what the general thrust is. But the form is so moribund now, in general I find them all useless. I’m glad because it’s going to sell some copies, but it’s not criticism, it’s just air. As an ideal, I would read none of them.”
Regardless of how useful reviews are, writers have to make peace with the process in the end. Danticat says she’s become increasingly casual about it. “The first time around you feel like you’re on the auction block.” She still braces herself before reading each one, but the effects don’t last as long.
A sense of humor helps. “I always thought the most interesting exercise would be to review my own book,” says Mendelsohn. “Because there are things wrong with it. With the Publishers Weekly review, I thought if that guy had wanted to trash it, I knew much better ways to do so. ‘Filler? Take a look at page fifty-three!’ I always thought that would be fun. But I never read my book. I should—I heard it’s great.”