“You don’t really start start off: It’s time to write a novel, what shall I write about? Now, there may be instances—Hollywood or some commercial writing—where the writer is that objective. But I don’t think most writers, good or bad, work that way. They tend to have a lot of stories available to them just because they are human beings. Anybody here knows a lot of stories—whether he knows he knows them or not, he knows them. Now, when a writer decides on one of the many stories he has encountered, he doesn’t just say: I’ll take the third from the left. He sees his material in terms of a type of story that somehow catches hold of him, like a cockleburr in his hair. Why it’s this story instead of that one that he picks to work on may be accidental, but waiving that consideration, it’s really because it has a germ of meaning for him personally. An observation or an event snags on to an issue in your own mind, feelings, life—some probably unformulated concern that makes the exploration of the connection between that thing and the issue rewarding. This can happen without your being conscious of why some particular scene makes it happen.”

—Robert Penn Warren, interview with Frank Gado, 1966.

The Pioneers

Critics who read novels biographically are nothing new:

It has been often said, and in published statements, that the heroine of this book was drawn after a sister of the writer, who was killed by a fall from a horse now near half a century since. So ingenious is conjecture that a personal resemblance has been discovered between the fictious character and the deceased relative! It is scarcely possible to describe two two females of the same class in life, who would be less alike, personally, than Elizabeth Temple and the sister of the author who met with the deplorable fate mentioned. In a word, they were unlike in this respect as in history, character, and fortunes.

—From the author’s introduction to James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers, published in 1823.

A Farewell to Alms

A Farewell to Alms continued to fascinate, though I am not convinced of its central thesis concerning the role culture and perhaps genetics played in making the Industrial Revolution happen in England rather than elsewhere. The theory still suffers too much from causation issues, especially because so many different things were happening within society that it is nearly impossible to disentangle cause from effect. Its most interesting prescriptions are the end, when Clark argues that Africa still hasn’t escaped the Malthusian Trap, in which a growing population consumes any efficiency gains in subsistence agriculture, leaving society as a whole no wealthier than it was prior to efficiency gains. As a result, he argues, aid from and contact with the West has actually made much of Africa worse off. Again, I am not convinced that problems with institutional governance are not the real problem with Africa, but the idea is worth considering because anything that would allow the West to better target aid is much welcomed.

Tyler Cowen does a better job with the book’s highlights and flaws than I care to and can. See this post too. He will continue discussing it on Marginal Revolution for the next several weeks, so those who want further discussion should check there.

Is A Farewell to Alms worth reading? Probably not, unless one has a keen desire to know more about a very specific part of or about developmental economics. I have no expertise in those fields and so am unable to ascertain the book’s importance aside from what others have written. A Farewell to Alms is dense with technical graphs that require some care to understand and don’t always seem relevant to Clark’s thesis, and its narrow subject matter indicates that a broad audience is unlikely. But expect it to influence debates about aid, colonialism, and development for many years to come.

Faint Praise

Gail Pool’s Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America discusses the problems inherent in book reviewing, the perceived solutions to them, the problems with her perceived solutions, and why none of this might matter if newspapers book reviews continue to diminish. Although the subtitle of her book defines it as “in America,” I suspect many of the issues about evaluating worthiness are universal. Some of her comments are specific to the American market for book reviews, and the use of the word “plight” probably comes from her implicit realization that only a small number of paid critics will work in the future. A much larger number of people like me will occupy the rest of the universe with our fractured, para- and unprofessional opinions that may or may not be worth much. Newspapers are likely to continue cutting independent reviews, which in turn reduces the number of opinions one is exposed to and the philosophies underlying why the reviewer judges a book the way he or she does.

Pool links the market pressure to the big problem with book reviewing, which remains and is perhaps exacerbated by current trends. The big problem is that “[…] assessing critical judgments inevitably comes down to taste.” You can make your argument more forcefully or less forcefully, but you can’t eliminate taste or come to a perfect solution about what makes art. I’ve been wrestling with that issue in posts concerning Elmore Leonard and B.R. Myers’ response to Leonard, and many others see it too. Taste is worth having even if it can’t be defined, and you at least need some sense of it to say anything useful about art. You also need space in which to say it, and that brings Pool’s book back to the problem of having fewer quality outlets and too few words to express a big idea.

Books about books give writers nearly infinite space to write, so Faint Praise isn’t hampered by that problem with reviews or reviews about reviews. Instead, she’s facing the problem of too many people having already dealt with the things Faint Praise discusses. You don’t need the book—Book Daddy’s discussion is adequate to understand its main points, especially since some of the comments also contribute useful ideas (oh, and read this for some juicy quotes about critics). Other writers, like Tyler Cowen, also made me think about the problem in this post. In addition to Book|Daddy, Marginal Revolution, and Critical Mass, The Elegant Variation also sometimes covers arts. I probably would’ve been much more interested in Faint Praise if its subjects hadn’t already been hashed and rehashed in so many forums. I feel déjà vu: the arguments are going in circles, the problems about what should be criticized and when and how are unsolvable, although one can be cognizant of them and thus try to write more successful. Steve Wasserman addressed current problems in the Columbia Journalism Review, and a recent symposium on book pricing dealt with similar issues. Orwell on reviewing is an older and condensed version of what Pool says. Writers keep asking about what the Internet is doing to publishing and literature, and although I won’t try to predict to the future, I do know one consequence: it has made Faint Praise superfluous because if you read all the links I posted above you’ve already learned as much if not more than you would from the book. The questions about how should one judge a work and how does one find the merit of the work remain. There is no standard and cannot be, efforts at standardization often being worse than the problem they seek to solve. So we are left with the struggle and the frequent failure of book reviews, which, like the novels they comment on, fail more often than not. Let us try to, as Zadie Smith said, fail better. I wish Pool had more and more insight on how fail better and fewer dour if correct predictions about the future of book reviewing.

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