* Carrie Frye quotes Neil Gaiman, who writes: “I think that rule number one for book reviewers should probably be Don’t Spend The First Paragraph Slagging Off The Genre.” I try not to but occasionally do, as with The Logic of Life. But maybe Gaiman and Frye are only carving out their rule for fiction, as with nonfiction it seems more appropriate to survey existing work to ascertain whether an author is merely duplicating what already exists. I’m also on the record agreeing with the gist of what they say.
* Two readers wrote to ask in effect why, if I didn’t like the idea behind The Logic of Life, I bought and read it. Several answers:
1) I haven’t read all the econ-for-dummies books I listed and so thought I would still benefit from another one.
2) I didn’t realize the problems with The Logic of Life until after I read it, at which point they became more apparent.
3) Tim Harford was visiting Seattle, and I wanted to have the background for his discussion before he arrived.
4) Some of the chapters are also helpful professionally because some topics Harford discusses are perennials in grant writing.
Without number three, I probably wouldn’t have bought it. Number four is probably just a post-purchase justification.
* A friend who edited my post on Logic of Life said apropos of it, “Your beginnings are always very abstruse and hard to follow.” Really?
If I accept the premise that they’re harder-than-some-kind-of-average to follow, I would say that it’s because they often set up important context for what’s to follow. I’ll be more cognizant of this, especially because I began keeping a list a while ago of things reviewers often do that can annoy me. Number one, was, naturally:
1) Reviewing the author’s preceding ouevre before getting to whatever the reviewer is supposed to be reviewing or discussing the genre/similar books more generally. I did it in my discussion of Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers. This is essentially what Frye and and Gaiman were discussing.
2) Developing grand theories: I found myself writing about what makes a good history book when I really wanted to deal with The Pursuit of Glory.
3) Tangentially discuss a book while instead focusing on political or social commentary. This essentially describes The New York Review of Books, to the extent they still write about book, as opposed to galleries, political essays, movies, the universe, pornography, navel gazing etc. And yes, I’m a subscriber.
I’m sure other patterns exist, and I might start pointing out examples as I see them. All three have happened in The New York Times Book Review and elsewhere, I’m sure.
* Overall, the issue of context for reviews makes me think about why trusted criticism and publishing gatekeepers are so important: you’re more likely to read a book or review about a subject if you have a preexisting indicators that you aren’t wasting your time and that someone has vetted whatever you’re reading. This could be generalized to the chicken-and-egg problem of blogs more generally: you don’t have credibility until you have enough fame to generate credibility.