Why I write fewer book reviews

When I started writing this blog I mainly wrote book reviews. Now, as a couple readers have pointed out, I don’t write nearly as many. Why?

1) I know a lot more now than I did then and have lived, read, and synthesized enough that I can combine lots of distinct things into unique stories that share non-obvious thins about the world. When I started, I couldn’t do that. Now my skills have broadened substantially, and, as a result, I write on different topics.

2) For many writers, reviewing books for a couple years is extremely useful because it introduces a wide array of narratives, styles, and so forth, forcing you to develop, express, and justify your opinions if you’re going to write anything worthwhile. Few other environments force you to do this; in academia, the books you’re assigned are already supposed to be “great,” so you’re not asked to say if they’re crap—even though many of the assigned books in school are crap, you’re not supposed to say so. After going through dozens or hundreds of books and explaining why you think they’re good and bad and in between, you should end up developing at least a moderately coherent philosophy of what you like, why you like it, and, ideally, how you should implement it. You shouldn’t let that philosophy become a set of blinders, but it does help to think systematically about tastes and preferences and so forth.

You might not be saying much about the books you’re reviewing, but you are saying a lot about what you’ve come to think about books.

3) No one cares about book reviews. If people in the aggregate did care about book reviews, virtually every newspaper in the country wouldn’t have shuttered what book review section it once had. What a limited number of people do want to know is what books they should read and, to a lesser extent, why. Having established, I’d like to imagine, some level of credibility by going through 2), above, I think I’m better able to do this now than I was when I started, and without necessarily dissecting every aspect of every book.

It’s also very hard and time consuming to write a great review, at least for me.

Lev Grossman also points out a supply / demand issue in an interview:

There was a time not long ago when opinions about books were a scarce commodity. Now we have an extreme surplus of opinions about books, and it’s very easy to obtain them. So if you’re in the business of supplying opinions about books, you need to get into a slightly different business. Being a critic becomes much more about supplying context for books, talking about new ways of reading, sharing ways in which it can be a rich experience.

He’s right, and his economic perspective is useful: when something is plentiful, easy to produce, and thus cheap, we should do something else. And I’m doing more of the “something else,” using as my model writers like Derek Sivers and Paul Graham.

To return to Grossman’s point, we might also treat what we’re doing differently. Clay Shirky says in Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

Scarcity is easier to deal with than abundance, because when something becomes scarce, we simply think it more valuable than it was before, a conceptually easy change. Abundance is different: its advent means we can start treating previously valuable things as if they were cheap enough to waste, which is to say cheap enough to experiment with. Because abundance can remove the trade-offs we’re used to, it can be disorienting to people who’ve grown up with scarcity. When a resource is scarce, the people who manage it often regard it as valuable in itself, without stopping to consider how much of the value is tied to its scarcity.

Lots of people are writing lots of reviews, some of them good (I like to think some of mine are good) but most not. Most are just impressionistic or empty or garbage. By now, opinions are plentiful, which means we should probably shift towards greater understanding and knowledge production instead of raw opinion. That’s what I’m doing in point 1). I’m no longer convinced that book reviews are automatically to be regarded “as valuable in [themselves],” as they might’ve been when it was quite hard to get ahold of books and opinions about those books. Today, for any given book, you can type its name into Google and find dozens or hundreds of reviews. This might make pointing out lesser known but good books useful—which I did with Never the Face: A Story of Desire—and the New York Review of Books is doing on a mass scale with its publishing imprint. Granted, I’ve found few books in that series I’ve really liked aside from The Dud Avocado, but I pay attention to the books published by it.

4) It’s useful to keep When To Ignore Criticism (and How to Get People to Take Your Critique Seriously) by John Scalzi in mind; he says critics tend to have four major functions: consumer reporting, exegesis, instruction, and polemic (details at his site). The first is useful but easily found across the web, and it’s also of less and less use to me because deciding what’s “worth it” is so personal, like style. My tastes these days are much more refined and specific than they were, say, 10 years ago (and I suspect they’ll be more refined still in 10 years). The second is basically what academic articles do, and I’d rather do that for money, however indirectly. The third is still of interest to me, and I do it sometimes, especially with bad reviews. The fourth is a toss-up.

When I started, I mostly wanted to do one and two. Now I’m not that convinced they’re important. In addition, books that I really love and really think are worth reading don’t come along all that frequently; maybe I should make a list of them at the top. Every week, there’s an issue of the New York Times Book Review with a book on the cover, but that doesn’t mean every week brings a fabulous book very much much worth reading by a large number of people. Having been fooled by cover stories a couple of times (Angelology being the most salient example), I’m much warier of them now.

Unfortunately, academic writing is also usually less fun, less intelligent, more windy, and duller than writing on the Internet. Anything is accomplishes rhetorically or intellectually is usually done through a film of muck thrown on by the culture of academic publishing, peer reviewers, and journal editors. There’s a very good reason no one outside of academia reads academic literary criticism, although I hadn’t appreciated why until I began to read it.

5) Professionalization. To spend the time and energy writing the great review for this blog, I necessarily have to give up time that I would otherwise spend writing stuff for grad school. There could conceivably be tangible financial rewards from publishing literary criticism, however abstruse or little read. There are not such rewards in blogging, at least given academia’s current structural equilibrium.

(If you’re going to argue that this equilibrium is bad and the game is dumb, that’s a fine thing to do, but it’s also the subject for another day.)

6) People, including me, care more about books than book reviews. I’m better off spending more time writing fiction and less time writing about fiction. So I do that, even if the labors are not yet evident. A book might, conceivably, be important and read for a long period of time. Book reviews, on the other hand, seldom are. So I want to work toward the more important activity; instead of telling you what I think is good, I’d rather just do it.

Here’s T.C. Boyle o:

What I’d like to see more of are the sort of wide-ranging and penetrating overviews of a given writer’s work by writers and thinkers who are the equals of those they presume to analyze. This happens rarely. Why? Well, what’s in it for the critic? Is he/she going to be paid? By whom? Harper’s runs in-depth book essays, as does the New York Review of Books and other outlets. Fine and dandy. There would be more if there were more of an audience. But there isn’t.

For a long time, I did it free, though perhaps not at the level Boyle would desire; now I don’t, per the professionalization issue.

7) A great deal of art and art criticism does, in the end, reduce to taste, and the opinions and analyses of critics are basically votes that, over time, accumulate and lift some few works out of history’s ocean. But I’m not sure that book reviews are the optimal means of performing that work: better to do it by alluding to older work in newer work, or integrating ideas into more considered essays, or otherwise use artistic work in some larger synthesis.

8) In Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Norrell is having a debate with two toadies and says, “I really have no desire to write reviews of other people’s books. Modern publications upon magic are the most pernicious things in the world, full of misinformation and wrong opinions.” Lascelles, who has become a kind of self-appointed, high-status servant, says:

[I]t is precisely by passing judgements upon other people’s work and pointing out their errors that readers can be made to understand your opinions better. It is the easiest thing in the world to turn a review to one’s own ends. One only need mention the book once or twice and for the rest of the article one may develop one’s theme just as one chuses. It is, I assure you, what every body else does.

And because everybody else does it, we should do it too. Modern publications about literature probably feel the same as Norrell’s view of 1807 publications of magic, because it’s hard to tell what constitutes true information and right opinions in literature—making it seem that everyone else’s writing is “full of misinformation and wrong opinions.” (Norrell, of course, things he can right this, and in the context of the novel he may be right.) Besides, even if we are confronted by facts we don’t agree with, we tend to ignore them:

Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite.

Opinions are probably much the same, which explains how we get to where we are. Opinions about books even more so, which is how Lev Grossman came to say what he said above.

Anyway, Norrell realizes that book reviewing is often a waste of time, and Lascelles likes book reviewing not because of its intrinsic merit but because he thinks of it as high status (which it might’ve been in 1807). In 2011 or 2012, reviewing books might still be a waste of time and is a much lower status activity, so that even the Lascelles of the world–who I’ve met—are unlikely to be drawn to it.

As I said above, the best review of a book isn’t a review of it, but another book that speaks back to it, or incorporates its ideas, or disagrees with it, or uses it as a starting point. Which isn’t a book review at all, of course: It’s something more special, and more rare. So I’m more interested now in doing that kind of review, like Norrell is interested in doing magic instead of writing about other people’s opinions of doing magic, rather than writing about whether a book is worth reading or not. I’ll still do that to some extent, but I’ve been drifting away for some time and am likely to do so further. If Lev Grossman is remembered beyond his lifetime, I doubt it will be for his criticism, however worthy it might be: he’ll be remembered for The Magicians and his other literary work. I’d like to follow his example.

EDIT: Here’s Henry Bech in The Complete Henry Bech:

That a negative review might be a fallible verdict, delivered in haste, against a deadline, for a few dollars, by a writer with problems and limitations of his own was a reasonable and weaseling supposition he could no longer, in the dignity of his years, entertain.

Yet this is the supposition artists need to entertain; critics’ opinions are as cacophonous and random as a jungle, and listening to them is hard, and, the writers who react most vituperatively to critics are probably doing so because they fear the critic or critics might be right.

Updike is also writing close to home here: the better known the writer, the more critics he’s naturally going to attract. So the volume of critical attacks might also be linked to success.

3 responses

  1. Interestingly, I’m working on an essay about book reviews and I approach the subject somewhat differently.

    I’m reviewing more regularly now because I see how few literary works actually receive decent reviews. I love a well-thought out book review (and by the way, I almost always enjoy yours), but sometimes it’s hard to say anything interesting or profound other than to say, I liked it.

    Book reviews are labor intensive and thankless labors. Most writers don’t have a lot of time to write a lot of reviews, but quality can make up for lack of quantity.

    I think the problem is that reviewers feel like they ought to review everything or a significant part of what they read. I don’t think it’s necessary. Also, I think reviewers pay too much attention to current events books and to well-known and influential books — which really don’t need more attention. I don’t know if you ever reviewed a book by Malcolm Gladwell. Who cares about him? I don’t think he is a particularly significant writer (though I do like his articles) But his books don’t need more reviews. It’s hard picking books to review, I know and occasionally it’s good to comment on a well known work. But if you talk about too many of them, you’re wasting your time.


    • Interestingly, I’m working on an essay about book reviews and I approach the subject somewhat differently.

      Nice—are your reviews gathered in one place? I don’t think I’ve seen any on or linked to from Idiot Programmer.


  2. Pingback: Links: Book reviews, is learning unpleasant?, the decline of religion, the “Asian squat,” and more! « The Story's Story

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