What’s a Book Review For?

Miranda Celeste Hale (my Bespectacled Blog Twin™) writes thoughtfully and passionately in favor of the continued existence of the book review, a counter argument to a piece from n+1 by Elizabeth Gumport. On the whole, I agree with Miranda’s take. Here’s the meat of her argument:

Although Gumport would deny it, there’s a reason why many of us still read publications such as the The New York Times Book Review or The New York Review of Books: we hope to find expert analyses of the merits of literary texts. The simple truth is that some voices are more credible than others. I strongly believe in the democratization of knowledge, but not in the devaluing of earned authority and expertise.

And so do I. But I also thought it worth adding that not all book reviews are created equal — or should I say, not all book reviews serve the same purpose, not for me anyway. Indeed, if anything I feel that the great swath of (let’s call them) upper-middle-brow book reviews (such as those from the publications Miranda mentions) tend to have a similar construction: a general statement about the overall theme, a lengthy synopsis, and a conclusion as to whether the author’s intent is realized. I find this construction to be perfect in some cases, woefully wrong in others.

Here’s where this becomes relevant to Miranda’s argument. We have to decide what is a given review’s function — particularly when we’re talking about Miranda’s talking about: literature, as opposed to nonfiction. For literature, we’re dealing with something with a story; a plot with characters taking part in events. In this case, it seems to me there needs to be a kind of division of labor: a “you haven’t read the book yet” section that simply explains why the book is or is not worth your time, along with a small hint of the book’s plot; and a “come back after you’ve read it” section that can deliver the kind of deep analysis that Miranda wants. If it’s not divided as such, I feel that the review (wrongly) treats the literature as nonfiction.

With nonfiction, the review that handles the whole shebang makes sense. I want a learned mind to tackle the questions posed by the author of the book in question, and to weigh in on how well the author achieves what they set out to achieve. This is precisely why I enjoy turning to the New York Review of Books. Life is short, one can only read so many books, and the NYRB can be a wonderful digest of material one might not ever return to. And if the review sparks more fervent interest, then it can serve to turn me to the book itself.

And as Miranda states, I want that direction. If I were to go about as Gumport would have us, I would have such a limited mental store of words as to be tragic. There is a serendipity, much like that explained by Alan Jacobs, that a good book review publication can facilitate, and it would be madness for a lover of books to forego that serendipity altogether.

For my own writing, I probably fall somewhere in between the utility desired by Miranda and Gumport. I write book reviews for this blog, but they are personal responses, flavored with whatever “expertise” or experience I bring (naturally). They are not from a trained literary scholar by any means, but I think I have enough “merit” that my reviews are useful to friends, like-minded thinkers, and the general passer-by. I might be wrong, of course.

And one other side note: I am very sympathetic to Miranda’s eye-rolling over Gumport’s seeming fixation on there being something “orgiastic” about one’s relationship to a book — or, more specifically, an author’s relationship to one’s patron. I find it tedious when something pseudo-scholarly reaches for the over-sexualization card in what often feels like an attention grab.

 I’d write in iambic pentameter for that.

But that said, Gumport is far from off-base with her read on the author-patron relationship of old. Let’s check in with my old “employer,” Mr. Shakespeare, and see what he has to say in his dedication for The Rape of Lucrece written to one (rather mischevious-looking) Earl of Southhampton:

The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end; whereof this pamphlet, without beginning, is but a superfluous moiety. The warrant I have of your honourable disposition, not the worth of my untutored lines, makes it assured of acceptance. What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours. Were my worth greater, my duty would show greater; meantime, as it is, it is bound to your lordship, to whom I wish long life, still lengthened with all happiness.

Your lordship’s in all duty,
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE.

Yowza. Take that, New York Times Book Review!

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