Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Whither The Book Review?

It’s been a while since I’ve participated in a fiction-writer’s workshop. They can be incredibly helpful or profoundly frustrating, depending on which of the three manifestations they follow. 1) The Happy Gang, where seldom is heard a discouraging word; 2) The Glowering Bunch, who sit slouched with arms crossed, and begin every criticism with an impatient shake of the head; 3) Magic! a group that is friendly and encouraging, but also critical and competitive.

Much depends on the facilitator, of course, but if you walk into a room where everyone glowers, you might as well turn around and get your money back. A good facilitator can nudge a Happy Gang toward critical competence, but if a group’s creative insecurity manifests itself in rancor and cynicism, you’re starting with an insurmountable deficit.

I’m tempted to make a similar analysis of the art of the book review, but I’m not so sure it holds. There’s a lot of “Whither The Book Review” chatter happening right now. Bookninja reports that he scans the weekly review page, but when it comes to settling down and reading them, he picks one or two and leaves it at that. Hey, me too!

In other, related news, Neal Pollack, who’s made a name for himself by cultivating an absurd persona that makes Hunter S. Thompson look like Deepak Chopra, is eyeing a potential second act, and having second thoughts. It seems Pollack’s over-the-top posturing had a limited shelf life. (This strikes me about right. I found the overall project amusing – Pollack worked as a one-man MAD Magazine, and had a prodigious output. But, like MAD Magazine, his was a shtick unlikely to carry him past the decade-mark. Eventually readers like me were going to say, “I get the joke – I just don’t think it’s all that funny anymore.”)

Pollack’s original product worked in tandem with David Eggers’ “snark-free” review policy, given voice here by Heidi Julavits in the inaugural issue of The Believer. She calls for an articulate Happy Gang to nurture Western Literature back into a state of prominence. Oprah, we hardly knew ye.

Pollack’s effect was to wield the printed word as a send-up of high-testosterone snark, while often slipping in sentiments that weren’t too far from the truth. This was a tricky balancing act that frequently failed. Isn’t it better just to commit to the sort of review that gets Julavits tied up in knots? Consider these two paragraphs by Lucy Ellmann on Francine Prose:

American sentimentality may once have seemed endearing, but now we know it's just another instrument of evil. Every aspect of American culture has begun to stink of the grave. The pizzas and hamburgers: this is how world tyrants fuel themselves. The cars, the drugs, the music, the TV: this is how they distract themselves from their crimes. But how can they still think they're right about anything? Their children are deep-fried, drug-soaked numbskulls, the adults hapless lemmings in their SUVs, heading straight into the back-end of the American dream. Where is the guilt - and where the apology?

You won't get one from Francine Prose. Reading her is like going on an anthropological excursion into the heart of that darkness. The horror of it is not just that she seems to go along with the suburban-commuter lifestyle she depicts, but that she concludes, from her tale of neo-Nazi woe, that everyone is basically good, or at least redeemable. It's Panglossian! Her faith in America and the essential innocence of its inhabitants turns what could have been a challenging read into a witless fable for our times. What's more, it all has to happen in the present tense: Americans have no past.

Alright! Now we’re getting somewhere! There will be no glossing over this review. Nope – this sort of vitriol sets off a cluster-bomb of reactions. 1) I start to chant, “Fight! Fight! Fight!” (Ellmann surely knows from first-hand experience that Prose gives as good as she gets.) 2) I consider writing a review of the review, which might begin thusly: “Continental condescension may once have seemed endearing...” 3) A deep breath, followed by some muttering: “Loosen yer jockstrap, Ellmann. I mean, what are we really talking about, here? A print run of a couple thousand, remaindered by Christmas? And how many of those copies sold are likely to be read? If you’re so riled up, go back to the book store and hand-sell copies of Vernon God Little, already.”

And there it is: one bad-ass nasty review generating more thought than a year’s subscription to The Believer.

For the record, I’m with Chris Lehmann. I don’t want to spend 30-plus bucks on a book that doesn’t hit it out of the park for me (that’s why I don’t read Globe & Mail reviews by T.F. Rigelhoff anymore: he recommended one too many books that didn’t make it past second base). As a reader of reviews, my method works something like this: if I’m an entrenched fan of a particular writer, I’ll clip and save the review for when I’ve finished the book. If I know nothing of the author or the subject matter, that review had better be one punchy piece of prose for me to read it from start to finish. To that end, you might as well keep it brief – Entertainment Weekly-style, basically. Or, conversely, you can attack either the writer, or the reading culture that is sure to ignore the book you love so much (John Irving is particularly adept at the latter strategy).

Or you can take your time and take your chances. If enough people like what you say and how you say it, word gets around. It might even catch the eye of Maud Newton, Bookslut, Bookninja & Co. – a sure sign you’ve made it on the literary scene.

Bonus link: Darko records Nick Hornby talking sensibly about writers dealing with critics.


Scott said...

Thanks for the update on Neil Pollack -- his "Neil Pollack Anthology of American Literature" is one of my favourites (I don't think I've ever read a chapter title funnier than "I Am Friends With A Working-Class Black Woman") but, yes, the joke has worn thin by this point.

It'll be interesting to see what he comes up with. I've always admired the way Steve Martin, for instance, mutated his persona whenever a particular schtick had worn thin (From 'wild and crazy' to romantic comedy to New Yorker wit -- though he hasn't yet realized how empty his new Disney streak of family-friendly movies has become).

As for book reviews, terrifyingly high prices for your average hardcover (or even trade paperback) make it seem riskier than ever to follow a critic. The interview with China Miéville that you posted encouraged me to pick up his book (which I am definitely enjoying so far) but, even then, I handed that wad of cash across the counter with great trepidation!

DarkoV said...

A fine piece of spaghetti cooking writing. Thrown on the wall, it stuck. Al dente.
I divide reviews, both the book and the music variety, into two main varieties.

The Wicked ones are delightfully written and tend to skewer the book, the writer, the genre, why even the printed word the reviewer is making his/her money from. I tend not to be taken in by the opinion of the reviewer, but as you put it so well that review had better be one punchy piece of prose for me to read it from start to finish. The Wicked can actually be complementary, in a negative way, in that the reviewer may say something to the effect of, "The book is something, evoking nothing involving much of little consequence. Your time is wasted here, unless you'd planned on watching "American Idol" instead." The Wicked should leave you with a sly grin and a curiosity as to the sheer stupendous dark hole of the reviewed book.
The Nasty review is usually written by a writer that's been recently savaged by either The Wicked or The Nasty. This writer is simply in the throes of revenge and any book thrown their way will be the victim. These reviews tend to start with a phrase such as, "If I had this topic..." or "My recent book..". So, if the first sentence has an "I", "me", "my(mine)" simply turn the page. Don't waste your time here.

I used to rely on opinions expressed by the various librarians in our town's 3 libraries. Most have retired and have been replaced by book administrators. The book admins tend not to read as much as they are busy trying to keep the library relevant or their days are taken up with making sure the homeless folks don't get too possessive of the newspapers and books and thus discourage the citizens who came in to borrow a book. I've also gotten lazier about the library. My reading speed has gone down and the level of late book fines has gone up. The ease and price of Amazon and the pleasure I get from seeing a pile of books winking at me from the floor as I put my head on the pillow alos keeps me from visiting our libraries.

So, what do I do? Easy enough. I come to this site, read the excellent entries and add to my to-read llist from your recommendations and reviews.

Whisky Prajer said...

Scott - pointing Pollack toward Martin seems like sound advice. The second act should be good: the kid clearly has talent to burn.

DV - librarians, along with the trusted bookseller, are becoming a vanishing breed, I fear. And thank you for the praise - I think you put your finger on a larger phenom the hand-wringers haven't quite figured out yet: Blogs are stepping up to somewhat fill in the gap left by retiring librarians.