How Seriously Should We Take Book Reviews?

In Exley's fictional memoir,  he criticizes book reviews (p. 16).

In Chapter One, the narrator criticizes book reviews.

Professional critics often write articles protesting that the internet has shattered literary criticism.  Then they explain why we should read literary criticism.

There I am, reading these articles and wondering if they were written with someone else in mind.   Perhaps these articles should be published in another section.

But the internet has destroyed the newspaper business, and I am anxious about the future of book reviews.  For many years I didn’t bother with the news at all.  I turned straight to the book reviews.

In The Guardian on July 19, Nicholas Lezard defended the role of the professional critic and explained why he despises Amazon reviews.  He quoted Amazon reviews which are characterized by misspellings and unwitting ellipses, and wrote sic next to the errors.

Then he writes,

When I look on Tripadvisor to see whether I am going to be staying at Fawlty Towers or not, I consider most people are capable of spotting rats in the serving dishes. But I do not feel the same way about reactions to artistic endeavour.

He modestly says he likes to read reviews by people who are brighter than he is, but he lets us know that his are smart, too.

Not that mine are necessarily the shiniest and sharpest in the box; but they’re good enough to keep me in work, touch wood, for all that critics these days feel they’re the canaries in the cultural coal-mine.

Lezard’s essay is well-written, if a bit supercilious.  But I enjoy Amazon reviews:  they are refreshingly forthright.

Still, I love professional reviews:  I even subscribe to book review publications that are clever enough not to publish all their articles on the internet.

But I don’t think reviews and criticism are interchangeable, and the nomenclature in these articles confuses me. Is there a difference between reviews and criticism, or do I imagine it? You will find lively pop reviews in Entertainment Weekly, The Chicago Tribune and The Miami Herald; but long, serious, critical essays in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.

How seriously should we take reviews?  The novelist Frederick Exley and brilliant novelist and essayist George Orwell didn’t take them quite as seriously as some critics do.  They were critical of the critics, or at least of book reviewers.

In Frederick Exley’s brilliant novel, A Fan’s Notes:  A Fictional Memoir, the narrator, an alcoholic writer who has taken a job as a high school English teacher, spends the weekends in his hometown, Watertown, New York,  getting drunk and watching the Giants games.  But on Sundays he reads the book review sections.

I read them with nostalgia and remorse.  There was a period when I had lived on book reviews, when I had basked and drawn sustenance from what I deemed the light of their intelligence, the beneficence of their charm.  But something had gone sour.  Over the years I had read too much, in dim-lighted railway stations, lying on the davenports of strangers’ houses, in the bleak and dismal wards of insane asylums.  The reading had forced the charm to relinquish itself.  Now I found that reviews were not only bland but scarcely, if ever, relevant; and that all books, whether works of imagination or the blatant frauds of literary whores, were approached by the reviewer with the same crushing sobriety.  I wanted the reviewer to be fair, kind, and funny.  I wanted to be made to laugh.  I had no better luck that Sunday than on any other.

George Orwell in his essay  “Confessions of a Book Reviewer” humorously describes a reviewer who must write on demand about subjects he knows nothing about.

Half hidden among the pile of papers is a bulky parcel containing five volumes which his editor has sent with a note suggesting that they ‘ought to go well together’. They arrived four days ago, but for forty-eight hours the reviewer was prevented by moral paralysis from opening the parcel. Yesterday in a resolute moment he ripped the string off it and found the five volumes to be Palestine at the Cross Roads, Scientific Dairy Farming, A Short History of European Democracy (this one 680 pages and weighs four pounds), Tribal Customs in Portuguese East Africa, and a novel, It’s Nicer Lying Down, probably included by mistake. His review — 800 words, say — has got to be ‘in’ by midday tomorrow.

Orwell says that no review should be shorter than 1,000 words.  Do reviewers get even that much nowadays?

I love literary criticism, but I recently looked at a 2000 The New Yorker, and noticed reviews were longer then.

And just a note to show you all that I do take reviews seriously.

I don’t read many new books, but I’ve read nine this year because of book reviews:  Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce; The Silent Land by Graham Joyce; Aeneid, Book XII, ed. by Richard Tarrant (Cambridge); Dante’s The Divine Comedy translated by Clive James; My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante; The Mussels Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke; House Mother Normal by B. S. Johnson; Big Brother by Lionel Shriver; and Harvard Square by Andre Aciman.

3 thoughts on “How Seriously Should We Take Book Reviews?

  1. I think there definitely *is* a difference between reviews and criticism. Reviews are always going to be short snapshots, which should give you the flavour of the book and whether you will enjoy it or not. Criticism is a whole different kettle of fish, longer, in depth, could be book length but will analyse a work or genre in a very different way. I used to read professional reviews more, but I’ve come not to trust them so much. One example is Robert Service’s various books on Russian leaders – Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky etc. I was given the Trotsky one and started to read it but not very far in started to feel rather uncomfortably that I was reading a hatchet job. And if there’s one thing I like, it’s a fair, even-handed biography. The professional reviews were favourable, and so were some of the Amazon ones – but there was enough non-professional material online to convince me that I was right. A similar thing happened with an Anne Applebaum book I considered buying till I read some very informative Amazon reviews dissenting from the official line and spelling out the problems with the book/author.

    I find I tend to trust book bloggers most nowadays – after all, they’re mostly reading for pleasure and passing on their genuine response to a book – which in the end is more valuable for me!

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  2. A review is like an essay: it’s not quite definable: it can be great criticism as well as a personal take. It is supposed to be shorter than a literary critical essay but it isn’t always. A central difference is it is supposed to be about a book and deal with another person’s thesis or take on the universe or the specific matter of that book and the book itself. It’s not supposed to be say a life of Emily Dickinson but about this particular book about the life of ED.

    In history there have been masterpieces of reviews — Samuel Johnson’s on Soames Jenyns’ book on the Great Chain of Being comes to mind. He smashes the complacency and cruelty of the concept of the great chain of being as laid out in that book. A famous passage responding to the idea the poor should not be taught books they cannot use (it’s said) in their working lives because this might make them dissatisfied:

    I am always afraid of determining on the side of envy or cruelty. The privileges of education may, sometimes, be improperly bestowed, but I shall always fear to withhold them, lest I should be yielding to the suggestions of pride, while I persuade myself that I am following the maxims of policy; and, under the appearance of salutary restraints, should be indulging the lust of dominion, and that malevolence which delights in seeing others depressed.

    Some writers have been published by gathering their reviews together. I prefer the books of review by Gore Vidal than any of his novels. They are so much better. Famous essays are often originally reviews: many of Graham Greene’s and George Orwell’s were. Reviews used to paid you see — when journalism was thriving as a paid occupation. And there still are people who make careers as respected reviewers. Open up a New York Review of Books or London Review of Books and you find their names. Women too. Some of these are awful — they have agendas that are awful, but then many magazines are awful too (reactionary, anti-feminist, pornographic).

    Books achieve importance and circulation by being reviewed still — even today. They achieve respect by appearing in histories of literature and handbooks. Women’s texts suffer because they do not appear in anthologies; what gets into an anthology comes partly from someone seeing a title or name in a review.

    It’s changed because we have the Net and non-professional reviewers. Some of these form the basic tasks of telling people what’s in a book and their view of it, but they don’t evaluate it well always — and as we must not give up standards in other areas, we must differentiate the better and good from the less good and bad. And we no longer can do so by looking at the person’s title, affiliation; it is true that someone who is paid and appears in a respected magazine (wherever) is more likely to write a better review but it’s not always true and people writing blogs like this one who keep up standards just are noticed and function the way the people in the paid magazines do.

    I enjoy reviewing enormously myself. It’s not an easy business if you are in an area professionally — as Virginia Woolf said. People are not grateful for genuine evaluation. They prefer wild screams of praise even if not based on really reading the book. There is continual corruption: people push one another’s books; push agendas, will get back at you perhaps. But then what is not corrupt in our world? Right now as I write the Times Literary Supplement has been turned into a dishonest reactionary paper but people who read it know that (and it’s circulation is going down) and honest reviewers are stopping reviewing. But this is the result of corporate take-overs and ruthless lying in media which too few complain about.

    TMI. I’m glad Kathy has said we should take reviews and reviewers seriously; in reality people do since we still rely on them to help us in our choices of which book to read and buy next … films too.

    Ellen

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  3. Yes, I think of reviews as plot summaries with a few telling comments about the book’s strengths and weaknesses. Most newspapers go this route rather than supporting the serious essay that carefully proves its thesis. There simply isn’t enough space anymore.

    Criticism put the books in the context of its genre, history, and author’s biography, meandering and then suddenly coherent.

    I must confess, I usually read bloggers for voice rather than recommendations. I love to read blogs! But the last book I read recommended by a blogger was The Collected Stories of Elziabeth Taylor. It was superb, but it was mentioned rather than reviewed

    And I don’t review here. This is my book journal. Occasionally I write an “almost review,” but I would have to revise it for days and days if I intended to “publish” it.

    Such is the life online. The critics shouldn’t be sweating it.

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