“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”–Dickens’s David Copperfield:
Every time I read the brilliant opening sentence of David Copperfield, I ask myself: “Am I the heroine of my own life?”
The question haunts me because I am primarily a reader. In fact I would rather read than go to Paris, Rio, or the Mall of America. I once absent-mindedly wrote “reader” instead of “self-employed” on my passport application. Can a reader be a heroine? I’m not even sure she can get out of the country.
As a young woman in my thirties and forties, I was a “professional” reader. I often reviewed for newspapers, little magazines, and The ____ Review (defunct after decades). The tiny checks bought bags of groceries. Sometimes I was paid in copies. And what do you do with the copies?
Reviewing can be inspiring, hilarious, or just plain annoying. In George Orwell’s essay about a fictional reviewer, “Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” he satirizes the reviewers’s job in the face of an editor’s choices for a round-up.
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’. …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.
Occasionally I agreed to review what was patently the wrong book for me. I once got an assignment to review a true crime book. I read every word dutifully, but I hated every word. And I tried to ask myself “fair” questions: What is the writer’s intention, execution, and genre? In the light of the subject, “execution” seemed an unfortunate word.
As a reviewer, I was briefly a prima donna, because I was fast and reliable: I could turn around copy overnight or pinch-hit for reviewers who missed a deadline. And it was truly a privilege to review the work of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Muriel Spark, Doris Lessing, Oscar Hijuelos, and Shirley Hazzard (all now dead). If I had just stuck to reviews…but alas I wasted time on ephemera.
Some professional reading is more fun than others. What they don’t tell you: there are a lot of badly-written books. Many of the books I read in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and zips have vanished, some deservedly, others not. What happened to Ellen Currie, author of Moses Supposes, a National Book Award finalist? (I hope she’s still alive.) Or Susan Dodd, a novelist who won the Iowa School of Letters Prize for Short Fiction? (She was highly lauded: I wonder if her work has stood the test of time.) And the superb books of Janet Hobhouse are out of print, except for her posthumous novel, The Furies, reissued by NYRB. And does anyone still read Alice Elliott Dark? How about Thisbe Nissen?
And that’s why reviewing, or any literary journalism, can make writers and editors hard and cynical. The reviews don’t last, and few of the books last. I separated my “real” personal reading from my review reading and only cautiously milled and thronged with other reviewers at parties. As I know now, none of it would last for any of us. We would be primas only until the next editor came along. Then we would find other publications. Again and again and again.
The last of my literary publications went out of business five or six years ago. It paid only in copies, but that was fine. And I realized I did not want to review anymore. I wanted to read only what I wanted to read!
Nowadays there are thousands of book blogs and other social media about books. (And, by the way, this is my informal book journal, not a review zine.) Unemployed professional reviewers are frustrated to see publicists bombarding us bloggers, Goodreads reviewers, etc., with review copies of (often not very good) books. Recently a publicist contacted me to “review” a book on the basis of a five-star rating I had given a book at Goodreads. Good God! Not even any writing!
This year I resolved to do no promos. This is the one resolution I am not tempted to break. I refuse to be deflected from my own reading. “Where is my paycheck?” I wondered cynically as I declined the marketer’s request in a short email, saying I had already read the book. And then I was offered a different book. Can you believe it? He/she will find someone eventually.
Because of the internet, publishers are more dependent on bloggers, or so they say. They frenetically givie away books left and right to bloggers and online reviewers, hoping to find a wider audience. It is a case not so much of Caveat Emptor, as Caveat Lector. Perfectly good readers lose their direction and waste their time onmediocre books they should get paid to read, let alone review. I wonder how many books online reviews sell. Are there more positive or negative reader reviews? I see laudations at blogs. Goodreads reviewers can be brutal.
The world of professional writing has changed in the last 20 years: according to a journalist friend, it is a “blood bath,” with a multitude of unemployed journalists and writers competing for the few writing jobs left (most of which are poorly-paid).
In times like this, we turn to Dickens. I need Dickens. I love Dickens. My favorite of his books is Our Mutual Friend, his last finished novel, which Desmond on Lost saved in a plastic bag because he had read the rest of Dickens. Dickens would have recognized Desmond as the hero of his own life, but I am not sure he would have cared about middle-aged heroines: think of chatty Flora Finching in Little Dorrit, the former fiancee of Arthur Cleming, who thinks she’s old and ridiculous, though he is the same age. He intends to win the love of Little Dorrit, a very young woman who has grown up in debtors’ prison with her father and family.
This year I’m reading the dead. I’m reading Dickens. I’m reading the greats. And though I have not read one book by a living writer, these old books nourish and fuel my imagination.
You’re quite right. As a blogger it’s easy to get distracted by the offer of free review books and end up with a pile to read and review that you would never pay for. And like you, most of my authors are dead ones – even the new books I read tend to be reprints or rediscovered ones by writers no longer with us. I’ve made a similar kind of decision – I’ll read what I like this year, and if it happens to be a review copy I *want* to read, that’s fine – but it will definitely be books I choose and not the publicists choosing for me!
Yes, you have to go with what you like! Otherwise there is no point. And you still should get paid. But those days are gone.:)
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I’ve been mulling over the purpose of my blog and have some similar thoughts. I’ve never been a professional reader or reviewer, but I used to work in non-profit publicity, and I actually enjoy the challenge of “pitching” a book (or a course or a conference) — but only if it’s one I really believe in. I’ve had fun checking out new releases and discovering books I might not have read, and I don’t begrudge the free publicity to those publishers or authors I truly love. However, with the limited time I have for blogging and writing overall, I feel the need to be a bit more introspective this year and limit or eliminate entirely my “publicity” style reviewing. We’ll see how it goes.
Well, I have not noticed “publicity”-style reviewing at your blog! It is good to figure out what we want, whether it be books we choose ourselves or books others want us to read.
That’s good that it comes out not sounding different, because I strive for that — and I do not review books I can’t honestly recommend. But it does feel different to me to receive a new book specifically for review and be aiming to give it some good press around the publication date, vs. a book that I pick up any old time and review just because I want to. I see nothing wrong with the former practice, but I feel like taking a break from it at the moment.
It’s nice to have a middleman (editor of a book page) standing between reviewer and publicist. Yes, there are still some great new books out there. But it can be tiresome if you have a stack of your own books you want to read.
Even when I was younger, I had a ‘dead author’ rule of thumb. I figured if the book had stood the test of time, it was worth my time. How many people are going to be reading many of the contemporary prize winners of today? New books (except mysteries) just don’t usually appeal to me.
As to reviewing, I did that ‘professionally’ for about two seconds, for an antiques newspaper. I’m a mood reader and can’t bear to read something I should / have to read for a book club, a read-a-thon, or anything that interferes with my free choice.
Yes, I like your “dead author” rule of thumb! Often mysteries and genre books represent the best of new books. It can be overwhelming to see the numbers of new books and figure out which you want to read.
Wonderful post! I too love reading and literature, and was fortunate enough to make a living teaching writing, language and literature, but paradoxically found this left me little time to read new books. So my down time is quite precious since it is when I can expand my reading. Nevertheless I always do a lot of online reading, including blogs that provide book reviews, so they have become an important source to me too. I must get to Our Mutual Friend!
Elaine, I can only imagine the professional reading you must have done! Scholarship is demanding and can be exciting, but I am sure you have to read many, many tedious things. OMF is great, and there are some vivid women characters, not always the case with the great Dickens.