“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.