In journalism, strictly speaking, it is a conflict of interest to review a friend’s book.
But the ethics of literary journalism are always in flux–you never know who knows who–and literary mores were entirely more flexible in George Gissing’s 1891 novel, New Grub Street. In this fascinating book about the writing world in nineteenth-century London, the characters dash off anonymous book reviews, often having barely skimmed the book. One particularly vicious editor does hatchet jobs on his enemies’ books: the level of paranoia being what it is, the authors sometimes blames the wrong man for the bad review.
And so we applaud the ambitious, not altogether likable Jasper Millvain when he writes anonymous rave reviews for two different journals of his friend Biffen’s naturalistic novel, Mr. Bailey, Grocer. The starving Biffen spent two years writing this nearly perfect, if tedious, book, and risked his life to save the manuscript from a fire in his lodging house.
Jasper doubts if the reviews will do much good, even though he uses the word “masterpiece.” He tells his sister Dora, who admires the book, “Most people will fling the book down with yawns before they’re half through the first volume.” And he knows some would think it unethical for him to review the same book twice.
And then he delivers a soliloquy about the trade of literature.
Speaking seriously, we know that a really good book will more likely than not receive fair treatment from two or three reviewers; yes, but also more likely than not it will be swamped in the flood of literature that pours forth week after week, and won’t have attention fixed long enough upon it to establish its repute. The struggle for existence among books is nowadays as severe as among men. If a writer has friends connected with the press, it is the plain duty of those friends to do their utmost to help him. What matter if they exaggerate, or even lie? The simple, sober truth has no chance whatever of being listened to, and it’s only by volume of shouting that the ear of the public is held. What use is it to Biffen if his work struggles to slow recognition ten years hence? Besides, as I say, the growing flood of literature swamps everything but works of primary genius.
Today many good books are still “swamped in the flood of literature.” From my amateur reader’s point of view, the same few books are reviewed in every paper, and yet tens of thousands of books (too many books?) are published. The list of books to be reviewed is magically pre-determined by a conspiracy of marketers, editors, and (possibly) witches and warlocks(!). Yes, I want to read about established writers, but am dubious about some of the “hot” debuts. Caveat Emptor is my motto. Some of the “cooler” debuts might be my reading.
Naturally, a lot of the oddball stuff goes missing from book review journals. This year two excellent novels which deserve more press are Karen Brown’s eerie novel, The Clairvoyants (which I wrote about here), and Erica Carter’s harrowing novel about three down-and-out women in Arkansas, Lucky You (which I wrote about here). Some books are passed around by word of mouth. Still, reviews help.
And what about the small press stuff? Where is that reviewed? A small press editor told me many, many years ago that, from the monetary point of view, it was better to publish a bad book by a charming writer with a lot of friends than a good book by a solitary writer with few friends. (The bad writer’s book sold; the good writer’s did not.) But he wanted to publish good books, so instead got a lot of grants. And did not make money.
Hm, I never thought of it that way!
But what if it’s a great book? Where are all the great books? I loved Lidia Yuknavitch The Book of Joan, a stunning novel that is, thank God, widely reviewed.
There must be more like Lidida Yuknavitch writing.
The rain stopped late Saturday afternoon, and we’re wallowing in green. This is what Memorial Day weekend looked like.
So green, isn’t it?
Happy biking, happy swimming, happy sitting around in shorts!