Reading Too Many Reviews

André Kertész, Carnival, Paris (woman reading behind stage), 1926

“I wish they would stop publishing reviews for a year.”

“What?”  When I got the New York Times on Sunday, I didn’t read the news; I read only the Book Review.  But it seemed my friend had the internet, while I only had AOL.  I did not admit it, but I had thought AOL was the internet.

“There’s so much there.  There’s too much there.”

And then in 2005 we finally got an internet connection. There is too much.   There are American review publications, British review publications,  Goodreads reviews and discussions, blogs, the Barnes and Noble Review, the Amazon Review, online publications like Literary Hub and Book Riot, and, if we’re really bored, BookTube… It just goes on, on, and on.  And now, like my friend, I feel overwhelmed by access to so many reviews.

And do you have trouble deciding what to read next? Do I want to read Alexanderplatz Berlin (I saw copies of it everywhere in London), finish Victoria Glendinning’s brilliant biography of Elizabeth Bowen, reread Flannery O’Connor, or dip into Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink, which I read part of last summer.  I am probably not missing anything if I skip The Weight of Ink.  It got good reviews but the  truth is that not all books are for me.

And  I was dismayed to realize a few months ago that we have run out of space for books. Books literally have fallen out of a bookcase onto my head!


Is Snoopy’s bookcase made of particle board?

Read the Review Later!

Charles Bock Alice & Oliver 51sUYGu0tgL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_How did I discover Charles Bock’s new novel, Alice & Oliver?  I read a review at BookPage. It is a promotional publication, and the reviews are always enthusiastic, but guess what?  I find it more reliable than  The New York Times, The Washington Post, or the TLS (wonderful critical publications, I must hastily add, when I’m in the mood for that).

Quite often when I read a review I say, Fuck!  I’ll go back to this after I’ve read the book.

You know those crazy book-a-thons where bloggers read for 24 hours?  My husband says, “How is that different from a usual day?” I read all the time.   I would read walking down the street if I could manage it. Nobody cares what I did in school, but my undergraduate major was called, adorably, School of Letters, and then I did classics.  Yup, I’ve read widely not only in the Western canon, but in the Greek and Latin models.  As a girl I read what I call the girls’ canon:  every Nancy Drew book, every Trixie Belden, Betsy-Tacy, Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Bronte, E. Nesbit, Jane Austen,  Dodie Smith, and many Newbery winners, including A Wrinkle in Time.  It was an excellent preparation for a lifetime of reading.

In Bock’s second novel, Alice & Oliver, Alice is diagnosed with cancer, leukemia (she has no white blood cells left), over Thanksgiving, and gradually this terrible illness whittles away at the love between her and her husband.  Impressed with the description of the book,  I read a sample at Amazon and  loved the first few pages. I am reading it and finding it compelling.  Here is the opening paragraph of Alice & Oliver.

There she was, Alice Culvert, a little taller than most, her figure fuller than she would have liked.  This brisk morning, the fourth Wednesday of November, Alice was making ehr way down West Thirteenth.  Her infant was strapped to her chest; her backpack was overloaded and pulling at her shoulders.  The Buddhist skull beads around her wrist kept a rattling time.  She drank coffee from a paper cup.  Sweat bubbled from her neck.  Her scarf kept unraveling.  She was rocking knee-high boots–sensuous leather, complicated buckles.  Her gaze remained arrow straight, focused on some unseen goal.  But she was slowing.  A businessman only had a moment to avoid running into her.  Alice bent over, coughing now, a coughing fit, bringing forth something phlegmy, bloody.

Bock’s wife died of cancer, and this novel is semi-autobiographical. Bock is a stunning writer:  he won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the Academy of Arts and Letters.

I have not yet finished it.  But I was browsing online, and did what I never do:  I read (instead of skimmed) a review of Alice & Oliver at The New York Times.

As is often the case, it doesn’t match my experience.  The last paragraph is condescending.  Lauren Groff, a novelist reviewer,  writes as though he’s a creative writing student.

When a novel is drawn from awful events in the writer’s own life, a reviewer can find herself on a wobbly bridge strung between her duty to be honest on behalf of the potential reader, and the ethical imperative to avoid hurting a person who has already suffered so much. …The audience is being asked to read “Alice & Oliver” two ways, both as fiction and as fictionalized autobiography; but most of the book’s emotional work is occasioned not by the text but by the context. This can feel manipulative. Remove the autobiography and the book seems drained, wan, the characters ghosts, the love between them rarely more than shorthand…. As a writing teacher of mine once said, very gently, to a student who handed in work formed out of the rough stuff of her life, “That it happened doesn’t make it true.” By this, she meant that good fiction comes out of the author’s artistry. The real things to celebrate with the publication of “Alice & Oliver” are Bock’s superhuman efforts to write a story that must have seemed so large it blocked out all of the light, and all of the books in this talented author’s future that are now free to come into view.

You know what?  It has nothing to do with my reading the book.   Professional reviewers  cannot say, Wow.   There  is always a moment when they  say the book isn’t quite what it could have been, if the author had added x or y.  And sometimes the best novelists are not the best critics.

Apologies to those I trust, some of whom are novelists, some not:  Margaret Drabble, Tessa Hadley, D. J. Taylor, Michael Dirda, Michiko Kakutani…and many others.  But, let’s face it, we don’t know the ethics of each reviewer, who’s to be trusted, who not.


Do you want to know more about reviewers?  I enjoyed Michael Lind’s crazily good essay  at The Smart Set , “The Art of the Book Review.”  He talks from his experience as the writer of a book about reviewers’ formulas and includes excerpts from a very odd 1807 essay, “Advice to a Young Reviewer, with a Specimen of the Art.”

Here are the first two paragraphs of his witty article:

When I was writing my first book, my editor advised me to put everything I wanted the review-reading public to know in the first and last chapters, because those are the only chapters that most reviewers read. In the years since then, I have discovered that indeed most of the quotes pulled by reviewers from my books have come from the first and last sections. In nonfiction books at least, reviewers tend to skim the middle section and read only the summaries of the argument at beginning and end.

But this is only one of many crimes against authors committed with impunity by many of their reviewers. Most elements of the art of the book review serve the purpose of making the reviewer look more intelligent or erudite than the author whose work is under review. There is The Omitted Subject: “For all its merits, this book about the South Pole suffers from the lack of any discussion of the North Pole.” And there is The Book the Author Should Have Written: “By focusing on the South Pole, the author misses the opportunity to discuss a far more important subject: the Equator.”

And the 19th-century essayist,  Edward Copleston, urges reviewers to do these things and more.

Have you read any books  that are remarkable despite what the reviewers say?  I’m sure we all have our list!

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.