Book reviews, under review

The news that one of the last two free-standing newspaper book reviews will be edited by someone with no book-review experience to speak ofand not that much of a literary or journalistic resume eitherhas led to renewed handwringing about the state of book reviewing itself. Is the form a vital art or artifact of a more literary time? An underperforming, insufficiently monetizable product in the print-and-digital portfolio, or a kind of experiential content easily repurposed for the lifestyle section--how reading this book reminded me of that summer on the lake and made me a better listener/cook/parent?And are book reviews even necessary, when prospective readers can scan Amazon comments, listicles, or tweets that sum things up in less than a hundred-and-forty characters?Michael Bourne at The Millions sidles up to that last question without engaging it as thoroughly as he might, but he at least reveals his sympathies in proposing a different approach to reviewing. He says abandon the familiar formulawhat he calls the play-by-play style: eight- or twelve-hundred words summarizing plot, describing characters, and issuing a verdictin favor of a deeper, conversational take, which he likens to color analysis. The sports-announcer metaphor is a bit more than strained, but Bourne makes a reasonable point: the basic information on a book is already out there, available in a million different places, so give us something we dont know. He helpfully supplies examples of the kind of thing he has in mind (the writing James Wood doessurprise), and what he doesnt want at all (pedantic know-it-alls lecturing their readers on the history of the modern novel and spouting a lot of French critical theoryfair enough). At the very least, he says,

anyone hoping to be heard above the digital din needs to approach each review not as an exercise in personal taste I liked/didnt like this book, and heres why but as a mini-essay using the book under review as the focal point of a larger, more interesting story. In a great many cases, this will mean reviewers having the sense to shut up when they have an opinion about a book but have nothing to add to the conversation beyond whether they liked or didnt like it.

Different readers will identify different examples of reviews that meet Bournes criteria. I think of William Pfaffs recent review of Garry Willss Why Priests? in TheNew York Review of Books, or Woods piece on Cormac McCarthys The Road (collected in The Fun Stuff), which gets into questions of theodicy, global warming, and American realism, not to mention consistency of language and character (talk about a conversation). But thats me; what kind of conversation would other readers seek? Something lighter, or heavier? Longer, or shorter? Will the mobile-device reader stick with or scroll through a two-thousand-word piece? Should the general-interest, budget- and page-constrained print publication be obligated to run one? Or will the kind of conversation Bourne calls for generate, by virtue of its asserted superiority, market demand for the real intelligence needed to cut through the surfeit of mere information?Answering yes to that last question assumes there will be an audience able to discern the difference, and interested in doing so. Michael Woolf says simply that neither books nor criticism count for much anymore, and from what D.G. Myers reports, theres maybe not so much to hope for in the future:

Its not merely that undergraduates arrive at American universities notoriously ignorant of their cultural heritagein my freshman honors seminar this term, only three students had ever heard of William Faulkner and none had read himbut also that no other conception of literature, if it is to be studied as literature, has any standing. The earliest students of English, when the first departments were founded in the nineteenth century, complained that they were tired of lectures about literature: they wanted to read the literature itself. I suspect that my undergraduate students would be happy to sit through a series of lectures about literaturejust as long as they didnt have to read any of it!

Is there any reason to think theyd be more interested in reading about it, even if presented as a conversation?

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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