On Book Reviewing

If you can’t say something nice, skip the nonsense about not saying anything and pursue a career in book reviews. Frank Santo

A person has written a review of the book I’m currently reading. His review is published is the august New York Times Sunday Book Review. He considers the book simple-minded, amateurish, silly, repetitious, and, as a novel, “deadly frivolous.” Meanwhile, I am enjoying it tremendously.

Am I going to stop reading it? Do I feel the least bit regretful about purchasing the book, a not-inexpensive hardbound version of over 600 pages? After reading the review, is the book any less appealing? In answer to all three questions, a clear No.

I ask myself what then is the purpose of a book review. Is it important for the reviewer to speak ill of a book that isn’t liked, praise it if it is liked, or quite simply try to describe what the book is about so a potential reader can determine if it is one they wish to read?

The book is The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman. Why did I buy it? I greatly enjoyed Perlman’s previous novel, Seven Types of Ambiguity. In fact I thought it was of the best books I have read recently. I have also enjoyed some of his short stories. I am always hungry for a novel that means something to me and so I had good reasons for believing Perlman’s new novel would be one of those. It is.

I write about some of the books I’m reading and it is rare that I finish a book that I don’t like. In reviewing those I finish, I am always looking for what it has done right, for what keeps me reading it, and why I felt I wanted to write about it. I avoid writing about books I didn’t like, for a know full well that those that bore me to death will inevitably move others to relish.

Recently Phillip Roth commented that he doesn’t read fiction these days, saying he has “wised up.” While I seriously doubt that’s true and that Roth, as is his manner, is having fun with the interviewer, I do know more and more commentators are expressing doubts about the value of reading and writing fiction any more.

In his essay, “Why Write Novels at All” in the Times a few weeks ago, Garth Hallberg points to Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot as offering a widely voiced answer. In describing the heroine’s pleasure in reading Barthes’s Lover’s Discourse. Eugenides writes:

“It wasn’t only this writing that seemed beautiful…What made Madeleine sit up in bed was something closer to the reason she read books in the first place….Here was a sign that she wasn’t alone.”

How often we have heard that before--we read novels and perhaps, also writers write them, because they makes us feel less lonely. Is that why you read fiction?

Does reading in fact reduce loneliness? I know of no evidence that it does. While I cherish a fine novel and while it often moves me greatly, it has absolutely no effect on whatever sense of loneliness I may be feeling at the time.

What I am seeking in reading fiction and what I hope writers are trying to impart to readers is a deeper understanding of contemporary issues, those truths that only fiction seems able to provide, and a humane description of the thoughts and emotions of other people as they meet the dilemmas that confront them.

This is a rich order, one that only the finest novels achieve. And I confess that The Street Sweeper comes close to meeting, in spite of its complexity and lengthy digressions, and the comments of a displeased Times reviewer.