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.


Stefanie said...

Oh I dunno, I think reading can make people feel less lonely. I know there have been times in my life when it has. Auden has many things to say about critics including suggesting they provide likes and dislikes about various things not related to books so you can get a feel for the kind of person they are since they are going to be telling you whether or not a book is worthwhile. It's an interesting thought.

Richard Katzev said...

However less lonely you may have felt, I suspect it didn't last long. And there are always other events going on at that same time that may have led you to feel less lonely. Like Federer winning a major.

barbara harshav said...

Michiko Kakutani may be the best example of nasty book reviewing.
But add Liesl Schlesinger to that list, too: she wrote a stupid and nasty review of Night Train to Lisbon.
So what are reviews good for?

Richard Katzev said...

Hi Barbara: For me the really good reviews are those that tell me know if I want to buy the book. The reviewer says something that suggests I might like reading it. I suppose this can be done in many ways--the story strikes my fancy, I am informed it is a philosophical novel, the writing is clever, intelligent, or is just as good as the previous writer's works, all of which I've enjoyed, etc. But I am not informed very often when a writer tells me why she didn't like it. It is to be more general than that.

barbara harshav said...

There are the increasingly frequent reviews that are stupid. For example, reviews of Roth's Nemesis were almost all just plain silly. Both review in the Times began with the absurd claim that the reviewer hadn't ever read a book by Roth before -- and then had the chutzpah to review the book without understanding anything about the corpus of his work.

Richard Katzev said...

Best not to take them seriously. This means buying the printed or digital version of the book, giving it a try and deciding for yourself. Always the best policy anyway.