Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Some Books Are Impossible to Review

My goal in reviewing a book is to give readers the information they need to decide whether or not they want to read the book, which means I describe the dominant characteristics of the book, while assessing its execution with my, subjective obviously, opinion of quality. Sometimes that also involves placing the book in its historic or literary context, sometimes that means offering some interpretations of the work, and sometimes that means describing more general aspects of literature. My hope, is that I have written enough decision making resources into the review that a reader can decide they really want to read a book I have described as a book I don't think anyone should read. As much as I think Kakutani generally has regressive taste in books, I always know exactly what my relationship to a book she's reviewed is likely to be. (And thus ends the portion of my writing life where I say nice things about Michiko Kakutani.)

But not all books have the same “reviewability.” Here are three categories of books that are damn near impossible to review.

Abominations of the Written Word

No matter how bad a book is, it is still an act of human creation and, thus, still deserves to be treated with a level of respect. But how do you communicate that respect while also describing a reading experience where you wanted to pull out your eyes with sauce sodden sporks and roll them back and forth between your hands while sitting on the floor waiting for the searing pain in your brain to leech out your newly opened face hatches? As a reviewer, you have to be honest when you don't like a book, because that allows you to be honest when you like a book, and as a writer, you have to use the most compelling language you can come up with, but you are also a human being discussing something very important to another human being.

Part of solving this problem is to give those books the same attention you give to books you like, which is why you almost never seen a bad review on my blog. If reading a book makes me want to peel the first few layers of skin off my fingertips with a vegetable peeler and cartwheel dots of blood down the middle of the street, I'm going to stop reading it. And if I stop reading it, I won't be able to write with that respect. If I've committed to a reviewing a book for someone else, I'll pick up my eyes, get through, and do my best to be truthful and respectful at the time. I've had editors decide that I did not strike that right balance and chose not to run those reviews, which is what an editor is supposed to do. The reviews have also been run without additional comment. Sure, at the end of writing those reviews, there is a sense of having scaled a mountain that was also kicking you in the junk while you climbed, but there is also a sense of wishing to have spent your time not getting kicked in the junk.

Towering Achievements of Literature

But, in many ways, books I absolutely love are just as difficult to review. Just as it is hard to respect while hating, it is hard to love without gushing. There is a point where the language kind of tips, and you risk readers shifting from “This sounds great” to “Nothing could be this good.” There is a kind of praise that sounds inherently disingenuous or, perhaps, even, delusional. You can gush about a book to your friends and because they know you, they can calibrate that gushing to their own tastes, but the person on the other side of the internet won't have the luxury of that calibration. There is always the chance that the readers don't see a seasoned professional offering a prudent but positive opinion on a work of literature, but a crazy guy air drying his crazy pants on the crazy internet.

What distinguishes this challenge from writing about weeping pustules of “language” is that I want to write about these books, I want to celebrate them, I want to make other people read them. It is a beautiful enthusiasm but sometimes it means what is supposed to be a review becomes publicity.

Twice, recently, I've started to review a book only to get to the other side of a first draft and realize there would be no way I could mangle my personal reading experience into a review and wrote essays instead. One of them was this essay on Karl Ove Knaussgaard's absolutely brilliant but at times Revelations-level infuriating My Struggle Volume 2: Man in Love, and the other an essay on White Girls by Hinton Als, which I've been teasing on twitter and will hopefully be here in the not-to-distant future. But that only works when I have the luxury to not turn in a review. When I've committed to a review I try my best to be overt as to who I am as a reader so readers understand how such a powerful connection was made and to, at least, mention aspects of the book other readers might have a different reaction to.


Judging harshly. Very harshly, indeed.
Is there a more horrible and yet more expressive word in our modern lexicon? (I'm sure there's someone cranking out a self-help book about removing “meh” from your life.) There's nothing wrong with the book, per se, I mean, it's fine, it's just, well...there isn't a lot you can say about a book that is “meh.” So, maybe you summarize the plot or the themes, maybe suggest some other works this one might resemble, and then, well, you tell the world the book is “meh.”

In some ways this is analogous to the respect problem of the books that set my spleen on fire with their incendiary awful. Does a 300 word review really demonstrate respect for an act of human creation? Does it show that I have done my due diligence as a reviewer? Does it do anything for the reader of the review? I mean, ultimately, the review should make the reader look away from it, to the book, but the review is still read and the act of reading it still should have value. I feel the review prose at the other end of a meh book tends, itself, to be meh.

What Is a Book Review?

Perhaps one of the most frustrating and perhaps even destructive aspect of our current literary culture is our lack of distinction between a book review and what gets appended to books by casual readers at Amazon and Goodreads. I'm not disparaging those casual reviews, at all, as they do serve their purpose and a reader who knows how to utilize them can actually get quite a lot of useful information from them. But they are different from what we have traditionally called “book reviews.”

Book reviews are not just an expression of taste or opinion, but they do both, and book reviews are not just an assessment of quality, though they do that as well; book reviews are a cultural conversation between writers and readers, a cultural conversation that has the ability to extend itself beyond the book in question to examine other aspects of being a human being. They are a vital part of the give and take that is created by a book being written, and they extend that give and take beyond the individual reader with the individual book, to the entire world of readers.

The short opinions and ratings systems of Amazon and Goodreads are a kind of conversation about books, and, though I, personally, don't get a lot of value or information from that kind of conversation, I'm not upset that other readers do. But those comments do not do what book reviews do. They don't help us become better readers. They don't give us insight into the potential meaning of a book. They don't connect that book to the history and future of books. They don't make us think about the world around us. And they certainly don't slow down our judgment machines showing us the time, complexity, and thought that should go into forming an opinion.

Apologies for getting a little ranty here at the end, but we should have more book reviews and they should be in the mainstream media. The literary internet is amazing and powerful, and passionate, thoughtful, and intelligent readers have done much to fill the void in our culture when newspapers and other mainstream media dropped books coverage. (Quick aside: People read newspapers, readers want to know about books, so obviously, the first thing you cut from your newspaper is your books coverage, because obviously if they're reading a newspaper they don't have any interest in reading about things to read.) But the literary internet cannot replace the casual, tangential, part-of-the-habitat interaction with literature that happens in newspapers and magazines, where people reading for the sports scores are at least shown that books count in our culture.

So even though some books are impossible to review (phew, brought it back around) we still need more book reviews in more places for more people. Unless of course, we don't want to run the risk of having a more thoughtful culture.

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