The Book Review & Reading Climate

Sara looks at book reviews from an auctorial perspective. She writes, “The reviews can be limp with distaste or bristling with sarcasm or even positive — but one thing is pretty constant: I almost always have the really strong sense that the reviewer didn’t really read the book beyond a casual skimming. Here’s the thing: reviews — even mean spirited ones, even nasty ones — would be easier to take if the process were less opaque.” A good point, but an unfair generalization, I think. To look at the issue from the reviewer’s perspective, the real question is whether “casual skimming” means shifting gears to a level that involves dwelling upon almost every planted nicety that an author has included in her novel. Another suggestion is that the book reviewing climate has been influenced in part by the film review climate (of which more anon). Even if the review climate is willing to give the reviewer the time and compensation for extended contemplation, I’m curious about what constitutes an appropriate in-depth level or whether, indeed, such a level’s actually compatible with the short-and-snappy demands of an editor.

In an ideal review climate, I think we’d see reviewers all propounding passions and theories, discernible to literary folk and laymen alike, with the reviewer trying to compound her copious notes (assuming she takes notes!) into a 1,200 word piece. But I would argue that the reviewing climate has become so lazy and unrewarding that not only are reviewers loath to do the proper work, but the space they receive in current newspapers is equally undervalued. Where a movie is two hours, often with nary a nugget of complexity or a double entendre, and thus very compatible with, say, a formulaic 500 word essay, a book involves more of an abstract experience that runs several hours longer and involves considerably more research. The film critic may watch an auteur’s back catalog (all in the time it takes to read a book!), but is less likely to look up a reference, investigate a phrasing, or otherwise engage in the more invested experience that the book reviewer would, under the right circumstances, need to include.

I suggest that this tonal transformation has much to do with the categorization by necessity of books as “entertainment, not art.” Another factor is the continuing stigma that prevents a popular (and skillful) 1940s author like John P. Marquand from being recognized in the same breath as Theodore Dreiser (depending upon whether Dreiser himself is in favor this year or not). At the present time, we see a situation in which books are either “art” or “entertainment,” but almost rarely joined at the twain. (And when they are to some extent, we see stigmas, such as those levied against Jonathan Franzen, Charles Frazier and Tom Wolfe.) By contrast, movies, by way of being prohibitively expensive and therefore a greater gamble, are by their very necessity a compromise within that dichotomy. There are film snobs, to be sure; but thanks to the mass proliferation of indie and art house films on DVD (through such successful mail order companies as Netflix), the art house film experience doesn’t possess nearly the prominent dichotomy that one sees at almost any literary function (not unlike the opera or they symphony). Indeed, on the film front, art itself has become democratized and it is quite possible that the populace’s standards have raised. (Certainly, the sharper dropoffs for the latest Hollywood crapola blockbuster may point in this direction.)

My real question here, in light of the recent NEA results, is whether we can ever see a similar situation occur in the book world. Would it happen if some enterprising developer was to institute Bookflix, perhaps as an alternative to the dwindling hours and selections at public libraries? Or suppose publishers actually tried to market books to kids at a younger age? After all, if Pepsi-Cola and McDonald’s can be aggressive about hooking kids onto addictive substances while young, why not book publishers?

Going back to some of the transformative causes, what we have, I believe, is a situation in the book review world where enthusiasm has, in part, replaced literary criticism, perhaps an effort by editors to corral the tone of their entertainment pages to a conforming whole. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but one would hope that current book reviews would be predicated on finding a halfway point that invites the lay reader while satisfying the learned sophisticate. Or is the situation so horrid and hopelessly irreversible that we have reached the point of no return?

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