The Art, Woe, Slop, and Toe of the Book Review

In an era of sinking readership, closing bookstores, the disappearance of newspapers, and Google making us stupid, who cares about book reviews? The book review is the grownup version of the book report, the nefarious writing assignment where students first learn to plagiarize. Publishing is in a hard market, as they say in the insurance trade (rates up, coverage down), but book reviews have softened, a bummer for the pros, happily for the amateurs. We tried our hand at a book review the other day, having read the book with a review in mind, The Last Storyteller, by Frank Delaney.

Reading with writing in mind changes the act of reading, for we are no longer Salinger’s coveted general interest reader, who reads and runs sans comment. We loiter in the margins, jotting down questions we’d like to ask the author. We’re going to have to say something about what we read, or say something about how we felt while we were reading, but putting into words how we feel about a book is like putting on a tie, and we drift away from the text, ignoring the general book review rubric, if there is one.

The book review is as good a place as any to begin to think about purposeful writing. Writing with a purpose implies an audience, and if one is to stand before an audience, particularly a hostile (or perhaps worse, an indifferent) group, with any hope of persuading, some strategic plan might prove useful. To some, writing with a purpose might take all the fun out of the sails.

Ah, but what’s the purpose of the average book review – to wrestle the writer to the ground? A book reviewer might think like a reporter, an investigative reporter, even a detective of sorts, trying to solve, not a crime, but a puzzle, perhaps. Some readers don’t like puzzles. Puzzles can make one feel stupid, and, as Rene Char said, “No bird has the heart to sing in a thicket of questions.” But how much worse for the bird when what the reviewer wants to do is shoot her from the tree with a slingshot?

A brief summary of one aspect of contemporary book reviewing may be found in an SF Gate article by Heidi Benson (untitled, on-line version, July, 2003). I’m familiar with The Believer book reviewing philosophy she describes, having been a Believer subscriber since almost its inception, but I’d not heard of Dale Peck, quoted by Heidi as an example of a snarking, negative reviewer, so I read Peck’s review (referenced by Heidi) of Rick Moody (Moody I’ve read only in The Believer – I’ve not read his novels), which begins, “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation,” and continues, later, “I mean to say only that he [Rick Moody] is a bad writer. But bad writing has consequences.”

But, in part, it’s those consequences that Peck’s review is about, not Moody. Though Peck does a professional job of explicating samples of Moody’s prose, what he really wants to argue is that the modern novel as developed by the later James Joyce and company is responsible for what Peck sees as today’s literary mess (exemplified by Moody). In short, I assumed, Peck values realism, maybe naturalism, and for a good reason: he thinks literature could be more instrumental in solving contemporary problems if it were more purposeful and accessible, if, in short, it were more meaningful, if it were about something other than itself. Peck concludes with a vengeful rant against the modern novel, as follows:

“All I’m suggesting is that these writers (and their editors) see themselves as the heirs to a bankrupt tradition. A tradition that began with the diarrheic flow of words that is Ulysses; continued on through the incomprehensible ramblings of late Faulkner and the sterile inventions of Nabokov; and then burst into full, foul life in the ridiculous dithering of Barth and Hawkes and Gaddis, and the reductive cardboard constructions of Barthelme, and the word-by-word wasting of a talent as formidable as Pynchon’s; and finally broke apart like a cracked sidewalk beneath the weight of the stupid—just plain stupid—tomes of DeLillo.”

Fine, but I’d never heard of Dale Peck, so I looked up one of his books on Amazon, but I was so appalled, nay, horrified, by the excerpt from the Publishers Weekly review showing on Amazon that I had to shut down my computer and go for a walk. I’m back now, from the walk, but I still can’t believe that the Peck who wrote Body Surfing is the same guy that wrote the New Republic review. And, of course, since I am an actual, real, natural, old-time body surfer, boogie boarder, and surfboarder, I’m more than horrified at Peck’s book, I’m annoyed and disappointed, for he has, literally, defiled the surfing term with his title over that book. (And there’s my review of Peck’s book, which I’ve not read and will not read.)

Still, though, there’s a lesson there too, for the reader and the book reviewer in me (if he’s still there, after all this), for wouldn’t we agree that Stephen King is a terrible romance comedy writer? Of course not, because King doesn’t try to write romantic comedies. But one’s preference for romance comedy doesn’t make Stephen King a bad writer. Nor does my being appalled by the Amazon review make Peck’s book a bad one. We shouldn’t criticize something for not being what it was not intended to be. But if that’s true, then we shouldn’t fault Peck for criticizing Moody’s intentions. But this is where things get hard, for we don’t have time to read everything, so what should we be reading? Some criticism can be helpful. Criticism should help us understand the author’s intentions. And, once that’s done, help us understand how effectively those intentions were carried out. Good writing then becomes that which achieves its objectives, even if we don’t happen to like those objectives. n+1 wrote something up on Peck in April of 2004 which would seem to have put the matter to rest. Once again, of course, I’m way late to the party, and I’m not sure if I’m catching up or falling farther behind.