In one of the only hilarious essays George Orwell ever wrote, he anatomizes the sad, catchpenny life of the professional book reviewer thus: In a cold but stuffy bed-sitting room littered with cigarette ends and half-empty cups of tea, a … Read More
In one of the only hilarious essays George Orwell ever wrote, he anatomizes the sad, catchpenny life of the professional book reviewer thus:
In a cold but stuffy bed-sitting room littered with cigarette ends and half-empty cups of tea, a man in a moth-eaten dressing-gown sits at a rickety table, trying to find room for his typewriter among the piles of dusty papers that surround it. He cannot throw the papers away because the wastepaper basket is already overflowing, and besides, somewhere among the unanswered letters and unpaid bills it is possible that there is a cheque for two guineas which he is nearly certain he forgot to pay into the bank. There are also letters with addresses which ought to be entered in his address book. He has lost his address book, and the thought of looking for it, or indeed of looking for anything, afflicts him with acute suicidal impulses….
Half hidden among the pile of papers is a bulky parcel containing five volumes which his editor has sent with a note suggesting that they "ought to go well together". They arrived four days ago, but for 48 hours the reviewer was prevented by moral paralysis from opening the parcel. Yesterday in a resolute moment he ripped the string off it and found the five volumes to be PALESTINE AT THE CROSS ROADS, SCIENTIFIC DAIRY FARMING, A SHORT HISTORY OF EUROPEAN DEMOCRACY (this one is 680 pages and weighs four pounds), TRIBAL CUSTOMS IN PORTUGUESE EAST AFRICA, and a novel, IT'S NICER LYING DOWN, probably included by mistake. His review–800 words, say–has got to be "in" by midday tomorrow.
Anyone who's ever attempted to summarize, qualify and cram, say, a 1,000 page literary biography into the space of 600 words knows the pathos of this thankless task. And all for what? To see that you used the word "Surely" to open a sentence twice in the space of two paragraphs? To wind up a lopped-off and "de-contextualized" blurb on the back of a bargain-bin paperback edition?
The confessions of a book reviewer could keep a priest busy all the live long day. But every so often, the confession becomes a shrieking cri de coeur, and you pity the poor fool who think his in-box won't be glutted with hate mail for writing anti-democratic stuff like this. Mark Sarvas, Maud Newton — I give you Richard Schickel:
Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author's (or filmmaker's or painter's) entire body of work, among other qualities. Opinion — thumbs up, thumbs down — is the least important aspect of reviewing. Very often, in the best reviews, opinion is conveyed without a judgmental word being spoken, because the review's highest business is to initiate intelligent dialogue about the work in question, beginning a discussion that, in some cases, will persist down the years, even down the centuries. I know the objections to this argument: Most reviewing, whether written for print or the blogosphere, is hack work, done on the fly for short money. Anyone who has written a book has had the experience. Your publisher kindly forwards the clippings, and you are appalled by the sheer uselessness of their spray-painted opinions. Looked at this way, you could say that book reviewing is already democratic enough, thanks much. It's more than ready for the guy from car parts.