Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Book Reviews: Two Kinds

A scholar named Gordon Hutner gave a talk at my university a few months ago. During the talk, he lamented that literature professors rarely talk about popular contemporary books—we’ve phased ourselves out of the conversation, leaving it mostly to journalists and novelists. There are plenty of reasons this might have happened (including but not limited to professorial snobbery), but more important is how this affects the general tone of book reviews today.

Journalists tend towards writing like this: “Book X is a tale of betrayal and deception. It begins with a car chase through downtown New York, and it ends with a fistfight atop the Pyramids of Giza. It’s a great read! Read it read it” i.e. book reviews are market tools! and the only important thing about a book is how preeminently saleable it is. Which leads to thumbs up/thumbs down appraisals as if the book is a glitzy gladiator.

Fellow novelists tend towards reviews like this: “Book X is a well-crafted tale of breathtaking ambition and unparalleled poise. Author Y’s careful juxtaposition of phrase and—” i.e. novelists are artists! and the only important thing about a novel is how artistic it is. Which leads to snappy blurb quotes but generally vacuous praise that sounds all the same.

Green Velvet Book Cover with Brass Fittings

So what do I think is missing from most book reviews today? History. Literary critics don’t see books as objects with price tags, nor do they see books purely as works of careful craft—they see them as historical artifacts, worthy of dissection. So in that spirit, I’d like to talk about the contemporary books I’m reading—from Game of Thrones to Mary Gaitskill—as windows to our society (American, late 20th and early 21st century) as it currently exists.

In Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf has a school play depicting several era of British History—from the Renaissance to the Victorian—through dress-up and caricature. The last scene is entitled Ourselves and is simply an array of mirrors, turned on the audience. Virginia Woolf loved to critique literature as if we could glean from it the underlying culture that gave rise to it. So instead of convincing people to buy a book—or singing praises to a novelist—I’ll try my best to talk about books as they reveal not markets nor novelists but readers themselves.

No comments:

Post a Comment