JUNE 25, 2011
YESTERDAY, WITH GREAT PLEASURE, I read the epigraph to Elizabeth Gumport’s short essay on book reviews in the already venerable n+1, the literary magazine out of Brooklyn. The epigraph is from an 1807 editorial in the long gone, but once venerable Monthly Anthology and Boston Review:
The office of a reviewer is, in a republic of letters, as beneficial and necessary, though as odious and unpleasant, as that of an executioner in a civil state.
This is fun, of course, as long as we don’t have to think too seriously about the death penalty or about book reviewing. There is, I’ll admit, something unpleasant enough about the business — all of us who have received bad notices know it, and we at the Los Angeles Review of Books are aware of it every day, now that we’re editing a bunch of reviews, worrying about our multiple responsibilities to writers, critics, readers, the record. But one thing I’ll wager: being reviewed does beat being executed.
Comparisons are odorous, as Dogberry says, but comparisons, however implicitly made, are the sturdy vein of book talk. I went to graduate school when it was considered elitist and therefore immoral to argue that some books were better than others, when the capital L in Literature was under a fairly strenuous ban, so I know how to avoid evaluation; in those years we all learned how to get by without it. Under the sway of the Death of the Author and what we might call the Deconstructive Fallacy — the idea that since a text can implode under enough analytic weight, it is “always already” imploded — we came to a conclusion not unlike Gumport’s: reviews are “pointless and boring — as unread as they are unreadable.”
“Against Reviews” is the title given Gumport’s piece, and, like my graduate school friends (although for different reasons), she proposes that we do away with the whole schmear. First, though, she offers a quick, entertaining, and informative history of book reviewing, from the 12th century through Virginia Woolf and on to Elizabeth Hardwick bemoaning the decline of book reviewing in Harper’s in 1959 (” … lobotomized, accommodation reigns … “), all with a pleasant and urbane combination of the snide and the deeply informed. At one level, I was enlightened and entertained; at another, of course, I remained unconvinced: I am, after all, reviewing her review of reviewing.
But I agree with what I take to be Gumport’s central and most valuable contention. The thumbs-up-, thumbs-down, two-star, four-star, 500-word book review, proffered more as an adjunct to a publisher’s publicity department than as a service to readers, slave to some preordained list of “important” books, is of limited worth.
There must be a less arbitrary, more sensible way to encounter books, an organizational scheme better suited to identifying and highlighting excellence; one which doesn’t foreground mediocrities simply because they are the newest mediocrities. “Recent” is not a synonym for “relevant.”
The book review, Gumport claims, is a Protestant form — a statement there is no point approaching as a cultural historian; we’ll call it a metaphor and move on, because it helps kick off her peroration, which is, again, fun:
If we wouldn’t describe a book to someone we wanted to sleep with, we shouldn’t write about it. It is time to stop writing — and reading — reviews. The old faiths have passed away; the new age requires a new form.
The new form, for Gumport, is not the anonymity and blandness of the standard book review, and not the claustrophobic but intimate, amorous-adjacent relation between poet and patron (which she takes to be the prehistory of the book review), but something personal, a letter to friends, a letter to a circle of friendly writer-readers, but more passionate:
Nobody insists we fuck strangers — why must we read them? If the privacy of pure patronage is impossible or undesirable, the traditional courtship can be replaced by the orgy.
Entertaining. This argument also functions, sub rosa, as a defense of the personal blog and the coterie website, forums which are fundamentally defensible. Taste cultures do have something to do with circles of intimates, and the explosion of book clubs in recent years is testimony to a general desire for, if not an orgy, at least something more personal and embodied than a Sunday book supplement. So she is not wrong. Perhaps the reason we’re working to build the Los Angeles Review of Books is precisely so we can determine who to invite to the orgy.
But, truth be told, we want more than that, more than the orgy. As a a young man I spent a decade, before my graduate, or even undergraduate days, with a circle of intimates where I found plenty of passion but not much reading. The New York Times Book Review was my only connection to a world in which people cared about books. I had to get up early, aka before noon, to snag a copy before my rural outpost ran out, and when I managed to do so, reading the Times was the closest I came to Gumport’s notion of an intimate exchange with other readers. Now, despite the fact that I hang around literary types all day long, in and out of the university, I still find that the few remaining print reviews, and many public websites (like n+1‘s), offer me — not always, and not as reliably as I’d like — some version of the pleasurable circle Gumport recommends. I imagine myself, as I read, part of a community, and this should not seem strange. Hasn’t the literary community always been, for most of its participants, an imagined one, a community that stretches not merely across countries but across centuries?
I should say, too, that Gumport’s analysis of what is wrong with contemporary book reviewing is very similar to ours here at the Los Angeles Review of Books. The limits most reviewers labor within are “inherently conservative,” she writes, and she argues that enforcing a strict word count means leaving serious ideas at the door, or at best smuggling in snippets between hurried plot summaries and biographical shorthand. We agree. She argues that passion rather than publication date should determine what gets written and how. We agree.
But when she suggests that we ought to write only for our friends, that we shouldn’t “prioritize some imaginary ‘public’ over people we actually know,” there, I suppose, we part company. Gumport is patently hyperbolic; she published this piece in n+1, after all, and thus not only for her friends — she and I aren’t even Facebook friends yet, although I’d like to be — but also for a wide swath of readers from Nebraska to Namibia. We at L.A. Review of Books don’t even want to pretend to be talking only to our friends. We’re interested in setting up as big a tent as possible. There is enough atomization inherent in the way the web works; we want to fight that. We think, in fact, that a cosmopolitan conversation, one that knows few boundaries and few strangers, one too big for a single orgy, with oceans in between its participants, is worth having, that even if we are creating imagined communities, the public is not imaginary: the public is real, and the public, like us, needs and wants smart, witty writers talking to them, writers like Elizabeth Gumport, strangers though they may yet be.
For all the reasons Gumport names so compellingly, we at the Los Angeles Review of Books have steered clear of simple, single-book reviews, opting whenever possible to post essays that do something more than just anoint or denounce a particular book. There are a million titles a year being published, and millions already published; I read books for a living, as many books as anyone, and yet I need help sorting through them. A dozen of us come together each week and share our reading, and all of us read all the time, and still we need help figuring out what to cover. Back in graduate school, I began to notice that my colleagues and I, averse as we were to making literary judgments, were perfectly happy to evaluate everything else: somebody’s taco stand, somebody’s cocaine, somebody’s art film. Just not poetry. Not novels. And this despite the fact that we knew more about the history of the novel than we did about film or pharmacology. It was silly of us to pretend not to discriminate, and irresponsible, I think, not to make a point of sharing our discriminations about the books we were reading. I need help to know what virus protection program to use, whether or not I have cancer, when my timing belt needs changing; I need the advice of people who pay attention to such things. People should be able to count on us, professional readers and writers, to let them know what’s up, to give them, as best we can, a review of books.
It’s not like we live in a culture that is too well informed. For all the talk of information overload, we are all of us a little behind on our reading. Book reviews, even short ones, provide a service. Longer ones, not because they are longer, but because they can, as Gumport says, address ideas more seriously: they end up becoming a more substantial service. If it feels like an orgy, or even just intimacy, so much the better.