Why I Review

by Joan Frank

Plenty of writers make a point of exempting themselves (perhaps recusing is the better word) from reviewing other writers’ work. I understand this.

They (the self-recused) can’t expunge the painful awareness of how long it takes to make a book; how much of their own internal organs were invested in their books (along with all the glass shards); how hopelessly personal, therefore vulnerable to outsider assessment, the project will always be. To deliver a public judgment on someone else’s work strikes them as kin to strolling into oncoming traffic.

Most authors have lived through at least a couple of bad reviews. (I remember mine almost verbatim.)  One could strike back with an outraged letter (or a punch in the nose), but nearly everyone understands that it’s—let's say—inadvisable to do so. The unspoken Writers’ Integrity Code (my label) stipulates that after receiving a bad review (or even a good one) a writer had best vanish noiselessly back down her prairie-dog hole—presumably, to begin again.

Richard Russo noted to the New York Times Book Review, alongside his first book review for them in 18 years:

“I don’t review books very often . . . which is odd because I love to talk about them. The problem is that I don’t have much interest in discussing books I don’t like. It takes me four or five years to write a novel, and no matter how much I may hate a book, I can’t get out of my head the fact that some poor schlemiel worked lovingly on it for a very long time. . . .  I don’t dispute that it’s somebody’s job to blow the whistle on bad books, bad movies, bad art. It’s just not mine if I can help it.”

Richard Ford seconds that: “Giving a colleague a bad review is like driving down the road, seeing a hitchhiker and rather than picking [him] up, you run over him.”

Nonetheless: Scan the pages of any major reviewing venue, and you’ll note that most reviewers are themselves authors of fine reputation. Most of them make calm, sane work of it. I have never asked writing friends why they review, but I would bet a lot that their reasons (payment's too modest to count) resemble my own. Here are five: 

A hand in the game, a voice in the conversation: To be asked to think and talk about reading and writing is delicious luxury. When I prepare a review I feel that I am shaping an intimate message—as if over a café table—about something whose survival matters desperately to both the listener and to me—not just the book in hand, but the cause of literary art.

Visibility:  Many writers prefer to blog, as a method of connecting to a reading public. But because there’s such an avalanche of them now it strikes me that much individual blogging, however gifted, wafts unread into the ether. Nonetheless: as more and more journalism migrates to online status, book reviewing venues may soon be exclusively accessed that way, and continue to draw the faithful.

Reading against typeA reviewer must read what she is assigned; often, these are titles she’d not choose for herself. All the better! Opening wide the reading-intake gates allows a reviewer to learn more about the industry, and about what strikes her as strong, or not, and why. If she finds she doesn’t care for the work, she learns to express that diplomatically. Which leads to—

Clarifying values: The late John Updike created a list of (blessedly sane) suggestions for reviewers. Among them: “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” And: “Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards . . . a corrections officer of any kind.” That does not mean, however, that a reviewer should not apply all her heart and mind to the job. Which brings up—

Communicating passion for reading. Every word a reviewer writes can telegraph the power, richness and joy of reading. "All our discriminations should curve toward that end,” declares Updike. “Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast." Joy arrives, of course, with discovery. I'm pleased to report it happens all the time.

The great reviewing challenge, naturally, is that of discussing reservations in print without trashing the work outright. Trashing serves no one, and possibly takes the cause of literature down a peg.  I’ve stumbled on occasion: Overpraised work out of caution; taken work to task because its aesthetic abraded me.  But these missteps only resolved me to cleave more closely to Updike's golden standards.

In the end, is the reviewing industry arbitrary, idiosyncratic, uneven? Of course it is. Is it better than nothing? It has to be. Literary venues are fighting for their lives.

And that alone may be reason enough for contributors to to give it their very best.

Joan FrankComment