It’s considered good form for novelists to maintain a serene distance from reviews and critical essays of their work. After writing a book, they’re supposed to be quiet about it unless asked to speak (e.g., in an interview, on a panel, in fan mail), and there are a lot of good reasons for this to be so; in a big way, the novelist has already had her say by writing the book in the first place. But many novelists can’t completely play dead like Roland Barthes says they should, as they (which would include me) work with words in other ways. They are editors, essayists, and publishers, and—even more problematic—review books themselves.
In celebration of John Updike’s life, Paper Cuts recently drew attention to a Critical Mass post detailing his rules for reviewing other people’s books. The meat of his approach, to me, is contained in two points—“Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt1…. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?”—and in this longer passage:
Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.
Goaded by a series of loaded questions from the Harvard Advocate way back in 2000, Dave Eggers went even further:2
Are there fair and helpful book critics? Yes, of course. But by and large, the only book reviews that should be trusted are by those who have themselves written books. And the more successful and honored the writer, the less likely that writer is to demolish another writer. Which is further proof that criticism comes from a dark and dank place. What kind of person seeks to bring down another? Doesn’t a normal person, with his own life and goals and work to do, simply let others live? Yes. We all know that to be true…. Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them.
I don’t know if Eggers feels the same way now that he did then, but the extremity of his comments and the sincerity behind them made me stop and think when I first read them and still nag at me today. Can meaningful book reviews be written only by people who have written books?
In practice, it seems that I disagree almost completely with Eggers; as an editor of the New Haven Review, I have run book reviews not only by people who have never written a book, but people who have never written a book review before. But I do think Eggers is getting at something. I suspect I would be embarrassed today by the kind of review I might have written, say, ten years ago, when I was younger and angrier. I still had the ability to swoon over a book then, and never got quite as bitter as some readers I’ve met who profess to like reading but seem not to like any books they’ve read in years. But if I didn’t like something I’d read, I was merciless. In conversations with people, I first slit the book’s throat, then dismembered the corpse, and then perhaps burned the pieces. I was, in short, mean.
Trying to write a book myself taught me some richly deserved humility; by the time I got my first assignment to write a review—a few months after my first book was published—my stance was akin to Updike’s, though to this day I can’t articulate it quite as clearly as he did. I was also more aware of the purpose I thought a book review served as a market signal, a way to guide readers toward books they might enjoy and away from books they might not. Most of all, though, I’m much less likely to demolish or dismiss a book than I was ten years ago because, as many people have said before me, the fight isn’t really against bad reviews; it’s against obscurity, and I’d rather use a review to turn people on to a book they might not have heard of than to tear someone else down.3
But my positions aren’t profound and I don’t think one needs to have written a book to arrive at them. With apologies to both Updike and Eggers, who really were trying to be as generous as possible in their arguments, there’s also a small, undemocratic, and defensive strain running through the idea that one’s own ass should be on the line to be a credible reviewer.4 Could you argue that this actually makes a reviewer less credible? More skittish? Less honest? Do we want our book culture to be completely polite all the time? Isn’t a good reader’s opinion just as worthy—perhaps, as Roland Barthes suggested when he killed the author, more worthy—than a writer’s opinion?
1 To parody some movie reviews I’ve read, I’ve told many people that someday I’ll start a movie-review column that judges every movie by the standards of kung-fu movies. Enter the Dragon would be this reviewer’s Citizen Kane. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would be pretty good, but not as good as Iron Monkey. The Matrix would also be a pretty good movie, except that it has too much exposition. Driving Miss Daisy, Terms of Endearment, and Rain Man would be among the worst movies ever made. Possible variant: Judging every movie ever made by the standards of zombie movies.
2 I hope Eggers will forgive me. These comments were made in the context of a much longer argument about the need to abandon the obsession with street cred and the keeping real of things; his crankiness comes from a place of generosity, not small-mindedness. In the prologue to this argument, he explained to his interviewer that “all of this is long, but you can’t edit without my permission.” By excerpting, I have effectively edited a great deal, and risk skewing his comments in a direction they don’t deserve. The full text appears here.
3 That doesn’t mean that a good old-fashioned, beer-bottle-to-the-head literary smackdown can’t be good or useful. Two of my favorite extremely negative reviews—David Foster Wallace’s review of none other than John Updike’s science-fiction novel Toward the End of Time and Matt Taibbi’s review of Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat are here and here, respectively, though it’s telling that, in both cases, the targets are extremely well-established and the reviews use their subjects to make larger points beyond the books. And neither review, to me, is born of scorn—the “smelly and ignorant” place that Eggers talks about—but outrage or genuine sadness; it’s possible (as Eggers himself suggests) to criticize without being ugly or mean about it.
4 If you translated the idea into politics, it would be a bit like saying that only politicians and policymakers could criticize the policies of other politicians and policymakers.