It's always good when a reviewer voluntarily reveals his/her biases or preconceptions. In last Sunday's Boston Globe, Caroline Leavitt says this of Mark Dunn's Ibid: A Life--A Novel in Footnotes:
The writing's playful and witty, and there's a good bit of inventive silliness to the tale. Young Jonathan misinterprets a wink as a sign that a young girl likes him, when actually it's a spasm. There's a wry running joke that all the loves of Jonathan's life are killed in freak Boston accidents, including the Great Molasses Flood. It's all sometimes dazzling fun, but the truth is, I wasn't lost in the book the way I wanted to be. I was always aware of the writer's sprightly mind at work here, when what I wanted was the feeling that his characters were real, that they might knock on my door any second and ask for a cup of tea
Ms. Leavitt is of course entitled to her preferences, but, really, what is a reader to do with this? The reviewer refers to what seem like good qualities in the novel, but then in effect dismisses them. What if you are a reader who actually would enjoy a novel that's "witty," "inventive," has good jokes, is "dazzling fun," and reveals "the writer's sprightly mind at work"? Should you then disregard the reviewer's judgment that the novel lacks "real" characters and conclude this book is probably rather promising, despite the reviewer's ultimate "thumbs down"?
And what of this?:
What do we want from our books? Of course it depends on the reader, but personally, I think that new shouldn't just be novelty. Heart should override mind. And always, always, the characters -- be they investment lawyer or circus attraction -- should let us into their souls.
Disregarding the illogic of the claim that the new shouldn't be novel, isn't it just patently untrue that all good novels "always, always" feature characters whose "souls" we enter? Can't some good novels emphasize plot instead? Shouldn't some novelists be allowed to be "witty" and "inventive," qualities in some cases that might override the creation of character in the first place? Aren't novels that are primarily comic almost necessarily limited in their capacity to create "soulful" characters? (Such characters are by the requirements of comedy inherently two-dimensional.)
My problem is really not so much with Caroline Leavitt, who may like or dislike whatever she wants. But why does the Boston Globe print such a review? Of course reviews are matters of opinion (sometimes), and various opinions ought to be expressed. But the statements made in a review like this are enormously sweeping, to the point that they finally make the review almost impossible to use in any serious way to decide whether to read Ibid or not. If we don't share the reviewer's assumptions, are we likely to actually enjoy this novel? If we do share them, will we dislike it because it's too inventive and "fun"? The review fails in its presumably assigned task of informing readers about the book under review.
Or is this indeed the task of a book review? If lit blogs hope to devote more space to reviewing books rather than just linking to print reviews (as some have recently intimated they want to do), perhaps some rethinking of both the purpose and the form of the book review is in order. Is a book review primarily informative or evaluative? If the former, then the greatest hazard is that it will become a kind of book report, a record of the fact that you read and can summarize the assigned book. If a review should be primarily evaluative, then the danger is that, given the space usually alloted to book reviews, you'll wind up with something like Caroline Leavitt's review--all unsupported assertion with little effort to justify the underlying assumptions.
To indulge in my own very sweeping statement, my general impression of book reviewing in most print publications, both newspapers and magazines, is that it includes too little description of what the works reviewed actually do, what they are (aside from simple plot summaries), and too much glib evaluation. Partly this is a result of the limited and shrinking space being given to the consideration of books and writing at all. Partly it is the consequence of too often assigning reviews to reviewers who seemingly have little acquaintance with or, frankly, much interest in literature in the first place. It's probably also a consequence of the general American propensity to have an opinion without feeling much need to support it.
Blogs can be relativey free of such constraints. (Although others, such as screen fatigue, do come into play.) I don't mean to suggest that reviews of books or poems or plays or films should be free of evaluation, by any means. But literary weblogs could in effect show more respect than is often shown in the mainstream press for the variety of work being published by both small and large presses, in print and online, through devoting a little more time to describing what seem to be the goals and ambitions of the writers so published, not just expressing unexamined opinions. (At the same time, some indulgence in pointed commentary, if not snark, can be "dazzling fun" and the right to do this ought to be preserved.)
This kind of descriptive analysis could be done in numerous ways and with the kind of rhetorical freedom the blog form allows. Long, rambling essays are not really what I have in mind--although sometimes these can be useful, too. Devising methods of discussing books and literature that take them seriously in an at least implicit way would be limited only by the imagination of the blogger. In a recent post James Tata writes that blogs (or at least his blog) should not seek to be "a space for definitive judgements that better belong in print somewhere." I like James Tata's blog very much, but here I think he's wrong. Why should "definitive judgments" be reserved for print? As often as not, the definitive judgment turns out to be of the sort exemplified in Caroline Leavitt's review--larely because "judgment" is understood in simplistic like it/don't like it terms. What are most print publications doing for books and serious writing now that justifies leaving to them the job of literary arbiter?
The book review is itself a literary form that is too important to be left to the whims of newspaper and magazine editors. Its potential needs to be rediscovered.