In the first paragraph of his review of Peter Ho Davies's The Welsh Girl, Alan Cheuse declares that "Sentence by sentence, character by character, scene by scene, it's one of the best of the winter so far."
I haven't read the novel, so I can't comment on the accuracy of this statement. I am more interested in Cheuse's choice of critical measuring-stick: The Welsh Girl is "one of the best of the winter so far."
When did book reviewers start conceptualizing their jobs as akin to that of fashion writers, that is, to track the latest developments of "the season"? Is announcing that a given book is "one of the best of the winter so far" to say that it's actually a good book--judged by the perennial standards applicable to all seasons--or merely that it will do to while away an evening before the fire? Does it tell us that the winter book season is going gangbusters, as evidenced by this swell new book, or that it's afflicting us with a variation on Seasonal Affective Disorder and that this new book will have to do? What does the fact that it was published in a winter month have to do with anything relevant to the book's merit?
One might reply that Cheuse's statement is merely an offhand comment, a handy way to indicate the book has just been published, but it does seem to me that the critical discussion of books has become fixated on "season". Each fall and spring brings newspaper articles and blog posts on what's likely to be hot for that "quarter," and if it's not literally the "season" that drives book publishing and reviewing, it's the year-end prizes and awards and "best-of" lists that seem to channel book discussion into the "seasonal" rut. Everyone has a top ten list, and others chime in with the "top ten overlooked books" or the "top ten books about adultery" or the "top ten books with red covers." The book business has already become distressingly like the movie business--a new book needs to do boffo business "over the weekend," it needs to gain the attention of the judges at the (Fill-in-the-Blank) Awards--and these December lists don't do anything to temper this trend.
(I have to say that litblogs have only brought more attention to the compiling of such lists, some blogs breathless reporting on the appearance of each new one. This is one of the few instances in which the litblogosphere has had a more deleterious effect than otherwise. These lists are mindnumbing and eventually become meaningless, as almost every book published manages to get on some list or another.)
I would not bother to kvetch about this topic at all, except that book review pages and literary weblogs have become about the only available venues for anything resembling literary criticism in this country. Academic criticism has only pinched its nose harder at the idea of considering general literary merit in the books it examines, and there's a huge gap between the books of the season and those destined for the canon. Some general literary criticsm ought to be filling this gap. I want to know if this or that new book will be around in the longer run, whether it transcends the season of its appearance. I want to know if it's worth reading and rereading, whether it can compete for my attention among all the best books that have been written period (which I could be reading instead), not whether I might find it enjoyable after raking the leaves or planting the garden.