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Avoiding the reviewer’s fate of “praising trash”

Luzinterruptus have brought their light-based street art from Madrid to NYC; this is 800 books, each with a light attached, with the intention of replacing traffic with literature. Read more: http://www.unurth.com/Luzinterruptus-Literature-Versus-Traffic-NYC#ixzz4QVd7lpQv
This is a light-based street art installation in New York, by Luzinterruptus. Here they have 800 books, all the same, but each with a different light in it. This is what the book market is like: millions of books, and millions of readers, each reader with a different take on each book.

As of this month, I’m going to be contributing book reviews to Fairlady magazine. For those who don’t know, it’s an English language South African women’s monthly magazine, started in 1965, with a readership of about 695,000. This is largely because, through luck or persistence, I got to write about 75 book reviews for them from 2008 to 2011. And now I’ll be doing it again. Why did I want to go back to the magazine? I couldn’t quite put my finger on a reason, until now, and it was quite an epiphany!

When I saw the current 150-word format of their reviews, I asked the senior editor at Fairlady these questions:
Why do the Fairlady editors publish book reviews that are original copy?
What are the objectives and what is the perceived value?
What do you think is the role of reviews in the publishing market today?

The response was:

“Book reviews at Fairlady are all about helping readers save money. Our reviewers only read books from genres that they personally enjoy, so that each book can receive a fair chance by being read by someone who enjoys that genre. If you force someone who hates crime to read a crime novel, the review will automatically be an unfair one. We like to give each book a fair hearing.

We do not like to waste space with bad [read: negative] reviews because we are trying to find books that people will want to purchase. Our reviews are not extremely intricate or intellectual and that is because our editor wants to avoid long and boring reviews with too much jargon. Our idea is that a reader wants to be given a quick and insightful short paragraph on the story of the book, a teaser and ending it off with a wrap – indicating the person’s position on the book.

Our aim is to inform readers on new content and to give recommendations for readers with preferences in different genres. It is almost like a guide to be used when staring at the large list of new releases. Book clubs are very popular in South Africa and people can use our reviews to make a decision on their next read. We want there to be something for every taste out there.”

Confessions of a (sad) book reviewer

I think this is a pretty frank raison d’être for book reviews, not only for Fairlady but for, I think, most general and women’s interest publications. At first glance, it seems to be about general appeal, book clubs, mass consumption. This makes the job of a book reviewer an onerous one. Author George Orwell had this to say in 1946 about book reviewing in “Confessions of a Book Reviewer” – and I can recognize the type:

“…but the prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash…but constantly INVENTING  [his capitalization] reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever. The reviewer, jaded though he may be, is professionally interested in books, and out of the thousands that appear annually, there are probably fifty or a hundred that he would enjoy writing about. If he is a top-notcher in his profession he may get hold of ten or twenty of them: more probably he gets hold of two or three. The rest of his work, however conscientious he may be in praising or damning, is in essence humbug. He is pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time.”

Ha! Don’t I know it, 160+ reviews later!! However, there is a different way of looking at how and why to review – and avoid praising trash and career suicide. 

A reasonable explanation of reviewing

I firmly believe that there a highly personal “pact” between a book and a reader, or a painting and a viewer, a piece of music and a listener.

Literary critic Marina Le Roux says that this relationship or pact exists not between the writer and his readers (sorry, writers who want to defend their creations) but between the reader and the text:

“The time of easy reading is over. Subjects are more complicated, form is more complicated. The reader, when making sense of a literary text, becomes the co-creator of it because the text consists of the subject, and the words – and their meaning; thus: 1) content, 2) form and 3) interpretation by the reader. And that is a serious responsibility. The reader reads and in doing so attributes his own meaning to a text, and also the meaning that can be derived from the context of the text. There is no ONE accepted meaning, and no ONE universally accepted take or judgment of a text, but many different individual meanings.”

This direct communication and understanding is the way our brains process information, top-down and bottom-up, and there is not much else to do about it. (This basis of this idea is explained in Eric Kandel’s book, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science, published Aug. 2016.) So what you have, are billions of books and billions of readers, and each reader makes a unique, direct connection between themselves and the books they read. But each pairing stands alone.

The state of the internet, and readers around the world - a sort of mesh topology. Singular notes randomly connected.
The state of the internet illustrates the global trend in on-line book and book reviews: a sort of “mesh topology”, which means singular nodes connected to very other node around it all over the world. Or: single readers connected online to all other readers all over the world, each distinct, but all connected. The results are getting more thought-provoking by the day.

This reminds me of the millions of mutants like disconnected, ghostly blobs of light discovered by “Cerebro” in the X-Men movies. Or, less poetically, of a mesh topology network.

If so, what happens when you have a book club, discussion group, publication, blog or website, where your individual thoughts on a book get shared with other individuals? I suppose there might be recognition of similarities, or disappointment with perceptions that are different from your own. But discomfort is guaranteed. I rarely read others’ review of the books I have reviewed, because it is hard enough to define my own opinion without getting mixed up with the ideas of others.

But sometimes I do, and then I again feel like a lonely voice, in my own little world, in my own little head. So WHY do people like me review books?

In the past I clung to the justification of my peculiar preoccupation as “better living through criticism” or better writing though critical reviews. Ten years down the line I wasn’t so sure any more. But I had a massive “Eureka!” moment when I read reviewer-for-a-living Lev Grossman’s essay about the thankless business of reviewing:

“I think of the reviewer’s role now as being more about providing context for a book, tracing its lineage in the tradition and locating it in the literary topography of the present, and all that touchy-feely sort of thing. The critics I love these days do something slightly different from what they used to: they don’t just judge, they open up that weird, intense, private dyad [defined as an operator that is a combination of two vectors] that forms between book and reader and let other people inside. They tell the story, the meta-story, of what happened when they opened the book and began to read the story. It’s not as sexy as a thumb up or a thumb down, but then again we’re suffering from a surfeit of thumbs. We’re in the age of the thumb — what we need is more fingers. When I read a review by a good critic, I don’t much care whether he or she likes the book or doesn’t like it. The critic’s job isn’t to change my mind about whether or not I like a book. Not anymore. The critic’s job is to make me a better reader.”

See, he knows about that pact between text and reader. This, I think, can apply to all sorts of reviews – restaurants, software, movies, music, paintings. If you now reconsider Fairlady’s book review explanation, you can see that it is, ultimately, about making better readers, and about opening up a book to let other readers inside.

Conclusion: It’s the Dyads Wot Done It

I tried to explain my decades-worth of book reviews to someone the other day by saying “it’s what I do”. I should’ve said, “it’s what I am”. What I read and think about books is an expression of me, the reader, and the weird, intense dyads or pacts between me and the books I read – and the authors that are the creators of those books. (Which explains why, if you ever get one of those emails that says some company in India or Singapore can get you millions of hits on your website and make it go viral because they are going to generate contents for you and do your search engine optimization, you should delete it. It’s rubbish. The only person who can write appealingly about the stuff that appeals to you, is you.)

When I read Ankur Betageri’s poem, below, I knew – that is me in a nutshell; All those knives inside, all those thoughts about books, all those dyads, sometimes expanding and flashing at the world.

MY TYPE, YOUR TYPE

“I am not a type – I never type-speak
or leave type-fonts on hands I shake.
I expand like a chest of mirrors
full of the quiver of knives inside.”

– Ankur Betageri (Indian poet, fiction writer, photographer and arts activist, born 1983, in “London Review of Books”, Volume 38, Number 18, September 2016.)