Asking Too Much

Pick up a book you have never read. Whether it is more than a century old or one of this week’s new releases, any unread book will do. Now hold it in your hands and flick through the pages but do not look at the words. Look instead for the question that descends on the book and settles over it like a mist: “Is it or is it not worth reading?” Now look for the corollary questions: “If so, why so? If not, why not?” Short of actually reading the book in order to answer these questions yourself, you might turn to a book review in search of the answers offered by others. To offer answers to these questions is the single most urgent task faced by book reviewers. Different reviewers will of course have differing views on what the activity of reading involves and how a book can best go about making that activity worthwhile for the reader. Such differences amongst reviewers are the beating heart of contemporary literary discourse. Beneath their differences, though, book reviewers face a common and fundamental obligation to answer the same questions that settle alike over each and every unread book.

I think these claims are self-evident. If someone either declines or fails to explain why or why not it is worth my while to read a particular book, that person has done something other than reviewing the book in question. He or she might simply declare a book to be worth reading, as tends to happen in capsule reviews and in venues like Twitter, but the absence of justification and persuasion offers no reason to accept the validity of the verdict. Alternatively, he or she might invoke the content of the book for purposes of cultural analysis or political commentary, as tends to happen in academic criticism, but then the writer forgoes an explanation of how the experience of reading the book is worthwhile and instead assumes that the book is simply worth having read in order to discuss subjects broader than the book itself. At these two extremes of literary discourse, a book is either proclaimed or presupposed to be worth reading or not. In between these two extremes, the inherent purpose of the book review is to elucidate the vagaries underlying populist proclamations and the value judgments implicit in scholarly presuppositions. It is an attempt to communicate literary experience with the book under consideration being the common referent between the reviewer and the reader of the review.

If these claims are really self-evident, why bother making them explicit? I make them explicit now because, over the last few months, the nature of the book review has been called into question in a number of high-profile venues and the responses to that questioning seem to me confused. Towards the end of last year, The New York Times Book Review asked six literary critics to explain the purpose and defend the value of their chosen profession. Last month, The Observer allowed Neal Gabler to question the purpose and attack the value of professional criticism and then solicited several responses from critics at work in various areas of the arts. Originally I had planned to write a more in-depth response to the inadequacies of the critics at both of these broadsheets, but the shortcomings of the Times critics have already been well documented by Dan Green and Rohan Maitzen and the shortcomings of the Observer critics are more or less the same. Here, then, I’ll stick to general impressions of the broadsheet critics’ approaches to literary fiction. Together, the Times and Observer reveal what strikes me as an endemic reluctance amongst literary critics to respect the literariness of literary fiction, to treat a work of such fiction as a work of art, and to face up to the notion that — first and foremost and prior to all other possible considerations — it is either worth reading or not. Amongst critics, in short, there is a widespread antipathy towards the non-utilitarian value of fiction and the possibility that the experience of reading fiction yields no outcomes prior to, and possibly none more productive than, a transitory engagement in the reading experience itself. The prevailing assumption is that the value of a work of literary fiction consists in its capacity to escape and supersede its own literariness rather than reveling in it. The most valuable such fiction is seen as valuable to the extent that it can first be seen as something other than what it is.

This approach to fiction always disappoints me. That, too, must be self-evident, given the title of this blog. To rise to the occasion of fiction and to meet it on its own terms is by no means simple or easy: it requires sustained close attention and dedication; it requires infinite patience. But mine is a minority view, of course, and all the more so as the alternative outlined above has been institutionalised in the most popular contemporary literary reviews in the USA and the UK.

Is the case the same here in Australia? Yes, unfortunately, and blithely so, as I was reminded last week when James Bradley’s review of Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow somehow popped up in my Twitter feed despite having been published in 2010. I remembered reading it when it first appeared in the pages of the Australian Literary Review, Australia’s answer to NYTBR and the Guardian Review with pretensions of being Australia’s NYRB, LRB, or TLS. Republishing the review on his blog, though, Bradley had taken the opportunity to comment on his own work: he wished he had been given another thousand words with which to extend the review. I wished the same, and I said so. As he devoted only one quarter of the entire review to an evaluation of the novel under discussion, I felt he had not met his obligations as a reviewer; I felt he focused disproportionately on Martin Amis as a cultural figure rather than the fiction Amis produced. But with James Bradley having long ago proven himself one of Australia’s most attentive and generous book reviewers, the shortcomings of his review seemed to me to owe less to his own critical weaknesses than to the limitations of the broadsheet review that published his work. Echoing Dan Green, I suggested that Bradley use his blog to give himself the extra words needed to engage with the novel in a way that he could not do in print. To my surprise, my comments elicited a brusque response from Geordie Williamson, the chief literary critic at The Australian and — judging from his comments — a de facto co-editor at the ALR:

Daniel, you are quite the scold. I predict for a you a stellar career in academe.

As for the review: James, I’m only sorry we cut so much of the material directly relating to the text. It was decent of you to refrain from blaming the editors but still: that was our bad.

Wow. First up, given that value judgments are anathema to literary critics in the academy, the critical vision I’m trying to articulate here could hardly be further outside the limits of what the academy currently deems acceptable. More importantly, though: what an abrogation of responsibility on the part of those at the helm of the ALR. The last two letters of ALR supposedly stand for “literary review,” but, if I understand Williamson correctly, the editors of the ALR read James Bradley’s review of The Pregnant Widow and decided to strike out the part where he actually reviewed the literature. Why? Why flinch when faced with the prospect of concentrated literary discussion unencumbered by the creaky architecture of rote and trivial authorial biography? Why fear that such discussion cannot capture the interest of readers and sustain their attention throughout? Notwithstanding the occasional triumph — Estelle Tang, for instance, reviewing Lydia Davis’ Collected Stories — why does the ALR experience such difficulty dedicating itself, as advertised, to the review of literature? Why does it not seem to feel comfortable in being what it says it is? Is that asking too much?

Here’s how it’s done: Adam Gopnik on Mark Twain’s Autobiography and Andrew Delbanco on the very same book. Two first-rate reviews, equally persuasive, although the verdict of each one is diametrically opposed to the verdict of the other. There must have been an extraordinary temptation for both authors to veer away from the Autobiography as text, as literature, and to instead discuss the life depicted in its pages, but to the credit of both authors neither one takes the bait. They focus relentlessly on the questions that settle over the unread book and dedicate themselves to the task of communicating the experience of reading it. When it comes to book reviewing, Gopnik and Delbanco offer the real thing. The New York Times Book Review and The Observer and the ALR could do worse than learn from them.

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