Thursday, February 04, 2010

Questioning the Book Review

I am often perplexed by some of the decisions of The New York Times Book Review. And I will gladly admit that some of my vexations stem from what probably qualifies as jealousy: Why is that person writing a review and not me? Why is that book being reviewed and not mine?

But take my own solipsism out of it and the questions are fundamentally the same. Why is that person writing a review of X and not (Persons Y, Z, A, B, D) who are clearly more qualified to do so and at least one of whom would surely respond to en email from the Times? Why is this book being reviewed at length and not all of these books that have come out lately?

Two examples speak volumes from Sunday's Book Review:

Why does Kaiama Glover get to review Chinua Achebe's new book, The Education of a British-Protected Child? Glover is an assistant professor of French at Barnard, and from what I can tell, most of her work has been on Haiti. Chinua Achebe is from Nigeria, which was not even a Francophone colony. When Nigerians looked to the metropole (and looked to pull away from it), they looked to London, as the title to the new book of Achebe's essays makes clear. Look, I do not resent Glover taking the assignment. She'd be a fool not to and I would accept an assignment to review an astronomy textbook to get to write about books for the Times. But are there really no, say, tenured professors of African literature out there? Are there no tenured professors of Anglophone literature who would have fit the bill?

Perhaps more vexing, why on earth does Catherine Millet's new book, Jealousy, get two full pages in the Sunday Book Review when it is a quite clear that it is not a very good book. Millet is the author of a controversial memoir about her sexual profligacy. Jealousy is a memoir about her jealousy over her kinda-sorta significant other's dalliances with a handful of other women during a time period when Millet admits to sleeping with hundreds of other men herself. The subject matter, if self indulgent, is not the problem. The problem comes in the fact that the reviewer, Toni Bentley is pretty withering. Bentley does a great job. It is a fun review to read as a result. And again -- given two full pages in a publication of that status I'd happily review the worst crap imaginable and would have a hell of a time doing it. But there are hundreds of authors of good books who would kill for that real estate for their own much better books.

I've always thought that reviews of bad books, except for books that are clearly important (and Millet's does not count, sorry), should go into a sort of dustbin in which the reviews are truncated to the length of those included in the "Fiction/Nonfiction/Poetry Chronicle" that the Book Review runs near weekly, opening up space for books worth reading, and thus worth reading about. In the meantime, editors -- email me. The answer is yes.

9 comments:

zunguzungu said...

That review of Achebe is sort of annoyingly banal, something that highlighting the author's (likely) distance from Achebe and his milieu sort of does help clarify. Her critique -- that it feels sort of recycled since it is -- actually just shows how little she's managed to make of the occasion. It's such a boring point, and a book review should never be boring (even if there's truth in the boring assertion, can you not find something else to talk about?). This book isn't the be all and end all of Achebe, but it gives a good peak into what is so great about him, while the review, conspicuously, does not. And I bet you're right; had they given the review to someone with more direct familiarity with Achebe's work, they could have had something much more interesting (my phone must have been off the hook when they called).

Ken said...

On the first point - I can understand where you are coming from, but there is a danger in handing everything over to specialists as well. The NYT Review isn't aimed at specialist audiences; it's trying to highlight books for a wider audience. And in that case, a reviewer from outside the author's own field, but who knows something about the themes on which the book touches on, seems to be a good way of striking a balance.

On the second point, though, I couldn't agree more. Why focus on bad books, unless they are gaining disproportionate amounts of attention?

dcat said...

Let me respond to both of you in the same comment --

Zunguzungu --
I have no problem with mentioning that the pieces appeared elsewhere and that it weakened the book for her. But what bothers me is not otherwise much engaging with the material and how it connects to Achebe and what it might tell us about his career as a writer and life as someone willing to speak truth to power. I agree -- "banal" is a great word for it.

Ken --
I think your point is fair, but I still disagree, and more importantly, I think the Times is pretty arbitrary about the process. But I do think that a book about, say, American history ought to be reviewed by someone with a demonstrable background in American history in what is almost certainly the country's premier review of books that is geared toward an audience of educated generalists. The decision to stick with a literature professor gives the lie to the generalist discussion in any case. Nothing is more infuriating than when someone clearly not qualified to assess someone's work gets the best podium in the country to do so. Plus, implicit in your argument is the idea that specialists cannot write for general audiences, which is, of course, nonsense, as anyone who reads the book review knows. Get a specialist who can write for general audiences.

Again, I'll answer my email and phone if the Times calls, and so, apparently, will zunguzungu.

Best --
dcat

Ken said...

I don't doubt that there are specialists who can write for a generalist audience. And, indeed, were I in charge of the NYT review section, then I would probably choose specialists over generalists more often than not. But it's clear to me that many specialists also have their own axes to grind that are separate from the interests of a more general reading audience. Not that generalists don't have their own axes to grind, of course - but I think that there is a danger in building up a cult of specialism, and that even people who have honed a specialism should be encouraged to review things widely.

dcat said...

Ken --
I still don't see how that applies to having a professor of French/Francophone literature writing this review.
But as far as axes to grind -- who doesn't? The idea that specialists will not have axes to grind is odd. Besides, I cannot tewll you how many snide comments I've read from nonacademics about scholars even when those snide remarks have nothing to do with the book under review.
Freedom's Main Line has gotten really good reviews, most but not all from specialists. But the sole lukewarm review was from a "freelance editor" who spent 85 words out of a 200 word review criticizing me for not expalining who Ben Tillman was and for not explaining a court case, both of which I only barely mentioned in passing. And I'm sorry, but if you are reviewing a book about southern history and do not know who Ben Tillman is you are not qualified to review the book. And she made a backhanded compliment about my writing, which in every other review has been the one constant aspect that has been praised. And in so doing she had three consecutive paragraphs starting with the word "that" -- having one's writing criticized by a shitty writer who also has no clue about the book's subject matter tends to put one's teeth on edge. Trust me -- put a book out into the public sphere and your views of a reviewer's job might shift a little.
And as a regular reviewer myself (I have probably had 100 or so book reviews published and am a mamber of the National Book Critics' Circle) having my own books out has made me a better, more sensitive reviewer.

That said, sure, every single scholarly book does not need to be reviewed by a scholar, but it ought to be reviewed by someone with a demonstrable level of experience/background/work in that general area. I'd be happy, for example, if David McCullough reviewed Freedom's Main Line!

Best --
dcat

zunguzungu said...

Ken,
Everyone is a specialist in something if they get asked to write a review for the Times or whatever. The question is whether they'll be a specialist in the thing that the review is about or whether it will be something else.

Ken said...

dcat - Yes, I'm sure you're right that when I am reviewed I will feel differently about it, too. And I do understand your points, and have a lot of sympathy for them too. I know, from reading some of your articles you have linked to here, that you do a very good job of writing in a way that is accessible to a non-specialist audience.

However, while I've been doing my DPhil, there are a couple of things that concern me about academia. The first is a propensity to engage in heated debates that seem very important within a certain field of scholarship, but whose wider importance is less obvious - and all too often gets ignored in explanatory frameworks or introductions.

Secondly, that there is, in some fields, a hostility to people who try and popularise academic fields - which is necessary if we are to have wider relevance (a point on which I am pretty sure you agree on). Both of those things are helped, I think, if we don't go too far in holding up qualifications for reviewers.

It sounds as though the reviewer you complain about is just a shitty reviewer, rather than being a shitty reviewer because of being unqualified. (Why not read up on who Ben Trammill is, for example?)

That said, as ever, you make a number of points that I agree with strongly. Some people have recommended I should try and do some reviews as a means of having some publications that potential employers could read. I have avoided this because I feel that I should have publishing experience and more time to develop my wider knowledge before I review things for a specialist audience. (And tend to leave reviews I do occasionally for a website for more general works).

zunguzungu said...

a real review of achebe's book:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/13/chinua-achebe-british-protected-child

dcat said...

Ken --
I remain unconvinced. Specialists often write for specialists in forums where they know specialists are reading. I've seen no sign that specialists writing book reviews for the Times or anywhere else are incapable of writing for a mass audience, and the upside is that they actually know what they are talking about.

Zungu --
Thanks for that link.

dcat