Micah, I’m fascinated by this discussion of negative book reviews. I had taken it for granted that the reviewer’s task is to evaluate—making allowances for reasonable differences of opinion and taste, of course, and trying to be of service to a diverse population of book-buyers rather than only those who are very much like you, but still offering an opinion rather than a mere book report. One of the most important services the reviewer provides is to direct book-buyers to good books and away from bad ones. Joyce Carol Oates’ suggestion that reviewers must get their own opinions out of the way as much as possible in order to empower the reader to make his own decision strikes me as exactly backward; my job as a reviewer is indeed to help the reader decide whether he would get his money’s worth out of the book, but to do that I have to give my opinion. I really have nothing else to provide.
Oates’ position seems to me to follow from the whole 20th century aspiration for neutrality—that if something is to be shared across many people, it must strive to be “neutral” morally, culturally, religiously, etc. That which takes a firm stand (on anything) must by definition close off communication and ghettoize social life. Of course the truth is exactly the other way around. We only really communicate when we say what we think! It is the failure to argue and disagree that leads to social estrangement and conflict.
Particularly in this era of Google Books and Amazon previews, Oates’ position suggests the review is now obsolete—you’d do better just to read the easily (and legally) excerpts available on the web for virtually all newly published books.
My favorite comment on book reviewing comes from C.S. Lewis’ diatribe against liberal theology and higher criticism. Lewis takes it for granted that the function of the reviewer is criticism; “evaluation, praise, or censure, of the book actually written.” His complaint is that they don’t do their jobs:
All this sort of criticism attempts to reconstruct the genesis of the texts it studies; what vanished documents each author used, when and where he wrote, with what purposes, under what influences—the whole Sitz im Leben of the text….
What forearms me against all these reconstructions is the fact that I have seen it all from the other end of the stick. I have watched reviewers reconstructing the genesis of my own books in just this way.
Until you come to be reviewed yourself you would never believe how little of an ordinary review is taken up by criticism in the strict sense: by evaluation, praise, or censure, of the book actually written. Most of it is taken up with imaginary histories of the process by which you wrote it. The very terms which the reviewers use in praising or dispraising often imply such a history. They praise a passage as ‘spontaneous’ and censure another as ‘laboured’; that is, they think they know that you wrote the one currente calamo and the other invita Minerva.
What the value of such reconstructions is I learned very early in my career. I had published a book of essays; and the one into which I had put most of my heart, the one I really cared about and in which I discharged a keen enthusiasm, was on William Morris. And in almost the first review I was told that this was obviously the only one in the book in which I had felt no interest. Now don’t mistake. The critic was, I now believe, quite right in thinking it the worst essay in the book; at least everyone agreed with him. Where he was totally wrong was in his imaginary history of the causes which produced its dullness.
Well, this made me prick up my ears. Since then I have watched with some care similar imaginary histories both of my own books and of books by friends whose real history I knew. Reviewers, both friendly and hostile, will dash you off such histories with great confidence; will tell you what public events had directed the author’s mind to this or that, what other authors had influenced him, what his over-all intention was, what sort of audience he principally addressed, why — and when — he did everything.
Now I must first record my impression; then distinct from it, what I can say with certainty. My impression is that in the whole of my experience not one of these guesses has on any one point been right; that the method shows a record of 100 per cent failure. You would expect that by mere chance they would hit as often as they miss. But it is my impression that they do no such thing. I can’t remember a single hit. But as I have not kept a careful record my mere impression may be mistaken. What I think I can say with certainty is that they are usually wrong.