Writing and the reviewers: Eight hours … really?

malczewski

What two words are a synonym for ineffectiveness?

Book review 

I know what you’re thinking.  Here we go.  The ex-newspaper reviewer bitterly turns on the industry that used to feed him.  What a jerk.

It’s not that, my friends.  I’m still a reader of book reviews; this blog provides me with a modest little foothold in the industry, a place to celebrate the wonderful publishers who are still out there doing God’s work — but the reason why I read book reviews and why reviewers write them has little to do with the actual books supposedly under review.

A short NYT Q & A with Dwight Garner (“Book Reviewer Tell-All: Dwight Garner on Reading, Reviewing and Avoiding Blindness“) illustrates that point.

I’ve never met Garner, never worked with him, but I enjoy reading him. His answers made me smile, especially when he talks about the parts of the job I enjoyed (being the eternal student with a book tucked under your arm, the piles of book packages arriving every day, that special sensation of tired eyes after a good day’s work).

But this Q & A also reminds us how fickle the business is, how your hope of a review in a major mainstream publications rests on one person’s tastes and moods; how your book is sometimes little more than a vehicle for someone else’s enthusiasms and interests … far far FAR from a science.

   “A few books I know on sight I want to review,” Garner says, “because I’m fond of the topic or of the author’s previous work.”

Fond of the topic — professional reviewers tend to gravitate to what they like because, when you’re living on a deadline treadmill, it’s easier to muster the energy to write well about something that already matters to you.

“I’ve always got a book I’m carrying for work. The average one takes about eight hours to read.”

Eight hours?  I spent eight hours making revisions to just one small section of my current novel.  He’s going to give someone’s labors eight TOTAL hours?   I probably did the same thing once, but now that the tables are reversed, the whole notion is horrifying to me.  No assessment based on eight hours’ of reading can do any book justice.

With a shiver, I turned from this Q & A in search of something soothing and inspiring.  I found it in my old New Directions copy of the poetry of Dylan Thomas, who’s been in the news again recently for the exciting discovery of a forgotten notebook.  Why do I write?  Thomas knows best.

I labor by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages

But to appeal to the lovers out there … even though, the poet adds, they probably won’t care, either.

9 responses

  1. So many media folks (I’m sure I was guilty myself) try to break down the mystery, dissect it to death. Something about the Garner Q & A made me shkeeve (one of my mom’s old expressions).

  2. I’m wondering if I was guilty of that in my review of The Goldfinch. Did I kill it by finding so many things wrong with it? I did love sections, and Tartt is a very good writer at points. So should I have let it go and not written such a poor review when I didn’t like it? I still find myself getting worked up about the amount of time I spent with that book. I’m a parent, and I have such little free time….arg.

  3. Your Tartt review was actually one of the few I trusted, Jil. You took on that book because you’re a writer with an interest in her — you’re not getting paid to do it. Your assessment I think came from a much purer place, which is why I wanted to see what you thought before I considered reading it. I think the larger point I was moving towards but didn’t make … is that it’s more meaningful to have your own writing assessed and talked about on a platform like WordPress than in the pages of the New York Times. That sounds nuts, I know, but the agenda of newspaper critics really comes from a different place.

    And the fact that you’re a time-crunched parent is something that I TOTALLY relate to … and I’m sure all of your other readers do, too. We’re all parents, or else we’re all so busy. That review of yours meant more to us than I think you realize!

  4. Eight hours to read a book??? whew. But I guess if it’s your job and it’s what you do, you learn to read fast.
    I recently read fast on a book that got great reviews from a prize-winning author. I like British writers, for the most part, and this was written — interestingly, anyway. “The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters had luscious details and lovely dense images. But after about a fourth of the book, I could already see where it was going, there were no philosophical or life-changing ideas, no depth, really, nothing to ponder. So I skipped the most of a very thick book and cut to the last thirty pages. The end was predictable from the first part I’d read. The book has a brisk, page-turning pace, that’s for sure. But nothing lasting. Maybe I’m far too much of an elitist, but I want something to think about or learn when I read. Ergo, mostly I read slowly. And savor.

  5. Your comment’s a perfect example of why I’d rather get my feedback from fellow writers/critics in the blogosphere than from a professional, hired critic. Your assessment of the Waters seems very fair even in pointing out its shortcomings. I’ve read one of her novels, The Little Stranger, which I enjoyed for about the first half. It sounds like we had similar reactions. She must just be that kind of writer, I guess.

  6. I find it completely fascinating (and perhaps a little instructive) how much your perspective changes when you’ve been on both sides. In my MA program, we did a workshop with Michael Laskey, a UK-based poet, writer, and poetry journal editor. He brought in the month’s submissions from poets all over the world and our cohort talked about them. Quite possibly the most instructive two hours of the whole program, because the experience of sitting on the other side of the game threw a whole new perspective on that awful thing I’d heard myself say: “Just wait until the third page in, it gets really good there.” Never again on that particular phrase.

    Being a writer makes me a *much* better editor, if only because I’m sensitive to how much of yourself goes into the writing. This is in my day job, so we’re talking about editing technical stuff, but even there. Writing is so personal, even in a professional sense, you can’t get to better writing if you don’t first respect the author’s effort.

    So in short… the critics would benefit from trying to build something themselves first before they sharpen the knives, and the builders should have the experience of bringing an authentic critical eye to the work.

  7. Definitely AR — even if the critic’s own novel never gets published, the experience will make him/her a more credible critic. I once asked a very successful writer of spy novels to review a nonfiction book about Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster. The book really tempted him, but he finally backed off. He told me he couldn’t bear to be negative if the book wasn’t good because he knew how hard it was, good or bad, to write any book. I’ve always admired that.

  8. It is one of the reasons why review exchanges make me nervous… but the community relies on every-day readers and paid reviewers alike to read and review…

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