The Pressure Against Seriousness
What is the purpose of book reviews?
At the Why Criticism Matters session of the Sydney Writers Festival, James Ley said that reviews answer three questions:
- What is the book about?
- Is it good or bad?
- What does it mean? This is the “critical” part, discussing the implications and significance of the book.
The art of a short review is different to that of a long-form review, said Ley, as only the latter can include the critical part. Ley is editor of the excellent online Sydney Review of Books, which specialises in long-form reviews.
Another panel member was the Literary Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Susan Wyndham, who is fighting a losing battle against the downgrading of newspaper book pages. The three Fairfax newspapers once had their own individual review sections, but they are now all the same. The number of book pages has also been reduced. Her one victory so far is fighting off the push for star ratings. In this climate only short reviews are published, doing no more than alerting readers to new books.
The other panel member, James Wood, writes long pieces (3000 to 5000 words) for The New Yorker. He described the pressure against seriousness, both in newspapers (book pages filled with articles on best sellers and gossip about authors at parties) and online, with many review blogs sticking to short and chatty posts. There are institutional forces, he said, against the serious discussion of anything. The machinery of promotion around books is not concerned with the meaning of the work. Yet criticism is our culture.
This made me look at my blog. Have I been influenced by the plethora of advice to keep posts “short and chatty”? My own experience, reading reviews and literary blogs, should point me in the opposite direction. I tend to flit over short posts, barely taking anything in; but if the voice of a longer piece catches me, I quickly become pleasurably lost in it.
Of course quantity is not enough – we will only be hooked into a piece by the quality of the writing or the analysis. Such quality can be found in the Sydney Review of Books and on blogs that are not afraid of writing long and serious posts. I recently discovered the website of Irish writer Darran Anderson (“literary flotsam & jetsam by an attempted human”) and was quickly engrossed in the first post I came across. The key was the voice, conveying both a deep love for literature and a weary scepticism about the motives of those who apply pressure against seriousness.
The post is an essay entitled Albert Camus and the ventriloquists, and takes off from a banal quote widely attributed to Camus on the web. Is the quote wrongly attributed, or does it become platitudinous because it is out of context? If the latter, Anderson says, to have a quote “floating like a speck of dust in a vacuum” does Camus a disservice and changes the meaning of the quote itself. From here Anderson abseils down to the purposes for which the web and social networking are often used, sadly pointing to “the prevalence of websites where for your convenience you’re served culture as you might be served chicken nuggets in a drive-thru” – sites using formulas such as “Top Ten Books/Films/TV Shows About Vampires/Zombies/ Fashion/Love.” There is pressure not to bother “looking too closely or at too much length at anything … your priority is clicks not culture.” Yet he does not despair: “there are lots of cultural places that give me hope on the net. Sites like The White Review have long heavyweight articles, The Paris Review long heavyweight interviews. Neither of them are fun-sized”.
Anderson makes an elegant plea to live (and read) “as deeply as we possibly can given there will be no second chances.” I recommend reading the essay in full.
The festival session and Darran Anderson’s essay have started me rethinking how I use the web. James Wood sees the book review as a literary form in itself, that we can take pleasure in reading, even if we don’t read the book. That’s what I want – to read (and to be able to write) reviews that give such pleasure, reviews that resist the pressure against seriousness.