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The Pressure Against Seriousness

June 16, 2013

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:

  1. What is the book about?
  2. Is it good or bad?
  3. 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.

Albert Camus

Albert Camus (Flickr, Dietrich Liao, cc licence)

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.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 15, 2013 5:41 pm

    Oh sorry I missed this when you posted it Bryce. I’m doing one of my regular cleanups of my blogmail inbox and came across this post. I like the clarity of those three points about reviews …. I must say that I don’t think a review is a review without some attempt at no. 3. I don’t want to know just what it is about (ie plot?) – or whether the reviewer likes it – but I do want to know about its theme (more than just that it’s about love) and meaning. The question is, how short can a long review be? I don’t read reviews that spend a lot of time telling me what it’s about, what the story is. I like the “about” to be around a “paragraph”. I do like to hear about the characters (and characterisation), the style and language, and how the book “fits” with other works – of the writer, the style, the era etc. I’m happy for blog reviews to be a bit chatty in style as long as they have the content, some interesting ideas. So again, how short can a long review be? I want substance but my time is limited too …

    • Bryce permalink*
      July 17, 2013 10:32 am

      Thanks, Sue. I am still trying to answer that question, but I suspect that the answer is different for each reviewer, depending on their style and ability to succinctly express their analysis of the work’s meaning and significance. And does it also depend on the work itself? Some books are worthy of a more thorough analysis of themes and implications for the wider culture. I guess this comes back to the purpose of a book review blog. Do we prefer to spend our limited time reading many short but shallow reviews, or a smaller number of more analytical ones? In a recent (quite long) review essay (“Age of Idiots”) in the Sydney Review of Books, James Ley says: “The reason so much of the present glut of literary commentary is unworthy of the name criticism is that it takes the form of assertion rather than analysis. It shrinks the expansive notion of judgement to mere personal evaluation.” This has prompted me to review my own reviews, and to realise how much I rely on assertion. I would like to become more “critical”, but I also hope I can learn how to explain my judgements succinctly.

      • July 19, 2013 8:48 am

        Oh, yes, some books do invite more. I’ll go read that Ley article … I subscribe to the SRB but don’t always manage to read it. I understand his point. I try to analyse rather than assert or describe but I don’t always achieve it. I think he’s right … There is a lot of assertion going on. I think though that much of that assertion is the sort of assertion that goes on in book discussions and what we are seeing on the web is “book discussion” rather than reviews. It may be that reviewing isn’t really getting worse, but it’s being swamped by discussion on line that used only to be in face-to-face? We are always too quick I think to see everything going to hell in a hand basket but may not really be the case? It may simply be the balance is different due to technology bringing to the fore an element that’s always been there?

  2. Bryce permalink*
    July 20, 2013 12:08 pm

    Touché – you’ve put things into perspective. There is probably as much analysis and heavyweight reviews as ever, but they appear diminished by the eruption of shallower “book discussions” on the web. Perhaps this creates an illusion of “pressure against seriousness”. But I’m still uneasy about that eruption. I argue with myself: I don’t want to be elitist – I’m glad that so many people are reading and discussing books – but I worry that the culture of the web, with its quest for clicks and Amazon star ratings, provides little encouragement to read more deeply, compared to pre-web culture.

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