Tag Archives: book reviews

Rabbit review

A few days ago I noted that while I admired a handful of John  Updike’s novels, I much preferred his nonfiction — especially his book reviews. This excerpt from his collection Picked-up Pieces, suggesting ground rules for book reviewers, is a good example of why:

My rules, shaped intaglio-fashion by youthful traumas at the receiving end of critical opinion, were and are:

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.…

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s oeuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never…try to put the author “in his place,” making of him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys of reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

It’s been a long while since I write criticism on a regular basis — a period in which I broke some of these rules, more than once, and often with great gusto — and while I drop opinions on books in this space from time to time, I find that nowadays I’m more inclined to shrug off a bad book rather than waste any more energy on it. 

As the craft of book reviewing continues to retreat from the realm of newspapers — after all, why would newspapers want to court the interest of people who read? — and reconstitutes itself in the blog realm, I suspect the “praise and share” philosophy will grow. I reserve the right to stomp on a book that’s wasted my time, but as I did with the Approved Authors series, I’d much rather tell people about the books that enriched my time.

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Just a bunch of words

What people call the slow death of the newspaper industry is actually more of an assisted suicide. Like the stranded surgeon in that Stephen King story who keeps himself alive through piecemeal self-cannibalism, newspapers have spent the better part of three decades cutting away the things that make people want to read newspapers, while changing their format to appeal to the kind of people who don’t or very seldom read newspapers. Do you see what’s wrong with this picture?

So the news that Sam Zell, the former real estate magnate who Peter Principled himself into a media mogul, is going to eliminate the Los Angeles Times Book Review as a stand-alone section and just stick some book reviews in back of one of the sections is hardly surprising.  

I was tempted to lead off with a variation on the old ethnic joke: “How do you set Sam Zell up with a small newspaper company? Let him buy a big newspaper company, and then wait.” But Zell’s no more or less stupid than any of the village idiots who’ve been running the newspaper business into the ground since the 1970s. The Record, formerly one of New Jersey’s best newspapers, just decided to vacate its old office building and force most of its reporting staff to work from their cars as “mojos,” which is dumbass management happy talk for “mobile journalists.” By that standard, Sam Zell is Charles Foster Kane, for the time being. 

With the exception of warhorses like the New York Times, newspapers are no longer a mass medium. They’re a boutique medium — one that rises and falls on the interest of people who like to read. Seems to me that an industry dependent on readers would want to cultivate people who buy lots of books — it’s that whole reading thing, you know? People who read a lot also tend to be people who value staying informed on current events. It seems like a no-brainer, but unfortunately, “no brainer” is a pretty good working description of the average newspaper executive.

So, away with the L.A. Times Book Review. It’s just a bunch of words, and what does a newspaper care about such things?

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