The Glamorous Life

Scott Esposito gets a little testy after reading Joe Queenan‘s recent piece in the New York Times about book-discussion questions. Doing side work, Esposito writes, has its downside:

This kinda gets at one big problem I see with current “professional” reviewing–namely that the critics are freelancers who need to do stuff like write supplementary questions to earn a living.

Not that there’s anything wrong with freelance writing assignments. But when a critic is scrambling around for income, I have to believe that this impingement on her time and resources begins to detract from the quality of her reviews.

OK, hands up: Who of you out there gets to review books full-time without other duties impinging on your time and resources? Congratulations, you’re lucky. Or you rob banks. (But not if it’s gonna take you away from the new Jhumpa Lahiri!) Or the Bank of Mom & Dad cuts you a check every so often. Or, perhaps, you’re a full-time freelance book reviewer, which likely makes you part the very problem that Esposito speaks to: Because book reviews pay so poorly, you write so many of them and plow through books so quickly that you yourself are hardly worth reading.

I’d love to review books full-time. But I just took a look at my monthly mortgage bill and added up the amount of freelance money I made reviewing books last year, and, gosh, it’s practically a 1:1 ratio. So, I work a day job, read when I can, write when I can, do all of it as responsibly as I can, and have some awareness of when I’ve taken on too much. (This is my best argument for being a professional, and I refuse to put the word into scare quotes like Esposito does.) The notion that the best-case scenario is to subsist exclusively on reading books and writing reviews of them–no editing work, no Q&A writing, etc–is nice, but so is the notion of world peace. Like Esposito, I’m all for “broadening the field”–though I never thought of it as especially narrow one, especially now that anybody with a blog and some enthusiasm can get cracking. But to say that we need to “give more critics the opportunity to spend an adequate amount of time with a book under review” is to register a complaint about a problem that isn’t going to go away. Everybody works under time pressure; if Esposito is waiting for reviewers who have ample time to read books and review them, he may quickly learn how difficult “broadening the field” is going to be.

One response to “The Glamorous Life

  1. The other idea here, which you have answered by alluding to your day job, is that any good professional knows that writing about only one particular topic may spawn the fatigue that Scott observes. I don’t know any freelancer who writes exclusively about books or who doesn’t have something else to write about to ensure that a consistent and eclectic level of quality can be found throughout work. It’s good to shift gears every once in a while. There are also the practical aspects. Writing about subjects that have nothing to do with books often pays better than book reviewing. And if you want to stay alive, particularly in this ever-changing climate, it’s always good not to keep one’s eggs in one basket.

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