G-Rated Reviewing

Daniel Green at the Reading Experience has taken notice of my blog post on Don DeLillo‘s new novel, Point Omega—a post that was intended as a sort of supplement to the DeLillo review I wrote for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Green is politely approving of the newspaper review, but he’s much kinder toward the blog post, concluding that “blog-published reviews and criticism in general are more satisfying in this way than what can be found in print publications, especially newspapers.”

Before going on, I want to say that I’m grateful for Green’s compliments—he doesn’t dispense them casually—and that I’d sooner shuck out my eyeballs with a rusty fork than revisit old squabbles about the virtues of bloggers versus newspaper book reviewers. But it might be useful to say a little bit about the “perceived ‘general’ audience” of a newspaper book review, and why it’s worth respecting.

As with most daily newspapers, the circulation of the Star-Tribune has been declining in recent years—the Sunday edition (where most of the book reviews run) has around half a million readers. This blog’s readership is smaller than that, to put it mildly; indeed, few Web outlets could compete with those single-day readership numbers. (The Canadian Newspaper Association launched a clever advertising campaign last year that stressed the disparity in audience size.) That doesn’t mean that litblogs are proportionally less important than newspapers—it certainly doesn’t mean they’re more poorly written—but it does mean that writing for a newspaper involves a different set of obligations toward an audience that’s still worth respecting.

For one thing, I can’t assume that the reader of a newspaper review is somebody like Daniel Green, who has a strong interest in books and the critical conversations that surround them. I can’t even responsibly assume that the reader is especially interested in books, let alone books written by Don DeLillo. The person flipping through the Sunday paper generally has little idea what he or she is interested in; it could be healthcare, or last night’s game, or Hi and Lois. The best I can hope for is a reader who’s perhaps heard of DeLillo, and who might know that he’s a much-decorated novelist concerned with contemporary American life. Assuming anything else is assuming way too much. After all, any journalist who covers healthcare reform can’t even assume that Americans know how many senators it takes to break a filibuster.

Writing in the face of such ignorance is, understandably, an unappealing prospect for a lot of people, particularly book reviewers. But ignorance is not the same thing as stupidity. If I can’t assume much baseline knowledge in a newspaper’s readership, I can at least assume a degree of interest in being told about something they haven’t heard about before. Which is why I think of compressing a statement about Point Omega into 450 words is an interesting challenge and not an exercise in futility; how can I convince somebody to find DeLillo as interesting as I do? If newspaper book reviews often fall into the category of lazy “lifestyle reporting,” as Green puts it, I can at least do my own bit to avoid the most egregious problems with daily newspaper reviews. Those are legion, but the majority could be avoided by simply policing for cliches like “stunning,” “dazzling,” and the like. And I can’t think of a circumstance where I’d write a newspaper book review in the first person. As a journalism professor once put it, “A good story doesn’t need you in it,” and I think asking a reader to care about both a book they haven’t read and a person they haven’t met is outright idiocy. Some people are clever enough to pull off that trick. I don’t believe I am.

All that said, writing shorter and shorter reviews is damned frustrating. When I began reviewing regularly for the Chicago Sun-Times in 2003, my average assignment was 1,200 words. Now 500 words is a luxury. Newspaper reviewers now typically toil at what George Orwell considered pointless labor: “Short notes of a line or two on forthcoming books can be useful,” he once wrote, “but the usual middle-length review of about 600 words is bound to be worthless even if the reviewer genuinely wants to write it.” I genuinely want to write it, but I’m genuinely frustrated with it, which is why I’ve started getting into the habit of writing supplementary posts to my reviews. That’s something I’ve done before with Joshua FerrisThe Unnamed and hope to do more of in the future. They’re fun to write, and they help me write down a few thoughts that I couldn’t squeeze into the review proper. But I don’t write off the value of the original review versus the blog post, even if I disregard which article got me a paycheck and which one didn’t.

5 thoughts on “G-Rated Reviewing

  1. Mark,

    As someone whose book reviewing involves published reviews ranging from 350-750 words (5-6 of these per month), I take Mr. Green’s point, as filtered through your post. At the same time, reviews of books that include new short story collections by Richard Bausch, T.C. Boyle and Robert Stone, as well as worthy first novels by writers like Trevor Byrne and Tom Rachman (all of which I’ve reviewed already this year), feel like legitimate, if small, contributions to the effort of preserving a semblance of literary culture in American and perhaps shouldn’t be dismissed too glibly.

    The problem with many literary blogs (yours notably excluded) is that they often seem to be more about the blogger than the book.

    Those of us who write brief reviews for publication should strive to do a better job, because it’s a job that needs to be done and is worth taking pride in if done conscientiously and well.

    Harvey

  2. Mark: I accept all of your points, but finally it does seem to me that if a literary critic “can’t even responsibly assume that the reader is especially interested in books” the task of writing reviews for such readers is a rather futile endeavor. Writing about books for an audience that wants to read them seems more productive, even if it won’t be distributed to 500,000 people.

  3. Mr. Green: As a bookseller for many years, I have to respectfully disagree with your feeling that reviewing for less knowledgeable readers is futile. You meet readers where they are.

    If you are lucky, you guide them toward good books and mark the mediocre ones as such.

    Your assessment of the relative merits of print book reviews and blog posts is an apple and oranges comparison. Many book review editors do not necessarily see their shrinking column inches as the place to pose the questions Mark raises in his DeLillo post. Many readers use reviews as the literary equivalent of Consumer Reports and will walk into a nearby bookstore, or click online, to purchase a well reviewed title.

    The NY Times Book Review and NYRB have a few more pages at their disposal and may provide the contextual discussion you desire. But it is worth considering the demographics of today’s book buyers. The people buying lots of books are older http://bit.ly/8ZHDWk and overlap well with newspaper demographics.

    Of greater concern to me is the question posed by the survey linked to above: will younger Americans read more–and buy more books in any format–as they age?

  4. I enjoyed reading this post. I’m 51 and I love reading. I subscribe to the New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and the London Review of Books expressly for quality reviews of books. And all the other stuff in those wonderful publications is icing on the cake.

    This post made me think about my newspaper reading habits, especially with respect to book reviews. I largely disregard my daily paper (The Roanoke Times) book reviews (or, more accurately, blurbs) as irrelevant. The book section has been reshaped in the last few years, and I find little in it of interest, ever.

    I always use the web to enhance my ‘offline review reading’ – to look up references with which I’m unfamiliar, to take reviews that I find interesting deeper and further.

    Thanks for the post. I find your blog always interesting. And I appreciate the responses posted thus far as well.

  5. As someone who often has to compress or elide deep thoughts on literature, I can very much relate to Mark’s predicament. But I see no reason why one should not aim to get regular people excited or enthused about literature, and find such attitudes about the “futility” of reaching such an audience to be needlessly snobbish and anti-human. As someone who has received numerous emails from readers over the years for newspaper reviews, blog posts, and podcasts, often from people who wish to express their enthusiasm for a title they hadn’t known about, with all due respect to his work at The Reading Experience (and elsewhere), Dan Green’s elitist and almost misanthropic stance on this point greatly disappoints me, although I certainly agree with him about the problems with restrictive word counts. Perhaps there’s less capitulation on this through blogs.

    This is not to suggest that one shouldn’t approach or write about complicated literature when addressing a mass audience. It remains very much possible to entertain and enlighten. But then I don’t need to expatiate upon the advantages that come from not approaching literature as if it is some kind of prescriptive castor oil that is “good” for you. I’ll leave that attitude to the humorless hubristic types, who are truly destroying literature as they fight needless battles for small scraps of territory.

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