Too many book reviews these days read like marketing testimonials. They’re too kind. They’re too fluffy. Most reviewers play nice because most are friends with the author and/or they are authors themselves and fear that their negativity might someday come around to bite their own book in the ass. It doesn’t take much Googling to find out which authors take turns promoting each others’ books. Sometimes you only have to trace it back to an MFA program or writing conference. This type of nepotism is understandable, but personally I would find it easier to accept if the reviewer owned their relationship to the author and perhaps added a personal anecdote to the review. Perhaps then I’d find some value in it.
The most annoying book reviews are the ones in which the reviewer is clearly using the article as an opportunity to showcase their own literary chops. The review becomes nothing more than a chance for them to add a bio line listing their own publications at the bottom of the article. Everybody’s writing reviews. They’re all over the Internet. I barley read any of them. Why bother? They’re seldom informative. They’ve become a genre in themselves that I find altogether disingenuous and self-serving. I’d rather read literary criticism. At least my brain gets something out of that. Who’s out there reading book reviews these days? Family and friends of the author and reviewer?
My opinion is that The Believer/McSweeney’s crowd killed the book review with their nicey nice philosophy on the writing of them. I pretty much disagree with everything Dale Peck ever says, but I do sometimes enjoy reading his “hatchet jobs” even when aimed at my favorite authors. It’s like listening to conservative talk radio. The insane discourse at least brings out some emotions in me. Decorated author and book reviewer J. Robert Lennon recently took some flack for harshly critiquing Paul Auster’s new memoir. The response inspired him to write a book review manifesto calling for balance and objectivism. He published it on his website. Here’s the link…
He also spoke on the BBC’s World Service recently and discussed the topic with reviewer Leo Robson. It’s definitely worth a listen.
Solstice Magazine will soon be publishing book reviews and we’d love to hear your comments on what you want/need in one. Do you prefer objectivism or thinly veiled partisanship? A sophisticated blend of the two? Do you want a little mud-slinging or would you prefer to join the reviewer and author in a group hug? Share your thoughts with us!
Boston native Eugenio Volpe is a PEN Discovery Award winner and Pushcart nominee. He teaches creative writing at Arizona State University’s Piper Studio. His short stories have appeared in publications such as Salamander, New York Tyrant, Post Road, Solstice Literary Magazine, and dozens more.