The OF Blog: Book reviewing and discourses

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Book reviewing and discourses

Recently, I read the online version of Adam Kirsch's "The Scorn of the Literary Blog." There were some points with which I agreed (namely the short-sightedness of a corporate approach by newspaper to cultural institutions such as book reviewing) and many with which I disagreed (particularly on the attitudes and styles of blogging, among other matters). Needless to say, his column has sparked a rather predictable outrage in parts of the blogosphere, but there is an element that for the most part has been largely ignored or papered over, that of the art or science of book reviewing itself.

For some people, book reviewing seems to be viewed as an objective breakdown of what works and what doesn't work. If there's too much of A and too little of B, then X and Y will end up being blah and so the book doesn't work as a whole. That sort of approach, looking at things in a mechanistic, vaguely "scientific" (in the sense of testing structures to see how they work, not in the other associated meanings of the word) way is what many readers today seem to prefer reading. Spell out what works, what doesn't work, slap on a star/grade to it and it's good to go.

While there is something to that approach which is appealing and is helpful in many situation, it is not something that I can endorse or follow in my own reviews. For me, a good review is going to look past the mechanics of the book (while never neglecting to note the positive and negative mechanical points) towards authorial intention and how the communication develops between author and reader via the ever mutable textual understanding. Such an approach will focus more on themes and applicability to the reader's own personal point of view. Is this something that we ought to be considering when the book is closed, or is it easily dismissed from the mind? Those are the sorts of questions that I like to consider when reading the book and writing a review.

But a review can go even further. While Kirsch is to a degree correct in noting that online reviews for the most part fail to go further, sadly the same thing can be said for the majority of print reviews that I've read today. Sometimes, I like to see reviews that make the process of reviewing into a literary object worth considering on its own merits. When I see a review by a Nick Gevers or a John Clute, for example, I can see elements of their personalities and takes on the world at large, because such things are a continuous subthread in their reviews. There is a certain style and substance to their reviews which make them more than just a passing commentary on a book. Those reviews end up being statements, ones that reveal more about their understandings of the world than simple thumbs-up, thumbs-in-the-middle, thumbs-down approaches do.

It is rather fitting that when this article was posted, I had just begun reading Jorge Luis Borges's Discusión. In a series of literary reviews/criticisms that he wrote in the early 1930s (and expanded in the 1957 edition), Borges addresses not just the works as a piece of writing, but also as a piece of communication across linguistic, physical, and temporal divides. In discussing translations of Homer's works, for example, he notes how language and translation can have an affect on how we come to view a work. The pieces in Discusión are not so much an exploration of a book's innermost workings or even its thematic elements, but are instead elegantly-written discourses on what such writings convey to us and how we interpret them over the years and socio-historical changes.

Maybe this form of literary discourse has been dying a rather quieter and longer death than of the reviews of which Kirsch speaks. Maybe in a day and age of rather instant and short communication, things have become a bit too homogenized and "bite-size" for in-depth discourse. It takes two people speaking the same language for a flowing discussion to take place. Perhaps it's as simple as the language of discourse is being spoken by fewer and fewer individuals, readers and reviewers alike, print and online journals alike.

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