Confessions of (Another) Book Reviewer

For Orwell, being a book critic was hell. But I'm a lot luckier than he was—the job is so different now.

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(Lev Grossman writes about books here on Wednesdays. Subscribe to his RSS feed.)

My career as a book reviewer started with a cold call.

The year before, I had dropped out of graduate school rather than inflict another dissertation about Joyce and Woolf on the world. And I didn’t regret that – I don’ t think anybody will ever, ever regret that – but I did miss writing about books. Maybe, it occurred to me, if I wasn’t writing a dissertation, I could just inflict a few book reviews on the world instead. What’s the worst that could happen.

So I bought a copy of Publishers Weekly, a trade magazine that publishes a very large number of very short reviews, and called their offices, and asked for the reviews editor. This was 1997, which was probably the last moment in history when you could do something like that and not come off as completely obnoxious or insane. I had a wildly awkward conversation with the reviews editor, who was a very, very patient person, and by the end of it she’d agreed to give me a try-out.

I felt like I’d won the lottery. I hadn’t. Not yet anyway.

(READBeyond Good and Awful: Literary Value in the Age of the Amazon Review)

I didn’t quit my day job. But I did spend two years reviewing for Publishers Weekly, then three more years freelancing for other magazines before I started reviewing for TIME. I may be the only person besides Steve Case who benefited from the disastrous AOL-Time Warner merger, in the aftermath of which TIME offered retirement packages to some of its senior staff, including the late, great Paul Gray, who had been the book critic here for decades. They hired me to do his job, and a few other people’s jobs too, for less than any of those people were making.

That was when I won the lottery.

At any rate I was a hell of a lot luckier than George Orwell, who had this to say about book reviewing in “Confessions of a Book Reviewer”:

The prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash…but constantly INVENTING  reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever. The reviewer, jaded though he may be, is professionally interested in books, and out of the thousands that appear annually, there are probably fifty or a hundred that he would enjoy writing about. If he is a top-notcher in his profession he may get hold of ten or twenty of them: more probably he gets hold of two or three. The rest of his work, however conscientious he may be in praising or damning, is in essence humbug. He is pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time.

Orwell was a hell of a lot better book reviewer than I am. But he was also a freelancer. He had to take what assignments came his way. Because I’m a staff writer at a magazine, I have a lot more freedom to pick and choose what I review than he did. I don’t have to force it. Or not often anyway.

(Ask me again when I’m compiling my year-end top-10 list. There are not 10 great novels published every year. But every year there must be a top 10 list.)

Probably 30 or 40 books arrive at TIME every day, sent by publishers, but just as it was in Orwell’s day, the signal-to-noise ratio is still extremely low. A large percentage of these books are cookbooks, political tracts, self-help books, celebrity memoirs and other genres we don’t even cover. What remains is too much for one person to read, and a large percentage of that just isn’t that extraordinary anyway, unfortunately — it’s just the nature of the literary beast. Unless you were some kind of monstrous literary omnivore, there’s no way you could possibly find something interesting in every single crate.

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But then there’s the signal – that delicious, delicious signal. People often ask me how I choose books to review. There’s no simple answer; also no especially interesting answer. I review books if they do something I’ve never seen done before; or if I fall in love with them; or if they shock me or piss me off or otherwise won’t leave me alone; if they alter the way my brain works; if I can’t stop thinking about them; if for whatever reason I absolutely have to tell people about them.

I haven’t always done it that way. Early on in my career I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I thought other people would want me to review, and what I thought other people would fall in love with, and then reviewing those books. But the truth is I was just guessing, and when I did I generally guessed wrong. Over time I retreated to the following position: I am a book-loving human being, and if I love something, then some other book-loving human elsewhere will probably love it too. I have limitations as a reader, and I constantly second-guess myself in an attempt to overcome them, and nobody ever gets them all, and nobody should ever stop trying. One of the very first books I reviewed for TIME was a book I heard about because the author was a former student of my mom’s. It was her first novel. It had been bought for a modest advance, with modest expectations, but the first chapter knocked me on my ass, and I stayed knocked, so I reviewed it anyway. The author was Alice Sebold, and the book was The Lovely Bones. Sometimes — in fact, always — trusting your gut is the only thing you can do.

Not that I only review things that I love, but everything I review, I at least try to love. John Updike advised reviewers: “Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast.” And I do insofar as I can. But the book critic is in the weird position of being there on behalf of both the writer and the reader. You submit to the spell, but if the anesthetic wears off during the operation, you reserve the right to wake up and scream bloody murder.

I don’t write hatchet jobs, though. (A hatchet job is critic’s slang – maybe everybody’s? — for an exceptionally nasty review). I used to. There was a time when I actually believed, because I was an ass, that as a critic I was an avenging angel with a flaming sword, and that part of my job was to help rid the culture of books that were sucking up more of the literary oxygen than they deserved. So if I read a book and hated it, I said so.

Then I grew up. Don’t get me wrong: I am as bad-tempered a reader as you’ll ever see, and I’m a great hater of bad books, and possibly even of good ones. I enjoy a well-reasoned rubbishing as much as the next reader. James Wood on Paul Auster in the New Yorker, for example:

The pleasing, slightly facile books come out almost every year, as tidy and punctual as postage stamps, and the applauding reviewers line up like eager stamp collectors to get the latest issue.

And so on. I think pieces like that do something important. They open up space in the culture where we can actually talk honestly about writers whose work is in danger of becoming sacred and critically unassailable. Books that aren’t actually scripture shouldn’t be treated like they’re sacred. If anything, doing away with that kind of blind worship is one of those things novels are so useful for. To turn around and worship novels, or novelists (or critics), that’s just ironic.

But I don’t write hatchet jobs. A thoroughly negative review needs to justify its existence thoroughly, and for that you need a lot of words, and TIME’s book reviews don’t run long enough. So if I don’t like a book, I leave it alone. Books come into this world mortally wounded as it is. It’s pretty rare that a book is so malignant and so tough that it needs someone like me to come along and finish it off. It’s enough to deny them care.

I’m not even convinced anymore that passing judgment on books is the most important part of a book critic’s job. In Orwell’s day, opinions about books weren’t that easy to find. Now they’re thick on the ground, they’re everywhere, you can roll around in them to your heart’s content. Why would anybody need my opinion on top of all that? If anything I feel like I’m suffering from a surplus of opinions. I’m constantly getting Facebook and Twitter updates telling me that I absolutely have to read this, and my life will be ruined if I don’t read that, and my existence has no purpose if I don’t absolutely love this other thing. It’s nice and all – because hurray for books, and for everybody having a say – but it’s a little exhausting, too.

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I think of the reviewer’s role now as being more about providing context for a book, tracing its lineage in the tradition and locating it in the literary topography of the present, and all that touchy-feely sort of thing. The critics I love these days do something slightly different from what they used to: they don’t just judge, they open up that weird, intense, private dyad that forms between book and reader and let other people inside. They tell the story, the meta-story, of what happened when they opened the book and began to read the story.

It’s not as sexy as a thumb up or a thumb down, but then again we’re suffering from a surfeit of thumbs. We’re in the age of the thumb — what we need is more fingers. When I read a review by a good critic, I don’t much care whether he or she likes the book or doesn’t like it. The critic’s job isn’t to change my mind about whether or not I like a book. Not anymore. The critic’s job is to make me a better reader.