To Review or Not To Review

…that is the question. Were Shakespeare alive today he might despair at this flippant appropriation of Hamlet’s words – regarding the nature of suffering and existence – to the mere frippery of book reviews. Then again, we could well imagine some literary wag retorting, ‘A matter of life and death? No. It’s far more important than that!’

As it happens, and to mislead you no longer, I’m not questioning the value of book reviews per se, rather, I have a more specific query: is it worth reviewing any and all books, regardless of when they were published, or should we instead restrict ourselves to only recent releases?

To date, I’ve written two book reviews for this blog, of The Infatuations by Javier Marías, and of The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani, in each case less than a year after the book was released, and for The Infatuations, less than a month. As an amateur reviewer with a full-time job, and crucially without access to pre-prints, it’s hard to turn them around much faster than that.

But what of books published a few years ago, or longer ago even than that? Some Henry James or Charles Dickens? Or perhaps Miguel de Cervantes’ picaresque? A week or two ago, I almost began to write a review of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace for this blog. It’s an immense book, which already has several websites, such as The Wallace Wiki & The Howling Fantods, dedicated to decoding and analysing this epic work. Not to denigrate my abilities, but would a few-hundred word review written by me really add anything, other than to note that yet another aspiring author was both inspired and intimidated by this book? This question posed, I renamed the file from “A Review of Infinite Jest” and began to fill it out with this essay instead.

I know that many other bloggers, and websites such as Goodreads, regularly post reviews of old books, but I’m unconvinced of the need. Before continuing, I should qualify my arguments by stating that I in no way wish to discourage people from engaging with literature and in fact am heartened by it. It shows the literary form has not shrivelled into irrelevance. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t question the value of these reviews, and further, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t examine the nature of these reviews. Are they in fact the same beast as the review of a freshly-printed book? In general, I would contend that they are not.

It’s not that I believe these reviews are unable to say anything original, or that the personal perspective they might provide is worthless, it’s just that the longer the book has been exposed to the oxygen of the wider cultural environment, the greater the etchings and erosions that the collective opinion and critical thought will make on it, and so the harder it is to write a truly original view of things. The original book has become obscured by this cloudy accretion of oxides. The risk is that in over-earnest attempts to be impartial, by consciously attempting to divest oneself of all that critical baggage, it is easy to drift into a reactionary position and find oneself unfairly rubbishing the critically-acclaimed masterwork. Maybe the best critics are able to avoid these traps.

Another aspect of reviews is of course the plot summary – useful at first when it isn’t common knowledge, but after a while certain words of Calvino become apposite, when he describes the class of books that “Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too“. An exception might therefore be made for the unjustly unpopular or little-known work. In that case there can be genuine value in a review – it carries no baggage, and by drawing our attention to the book the review performs a useful service. The longer a book has been published though, the less the need for yet another straightforward review – after all there were presumably a surfeit of those when it first went on sale.

So, if we’re not to review these old books, how we do direct our excess literary energies? How can we best engage with these older works? Is there anything original that we can add to the collective critical opinion?

My feeling is that, rather than a general review, it might be better to provide a more specific discussion as to how the novel meshes with the contemporary environment, to assess the impact it has had, perhaps embark on a deeper exploration of one of its themes. Furthermore, rather than pretend that the subconscious infiltration of other opinions hasn’t occurred, we should face them out in the open, and discuss the book within that context. Finally, rather than critique only a single book, perhaps a comparative approach examining two or more works might prove to be more illuminating.

These are merely my opinions, though ones which will naturally guide the direction of my blog, but what do you other readers & reviewers out there think? Please do leave your considered comments below.

Don’t Only Think, Feel Too

What is the hardest thing to write about? Or to be seen to be writing about, if such a statement makes any sense?

In an interview with Michael Silverblatt of Bookworm, the late, great author David Foster Wallace (DFW) argued that, in his experience as college professor, it was sentiment that his students had the most difficulty producing in their work. To express weird, twisted and abnormal thoughts was nothing but the norm to them. Sentiment, however, was to be avoided at all costs, lest the student risk being perceived as naive, corny or soppy. I’m sure a desire to appear clever was another key motivation.

These observations of DFW were brought back to me by a recent conversation I had, in which a friend, commenting on my blog, said that they wanted to know what something made me feel and not only what it made me think. I accept the criticism gratefully.

First, let’s acknowledge that it is hard to write and talk about these things. Certainly in today’s postmodern world, where knowing-parody and the ironic are staples of our cultural diet, the straightforward emotion is often viewed as simplistic and unsophisticated, and displaying it almost impolite to the point of offence.

Further, a society that values the intellect and wealth perhaps sees a diminished role for emotion, except in the cynical exploitation of it that organisational behaviourists refer to as emotional labour. You’ve all experienced it, take the last time you bought a cup of coffee for instance – the forced-smile greeting and the exhortation to have a great day as you leave. Occasionally genuinely felt I’m sure, but that would just be a happy coincidence. This misuse of false emotion must surely colour our impressions of the genuine article, a Pavlovian training to be wary of it, lest that person harbour ulterior motives.

Perhaps it’s difficult to write about because the felt-emotion can be fleeting and difficult to reproduce, whereas the thought seems longer term, more permanent. The emotion only persists for about as long as we read the book, in the best cases perhaps a little longer. But its intangible nature makes it harder to record and to analyse, and so we don’t bestow upon it the same permanence.

A few days ago I watched the film 50/50, a loosely-autobiographical dark comedy-drama about Adam, a 27-year-old radio journalist who develops a rare form of cancer. The film charts his struggle, and those of his friends and family, to come to terms with the diagnosis and subsequent treatment of his condition. Certain elements of the film appear to be on the verge of becoming corny, but the writing and classy acting help it veer away from this, and the end result is a very good film. Although it is sad in parts, it isn’t unremittingly so, and even the sad moments are generally handled through humour, that is, apart from a scene near the end, which was played straight, and was enough to leave me weeping for several minutes.

That this happened, and the intensity of it, took me quite by surprise, and I’m not exactly certain why it affected me so strongly. The risk of what I think of as “narrative self-delusion” – the way we fool ourselves by telling neat Just So stories to explain our behaviour – is ever present here, but it’s reasonable to suspect the following factors: one of my relatives is unfortunately currently in hospital; the very similar ages of myself and the protagonist, and the sense of tragedy that accompanies his young age; finally, the brilliantly-subtle acting of Adam’s father, an Alzheimer’s sufferer, as he looks on confused, not quite understanding but still somehow touched, when his son tells him he loves him. Even remembering and writing about it now isn’t very easy, as sure a sign as any that it is necessary.

Maybe one explanation for our unwillingness to write about these things, is that they either seem too simple – base states of happy, sad or angry – to be worth the bother of writing about, or they are too complex – the reasons for feeling how we do, and the concurrent, paradoxical feelings we seem able to hold in a single moment – mean that it’s simply easier to talk about abstract thoughts, which can be logically connected and analysed.

Then consider that it’s possible, even probable, that the scene won’t have the same hold over me the next time I see it. The perfect storm of circumstance might no longer be present and, this time prepared for it, I’ll be able to watch it more calmly. This is another problem of putting emotional content in art; it’s difficult to control the response of the reader or viewer, there are too many variables at work.

The rejection of this, by a cynical culture, is a defence mechanism. A sign of our unwillingness to face pain because, by talking about what we feel we can induce in others similar sensations, we are at risk of a kind emotional infection. In everyday life, this might be an unwelcome imposition, but in art, in literature, surely it is what we desire. And if not desire it, we probably need it. In fact, we need both new, original thinking and strong feelings.

I had been previously persuaded by DFW’s interview that it was necessary and right to inject sentiment into writing, and wanted to do so, but in the main I suspect I had failed. The recent conversation, and watching the film 50/50, has reconfirmed this suspicion, and I am encouraged to try again.

That said, looking back over this piece it seems I’ve only partially succeeded in trying to talk about how I felt; inevitably a whole lot of thinking resulted. Still, it’s a better ratio than before, and no matter my level of success, I shouldn’t stop trying. And if I do, then readers, feel free to call me on it.