How to Review Books: My Manifesto

Sometimes changes make tired old arguments look even more creaky.

This is how I felt when I encountered yet another back-and-forth about whether book reviewers should strive to be positive and avoid snark, or whether they should be hard-minded critics, willing to blame as well as praise in their criticism. Maria Bustillos has a rundown.

This debate is like the dance of the straw men. Each side exaggerates the position of the other, until a positive book reviewer is merely a shill, and a negative reviewer is snarky or narcissistic or whatever.

People: the world is changing. It’s not the case that a small number of publications review a few selected books every season, and readers are led by the nose to what has been selected for them to read. They have access to all kinds of books as well as to all kinds of critics. A million flowers have bloomed.

Critics want to take a consistent approach? Fine. Write a manifesto? Great. Criticize some other critic’s manifesto? Now you’re tipping into pointlessness.

Here’s my manifesto: Don’t argue about how to review books. Just review them.

Let your approach manifest itself in the reviews themselves, and let your audience decide whether or not they value the approach you’ve taken. There’s room for dialogue as well as promotion. Harshness and praise.

The critical voice – your voice – is your best asset. Don’t try to make it into something that it’s not to suit your theory.

Is what I just wrote positive? Snarky? Actually I’m not sure. It was my honest response. That’s what I’ll stand by. Good critics should too.

Onward and upward, people!

Carlton Dance Image Credit: GIFSOUP.COM

Ford, Lawrence, and the Wise Professor: On Discovering Greatness in Literature

This story starts with a great moment in literary autobiography – well, fine, let’s go ahead and say it has a claim to being one of the great moments in the history of literature. I have a personal story of my own to throw in at the end. But the story begins here, in the famous passage in which Ford Madox Ford recounts his discovery of a then-unknown writer:

In the year when my eyes first fell on words written by Norman Douglas, G. H. Tomlinson, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, and others . . . — upon a day I received a letter from a young schoolteacher in Nottingham. I can still see the handwriting—as if drawn with sepia rather than written in ink, on grey-blue notepaper. It said that the writer knew a young man who wrote, as she thought, admirably but was too shy to send his work to editors. Would I care to see some of his writing?

In that way I came to read the first words of a new author:

“The small locomotive engine, Number 4, came clanking, stumbling down from Selston with seven full waggons. It appeared round the corner with loud threats of speed but the colt that it startled from among the gorse which still flickered indistinctly in the raw afternoon, outdistanced it in a canter. A woman walking up the railway line to Underwood, held her basket aside and watched the footplate of the engine advancing.”

I was reading in the twilight in the long eighteenth-century room that was at once the office of the English Review and my drawing-room. My eyes were tired; I had been reading all day so I did not go any further with the story…. I laid it in the basket for accepted manuscripts. My secretary looked up and said: ‘You’ve got another genius?’ I answered: ‘It’s a big one this time,’ and went upstairs to dress. (Ford Madox Ford, Portraits from Life (Boston, 1937), 70-71.)

Years ago I was taking a course co-taught by two professors, one charming and voluble, the other quiet and wise. The charming professor read the passage without revealing the ending. “Can anyone guess who Ford Madox Ford was describing?” he asked.

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Small Press Shout-Out: Tiny TOE Press

I’ve written before about the role for small presses in the brave new publishing world. And in my dream bookstore.

Today’s small-press shout out goes to Tiny TOE Press, an Austin-based “kitchen-table press” that publishes handpressed books.

Check out their definition of DIY publishing and their catalog. And dream bookstore entrepreneurs, remember: I’d like a nice table of these to thumb through, in some cozy, well-lighted spot.

Fighting Discouragement: You Are New!

In an interview with Tinhouse’s J.C. Hallman, Walter Kirn refers to a common anxiety among writers:

J.C. Hallman: Do creative writers have an obligation to act as critics, to offer up alternatives to traditional critical methodologies and assumptions?

Walter Kirn: Creative writers have no obligation do anything, including their own creative work.  That’s what makes them “creative” in the first place, not merely productive.  That being said, a novel or a short story is an implicit piece of criticism.  It suggests that the job – some job; that of telling a story, say, or representing reality with language, or torturing reality with language – can be done better, or at least differently, than it has been done before.

Kirn’s right, of course – but at the same time, we all know how paralyzing this can be. There have been so many authors! Every story has been told! Everything’s been said! Blogging’s one thing, but who am I to presume that I can enter the world of writing a book that belongs on a bookshelf with all those authors I love and respect and admire?

Even the great Dr. Johnson suffered from a version of this internal narrative, giving up on writing poetry out of a belief that Alexander Pope had perfected the art, not to be surpassed.

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My Bookstore

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Okay, Borders has gone under. Barnes & Noble is struggling. Independent bookstores have been embattled for years.

I’m a fan of Amazon (and used to work there! they’re good folks! they paid my wages!). But I’m also a nostalgic person. If I can be misty-eyed about the end of Blockbuster, I’m certainly allowed to think fondly about all the time I’ve spent in bookstores. Out-of-the-way bookstores. Corporate behemoth bookstores. Waldenbooks at the mall. Airport “bookstores.” Antiquarian book shoppes. Garage sales. Library basements. Mystery-themed bookstores. Waterfront gift shops with a shelf of books about ships. Anything at all!

So maybe there’s no presently viable business model for a brick-and-mortar store. But there’s a hunger! And where there’s a hunger, there’s a fool ready to supply it.

Here’s what I would like:

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What They Knew #13

““The language belongs to fishermen, not scholars.”

–Jorge Luis Borges (on efforts to impose an official diction on English)

Parks v. Sacks: Can A Novelist Make Magic?

Tim Parks is a novelist and critic. (The distinction is important.) Recently he wrote a piece for the New York Review of Books blog about the current state of novels, and what it means for today’s novelist.

Parks’s essay, worth reading in its entirety, starts out slowly. Parks apparently feels compelled to describe (only to dismiss) other current critics of the novel, who are loud and not all that persuasive. But the gist of his essay, once he arrives at it, is compelling:

My problem with the grand traditional novel—or rather traditional narrative in general, short stories included—is the vision of character, the constant reinforcement of a fictional selfhood that accumulates meaning through suffering and the overcoming of suffering. At once a palace built of words and a trajectory propelled by syntax, the self connects effortlessly with the past and launches bravely into the future. Challenged, perhaps thwarted by circumstance, it nevertheless survives, with its harvest of bittersweet consolation, and newly acquired knowledge.

He admits this may be somewhat “reductive,” but as a general statement of a certain type of novel, it rings true to me. And then – in the heart of the essay – Parks describes his own lack of success with his recent Buddhist-themed novel:

In my own small way I tried to do this in my recent novel Sex is Forbidden, where a young woman in a Buddhist meditation center is seeking to move away from mental habits—ambition, regret, unhappy love—which have entrapped and humiliated her. I don’t think I succeeded.

What Parks seems to regret is his own lack of courage, or ability, or both. Instead of following the Buddhist themes of the novel and embedding them into the structure of the book itself, he fell back into the conventional trappings of the novel, which he felt did not quite fit:

Buddhism, as a set of teachings and practices that invite the dissipation of the “fiction” of self and a quite different idea of social involvement and personal trajectory, became in the end simply a stark contrast that exposed the extent to which the girl was trapped in the Western obsession of creating one’s own successful life story. Most readers, I’m sure, were eager for her to avoid the seductions of nirvana. More generally, the tale’s literary nature, its very presentation of itself as a novel—perhaps I just mean my own ambitions—inevitably dragged it back toward the old familiar ploys, the little climaxes, the obligatory ironies.

It wasn’t enough to make this tension explicit within the book – “set them up and then retreat from them, prepare and not deliver, encourage the reader to see how wearisomely novels do go in a certain direction.” That would be trying too hard (the opposite of Buddhism!). In the end, he went with conventional forms and was left feeling as though he had failed:

But the whole endeavor was like sailing against a strong wind: however hard you point to the open sea you are constantly blown back on the familiar coast. When the moment comes to discuss the blurb with the publisher you know that you haven’t done anything new.

Sam Sacks of the New Yorker replies with what is likely to be one of the more thoughtful responses, calling Parks “genial” but summarizing his essay as “honest, provocative, and maddeningly wrongheaded.”

Sacks’s main point is that all good novels take their own form. His objection to Parks’s characterization of the “conventional” forms of certain novels is that those forms often work very well for what that particular novel is setting out to do. Whatever trouble Parks may have had with his own novel, Sacks argues, it’s unfair to spin that frustration into a wider condemnation of novels.

Sacks’s rebuttal strikes me as being unassailably correct except for being exactly wrong in one big way. We can see this in the sort of jujitsu he pulls in his definition of Parks. He acknowledges and praises Parks’s essay for being diaristic (in that Parks refers to his own struggles with fiction). But he also pulls Parks, as a sometimes critic, into the world where what one says about novels matters.

You can see how Sacks tips his hand by contrasting the titles of the two pieces. Sacks uses the title “Against the “Death of the Novel.”” But Parks’s title is quite different: “Trapped Inside the Novel.”

To be fair, Parks perhaps invites this shift by closing with a story of a former teacher of his who later in life confessed he found most great novels empty. In doing so, Parks does commit the probably unnecessary minor sin of expanding his own experience into the world of novels in general.

To me, though, the point of Parks being “trapped by novels” is not that interesting or persuasive as a reflection on novels by Parks-the-critic. What’s much more fascinating – and in its way, revealing – is to view the essay as a cry for help from Parks-the-novelist. While Sacks’s defense of all types of novels is (of course!) the right one, that is a critic’s take, not an author’s.

In other words, Parks is telling us what it was like to make decisions as a novelist, and what it felt like to be pushing his boulder down a path different from the one he wanted to be on. He felt like his book should be presenting something different, in a different way – he wanted this to happen, and he couldn’t make it work. Why? Not because he didn’t know how to write a novel, but because he did know how to write a novel – a certain type of novel – only too well. That fascinating tale tells us only a little about novels from a reader’s or critic’s perspective, but a great deal more about the struggles of at least one contemporary novelist to bring the novel’s form in line with the author’s ambition. The magician wanted magic, and found only props.

Image Credit: Visceral Intricacy