This week the arts and letters website has been highlighting articles about the extinct art of book reviewing. This Poets and Writers article treads the same ground Clive James covered in the Sunday NYT. Same references - the Believer, Heidi J., Dale Peck - and the same dull stirring about the non-question: should reviewers diss the books they don't like?
Books, here, means solely fiction.
Myself, I have been a valiant reviewer of fiction for five years now. I am trying to end my association with that game - I haven't reviewed more than three books in the past two months. I am willing to do almost anything other than continue working as a freelance reviewer. Yesterday, in fact, yours truly went to Pacesetters, an employment agency that is geared towards the mentally disturbed and the perpetual on the move. It consists of a cavernous building located next to the downtown police station, and the joint is peppered with helpful signs advising that drug takers will be arrested, that backpack carriers won't be allowed to carry backpacks to job sites, and that there were police on duty on the premises. A hopeful kind of place.
It struck me as a distinct social and economic advance from freelancing.
But to get to the point. Book reviews used to be read. Macaulay and Bagehot, to name only two Victorian sages, produced classic essays in the form of book reviews. In the twentieth century, Virginia Woolf and Edmund Wilson, among others, wrote book reviews that are still read. But over the last twenty years, as newspapers and magazines have been absorbed into an entertainment industry that is ferociously conscious of ROI, book reviews have been neglected. Monotony - and book reviews are generally tedious beyond belief, much more tedious than movie reviews - has naturally led to a fall off of readership. This takes place against a background in which the newspaper industry has been cutting its own throat -becoming a cheap guide to other venues of entertainment. It will never be cheap enough. This is a death spiral. As the newspaper reader is herded towards ever more cretinizing forms of Hollywood fantasy, the reader naturally loses the reading talent, or will to read. That will certainly includes newspapers. By their very structure, newspapers require a certain talent in reading. This seems to go over the heads of the owners of newspapers. That a newspaper is a thing to read, rather than a billboard to put advertisements in, is not a truth admitted in the boardrooms of Gannet or Cox. The reader, that mythical bearer of cultural goods, has fled to academia. The site of reading is now the classroom. This doesn't signify the death of literature, but it does signify a regression to the pre-modern era of reading and writing. The modernist impulse, which from the philosophes to the modernists depended on a network of independent readers and writers, is petering out. Independence was always a high wire act. Academia was never set up to foster it, and doesn't. But as the air is taken out of that cultural space, the newspaper, which was a creation of the modernist era, is dying. While most editors could care less about the book review section (for good reason), its corruption is a symptom - an ineradicable black spot, signalling the corruption and death to come.
If we look back upon the 19th century novel, one thing stands out: the site of reading - of finding the book, and then finding the next book - is not the classroom. The classroom has almost wholly taken over the educated readers ideal of the place of reading. When Book stores encourage reading by encouraging reading groups, the groups almost invariably become like classrooms. The classroom ethos is also mirrored in the standard book review, which is composed of two parts: plot and theme. The art of the novel is almost skipped - in the classroom, the subteties of art makes for bad tests. Much easier to ask for an essay (in five hundred words or less) about the theme of War and Peace than to ask for an essay about the construction of Prince Andrei as a character. Classrooms elicit themes the way factories produce cars. Libraries, if the witness of nineteenth century writers is any testimony, created complex day dreams. That day dreams could become political and social realities was the message of the two great events of the early nineteenth century: the French revolution and the rise of Napoleon.
I'll write more about this on some later post.
Here are three citations from three different 19th century writers, selected at random.
I believe I should have been almost stupefied but for one circumstance.It was this. My father had left a small collection of books in alittle room upstairs, to which I had access (for it adjoined myown) and which nobody else in our house ever troubled. From thatblessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, HumphreyClinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas,and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond thatplace and time, - they, and the Arabian Nights, and the Tales ofthe Genii, - and did me no harm; for whatever harm was in some ofthem was not there for me; I knew nothing of it. It is astonishingto me now, how I found time, in the midst of my porings andblunderings over heavier themes, to read those books as I did.
-- David Cooperfield
For six months, then, Emma, at fifteen years ofage, made her hands dirty with books from old lending libraries.
Through Walter Scott, later on, she fell in love with historical events, dreamed of old chests, guard-rooms and minstrels. She would have liked to live in some old manor-house, like those long-waisted chatelaines who, in the shade of pointed arches,spent their days leaning on the stone, chin in hand, watching acavalier with white plume galloping on his black horse from thedistant fields. At this time she had a cult for Mary Stuart and enthusiastic veneration for illustrious or unhappy women. Joan ofArc, Heloise, Agnes Sorel, the beautiful Ferroniere, and ClemenceIsaure stood out to her like comets in the dark immensity of heaven...
"What did Missy want with more books? What must you be bringing her more books for?" "They amuse her, sir. She is very fond of reading." "A little too fond," said Mr Featherstone, captiously. "She was for reading when she sat with me. But I put a stop to that. She's got the newspaper to read out loud. That's enough for one day, I should think. I can't abide to see her reading to herself.