03 December 2006

Where One's Nose Belongs

... in a book. It's the silliest season in publishing right now (against some pretty stiff competition). On the one hand, we have the usual premature "best book of the year" lists, almost invariably tilted toward works appearing in August and thereafter. Those in the Washington Post Book World today are all too typical. The "consolidated" list is really no more inclusive, or broadly based, than are either the "top ten" or the personal selections of the (normally far more open-minded) Jonathan Yardley. It's also just past the National Book Award announcements, which frequently include books that have not yet been published… such as this year's winner for fiction, which had not yet hit the street when the award was announced a few weeks back.

On the other hand, the publishing industry (and review industry) really does not help itself very much with its refusal to learn from film (and, to a lesser extent, popular music). Thomas Pynchon's most recent novel, Against the Day, is a paradigmatic example. Complete Review asserts that there seems to be "no consensus" on the book's quality, and evaluates Michoko Kakutani's review as a "D+":

Thomas Pynchon's new novel, Against the Day, reads like the sort of imitation of a Thomas Pynchon novel that a dogged but ungainly fan of this author's might have written on quaaludes. It is a humongous, bloated jigsaw puzzle of a story, pretentious without being provocative, elliptical without being illuminating, complicated without being rewardingly complex.

(20 Nov 06, typography corrected). For many reviewers, this would indeed be a "D+" review... but it reminds me more of those train-wreck-awful commercials for Life cereal starring Mikey ("He won't eat it — he hates everything!") than of either a perceptive review or a comparative evaluation. In the broad spectrum of Kakutani's reviews, this is a B, not a D+.

A quick scan of a spectrum of other reviews only confirms that book reviewers are being encouraged more to show their own cleverness and erudition than to assist readers with an actual evaluation of the books. Liesl Schillinger's review in the New York Times Book Review is worded far more positively than is Kakutani's (which appeared in the daily pages of that same paper), but remains a B to B+ review within the (admittedly smaller) sample of Schillinger's reviews. One will end up equally confused after looking at reviews by (in alphabetical order by reviewer) Mark Feeney (Boston Globe), David Gale (Observer), Roger Gathman (American-Statesman), Keith Gessen (New York Magazine), Ludovic Hunter-Tilney (Financial Times), Douglas Kennedy (The Times), Peter Körte (Frankfurter Allgemeine) (auf Deutsch), John Leonard (The Nation), Tim Martin (The Independent), Louis Menand (New Yorker), Steven Moore (Washington Post Book World), and/or Sophie Ratcliffe (Times Literary Supplement). We're left with little more than a file full of personnel reports from disparate departments in a large company, with little understanding that these reports concern the same person/book; the reviews too often concern the person Thomas Pynchon more than they concern his book, but that's an argument for another time. Film criticism at least tends to force reviewers to assign "grades" to each review. One cannot necessarily say that a film awarded four stars by Roger Ebert is necessarily a better film than one awarded three stars by A.O. (Tony) Scott, but one can say that Ebert himself considers a film he awards four stars better than a film he awards three stars. Perhaps part of the problem is that too few reviewers build up a large enough body of work to have a coherent/consistent system; perhaps another part is that the purposes for which one reads books vary more widely than the purposes for which one sees films. Nonetheless, reviews would be more useful — and, therefore, would gain more weight over time — if they closed with a short, evaluative grade on some scale or another. Anything less is, well, silly.

Speaking of silly, though, consider bad writing about sex and its causes. Consider plagiarism and its discontents. Consider bad cover design, bad book design, and some causes of bad book content. Then contrast these thoughts with the unfortunate tendency in the publishing world to celebrate the author instead of reading and evaluating his/her work, to ignore the wonders of smaller works and composite works (let alone assuming that bigger is necessarily better), and the rarity of serious reviews on serious subject.