Without putting too melodramatic a point on it, the printed word is endangered. There have been conversations about the death of the novel, the end of the book, and the miniscule audience for poetry for decades, but it turns out the more fragile species are newspapers and magazines. As these publications fight for their life, slim down, and disappear, one of the first things to go are book reviews and book review sections.
The critic’s craft is an underappreciated one, and its role is diminishing as well. Long ago Rolling Stone drew readers away from the music reviewer’s analysis and reflection by posting bold stars at the beginning of the piece. There was no need to read the text; you could just count the stars. You could probably fit ten current Rolling Stone reviews into one of the reviews during their heyday. Likewise, as Siskel & Ebert’s show gained in popularity, the final decision—a robust “two thumbs up” or a resounding “two thumbs down”—overshadowed the content of their discussion.
Though far more books are still published per year than any human can read, sources for learning and thinking about them are drying up. And among those that remain, few of them are going to give you more than 500 words on a book. I remember interviewing for a freelance reviewing gig with piddling pay for a shortlived tabloid almost two decades ago, and the editor said anybody could review a movie or play, seeming to suggest that most democratic of possibilities: everybody’s perspective is equally valuable.
We now live in an world based primarily on two ideas that the quality of the arts can be mathematically tabulated (if you go to the website Rotten Tomatoes, a movie review website, you will see a score, not unlike a song got on American Bandstand or a wine gets from Robert Parker) or that everyone is a reviewer (say on Amazon.com). What’s missing is the thoughtful analysis of someone who knows the field better than you do, the possibility of learning more about the topic at hand rather than just getting someone’s take on whether something is good or bad.
Well, last night I read a print review of a print book that reminded me of how good a review can be, of how if you give the right reviewer enough space, he or she can reflect, and give you context, and quote at length, and in the end come up with a compelling, thoughtful piece of writing that entertains while informing. I finished reading Wyatt Mason’s piece, “The Untamed: Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome,” in the February 2010 issue of Harper’s, wanting to know more about this young novelist I’d never heard of, and grateful for Mason’s acute commentary.
Mason is ostensibly reviewing Ferris’s latest, The Unnamed, but he spends the first half of the essay, nearly five full-page columns, discussing his debut, Then We Came to the End. He is in no way entirely laudatory of this earlier work, and he takes other critics to task for the lazy, shorthanded way that they praised it, but in his discussion of it, he brings to the surface qualities that make me want to know more, that in the end make me want to read the novel.
One thing Mason does is quote at length. In the first half of the review, he quotes four separate paragraphs from the novel, and the language in those passages tells me, as much as anything Mason says, that Ferris is a writer I want to spend time with, that he is going to help me see my familiar world in a new and vivid way, something like when I first came upon DeLillo (Ferris’s title is taken from the first sentence of DeLillo’s first novel—important information Mason gives us in the first paragraph of his review).
In the end—or more precisely in the second half of the review—Mason makes it clear that Ferris has fallen prey to the dreaded sophomore slump with The Unnamed, but fortunately, he himself never succumbs to such clichéd shorthand. He quotes from the novel at length again, and explains its unusual premise, comparing it to works by Saramago and Kafka, which gives credence to Ferris even as he comes up short. When he critiques the novel, he does so by quoting shorter passages, and then pointing out clearly and effectively how the prose in those passages lets the storyteller down. You still feel that Mason respects Ferris’s abilities, but that he doesn’t see him executing them as skillfully here as he did in his first book. You also get the idea he will be reading Ferris’s next effort with a hopeful yet critical eye.
As for myself, I will be seeking out Joshua Ferris’s first book Then We Came to the End because of the way Wyatt Mason negatively reviewed his current novel. I encourage you to seek out that review.