I’ve been thinking about why I read the New York Times Book Review from cover to cover. If I have no intention of reading most of the books that any given issue reviews, why do I enjoy reading the reviews themselves? Part of the appeal might lie in the review’s ability to survey and condense: forearmed by the Book Review, I won’t have to stare blankly if someone mentions they’re reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, even if I never get around to reading the book myself. Yet by this logic, I should enjoy CliffsNotes more than novels and abstracts more than articles – which I do not. Another explanation for the appeal of book reviews is that they steer one towards good books and away from bad ones. This, too, is inadequate, for I tend to be as interested in reviews of books I have already read as I am in those of books I plan to read. So again, the real puzzle is why one enjoys reading a review of a book that one would not actually enjoy reading. It is these cases that argue for the independent, self-contained nature of the review. A good review possesses a character distinct from that of the work that it discusses. At its core, the review is not a hermeneutical or scholarly appendage to a larger work, but an autonomous form of entertainment: a closet drama, staged only on the page, in which two protagonists seek fundamentally different ends.
The dramatic essence of the review is most readily discernable in a “pan:” the withering, skewering, choose-your-favourite-metaphor-ing dismissal of a work’s very right to exist. Take Clive James’s recent review of Elias Canetti’s posthumous Party in the Blitz: The English Years. James terms Canetti’s memoir “a book fit to serve every writer in the world as a hideous, hilarious example of the tone to avoid when the ego, faced with the certain proof of its peripheral importance, loses the last of its inhibitions” (9). It is the virulence with which Canetti recalls his contemporaries (calling T. S. Eliot, for example, “a libertine of the void, a foothill of Hegel, a desecrator of Dante” or saying of Iris Murdoch, “Everything I despise about English life is in her”) that motivates James’s own uninhibitedly virulent review. Whereas the title of James’s review is “Insistence on Myself,” the Book Review’s editors put the case more baldly in a subhead on the front cover: “Clive James: the Insufferable Canetti.” James’s review is as much an epitaph as it is an analysis, and its very forcefulness prompted me to pick up a copy of the book that had so incensed him.
When panning a book that we have already suffered through, the reviewer becomes the avenging hero of an Elizabethan tragedy, righting a wrong and cutting the rot out of Denmark. While there is no book I could nominate as being categorically bad without some partisan coming to its defence, I suspect that I was not the only reader gratified by Walter Kirn’s review of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. How reaffirming to find that Kirn, like me, was annoyed by Foer’s cloying narrator: “Kids, we’re told, will say the darnedest things, but kids like Oskar – authorial surrogates with their darling whimsicalities and cute ‘have you ever noticed?’ observations … drive adults to the bar for a stiff drink” (1). I left the review, as I did not Foer’s novel, with a sense of catharsis. Readers and reviewers alike may feel even more vindicated when the subject of such a pan is not a book, but a film, for while we may feel a twinge of regret for the solitary author who has failed ignominiously, we do not for a committee of writers and studio executives.
When the pan is unjustified, however, or seems motivated by a reviewer’s ire rather than by a work’s deficiency, our sympathies shift. The reviewer is no longer a Hamlet, but an Iago, and while some part of us may still delight in his ruthlessness, we also identify with the author as victim. This is particularly true in the case of first-time novelists, for surely most avid readers of book reviews believe, on some level, that they have one good novel in them just waiting to be put down on paper. The first-time author is our surrogate, and we cringe for him. There may be yet a third panning scenario, one in which the reviewer becomes a quixotic mock-hero, tilting at windmills of public opinion, or an all-licensed fool, needling an omnipotent king. T. S. Eliot’s assertion that Hamlet is “most certainly an artistic failure” comes to mind (143), as do any number of reviews that attempt to catalogue the deficiencies of the Harry Potter books.
More favourable reviews, too, are fundamentally dramatic in nature. For the review may not simply be a précis or a summary. The author of the book has said something; the reviewer, no matter how much he admires the book, must say something different. If drama arises from two characters desiring conflicting outcomes, then the reviewer who sets out to praise a work may be tasked harder than one who means to castigate it. The unfavourable review questions a work’s right to exist, but the favourable review must establish its own right to exist. The reviewer is cast not in a revenge tragedy, but in a Freudian family drama, and must mark his independence from the book that has given birth to his article. While the reviewer has far less space and time within which to assert his independent identity than did his book-writing subject, he does hold the clear advantage of speaking second. He, therefore, has a number of means by which he can encircle the book or shift the ground from under it. Whether by contextualising a work, by talking about a new work in light of the author’s previous work, by discussing a book’s reception, or by reviewing several works in light of each other, the reviewer seeks to make his own inscription on another’s text.
Yet the greater the book, the harder it is for the reviewer to scrawl his “Kilroy was here” across it. What can one say about Ian McEwan’s Saturday, for example, that the book does not already say about itself? Reviewers of the novel have struggled to do more than load it with encomiums. Michiko Kakutani, for example, while praising the novel as “one of the most powerful pieces of post-9/11 fiction yet published,” avers that “Saturday is too indebted to Mrs. Dalloway to resonate with the fierce originality of the author’s last book, Atonement” (37). While Kakutani is right to note McEwan’s debt to Virginia Woolf, she says far less about this relationship than does the author himself in his last novel. Briony, the narrator of Atonement, falls under the thrall of The Waves, which she reads three times and which directs her own writing (265). Yet the editor of a literary journal to which she submits a manuscript identifies Woolf’s influence as a limitation, writing in a rejection letter:
…we wondered whether it owed a little too much to the techniques of Mrs. Woolf. The crystalline present moment is of course a worthy subject in itself… However, such writing can become precious when there is no sense of forward movement. Put the other way round, our attention would have been held even more effectively had there been an underlying pull of simple narrative. (194)
This “underlying pull of simple narrative” is McEwan’s great strength, one that allows him, consciously, to echo Mrs. Dalloway without being overridden by it. Kakutani’s review is not so lucky, for McEwan’s discussion of Woolf trumps her own, frustrating her bid for critical autonomy.
Ultimately, the review is a dramatic form in that it draws its life and vigour from the interplay of competing voices. In an essay or an interview, authors more or less speak for themselves. A review, on the other hand, puts simulacra of an author and his text into dialogue with “the reviewer,” a role that the reviewing author adopts for the occasion. Both authors therefore become characters when they enter the stage of the review. Thus, even the least appealing book can make for an entertaining and engaging review, for the dialogic nature of the review casts its subject as the stuff of drama.