What are book reviews for? Looking forward -- immodestly

On Books

January 02, 2000|By Michael Pakenham

Yesterday's dawn did not break on the smoking detritus of the battle of Armageddon. So we can start clean. Time to look forward resolutely. To look back reflectively -- but briefly.

"What are we here for anyway?" is the sort of question that the best of novels often ask in a serious manner. For the moment, I'll leave the apocalyptic to those authors. But I do ask what the words published each Sunday on these pages of book reviews and commentary are intended to accomplish.

In a very thoughtful essay on this page, Steve Weinberg has serious things to say about one aspect of what reviews should not do. There is much value in what he has written there. And he raises, implicitly, a broader question about the purposes and standards of critical reviews.

Five years ago, John Carroll, the editor of The Sun, asked me to try to figure out what a major American regional newspaper should be doing about the subject of books in more or less the 21st century. I had reviewed books for a fairly wide variety of newspapers and magazines for more than 30 years. I had been responsible for generally overseeing books coverage in a couple of newspapers I had served as a senior editor. I had been a reader of reviews -- both scholarly and journalistic -- most of my life. I had little coherent idea of what really should be done. Looking around and asking, I found nobody else seemed to have very firm ideas either.

So I spent several weeks reading as many book review pages, sections and publications as I could get my hands on. I talked in varying degrees of intensity and complexity with about 150 people. They included writers, editors and marketers of books, critics and editors of criticism, scholars, proprietors and clerks in bookshops, friends and acquaintances -- and a substantial number of strangers who I saw reading books in train stations, airports and a library or two.

I kept notes, and digested and to some extent regimented them. Among my respondents' impressions, enthusiasms and criticisms there were some clear patterns and a few stunning instances of consensus. Largely on the basis of those insights, I came up with a plan that for the last five years has been the structure of these pages.

There were three almost universal conclusions -- or demands. I took them to be imperatives: Concision. Assessment. Authority.

On concision, a preponderance of the people I polled felt strongly that book reviews -- and most reviews of other things as well -- are by and large much too long. I found again and again that people, even those in the profession, would say that faced with most book reviews they would read the first three or four paragraphs and then the last two or three and then let their eyes range, for an instant, looking for something else.

As a result, I set the length of reviews there are on these pages: usually 525 words -- 700 at the most -- with an argumentative essay held to 1,250 words tops.

On assessment: Most people wanted reviews to tell them what the book does and how well it does it. They wanted to be given persuasive indications from which they could make an intelligent decision about whether to buy and read the book. Too many reviews, many of them complained, read like schoolish book reports or digests or personal essays, but did not say whether, in the reviewer's eye, the book was good or bad, responsible or boring, in serving its intended purpose.

So I included in my instructions to reviewers that they must do just that.

Authority, it rather surprised me, was the most vehement of the responses. "Who the hell," many of my 150 sources said, more or less, "is this prattler to tell me what to read or whether to like it, anyway?" People I talked to were put off -- often angrily -- by the virtual anonymity of many book reviewers. In most publications, if they are identified at all it is with some utterly meaningless condescension as "Edmund Wilson is a writer from Cape Cod," or "Jane Austen's latest novel is 'Persuasion.'"

As a result, I pledged that I would take care to choose reviewers who are genuinely and demonstrably knowledgeable in the area of the book they are to read and write about -- as well as being fine writers. I promised to publish at the end of each review little biographical statements that include essential details of why this reviewer had the credentialed authority to assess this particular book.

This goes straight to the heart of Steve Weinberg's argument. By and large, I agree with him. To a considerable extent, I hope I have been responding to that imperative by assigning book reviews on these pages to women and men whose professional and personal experience gives them very substantial grounds from which to judge the fundamental accuracy of the book.

Does this mean that every review on these pages can be taken as an indisputably authoritative assessment of the accuracy and the responsibility of the book that it looks at? Of course not. To suggest -- or assume -- that would be folly.

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