The Purpose of the Book Reviewer

by Salvatore Pane

I’m writing a panel proposal for AWP in 2011, and the subject is the book review in a post book blogger era. There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s all I’ll go into detail for now as it’s fairly likely the panel will be rejected (do you know the odds on these things? Yikes.).

Regardless, I’ve been thinking about the book review a lot, and today I came across a wonderful essay on The Rumpus that springboards out of David Goodwillie’s novel American Subversive. Reviewer Eric B. Martin tries to address the purpose of reviews of any non-blockbuster book ala Solar or Joyce Carol Oates or what have you. Martin writes:

The point is that, if we think literature is still worth talking about, every book is part of that debate, which is why reviews of non-blockbuster books should do one of two things: either convincingly shout to the hilltops, “Read this book!” or, in explaining why there’s no shouting, try to find larger truths about literature in a book’s strengths and flaws. Real reviews should be essays—not gladiator thumbs-up/thumbs-down, not stroke jobs or hack jobs on the writers themselves. And that’s the point, a point easily forgotten amidst what it takes to break through the noise in today’s literary marketplace: Literature is not about the writer. It’s about the book, it’s about art, it’s about life. (Martin)

I know there are many, many people who would vehemently disagree with this statement, that the very nature of Martin’s assessment could potentially lead to completely superfluous reviews that give everything a pass, thereby making the “book reviewer” totally irrelevant (if they aren’t already) in an age of new media and linkable books on people’s Facebook profiles. I, however, think Martin makes a lot of sense. After reading his essay (Rumpus is branding it as a review, but I’m not totally sold on that either), I skimmed through the reviews I’ve written for BOMB and PANK. I gave everything a favorable review, even books I didn’t think were very good. Does that make me an untrustworthy reviewer or a champion of what Martin dubs “non-blockbuster books”?

I’d like to think it’s some form of the latter. I’ve always felt ethically compelled while writing reviews to highlight what works about a book, even if the overall effect of the book is flawed in some critical way. In many ways, I’ve been lucky. I’ve genuinely loved the vast majority of books I’ve chosen or been given to review. But it’s been ingrained in me that for some of these small press books, my review might be the only one they get. Can I ethically slam a book that I know won’t be covered elsewhere? Or is it better to celebrate what little I did enjoy and make clear my concerns about the rest of the project? The idea that I even consider these things is likely problematic for some, but I think it’s at the heart of what we’re trying to do with the book review and how we envision ourselves adding to the evolving conversation of literature. If you have anything to add about this subject, please comment below. I’d love to hear other thoughts on the matter.

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