I’ve been trying to write a book review of Ron Currie’s Everything Matters! for the last few weeks. I’ve been trying and failing splendidly.
In fact, more than writing anything, I’ve been doing a sort of literary circuit training—pacing around my apartment and slugging absurd quantities of coffee and snarling to myself about slinging postmodern bullshit all over the page when all I was trying to do was talk about Everything Matters! which, by the way, no matter how far I stray off topic, is a really good book and you should read it. Phew, at least that’s on the record.
Guess what I’m saying is this: Why does peer review suddenly feel like a total violation?
Ever since my first novel came out a couple months back, I’ve been having a hard time seeing why I’d want to publish something that might impede another writer’s ability to find the biggest audience that she/he can. So that leaves me only a couple options:
1. Only review books I love and will therefore write glowing things about (seems sort of boring).
2. Don’t review books.
Problem is, I like book reviews. I like the dialogue they have the potential to incite; I like the idea that they help people weed through the glut of material that exists in the marketplace. We need responsible sources—publications that have proven themselves over time to be thoughtful, forthright, and fair—to inform the public about new books.
Since this all started with an attempt to discuss Currie’s Everything Matters! I decided to contact him directly, despite the fact we don’t know each other, and ask what he thought constituted a good book review.
“A review should discuss whether or not a book succeeds at what it set out to accomplish,” he said, “and then explain why it did or did not.”
I like Currie’s idea that a review should be an organic response to the narrative itself, the reviewer attempts to decode the book’s conceits, its subtext and “message.” In doing so, she/he might hopefully use direct evidence from the text to bolster an argument on the successes and failures of the author’s execution.
This was a helpful point, but because I agreed with him, my confusion morphed a bit. It isn’t that I’m against deconstructing the tactics a writer has chosen to use; my concern is more about the legacies of publishing such a discourse. I’d hate to think that my words might dissuade a potential reader from engaging with a writer’s work herself/himself.
So that was my next question to Currie: Why would one writer want to openly criticize another writer’s book?
Currie: “Often I think it manifests as professional jealousy… Writers tend also to be sophisticated and, by definition, good with words, and so are able to wrap this jealousy in the sheep’s clothing of protecting the language or standing guard at the gates of the canon.”
The obvious caveat here is that I’m asking Ron Currie, a total stranger, to comment on an abstraction, the motivation for peer review, an issue that of course has a multiplicity of answers. There are hordes of reviewers, all with different reasons and values and rules for doing what we do. So I recognize I’m asking him to comment on something he really can’t comment upon: my very personal crisis regarding peer criticism.
Currie mentions jealousy—but for me, that isn’t quite it. Certainly, I come across phrases or sentences, scenes and chapters that others have so beautifully written that I wish I’d penned. But I don’t want to “punish” the writer by lambasting her/him in a review. If anything, I want to make sure more people find out about these accomplishments by helping in any way that I can. I want there to be camaraderie among authors, peer support, not peer dissension.
Thus, my problem comes from the other side of the spectrum (I think). I’m not worried about envy, I’m worried about putting obstacles between an author and an audience. The old adage feels true to me: If I don’t have anything nice to say, I should probably just shut up. At the end of the day, what’s the point of hurtling epithets at another writer’s book?
Yes, I like to read book reviews, and in the past I’ve enjoyed writing them. Right now, though—and who knows if it will change—it feels like a violation, a petty way to throw a wrench into someone else’s artistic career. A publishing career is hard enough without people who should be on the same team wielding criticism like a weapon.
Other writers and reviewers will disagree with me—and, obviously, that’s fine. I just think it’s interesting that only since my novel has come out I do feel intimidated and ashamed and malicious at the prospect of peer review. The best reviews are neither hatchet jobs nor blow jobs—the best ones talk about a book’s strengths and weaknesses (every book has both). And after a thoughtful analysis, the readers of a review can make an informed decision about whether they want to spend the money to experience the ride for themselves. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that.
Currie gets the last word: He says that reviewers are “contributing to what should be a serious conversation about a particular book’s importance, its place, if any, in American literature. No mean task, and one that should be approached with care and fellow-feeling.”