Via Fuse #8 (and sometime maybe she’ll explain to us what Fuse #8 means) an interesting essay on the art of the book review by Brian Doyle who is the editor of Portland Magazine. This essay itself is written in a grandiose, generous voice by somebody who can poke fun at himself:
… or meeting a writer of startling grace and power whose stories stitch and braid into your heart — a Helen Garner, a Haruki Murakami. Or meeting again, with a shiver of warm recognition, writers who mattered to you once and who leap right back to the top of that teetering pile of books on your bedside table: Willa Cather, Robert Louis Stevenson, George Orwell, Eudora Welty. Or, another grinning low pleasure, reading a review and recognizing that brassy pub-argument voice, cocksure about writerly rankings — a voice I drift into myself, I confess, when I insist, banging my tankard, that Twain is the greatest of all American writers, and Bellow the greatest of modern ones, and Stevenson the most broadly masterful of all.
On the best of the genre:
And it is a form with masters, like John Updike (whose book reviews are literary essays of exquisite grace and erudition, far more interesting and pithy than his novels, with far less neurotic, lusty misadventure) or Christopher Hitchens (whose reviews are energetic, opinionated, bristly, tart and often hilarious), or James Wood (who is almost always startlingly perceptive and who, bless his heart, coined the happy phrase “hysterical realism” to describe much modern fiction).
And the not-so-wonderful:
And like any form it has its charlatans and mountebanks; what is more entertaining, among the dark pleasures of reading a newspaper, than realizing that the reviewer has not actually read the book in question, and is committing fizzy sleight-of-hand? Or reading a review that is utterly self-indulgently about the reviewer, not the book? Or a review that is trying desperately to be polite about a book with as many flaws as the New York Knicks? Or reading a reviewer, like Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times, who must spend hours every day sharpening razors with which to eviscerate the books she reviews, and has liked, as far as I remember, only two books in the history of the universe, Ian McEwan’s “Saturday” and Richard Flanagan’s “Gould’s Book of Fish”?
My one quibble here is that I do not consider it a pleasure of any kind to realize that a reviewer hasn’t read the book — especially as this has happened to me personally (and by somebody reviewing for a paper in Oregon, by coincidence). My reaction had more to do with disgust and anger.
The article will disappear at some point into the pay-for-view archives, so read it while it’s hot.