Friday 14 January 2011

Reading about writing about reading

Book reviews are one of my favourite kinds of reading matter. I read reviews for books I've read, books I plan to read, books I'll probably never read.

I spent a lovely afternoon on a couch during my holiday on a rainy Hamilton day, browsing reviews from a stack of London Review of Books. I love the LRB, TLS and New Yorker for reviews that don't simply recap the plot and tell you whether the reviewer liked the book. Instead, they use the book/s as a starting place for the reviewer's own piece of work - an essay that stands alone, regardless of whether you ever read the book in question.

The Guardian and the New York Times book sections are two of the places I visit most frequently online. The Times in particular provided me with hours of enjoyment over the break. And the review I enjoyed the most was Dwight Garner's piece on Annie Proulx's Bird Cloud, her account of building a home on a parcel of land in Wyoming.

At first, I wasn't sold on Garner's angel and devil approach:

There are two ways to describe Annie Proulx’s memoir, “Bird Cloud” ...
The angel on my right shoulder suggests something like this: “Bird Cloud” is a mildly animated and knotty book about displacement and loss, about a late-life longing to carve out a place that’s truly one’s own. Ms. Proulx, who is in her mid-70s, finds that longing frustrated at almost every turn. Admirers of her fiction will find much of this memoir to be not uninteresting.

The devil on my left shoulder whispers this: “Bird Cloud” is an especially off-putting book about a wealthy and imperious writer who annoys the local residents (she runs off their cows), overwrites about nature and believes people will sympathize with her about the bummers involved in getting her Japanese soaking tub, tatami-mat exercise area, Mexican talavera sink and Brazilian floor tiles installed just so.
But as I read on, I realised this was quite a special piece. It's easy to ridicule a book you hate or find risible, or gush about a book that impresses you. It's harder to steer a middle course that isn't a middle course - to describe what you admire and what fails to impress you, and why, and then take a stance. Which is what Garner does here.

It turns out I'm not the only person to be impressed. Both Ian Crouch on the New Yorker's book blog and Timothy Noah on Slate wrote their own pieces about Garner's review, both noting how Garner turned the review into an opportunity to show the reader the reviewer's job.

And what is the reviewer's job? Well, that's a vexed question, which the Times' Why Criticism Matters' recruited six critics to answer.

My favourite response came from book critic Sam Anderson:

The membrane between criticism and art has always been permeable. That’s one of the exciting things that books do: they talk to other books.

The critic’s job is to help amplify that conversation. We make the whispered parts of it audible; we translate the coded parts into everyday language. But critics also participate actively in that conversation. We put authors who might never have spoken in touch with each other, thereby redefining both. We add our own idiosyncratic life experiences and opinions and modes of expression — and in doing so, fundamentally change the texts themselves. Balzac’s “Sarrasine” is a new book, or set of books, now that Barthes has written “S/Z.”  “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” is radically redefined by Hugh Kenner’s “Dublin’s Joyce.” Updike’s career is a different thing in the wake of Nicholson Baker’s “U and I.” Catullus is a different poet after Anne Carson’s “Nox.” In the grand game of intertextuality — which is, after all, the dominant and defining game of the Internet era — critics are not just referees: they’re equal players.

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