The subject of this essay is reviewers who write for respected publications with a wide circulation. Their audience deserves knowledge and insight; what matters is how those assets are delivered. I’m referring to approach and attitude. Reviewers must not ascend a podium and pontificate. Instead they should mingle with the crowd, all the while respecting the fact that this crowd is made up of people intelligent enough to read a book review. There’s absolutely no need for reviewers to dumb down what they have to say. On the other hand, to describe a novel as having “ontological gusto” may be appropriate in a scholarly journal, but not in the Chicago Tribune. Any barrier to communication is a mistake. Not only is accessibility a goal, but an effort should be made to entertain. Lively perspectives, humor, a personal touch and an engaging prose style are valuable attributes. Reviewers should keep it real and down to earth.
But what about “luminous,” “profound,” “mesmerizing,” “rhapsodic”?
Such books are very rare. Much rarer in the last forty years then in the previous two hundred. I don’t treat today’s major literary figures with kid gloves. They can win me over with excellence; that has happened, though infrequently. My mean-spirited reviews (and I can be hard on an author or a book — very hard indeed) are sometimes directed at time-honored classics, though a more common target are recently-published books that are praised by reviewers and receive awards. The esteem in which they’re held prompts me to take them up — or it did in the past. At this point I seldom review new work. Disaffection and anger, though invigorating emotions, are negative ones. I read for pleasure, so why waste my precious time with books that won’t, most likely, please me? It’s my belief that people who restrict their reading to what’s current are shortchanging themselves.