on book reviewing
       thomas christensen   right reading news service

homeward bound



Against Reviewing

"A critic is someone who enters the battlefield after the war is over and shoots the wounded."
      —Murray Kempton

"Book reviewing is the slum of American letters."
      —Guy Davenport

I began reviewing in the 1980s, and some years I wrote a fair number of reviews (mostly, as the list below shows, of books worth knowing about). I was a member of the National Society of Book Critics and the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association. As a publilsher I also issued several volumes of film reviews by the National Society of Film Critics. But at some point I became disillusioned with reviewing and reduced both my writing of reviews and my participation in reviewers' groups.

Reviewers have an important role to play in the literary marketplace but only a few do the job really well. Ideally, a review should contextualize, describe, and deconstruct the work. Judgment and evaluation only have meaning if the reviewer brings something substantive to the task. The best reviewers are able to articulate a coherent and consistent point of view over time, which enables the reader to rely on the review as a source of information and opinion. A small number of readers shared Pauline Kael's exact tastes, but a large number got to know her enthusiasms and enjoyed her takes on the films she wrote about.

Today there are not many reviewers who are producing work that is meaningful. Most operate as offshoots of the international entertainment corporations' publicity networks. As a publisher I knew that one reason to take care with catalogue, jacket, and press release copy was that it would quite often be parroted back in the form of book reviews, sometimes word for word. Lazy reviewers would lift ideas, phrases, and entire paragraphs, presenting them as their own thoughts and words.

Others subscribe to the solipsistic "shallow opinions" school of reviewing. To them, the very most important thing about any work is whether they liked it, and so they point, seemingly randomly, to some things that struck their fancy or turned them off. Frequently these judgments are uninformed and inconsistent. So now, as a reader of the reviews, I know that Mary in the Chronicle like the book but John in the Times didn't--and not a lot else.

Some reviewers, perhaps under pressure from their editors or aspiring to be promoted to film reviewer or TV critic, view the review as a form of entertainment. Then, to their basic "I sort of liked it" thesis, the reviewer adds a succession of snide witticisms and catty comments in order to jazz up the review. That might get you through to lunchtime, but a steady diet of it becomes monotonous, so once or twice a week fawning reviews tout the current literary star's latest work. (Besides, the reviewer wants to mingle with the gliterati at parties.)

Most positive reviews adhere quite closely to a familiar template. Seven or eight enthusiastic paragraphs hail the book's content and style, followed by a few crisp criticisms (to show that the reviewer is exercising critical capacities), to be succeeded in turn by a remark along the lines of "but these are minor flaws that do not detract from the author's real achievement," which leads finally into the big bombastic finish in which readers are exhorted to rush to the store to buy the same book that everyone else is reading. Someone should publish a magazine made up of publishers' press releases. Not many reviewers would be missed. Of course, in that case every book would be "compelling" and "luminous."

A Selection of My Reviews

Right now most of the links are to reviews on the San Francisco Chronicle website, but I am starting at one point I intended to put up links to my own pages. The list is far from complete. Reviews are mostly of contemporary American or world literature.

Allende, Isabel, Eva Luna
Amado, Jorge, Captains of the Sands
Arrabal, Fernando, The Tower Struck by Lightning

Bartram, William, writings
Bioy Casares, Adolfo, The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata
Bioy Casares, Adolfo, The Dream of Heroes and A Plan for Escape
Browning, Peter ed., John Muir in His Own Words
Burns, E. Bradford, Eadweard Muybridge in Guatemala

Cabrera Infante, Guillermo, Infante's Inferno
Calvino, Italo, Six Memos for the Next Millennium
Calvino, Italo, Under the Jaguar Sun
Calvino, Italo, Why Read the Classics?
Carpentier, Alejo, The Chase
Cortázar, Julio, A Certain Lucas
Cortázar, Julio, Final Exam

Dana, Robert, Against the Grain: Interviews with Maverick American Publishers
del Paso, Fernando, Palinuro of Mexico
Dorfman, Ariel, Mascara

Esquivel, Laura, The Law of Love
Evita [Peron], In My Own Words

Fuentes, Carlos, The Orange Tree

Gaines, Susan, Carbon Dreams
Galeano, Eduardo, The Book of Embraces
Galeano, Eduardo, Memory of Fire: Century of the Wind
García Márquez, Gabriel, The General in His Labyrinth and Collected Novelas
García Márquez, Gabriel, Notes from a Kidnapping
Garfield, Evelyn Picon, Women's Voices from Latin America
Goldman, Francisco, The Ordinary Seaman
Gordon, Karen Elizabeth, Intimate Apparel
Goytisolo, Juan, Realms of Strife: The Memoirs of Juan Goytisolo, 1957-1982
Gray, Rockwell, The Imperative of Modernity

Hillerman, Tony, Sacred Clowns
Hyde, Lewis, Trickster Makes This World

Kirsch, Jonathan, King David

LaDuke, Betty, Compañeras: Women, Art, and Change in Latin America
Laughlin, James, This Is My Blood
Lawrence, Starling, Legacies
Lawrence, Starling, Montenegro
Lispector, Clarice, The Hour of the Star and The Foreign Legion

Manguel, Alberto, Other Fires: Short Fiction by Latin American Women
Martinez, Tomás Eloy, Santa Evita
Matthiessen, Peter, Lost Man's River
Muir, John, Travels in Alaska and The Yosemite

Ortiz, Alicia Dujovne, Eva Peron

Pavic, Milorad, The Dictionary of the Khazars
Pavic, Milorad, Landscape Painted with Tea
Paz, Octavio, The Double Flame
Perec, Georges, Things: A Story of the Sixties and A Man Asleep
Perec, Georges, A Void

Posse, Abel, Daimon
Posse, Abel, The Dogs of Paradise

Ribeiro, Joao Ubaldo, An Invincible Memory

Sanchez, Marta Ester, Contemporary Chicano Poetry
Shattuck, Roger, The Innocent Eye
Simon, Claude, Conducting Bodies
Stegner, Wallace, Two Rivers

Taibo II, Paco Ignacio, Some Clouds
Themerson, Stefan, The Mystery of the Sardine
Thomas, Hugh, Conquest
Thornton, Lawrence, Tales from the Blue Archives
Timmerman, Jacobo, Cuba

Updike, John, Brazil

Valenzuela, Luisa, Open Door
Vargas Llosa, Mario, The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and Madame Bovary
Vargas Llosa, Mario, Making Waves
Vargas Llosa, Mario, The Storyteller
Vargas Llosa, Mario, Who Killed Palomino Molero?
Vazquez, Jr., Diego, Growing Through the Ugly
Véa, Alfredo, La Maravilla

Winton, Tim, Cloudstreet


Go to list of books reviewed.

See my review of Gail Pool's Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America.

American trash is mostly paper
(source: www.healthgoods.com)




top of page