Entries in SummerBooks (29)


Updates, Updates!

And lots on books, too. SummerBooks, which has a once a month Fall/Winter/Spring presence will feature Emma Straub's Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures in September. Check next week for a new episode on the SummerBooks website. If there is a book you'd like to recommend to us, or you are connected with a press that would like us to consider one of your titles for our podcast, use the contact page on this site or email us at ilovesummerbooks@gmail.com.

Speaking of SummerBooks, my co-host Natalie and I will be attending the Kentucky Women Writers Conference as participants and presenting at the Winter Wheat Writing Conference.

There are new reviews online at Los Angeles Review, so be sure to check those out. I'm due to look at a book of poems for the print journal and a collection of short stories for the web edition, so look for those in forthcoming announcements or on the LAR website.



Let’s Go Crazy: Reviewing Book Reviewing

Lately I feel like I live in a meta-world, with several recent articles about the state of book reviewing, stemming from a Slate article by Jacob Silverman. Silverman’s lament for the state of book reviewing managed to rail against the social media efforts of authors whose recent book he had not read. She and others in the literary community were admonished for being too nice.

And so began the discussion of reviewing the book review. Strangely, most of what I’ve read doesn’t seem to define what the book review actually is, which I find important and lacking in the discussion. Book review and book criticism have been conflated, but I see them as separate disciplines. Sure, there’s overlap. A review, often constrained by word count, is a general survey of the book—the overview of the book’s project. Criticism expands this survey into an act of analyzing and evaluating. Criticism allows for a lengthier discussion, and is often but not always relegated to those in the academy, in journals specializing in criticism. A few more popular places exist for criticism, but the time, space and tenor of most discussion of books tends more towards review and less towards criticism.

I have reviewed books in a variety of publications, with word counts ranging from 75-500 words. Even the lengthy reviews are not exhaustive, and so I approach the work with the general survey in mind. I try to express what the book’s project is, and give a bit of context so that a reader may decide if she’d like to pick up a copy and read it, or choose something else. I don’t have the space to give a full analysis or evaluation. My guess is that readers come to these reviews looking for books they may enjoy, and use what I’ve written to gauge their own reaction. I see my job, in this context, is to help inform a reader as to what’s out there, and what the book’s project is. In a lot of ways, the review isn’t about my particular read—I leave my ego out of it and meet the book on its terms. I would say that these reviews tend toward the positive; and as a reviewer I’m okay with showing a few of the best aspects of a book in my 200 word summations.

Criticism, in my view, requires a larger space in terms of what the critic can say. The critic should have the time and space to explore larger themes, larger aspects of style, tone, and voice, as well as a sense of the book’s place within a tradition. It is less compact, and relies on a larger conversation about literature, the context of many other books. Certainly this kind of work has a place, but its place is quite different than the review. People looking for a critical context most likely represent a smaller and different audience than the audience for a review.

Perhaps I’m parsing too much, but I have to think that a discussion is better with more defined terms. If so many people are doing it wrong, it is instructive to get down to exactly what “it” is.

I also think that the idea of literary community has been conflated into the discussion of book reviewing and criticism, making a soupy mess of the matter. Social media, for better or worse, enables discussion, and in our case, a discussion of books and literature. If the critic feels his voice is lost among this discussion, that’s a different argument than taking to task reviewing and/or criticism. Let’s be clear as to what we’re talking about.

Along with a friend and fellow writer, Natalie Sypolt, I have a quirky podcast called SummerBooks, where we discuss the books we’re reading together. I wouldn’t call SummerBooks lit-crit. I would call it book discussion by writers interested in writing—writing we’re drawn to and want to read. I just don’t want to spend time talking about a book just to take it to task. If someone else wants to do this work, more power to them. Ours is much more in the spirit of community building--that's what were doing with our time and energy. It’s a conversation—and only one of many. People opt to listen or don’t. I have a feeling that SummerBooks would get lumped into those activities that Silverman addresses in his Slate piece as having a chilling effect on literary culture. He’s entitled to that opinion—and that’s what it is, opinion. A critic can lament that his point of view may get lost among the chatter. That literature and literary concerns get chatter is a small miracle. Books are up against a lot of other media and entertainment and art for attention. Film and television get much more attention. Perhaps we should be thankful that there are enough people out there reading books to have chatter.

Consider the 2007 NEA report on reading. “On average, Americans ages 15 to 24 spend almost two hours a day watching TV, and only seven minutes of their daily leisure time on reading.”

Perhaps that’s a more important aspect to take to task—how marginalized reading is in the culture at large. If people aren't reading from ages 15-24, are they suddenly reading more as they continue through adulthood? I can't answer that. I do think that being too erudite can turn off potential readers. So perhaps the community building is the most important aspect. Its worth thinking about.

And yes, the writing-reviewing-criticism-community building aspects of the book culture is rather small, and over-lapping. That’s why growing the book culture is a good thing. Why not make it bigger, making the book a more viable aspect of our overall culture?

I don’t mean to undermine the role of the critic, but I also think it’s prudent to acknowledge that we all care about books and that there is room for different ways to care about books. Goodreads, the social networking site dedicated to reading, was taken to task for contributing to the literary love fest. Does the critic really think what he does is the same as what Goodreads aims to do? Goodreads allows readers to interact with books in the way they choose. The whole point is that there will be many voices.

There’s also no authority-granting entity in the world of book criticism (or reviewing, for that matter)—no equivalent to the CPA or bar exams to practice accounting and law. The publications decide whose voices they choose to publish, and readers decide which publications to read. It’s not a black and white system of you’re approved or you’re not worthy. Technology deomocratizes the disucssions about books further.

After reading various articles and blogs, talking with friends and colleagues, I’ve decided I’m comfortable with where I’m situated in the literary community and I’ll probably just continue doing what I’m doing—which is for the love of both reading and writing. If that’s wrong, well, it won’t be the first time—or the last.


SummerBooks: Rose Metal Press edition

This week on my literary podcast, co-hosted with Natalie Sypolt, we feature two books from indie publisher Rose Metal Press. Check us out at summerbooks.podbean.com


Los Angeles Review

Although I took a hiatus in July from book reviewing for LA Review, please check out the newest additions to the book reviews site.

With the West Virginia Writers' Workshop, ABT training, teaching at PYB and keeping up with SummerBooks, July got slam-packed for me. But I'm happy to send along this link to the LA Review, in hopes you find just the book you want to read.


SummerBooks returns Friday 8/03

Check out a new podcast on iTunes or via the SummerBooks site. Our next selection is Ann Patchett's The Getaway Car.