Jolisa Gracewood interrogates the reviewer within.
“Why do I write?” the great George Orwell asked himself, and produced a typically brisk, self-lacerating answer with roots deep in his miserable childhood. Apologies to young Eric, but my “Why I review” couldn’t be less gloomy, given its origins in cheerful lunchtime book swaps on the primary school playground.
“Oh, you have to read this one!” was the catch-cry of our ad hoc autodidactic literary salon. You’re sent to school to learn how to read, but we taught ourselves what to read – and re-read. Even when our favourites were out of our hands, we could tell the stories again from start to finish, passionately and quite literally re-viewing the books. There was no distance, then, between me and the page, and me and my companions. This was close reading.
A bookish child is meant to grow up and study English, but I shied away in favour of French and Japanese (more travel, fewer essays). Of course, via classic rom-com logic, it was languages that wooed me back to literature. If dictée was like solving a cryptic crossword, I found that explication de texte was composing one, a precise, formal and surprisingly sexy operation.
Meanwhile, under the tutelage of a beloved Japanese professor, Chigusa Kimura-Steven, I learned how (and why) to take notes while reading. I made maps of the plots, charts of the characters, lists of resonant turns of phrase, held conversations in the margin with the author and with myself. And I discovered the alchemical art of translation, a transformative encounter with the source code.
I followed my nose (eternally stuck in a book) to a Japanese university, and then to the United States for a degree in comparative literature. Reinvented in the shadow of WWII, comp lit functioned as a sort of literary United Nations. Literature without borders! And literary theory unbound. Things got complicated, fast.
People love to gripe that analysing literature takes all the joy out of reading. Nonsense. I’m with Christine Smallwood, who recently observed on Twitter that “academic literary criticism is sometimes just really theoretical fan fiction.” Underneath all those footnotes lies a powerful crush on someone else’s creative spark.
Still, in grad school, commentary became the thing itself. Literature was the pretext, prized more often for its parts than the whole. We traded books because they were “productive” – useful in terms of some larger intellectual project. It was still a pleasure to read for pleasure, just a rarer one. What surprised me was the way that literary analysis took much of the joy out of writing. This was partly a question of audience: who would ever read the academic prose I laboured over? And also of voice, because what I always seemed to wind up saying was a multisyllabic, citation-heavy, theory-rich version of “Oh, you have to read this one!”
Reviewing books for the popular press (first for the New Zealand Listener, then Landfall, Metro, and a year and a half as books columnist for the independent newspaper in New Haven, Connecticut) allowed me to rediscover my own voice. It helped that book reviews are generally short.
A New Yorker writer once told me that the front-of-book restaurant review serves as the magazine’s proving ground for young hopefuls: if you can’t compress your descriptive wit into that bite-sized slot, good luck with the longer form. In a review, I had to get to the point without invoking any authority other than my own – and on deadline. It was exhilarating.
Scholarly habits die hard, though. I threw myself into my first published review – for the Listener, of an anthology of new writing by graduates of New Zealand writing programmes – with academic zeal. I combed the biographical notes for details, establishing that all but three writers had been born or lived overseas. Despite this worldliness, the focus was largely inwards and backwards; by my calculations, good old “Mum” appeared in the first paragraph of a quarter of the stories.
The collection, I concluded encouragingly, offered “useful tasting notes for the next vintage of local fiction”. A decade later, I’ve reviewed novels by three of the strongest writers from that anthology. It was a good vintage, and that first review was a coincidental but auspicious start for what became a deliberate engagement with local literature.
I also rewrote it a dozen times before sending it off – something I still do because reviewing puts the reviewer, however briefly, in the spotlight. As Martin Amis once observed, reviewers don’t paint about painting, or make a film about a film, but “when you review a prose-narrative then you write a prose-narrative about that prose-narrative.” He adds, pointedly, “those who write the secondary prose-narrative, let’s face it, must’ve once had dreams of writing the primary prose-narrative.” Ouch.
Amis’s conflation of temporal priority with prose quality is debatable; frankly, sometimes a book review is a more pleasurable or profitable read than the book it’s about. But I’m perfectly happy occupying that secondary position. As in debating, it is usually much more fun to contest than to affirm the motion: the evidence is laid out, and your job is to shape it into a form that convinces and entertains the audience. There’s an improvisatory thrill to the performance, and an art to selecting the material for your task.
I love to locate that moment in a book – and there’s always at least one – when, almost despite itself, the work describes itself. There’ll be a line or a phrase that stands slightly apart from the prose around it, like a hand-stitched sampler hanging, framed, on the wall. Such snippets can help illuminate the book as a whole. In Laurence Fearnley’s The Hut Builder, for example, the troubling opacity of the main character was crystallised for me by a lyrical passage about a white-out in a snowstorm. It’s not just a way to distil a book’s essence for potential readers, but an interesting device for putting some pressure on the book’s idea of itself .
I also like to choose my words and sculpt my sentences to echo the writer’s voice and material. When I reviewed Martha Gellhorn’s collected letters, for example, I noticed that in decades of correspondence, the fearless war correspondent hardly ever used the word “but”, instead linking her enthusiastic run-on sentences with a voluptuous cascade of “ands”. This seemed to me to say something wonderful about her, and I composed the final paragraphs of my review so as to demonstrate the effect, ventriloquising her exuberant voice.
This is much easier to do if the book has a strong effect on me, whether positive or negative. I’m too nice for out-and-out parody, like John Crace’s hilariously cruel “Digested Read” pastiches in the Guardian, but a pair of macho celebrity chef memoirs, for example, each as puff-pastry as the other, albeit with hearts of pure blancmange, called for a gentle lampooning. Ho-hum reading experiences generally make for ho-hum reviews.
Who knows if readers notice these tricks? Better if it passes unmediated into their unconscious, as with the best fiction. Mostly I do it to amuse myself. But I also want readers to enjoy the review, to read bits of it out loud to amuse someone else. It’s a secondary art, but it’s my art; like singing along with someone else’s tune, and being moved to harmonise, or to extemporise. I like to think that someone out there recognises the critic’s own voice, perhaps even seeks it out.
I’m a big fan of the protean young New York Times critic Sam Anderson, who says (in his own riff on the Amis quote above) that writing well is the source of all critical authority: “A badly written book review is worse than a badly written political speech or greeting card or poem; a badly written review is self-canceling, like a barber with a terrible haircut.” (Which is funny, and, funnily enough, a self-cancelling metaphor: what barber cuts their own hair? The coiffure-butcher to avoid is surely the barber’s barber).
Critical authority is crucial when it comes to issuing an unpopular opinion. For me, this happened with Lloyd Jones’s Hand Me Down World and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. It wasn’t that the novels weren’t beautifully written; they were. But what they proposed seemed to me at odds with what they accomplished. To my eye, there was a deep and troubling paradox at the heart of each project. A matter of taste, but in each case I was glad to be able to argue my case, and gratified to find a small but adamant group of readers who felt similarly.
The opposite happened with, of all things, Martin Amis’s ludicrous The Pregnant Widow. I should have hated it, but it entertained me. I found its stupidest twists almost endearing, and did my best to explain the unlikely chemistry that made me laugh indulgently instead of rolling my eyes. Likewise with Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, with its improbable plot, narrated in a traumatised, satirical voice that kept breaking character. It shouldn’t have worked at all, but it moved me, and again I felt less lonely hearing from others who’d had the same unexpected response.
We agree, we disagree, and then we all move on to the next book. Who ever re-reads an old review, apart from the author (well, both authors) and the odd scholar? I’m comforted by the ephemerality of the art form, even though paradoxically it was my least ephemeral review that led directly to a new, less visible line of work. Editing – call it pre-reviewing – is an even closer encounter of the close-reading kind. I love the proximity. And I watch, now, with an aunt-like eye for how “my” authors’ manuscripts fare in others’ critical hands.
Life is too short to read all the books. There’s an old grad school joke – “I haven’t read it, but I’ve read about it” – and it strikes me as the happy job of reviewers to help anyone use that line with confidence in any social situation. Meanwhile, the reviewer (or editor, or academic) gets to say to herself, “I haven’t written that. But I’ve written about it.” Why I review? Because I read. And so I, too, can write.