Some Thoughts On Book Reviews

Posted by @ 4:25 pm on August 6th, 2010

Today I have been thinking about book reviews as tentacles of the book being reviewed, as an extension of the book, an addition to it. Like a book is a blog post and a review is the comment stream. Each blog post shares a symbiotic (parasitic?) relationship with its comment stream – unless, of course, you disable the comment stream, in which case you disallow the formation of direct extensions — of course someone could always do their own blog post linking to your post thereby forming an extension at their own site. In a way, thinking this way calls into question the notion of authorial sovereignty, which is to say: according to an older type of model, I write a book and therefore I am the author and I control the object — whereas in a newer type of model, if I write a book (or a blog post) the reviews (or the comment stream) can easily overtake the book (blog post) thereby pushing my role into the background and replacing it with whatever creation those extraneous appendages (comment streams) create, which is to say that my authority over the text gets taken out of my hands. But that’s not really where I want to go with this post. I don’t want to argue that a book review can somehow surpass the book being reviewed, because the whole reason I got on this mental pathway is because I have recently read a few book reviews that I thought were stand out pieces of literature in their own right – not better than the work being reviewed, but on par with it, as if the review was in some ways a productive extension of the book, a part of the book written by someone else…

Book reviews as extensions of the book: a review = a room with a door leading to the book. Perhaps some book reviews have multiple doors, one leading to the book, another leading to another review or to an interview with the author, a blog post about the book, an advertisement on a website or in a magazine, a phone conversation, a gchat, a video. The point is their interconnectivity.

Now I’m thinking about the orbit of a book. How a book is both a singular unified object and a multiplicity of objects, a fluidity, capable of being added to by criticism or praise, advertisement, word of mouth. Part of what makes a book bigger than itself is the hype surrounding it, the community surrounding it, the intensity of its collective magnitude. A book by itself is a tiny thing, a quiet, meek, emaciated, fledgling. A book with multiple reviews, that precipitates conversation, that appears on the sides of buildings in the form of stickers, that gets mentioned on a television show, that gets taught in a classroom, becomes bigger, grows larger, more massive. In this way, it’s hard to see how the review cannot be seen as part of the book, in that these extensions can help to make the book become the book. I suppose I am suggesting that in order for a book to become itself it needs to have multiple authors, multiple appendages, more voices than the one it creates.

You know the old adage: “If a tree falls in a forest…” well, this is sort of my point: if a book is written in America and no one is there to talk about it, does it make a sound? In other words, if a book is written in America and it gets no critical attention, no feedback, no buzz, no press, only silence, then is it even a book? Perhaps the very creation of a book — or, rather, the publication of a book — is the creation of the possibility of it someday becoming a book, given that someday someone somewhere may come across it and write about it, therefore triggering its full existence. But a book by itself, with no accompaniment, with no other voices attached to it, seems not like a book but more like a diary. Probably part of this train of thought arises from my own anxiety about the need for reviews, the need for buzz, the fear of failure should my own book go unnoticed. It reminds me of this really brilliant answer J.A. Tyler once gave when asked “What’s the worst thing someone has ever said about one of your artistic endeavors?” — he said:

For me, it is more about what people don’t say. You mail them a book and never hear back. You shoot them a pdf of a manuscript and no comments are returned. You ask for blurb and silence prevails. You give modest-acclaim for a press or a new novel or a publication, and no words are said back. This to me is the greatest form of devious, devilish remark. To say nothing about a literary work is, to me, to say everything negative, all at once, in the loudest voice possible. To say nothing is to say that this is bad, beyond bad, so bad that nothing in fact can be said about it. We try to tell ourselves no, don’t worry about it, the email was dropped, the mail was lost, the conversation was forgotten. It wasn’t. No no. Their silence means they hated it, they loathed it, they were disgusted by your words. Enjoy the silence is what I am saying, because it will ring in your ears forever.

Silence as the negation of existence.

Maybe it’s my cold medicine talking, or that I’m improvising here and probably all over the place, I can’t be sure. (I just finished teaching a particularly intense summer session and my brain is pretty fried.) But what I am sure of is that there are examples of book reviews that are more than book reviews, that are pleasurable to read as standalone works of literature and as extensions of the works they are reviewing. Along with Tyler Moore’s recent epistolary response to Mooney, David Rylance’s extraordinary review of Blake’s work called “The Darkest Fits of Light: on dwelling in Blake Butler’s de-compositions” is a good example. For me, Rylance’s review essay works as an extension of Blake’s books, making EVER and Scorch Atlas even bigger than they were before I read David’s addition. Does this mean Blake’s books weren’t books until David wrote his review essay? No, of course not — it had already been activated: other people had already written about those books, while interviews, advertisements, videos, etcetera had already been created as additional amplifying appendages. What David’s review essay did was add yet another room, another door, another voice to those books, making them even larger, even louder, even more powerful than they were before.

Likewise, I think the three reviews I read recently that sparked these thoughts also make the books they are covering bigger than they were before:

“Coma: The Art of Unconsciousness”
By Stephen Barber

“Through Trickery and Sheer Luck: Sasha Fletcher’s amazing escape from his inner editor”
By Ken Sparling

“Gaga A-GoGo”
By Will Cordeiro

In closing, I wonder how or if it would change a reviewer’s habits to think about their reviews as extensions of the work being reviewed. Like if I, as a reviewer, thought of myself as, in a way, co-author. Or if I, as a reviewer, felt an obligation to make my review a worthy extension. What if there was a simple shift in perspective from thinking about writing a book review of a book to writing a book review that magnifies the book, makes the book bigger, helps to actually create the book? Would this kind of interactivity lead to more book reviews? Would more people be willing or interested in writing reviews, if they felt like they were a part of the creation?