Interesting article on book reviews
“I never read a book I must review,” quipped Oscar Wilde, “It prejudices you so.” Aggrieved authors everywhere nod their heads in knowing, useless triumph. For who but a reviewer pledged to willful Wildean ignorance could have decided, asThe Saturday Review once did, that The Great Gatsby is “an absurd story,” suggesting that “Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald deserves a good shaking.” The rebuke might have sent old Scott to shaking another highball or three, though it won’t find many defenders today.
Tolstoy, too, must have been perplexed to learn, upon opening The Odessa Courier one afternoon, that Anna Karenina was “sentimental rubbish.” Or imagine Walker Percy’s surprise, not to mention dismay, when The New Yorker said of his novel The Moviegoer, which would go on to win the National Book Award: “Mr. Percy’s prose needs oil and a good checkup.” Meanwhile, across the street, The New York Times proclaimed Percy “a breathtakingly brilliant writer,” declaring The Moviegoer “believable and moving.”
The conspiracy-minded might suspect that Percy’s publisher bought a bigger ad in the Times, putting its foot on the scale. But though no human enterprise operates in a vacuum wholly absent quid pro quo, decent publications don’t do naked bartering like that anymore—though it was rampant up through the glory days of Hearst. Individual reviewers occasionally have scores to settle—or more often debts of gratitude to repay—but it’s a safe bet that the divergent opinions of The Moviegoer were held in earnest by their reviewers.
So what is the well-intentioned reader to do? What is a book review anyway? Who is it for? How much does it have to do with the book that inspired it in the first place—its ostensible raison d’etre?
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