By and large, I enjoy reading and writing book reviews. And I’ve mentioned before about my chat with a friend about the purpose of book reviews wherein he offered the following description of the reviewer’s task:
To help the writers know they are understood and appreciated without too much attention to their mistakes, to help the readers know whether or not it is for them, to identify one or two critical issues worth discussing along the way, and to ease the conscience of the reviewer about all the free books s/he has acquired through this means, not all of which were ever read.
I still like my friend’s ‘reviewer job description’ and, as a rule, it represents what I hope to do when I’m reviewing a book. During a recent binge with Updike (now there’s a reviewer!), my antennae were re-alerted to my responsibility as a reviewer to engage critically with the text/s under my surveillance, to dwell longer – though not for too long – in those somewhat less salutary spaces (whether they be factual or editorial) within the book’s covers, particularly when the book is otherwise especially praiseworthy, or when the author is a friend. By neglecting such a task, it seems to me that reviewer’s are doing neither the author nor the reader a favour, are abrogating an important responsibility, and are left feeling like the bookseller’s unpaid serf who has sold short the book’s author, publisher (good publishers and editors do care about this kind of thing), readers, and the reviewer’s own academic credibility (not that I hold the latter too tightly anyway).
If reviewing doesn’t act as a gate-keeper of sorts, the success of a book will come down only to the size of its publicity budget and the enthusiasm of its publishers’ tweets.
Of course, gate-keepers worthy of hire will be those who are cognisant of, and honest about, the limits of their knowledge; but they will endeavour to humbly keep gate, which is, I’m assuming, a somewhat different job to being a tourist guide, or to being an author’s, publisher’s, or bookseller’s hooker. Gate-keepers worthy of hire will certainly be those who, in Stephen Burn‘s words, talk less ‘about themselves, spinning reviews out of their charming memories or using the book under review as little more than a platform to promote themselves and their agendas’. They will also be those who will, and that as best they can, tell the truth like Presbyterians; i.e., decently and in order.