What is the value of a book review? What is the dividing line between a review and a critique? What is the value of a book? I think for most, reviews are a means of determining the enjoyment we’ll get from a piece of art. Does this movie sound like it would interest me, or that I would enjoy watching it, or that I would be better for having watched it? Enough to justify plunking down my hard earned $15 on it? This applies to many different mediums, especially the ones we can “own” (though ownership is another conversation entirely, these days) like movies, games, music, and even books.
The fallacy here is the idea that any piece of media’s finest quality is the amount we enjoy it. I think this has been one of the big problems with video games: a game is supposed to be fun, right? Well, yes and no. There a lot of movies and books that are “good” that aren’t necessarily enjoyable. I don’t know how often people are running home to watch ‘Schindler’s List’, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a valuable work.
With pieces like this, there’s something deeper than enjoyment that we can gain from them. Perhaps they make us feel a certain emotion, or just the experience of catharsis. Perhaps they show us something about ourselves or our world, in a way we hadn’t considered before. I’ve mentioned that I think often what we look for in art is the ability to inhabit the perspective of the artist, be it photography or music.
I’ve been reading Richard Power’s book* ‘The Overstory’*. He’s good at invoking the scale and grandeur of nature in correlation to his protagonists in a way that’s not usually seen in fiction. Literary fiction on the whole seems to be trending to as intimate and personal as possible, which is sort of how I write as well.
I read an interview with him in LitHub, where he talks about trying to make art that isn’t a consumable. He doesn’t want to write books that people read and say they liked or didn’t like before moving on. Can literature be something more than just a story, just a product? I spent a while trying to figure out what he meant by this. Was he referencing myth and the oral tradition, tales that lasted centuries, meant to show us something about the world?
Back on Twitter, I had an interesting dialogue with Sam Allingham, a fiction writer whose New Yorker story I wrote about here. He was talking about the New York Times book review, which is often limited to a thousand words. The piece you’re reading is already nearly five-hundred, so what can be said about a book in a thousand? He wanted to know what these pieces were for. They’re not long enough to talk in depth about a book, what works or doesn’t about it, nor are they efficient means of marketing. So what are they there for?
I’m not sure. It seems possible to me they are a continued tradition, woven into the fabric of the identity of the paper, and unlikely to change. But there is room to change. I think reviews and criticism are at the forefront of how we talk about books, and all media. They give us the language and skills to break down the tools at play. Perhaps there is something flawed in the way we talk about books at all right now, as a product.
Of course, there’s very little consensus on what makes something good. Even deciding what works or doesn’t work is an individual process. I’m not suggesting we should try and divorce ourselves entirely from the language of like or didn’t like, or move to talking about our opinions as if objective fact. However, there’s room to change and adapt how we discuss art. A movie can be good even if it isn’t entertaining. A game can be good even if it isn’t always fun. A piece of art can be valuable even if it isn’t beautiful. And books can be more than enjoyable.