On Reviewing Books

After almost two years’ worth of posts on books and writing, it seems that I’ve gotten the cart before the horse. While I’ve talked a lot about writing and how the reader and writer see things differently on the written page, I’ve never taken the time to give my views on book reviews.
In today’s marketplace – books and otherwise – everything and everyone is shifting into hyper-marketability. Which is to say that success is generally gauged by sales volumes, and sales volumes are seen to be a direct function of marketing efforts. Marketing efforts, in their turn, are a direct function of money outlay, mostly for advertising, including the conventional print ads, but also increasingly including efforts on the Internet.
Books, then, are seen by the corporate bean-counters to be a product, their success subject only to marketability.
But how does all this affect the multitudes out there blogging book reviews? The most popular book bloggers are sent books – gratis, usually – with the caveat that they will read the books and review them, preferably in a favorable light. It didn’t take a genius to discover that additional multitudes read these blogs and in turn buy books based on the reviews. And the book companies gain this leg up on the market for the wholesale cost of a few books in the right hands. Book reviews in magazines and newspapers have always operated this way. But the ‘Net has the advantage of worldwide exposure for very little overhead cost, and for this reason, the corporate book companies are abandoning the corporate print organs for the very un-corporate Internet book blogger. I’ve not been approached to do this, but I understand that bloggers are held to limits on what they can say about books, their “book daddies” “suggesting” that they couch their opinions to dovetail with the publisher’s marketing schemes.
Have you noticed in recent years that book reviews in newspapers – and even on the ‘Net – are snow blind with blandness? That you get the gist of the book, but little more than the teaser on the book jacket’s overleaf? That books (I’m talking literary books here, more or less, not the genre stuff that writers crank out every three to six months to pay the bills) increasingly disappoint, because reading them doesn’t measure up to their hype?
Instead of betting on marketability driven by advertising (which now includes reviews), books’ worth should be measured on their ability to provoke thought, to foster a diversity of viewpoints, to present the grander sensibilities lurking just beneath or within the story. This, then, is the role of the book review, the job of the reviewer. The reviewer’s role (and I’m shouting here) IS NOT TO SELL BOOKS, but to plumb the books’ literary depths in order to present the reader with at least a provisional sense of deeper qualities humanity can and must cling to in order to survive.
And I should add here that book reviews that serve an agenda – whether that agenda be that of political conservatism or radical feminism, of social victimization or literary Darwinism – are poison and should be avoided on the dead run. Nor are we looking for bland, politically correct prose on prose. Instead, the reviewer should be able to assess the human drama inherent in the story and at least point the way toward understanding it in terms of deeper qualities.
This is what I try to do with my reviews, and this is why some seem to be rants where no rant is superficially warranted. To that end, the best reviewers are like sheep dogs that bark those fluffy and occasionally errant beasts back onto the pathway home. I hope you'll hold me to that standard.


On Chesil Beach – Part 2

My thought last week was that that post was necessary to give the reader a feel for the influences pulling on McEwan. First, it’s a romantic story a la the earliest English novels, and it’s told in an epistolary manner, i.e. virtually all narrative. The importance of the latter point is that narrative in the modern, commercial novel is there, of course, to give scenic details, but largely to take a brief break from the intensity of close-point-of-view dialogue passages. McEwan, in his most recent novels, including this one, evokes this sense of seventeenth and eighteenth century narrators, who are as much a part of the story as the direct characters. But he doesn’t bring his narrators into a sufficiently sharp focus to accomplish that. On the other hand, in On Chesil Beach, he couldn’t have portrayed Florence and Edward’s interiors this well through dialogue while placing them within the larger context of a sea change in Western culture’s Sixties metamorphosis.
His purpose is clearly not to affect change in his culture, as the English novel’s middle period hoped to do. For him, it seems enough to place his characters in a setting requiring the reader to compare that time and place with today and draw his/her own conclusions, based on the psychological territory he maps of both Florence and Edward. In doing so, his strategy and literary ethos wanders from those of a period piece to novelistic modernity.
In his treatment, McEwan does modernity justice by wandering back and forth through the story’s part-of-one-day timeline to provide backstory and the past histories that quickly doom Florence’s and Edward’s marriage. Only at the story’s end does he allow linear time, and even then he leaps vertiginously from that singular early evening of 1962 to the present time.
Some readers may see this book as a broadside on another English chestnut – repressed sexuality. McEwan allows Florence and Edward to react to an unsatisfactory wedding night consummation in opposite ways – ways that never lead either to a fully fleshed life. It’s true that he teases the reader with this repression. However, the point McEwan seems to be making is deeper: the realities of ordinary life always trump the romantic illusions upon which both individual life and – in this case, British society – are/have been built. As this reality rears its sometimes-ugly head, personal and societal decay may occur if one or both fail to adapt to mature from dreamtime to eyes-wide-open life.
Some may complain that McEwan is advocating the sexual freedom characteristic of the late Sixties in this novel, a freedom that has developed more than its share of warts over then last half-century. But he seems to imply something broader – that even this tainted freedom is to be preferred to the inner repressiveness that has historically led individuals to fey lives and fatally damaged psyches.
Christopher Hitchens, in his review of On Chesil Beach in the July/August 2007 issue of The Atlantic, seems convinced that McEwan navigates a parallel course in this book: that of personal might-have-beens as minuscule sores on a continually declining British Empire.
Once again, McEwan’s grasp is more far-reaching. He is clearly aware of his place in the English novel’s lineage, even to the point of, as Hitchens points out, creating a grammatically awkward opening for his story, an opening symbolic of the story’s totality. He knows the English novel’s evolution, and he delineates it in obvious but fluid fashion in the writing of On Chesil Beach. For this reason, Ian McEwan deserves the title the London Sunday Times has recently foisted off on him as “our national writer.”
My complaints? Only two, and they are minor. First, the story ends as Edward’s, with scarcely a mention of Florence and her seemingly impaired future life. And the author seems all too gleeful in his portrayal on this young pair’s sexual awkwardness. It’s as though he has lived this awkwardness, or has seen it in overwhelming fashion about him, thankful that it has passed into history.
To have accomplished all of the above in such a concise manner isn’t easy. Too, McEwan is breathing new life into the novella, a task literary writing has dearly needed, and On Chesil Beach is testimony to his ability to shape the prose of future generations even as he settles comfortably into its present state of affairs.

On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwen – Part 1

It may seem ironic to a reader that a book review would dwell in great depth on such a short book, but that’s what I propose to do over the next two posts. My reason for doing so is only in part due to the reading public’s growing fascination with McEwen’s prose. For me, it goes further: when a writer gets so many things right in such a short novel, these things deserve to be mentioned in some detail.
First, a bit about the story line: It is 1962, and Florence Ponting and Edward Mayhew have just been married. They are anticipating its physical consummation in a polar manner. Neither has any sexual experience, both virgins. Florence dreads the nakedness, the entry of her body by the alien organ of another, even if by the man she loves. Edward, by contrast, is conflicted about his sexual initiation. He has been “saving himself” for a year, eager to satisfy his physical yearning for Flo, but he hardly knows how to go about it. Dread is part of his equation, too, but only in the level of performance expected of him.
Sexual tension grabs one’s attention in a novel as in with real life, but it’s rare to extend such a sequence of moments for some 40,000 words in a novel. Where is McEwen coming from in writing this book? Is it personal indulgence? Pandering to the public’s eternal interest in sex, whether that interest be one of attraction or repulsion? It may be edifying to place McEwen’s work in the context of England’s literary history.
As the novel first evolved in England, we find novelists such as Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and Laurence Sterne writing novels preoccupied with courtship, love, and marriage. These amatory tales, while different in social perspective, tend to portray life naively, to provide happy endings that reaffirm the existing social conventions.
In Europe, on the other hand, writers such as Balzac, Zola, and later Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, were already navigating the psychological fabric of individuals and society and proclaiming the consequent ills to the reading public. Such innovation couldn’t be ignored forever in England, and Walter Scott and Jane Austen began presenting the characters’ personal stories in the larger context of societies undergoing upheavals related to class differences and inequities. Still, Scott’s and Austen’s novels were pragmatic messages of social regeneration, i.e., what must be done to stabilize the existing order.
This began to change with Thackeray and Dickens, and the public’s response signaled that English society was ready to respond to their social portrayals. With Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad, the picture of a fractured society gained clarity, and D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf took it a step further, portraying the manner in which these social rifts appeared in the private world of their characters.
I’m leaping here, but this brings us to modern English writers, McEwen being, arguably perhaps, the singular example of what can be called postmodern fiction, its multiple points of view, its ambiguity regarding authorship, is non-linear approach to characters’ though and with time itself. He has a way in previous books of looking back at the twentieth century, simply to portray that time as a contrast to today, a time when a composite society is de rigueur. With that, I’ll leave things hanging, and hope you read the book between now and the next post.

Heyday, by Kurt Andersen

There’s a marked lack of interest in fiction today. By that I mean the sort of realistically imagined story that – if I may be granted momentary use of a literary cliché – tells the lie to reveal the greater truth. Readers, as well as TV viewers, are more interested in – and here I use the term loosely – reality. For that reason, fiction writers, especially the newbie writers, have had to turn to fiction that is significantly based in historical reality.
This doesn’t mean that fiction is in serious decline. There’s much to gain from historically based fiction: exposure to historical eras you’ve let slip by. Perspective on that history, those eras, i.e., what those eras mean to us in the present. And often, exposure to the fictional styles of those eras, as writers update and simulate the period literature.
Which brings me to Heyday. Andersen, a columnist and critic based in New York, gives us in this 620-page book the story of fictional characters wandering through the 1840s in Europe and the U.S. – and I do mean wandering. Andersen’s choice of this era was a good one. The Industrial Revolution was hitting its stride in Europe amid revolution and counter-revolution. The U.S. was pushing past the Mississippi, the era almost equidistant from the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Clearly, there is much in the history of this era for Americans to understand. Technology was coming to the fore. The Indians and the buffalo were being slaughtered to make room for massive white migration west – and above all – for the great land and gold rushes of that era.
Having selected fertile historical ground, Andersen toys with clichéd characterization to bring this era to life. A rich, rebellious Brit, bent on bettering his father’s success, this time in the U.S. A pair of good-hearted hookers. An alcoholic American libertine, whose role is to explain life in the United States to all who will listen. A nebulously drawn villain, unreasonably obsessed with following the Brit to the ends of the earth to avenge a killing.
These characters don’t do justice to the potential stories to be drawn from that era, but that’s not my main objection to the book – all writers must grow while in the traces, and Andersen shows potential in orchestrating complex fictional tales similarly to those of Heyday’s era. My concern is a marked lack of focus in how these characters fit into and are affected by this era. Failing to achieve such focus fails to allow the reader to empathize completely with both story and character, which ends in failure for both writer and reader.
To wit: If Andersen’s focus were on Europe’s revolutions, what purpose did they serve for Americans, the U.S. being the story’s primary scenic territory? If the book was intended to inveigh against the barbarity of the U.S.’s adolescent years, why don’t we feel more affected by the characters’ journeys across its geography? If the purpose was to show that history constantly recycles, why don’t we get a stronger sense of its inevitability in this story? It’s clear from the cover blurb that the main marketing impetus of Heyday is to show how much the 1840’s looked like the early 2000s, as if another version of “I’m okay, you’re okay.” Which should set me off on a siege of how literary amorality (read: how life’s hard lessons are passed off as “ah, well, such is life,” if not as outright victimization) is demeaning to fiction and the reasons why we read it, but I won’t go there for now.
And there are other nettling issues in Heyday: the book begins as if miming Dickensian fiction stylistically, but ends as if the writer were punching out TV drama. Many historical characters are introduced for little apparent purpose within the story, except that they figured in the era. Most memorable is a constantly farting Charles Darwin.
Too, the book is overlong and not building toward climax. I found myself rushing to the end, no longer savoring story and writing. This I blame on both agent and editor more than author.
In the end, I’m glad I read it for Anderson’s scholarship on this era, and for his descriptive narrative of places during this time. But I won’t be waiting on the edge of my recliner for his next 600-page tome.