the book critic’s task as well, to alternate within the body of a text, to scrutinize the limbs of plot and characters alongside the incisions of phrase and metaphor. If the book is an organism then the reviewer’s role is to asses and diagnose. Robert Maxwell in his introduction to Sweet Disorder and the Carefully Careless takes this further, defining the critic’s job as “helping to explain [a specific work], to give it meaning and hence to aid the assimilation of that work into society, and into culture”. Yet there remains two general modes of thinking surrounding the book critique: the review is the only way to spread the word of the work, is the exhaling breath of public discussion necessary before the inhale of reading; or the review is nothing, is the opinion of a self-involved failed writer rushing through the last twenty pages before deadline which is ultimately crafted into a too quick summary. George Murray of the successful Bookninja literary website went so far as to call reviews “the cage-liner of the literary world.”
But both the positive and negative takes on the book critique exist mainly because the value of a “good review” is misplaced onto the end opinion of the critic. The “I” evaluating becomes larger than the actual work discussed. The critic’s preferred genres or styles of writing guide whether the book is appreciated and the review runs the very real risk of turning into a publicized diary entry. The idea of whether a critic liked or disliked a book is relatively unimportant; the book critique does not exist to reaffirm aesthetics (that’s what blogs are for). What is essential however, is a discussion of what the work is attempting to do and how well it succeeds. This means subverting the ego, turning away from the “I” on the reviewer’s behalf, and a refocusing on critical engagement with the text on its own terms.
I said that? Heh, heh. Well, um. Well, yes, that’s true… Except when the reviews are mine or are about me and good. Then they’re documents of earth-shaking importance. (I do say a lot of things, don’t I? You trying firing off ten witty and semi-witty posts a day at 6am without saying something that will come back to haunt you. Take that Margaret Laurence crack from yesterday that you may have cringed at, but declined to comment on. I’m sure I’ll get my ass kicked next time I’m in Manawaka.)