The Task of the Book Reviewer.
Reading Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters has made me think more carefully about the book reviewing that I do. She argues that a good translation must adhere to the rhythm and style of the original. A good translation should create the same responses from the reader as did the original work from its readership. This is a tall order.
A book review is, of course, a different literary task; although I shall argue that it is a kind of translation. A book reviewer tries to capture the essence of the book in relatively few words, while ‘translating’ its goodness, and shortcomings. (I never go to the trouble of reading and reviewing a book that I don’t like, so shortcomings are minimal.)
Book reviews vary. Reviews in The New York Review of Books, for example, are long essays; frequently several books may be reviewed together. The reviewer most often is a prominent writer with an expertise in the subject of the book(s) being discussed. Reviews in The New York Times Book Review, Sunday edition are less learned and more succinct, but their greater brevity can be a virtue. Reviewers in the daily NYT as well as the Wall Street Journal are more ambitious.
There are many, many magazines, journals, and now blogs with interesting reviewers and many opinions. And those opinions are distributed over the political and literary spectrum. That is good. Mine show a definite left tendency.
I never review fiction. A reviewer of fiction has to have knowledge of the art of ‘criticism.’ While I admire its intellectuality, I am not equipped to enter that discourse. It could be argued that the distinction between fiction and non-fiction is false. Fiction writers do a good amount of research to provide their characters with a plausible setting. Non-fiction writers engage in storytelling with varying degrees of verisimilitude. But the latter is more dutiful to the real world than the former. And more efficient for an information seeker.
The non-fiction titles that I read are mostly published by university presses and the more serious ‘trade’ publishers; they are almost never bestsellers. Someone once said to me that they were happy about my choice of books to read and review. They were obviously worthy books, and it was comforting to know that someone was reading them.
One merit which those who review non-fiction should possess is to be well and broadly read. That is an ambition to which I have always aspired.
Reviewing non-fiction involves a kind of dumbing down. To explain a subject as well as the author, you would need a comparable number of words. My reviews are 750 to 850 words, around two book pages. So I simplify: I leave out details, names, precise dates. I almost never include quotations of more than a few words. I suggest the more important ideas and judgments that the author makes. And how his book fits into the general notions about the subject. Is it revisionist and if so why?
I want a person who has read the book to be able to recognize it from my review and agree that I have captured the book’s essence. I am a translator. I want the author to think that my ‘translation’ of his work is a good reflection of his intentions.