The Sunday before last, the Chicago Tribune‘s critics offered a number of critical reversals–“revisions and reassessments” of works they’d previously panned or praised. It’s a topic I’d been meaning to write about myself, and I’d been mulling it over for a few days when I stumbled across the Eggers vs. Eggers controversy–Eggers’ striking change of heart regarding David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Second thoughts seem to be on our minds as we approach the end of the year.
(Unfortunately, the Trib doesn’t have an in-house book critic, so we were left to wonder if they stood by their original review of Jest.)
I’ve written before about how it can be suprisingly hard to form an opinion in the first place, so it should come as no surprise that those opinions can change. Why is it hard to form an opinion? If that sounds ludicrous, let me explain: it’s not that I don’t know whether I like a book or not. It’s just that it can be difficult to determine the degree to which I like or dislike it, or where it fits into the author’s previous work, or how it matches up against similar works in the world at large. Adult Books Editor Brad Hooper tells reviewers to trust their guts–and he’s right–but sometimes it’s hard to hear what my gut is saying. Ever tried to order off a menu when you’re starving?
I work on deadline and I read a lot of books. (Not nearly as many as some of my colleagues, but probably more than the average parent of two.) I finish one and I pull the next one off the top of the stack. Sometimes I read late into the night. Sometimes I wake up four times in the middle of the night to settle down a bright-eyed eight-month-old and then find myself finishing the review the next morning with just minutes to spare.
In his reconsideration of U2’s Achtung Baby, Greg Kot writes:
An editor once said writing a review on deadline is like performing a jazz solo: You get one take, no overdubs, and every mistake you make is going to be audible.
It’s like making a snap judgment that will be immortalized for the ages. Well, “immortalized” might be a bit hopeful, but it will be indefinitely Google-able. Any bad calls or shaky logic will be there to haunt me, should any critics wish to criticize my criticism.
But, again, I don’t think there’s shame in changing my mind. I’ve raved about books that didn’t stay with me the way I thought they would, and I’ve given qualified praise to books that seemed much better in retrospect. But if I change my mind in print, I’ll plan to acknowledge it, so it doesn’t look like I’ve been suddenly bribed or hitched a ride on the bandwagon. Changes of mind, heart, and taste can be an interesting part of the ongoing discussion of any book.
(Given that we trust our guts, reviewers are usually going to perceive changes in quality as the author’s accomplishment/fault, but we shouldn’t be afraid to blame ourselves, either.)
I’ve written in the past about getting it right. And, of course, there is no “right”; a book review is just one reviewer’s opinion–filtered by background, IQ, prejudice, and eccentricity. Hopefully the reviewer is well-read, intelligent, judicious, and has no cause to advance or ax to grind–or at least has the wisdom to take those into account. But still, if a review is just an opinion, it can’t be wrong if it expresses what the reviewer was thinking at the time.
When we can be wrong is when we try to make predictions. Making predictions isn’t part of the reviewer’s job–we’re neither oddsmakers nor business reporters. In his mea culpa regarding reviews of The Da Vinci Code and Failure to Launch, Tribune movie critic Michael Phillips notes:
Speculation regarding a film’s financial scorecard has nothing to do with criticism.
If a reviewer writes that a book is “destined to be the feel-good read of the summer,” not only is there an excellent chance that the reviewer will be wrong, casting doubt on whatever else he may write, it’s not actually helpful to readers. (Well, it might be helpful to readers who want to read what everyone else is reading, but most of them will wait to see what everyone is reading.) That kind of prediction only serves the ego of the reviewer, who wants to be right about something tangible and concrete and to get credit for having known that everyone would like it.
Who knows if everyone will like it? No one. If there was a formula for success, no one would have bothered to make Gigli. Reviews should focus on artistic success instead. Based on a book’s quality and its similarity to other works, we can reasonably assert that a book will have appeal to specific groups of people. And if it becomes the next Da Vinci Code, great. But no one knew The Da Vinci Code would be The Da Vinci Code. So it is possible to make modest predictions, such as “fans of literary thrillers will find much to like here.” That shows a knowledge of genre and also provides, in making the prediction, some useful information to the reader of the review.
It suddenly occurs to me that I closed my review of The Case of the Missing Books, by Ian Sansom, by saying:
Librarians have found themselves a new hero in Israel Armstrong, who, despite his unheroic demeanor, is a champion against bullshit and bureaucracy in the service of books.
On further consideration, I’ve changed my mind. If I were writing this review today I would instead say:
Librarians may have found themselves a new hero in Israel Armstrong, who, despite his unheroic demeanor, is a champion against bullshit and bureaucracy in the service of books.
Hey, I’ll be the first to admit it when I’m wrong.