By Kyle | March 8, 2013
Alexander Nazaryan has an interesting piece on Salon in which he confesses that he was a poor candidate to review certain novels. Why? Because their authors were similar to him in background, which made him jealous, which made him slam the books:
Consequently, the reviews I wrote came to bear a stench of bitterness, none more so than one I wrote for the Village Voice in 2008 in which I took on two debut novelists, Keith Gessen and Nathaniel Rich. After comparing them to James Joyce and Ralph Ellison, I proceed to snidely savage their work. It is true: I did not like their novels. But my dislike was set aflame by jealousy of young men whose profiles were similar to mine and who had managed to do what I had not. I remain more embarrassed by that piece than by any other. Keith, Nate: I am sorry.
I’ve been on both sides of this problem: I’ve reviewed books by people like me (and had my books trashed by people like me. I note with some amusement that a notable attack on my first book was written by a peer who appears still not to have published the book he was described as working on at the time, 9 years ago. The resentment that comes from not being published when others like you are can be strong, I think.)
I try to be objective, especially to my peers, but who knows whether I succeed? (By the way, I think Nathaniel Rich has major potential. “The Mayor’s Tongue” impressed me a lot.)
I tend to gravitate toward reviews written by equals — I’d rather read Martin Amis on John Updike than Tibor Fischer (who?) on Martin Amis. On the other hand, Martin Amis was friendly with John Updike (and Christopher Hitchens regularly reviewed novels by his friends Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, always favorably as far as I could tell). Even if Amis and Updike weren’t friends, they might have expected to run into each other at dinner parties when Updike was alive. Each had strong incentives to be slightly kinder than they might have been inclined to be when writing about the other. And when you read prominent writers on other prominent writers, you sometimes get the feeling that they’re being too nice, pulling their punches. (I don’t think Amis did, as a general rule, and find his literary criticism to be the best writing of its kind, though it seems noteworthy that when Updike died, Amis chose that moment to trash him, in what I thought was a picayune manner.)
So: The answer is, there is no answer. What’s a reader to do? Read several reviews before making a decision. I do think editors should be wary about assigning reviewers who are from the peer group of the people they’re reviewing, especially if they seem to have a track record of not liking any writer from the same demographic.
The book critic Tranter in Sebastian Faulks’s novel “A Week in December,” by the way, is an excellent personification of a reductio ad absurdum of the tendency: He is spoof of a reviewer who hates everything by living writers and can only praise himself to bring dead ones.
Topics: Books |