There’s a certain frustration that can’t be avoided when you read as much book-coverage in the Penny Press as I do. You become familiar with all the regular players in the game (indeed, you sometimes perforce become a minor such player yourself), you learn their quirks and strengths and weaknesses, and you also become familiar with the rules of the game itself. There are as many reason why a new book gets reviewed in a major venue (or gets studiously ignored in those venues) as there are books; only the powerhouse industry watchdogs like Kirkus Reviews or Publishers Weekly or Booklist can claim anything approaching disinterest – everybody else, all the publications through which I comb every week, don’t even make pretense of disinterest. Instead, they pursue agendas. Is this book ‘hot’? Does this commissioning editor dislike that author? Is a certain book nice and short? Does it have a big, convenient ‘hook’ or does it require careful reading? Are there grudges, rivalries, buried agendas? There are times – weeks, whole months – when it seems like the actual worth of the books being considered is either the last thing considered or isn’t considered at all, and that can get a bit depressing if any part of your mind clings to the idea that worth should be the only criteria to warrant a review.
This game imposes some irritating behaviors on anybody who decides to read as many book reviews as I do. I need to sift. I need to weigh the nature, philosophy, and slant of every publication where I find book reviews, then weigh the philosophies and slants of the reviewers themselves, then weigh all of it against the book under review.
Take the latest London Review of Books. The draws are obvious and enormous: the issue boasts a lineup of great writers, but the game is in full force. There’s James Davidson, for instance, who’s brilliant and a joy to read in any circumstance. In this issue he purports to be reviewing Lucy Moore’s biography of Nijinksy although he spends 90% of his piece simply writing about Nijinksy. James Davidson can write about anything he wants and I’ll read it happily, but there’s the conflicting urge of want also to watch him actually review this book. Instead, he talks at length about Nijinksy himself, including some wonderful devil’s advocacy:
From all I have read and seen of Nijinksy’s choreographies, descriptions, stills and reconstructions, nothing convinces me that he was a great choreographer. Even L’Apres-midi d’un faune, which is the most reliably reconstituted of his ballets, comes across as silly, cheesy and slight without Nijinksy in the title role.
I’ve often reflected that I wouldn’t mind simply outright getting this kind of thing. Just a whole issue of The London Review of Books full of for-the-hell-of-it essays – so-and-so on his passion for gardening rather than so-and-so on his passion for gardening very lightly disguised as a review of such-and-such’s new book on gardening. It never happens, though, so instead we get a long piece about Nijinksy that has this as its review of the actual book:
It’s true that when you look at the original versions of the passages she paraphrases they are usually much more vivid, but when the events are so brilliant, tragic and poignant, and when what is written about them is so often overwrought, then a proficient and professional guide is just what is needed.
So: congratulations Lucy Moore! Sometimes, we all just need a book as boring as yours!
But in the same issue we have the great Charles Nicholl actually reviewing Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s new biography of the scandalous Gabriele D’Annunzio, and the great Eamon Duffy writing so sanely about Pope Pius XII that you almost lose sight of the fact that he almost forgets to mention the three books he’s allegedly supposed to be reviewing. These are perfect illustrations of the kind of frustrated urges I’m talking about – reading Nicholl or Duffy is always a joy, but it’s got to be a bit frustrating for the authors involved, who didn’t work on their books for years only to have them become footnotes in somebody else’s floor-show.
Sometimes the floor-show itself can be frustrating, of course. The Nijinksy book is a meaty, readable biography unfairly, offhandedly slighted; the Pope Pius XII books are worthy (well, two of them) inquiries that get too little specific attention. But sometimes the books themselves aren’t worthy of the floor-show regardless of how much attention they get. Perfect case in point would be the review of Ma Jian’s The Dark Road by The Wall Street Journal’s Sam Sacks (making his LRB debut). Sacks is one of the best fiction critics working in English – he respects the living literature of his day so much that he can’t usually bring himself to stray from it for more than a paragraph or two (his WSJ columns are ongoing marvels of unremitting concentration). He’s rumored in real life to lead a slightly furtive, ascetic existence, slinking from one poorly-lit Chelsea café to the next hunched under a Santa’s sack of advance copies, but in this case you almost wish he had it in him to bloviate! True, we get virtuoso little paragraphs like this one:
The Dark Road is evidence that the censored writer, even if he finds a new audience and a free press, never entirely emerges from the shadow of his censorship. ‘I write about sensitive topics,’ he has said, ‘precisely because I have the freedom to, and therefore the obligation.’ Subtlety and subtext would be forms of collusion. China’s propaganda juggernaut must be met with equally extreme propaganda.
This is good, sharp stuff (although I can think of two German expats, three Russian ones, and especially four Czech ones who managed to emerge quite handily from their censorships – in the latter case into what one of them rather piggishly referred to as “amber waves of coeds”), but the length of the attention itself – however exquisitely equivocal – mightily distracts the reader from the fact that Ma Jian’s book is crushingly boring and wouldn’t have had a single chance of getting reviewed in The London Review of Books if the author didn’t have a picturesque backstory.
Then again, sometimes the frustration is just about as straightforward as it can be: sometimes the reviewer is conscientiously doing their job, concentrating wonderfully on the book in the spotlight, but the reviewer doesn’t agree with me. That also happened in this latest LRB, when the always-delightful Tessa Hadley drizzled dislike all over Belinda Jack’s very worthy The Woman Reader. I read the book and loved it; Hadley read the same book and hated it. She’s not dodging her task, she’s not putting on a floor-show, and she’s not pursuing any codified agenda – she’s an open-minded, flexible reader of all things. She gave The Woman Reader a fair shot and ended up disliking it. Now that’s frustrating.
But just to the right of the LRB – OK, maybe far to the right of the LRB – there’s this week’s Weekly Standard, in which John Podhoretz reviews the late Peter Evans’ book about the late Ava Gardner, called Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations. The frustration I’ve been talking about flickers around the edges of even this piece, since the Podhoretz finds it strange and depressing and I chuckled often while reading it. But Podhoretz writes a wonderful consideration of the book just the same, especially when he talks about scarcity and abundance in star-culture:
If you were knocked out by Ava Gardner in a movie in 1946, the only way you would get to see her again was to wait. Wait until the next one. She was, by definition, a scarce commodity, made all the more valuable by that fact.
Now, if you develop a thing for Jennifer Lawrence, who is all of 23, you can watch YouTube clips of her all night. You can download her movies and have them on your hard drive. You can put a Google Alert on her name so that every mention of her anywhere in the media comes right into your email. This makes Lawrence more accessible, and also means her fans are going to get sick of her. Stardom, like sexuality itself, needs a little mystery. Ava Gardner always had it. No one can have it today.
That’s damn good, and the same issue has a splendid, excellent review by Edward Short of The Men Who Lost America. So it’s not all frustration, even on a bad day.