When I was a baby graduate student, my future dissertation adviser said in class one day, “I don’t care whether a text is good. I care whether I can say something interesting about it.” I was horrified, absolutely convinced she was wrong. How can one not care about whether a text is good or not?! What’s the point of getting a literature Ph.D.?!? But seven years of graduate school, seven years of learning how to be a literary critic, taught me that she was right. In fact, as a literary critic, I read all of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley completely fascinated because I was looking for representations of male dress and its relation to nationalism and masculinity–and trust me, there was a lot there to work with–only to realize when I was done how unutterably BAD the damn book was. I wrote a chapter of my dissertation on Hannah More’s 1809 best-selling novel (outsold only by Byron) Coelebs in Search of a Wife, the worst book–aesthetically speaking–that I ever hope to read. But the way in which its narrative structure interacts with its construction of masculinity and femininity is fascinating–to me–and I managed to pull off an innovative analysis of a text that is rarely studied. In fact, the reason I looked at it in the first place was because I am convinced that studying popular books–aesthetic worth notwithstanding–is important to our understanding of an historical era. One might question Brittney Spears’ talent, after all, but one shouldn’t question the importance of her constant re-inventions to an understanding of what kind of society would produce her in the first place.
So why am I reviewing on Dear Author? :) Why didn’t I stick with Teach Me Tonight?
I resisted reviewing for a long time. I’ve never felt that I was particularly good at it–my inclination, finely honed by too many years of graduate school, is unrepentant, spoilerific analysis. The point, for me, IS the narrative structure, the ending’s interaction with the beginning and the middle, so I’ll spoil away with impunity when I analyze (don’t read TMT, for example, if you’re not a spoiler whore). I admired the ability of the Dear Author reviewers and the Smart Bitches to write honest reviews that discussed theme and imagery in analytical ways, if appropriate, but that managed nonetheless to still be reviews, concerned with telling readers whether the book was any good, whether it was worth reading. That is precisely the one thing I’m not concerned about as a critic: it doesn’t matter to me whether a book is good, after all, just whether I can be interesting about it.
But then I read Anah Crow’s Uneven, a book so good–aesthetically–it made me cry, a book so perfectly real, so perfectly true, that every one should read it. And a book I knew would not receive the exposure it deserved. So I wrote to Jane and asked her if I could review it, because while I will analyze it–it’s going to be the center-piece of an academic paper I’ll write next semester–I also just wanted to let the world know how good it is. Because, I’ve discovered, in the end, good does matter. As it should.
Now, however, I have a number of moral dilemmas that I’m sure all baby reviewers go through as they learn (hopefully) how to be good and ethical reviewers. If I request review copies of books that intrigue me, what is my obligation to review them? If I review them, I’ll review them honestly–I understand my obligation there to the integrity of the Dear Author brand and to our readers–but what is my obligation to review them at all if I receive them for free? What about if I think they’re “bad” (and let me tell you how disconcerting it is, as a post-modern literary critic, to use that word in relation to a novel)? I received a free book, after all–if I thought it blew great big dingoes kidneys, what is my moral obligation to say so…or not? I’ve got a book now, for example, by a popular author, that I’m halfway through that I’m finding positively painful because, while the story is interesting, I’m finding the writing very immature. What is meant to be edgy and modern just sounds sophomoric and stale.
But then, is my moral obligation to the writer and publisher who gave me this free book in the first place, or the audience of Dear Author, the romance reader? Don’t they deserve to know whether a book blows unpleasant chunks? If I’ve been intrigued by a cover, a blurb, an excerpt, only to be disappointed by the book, surely someone else out there has been, too, and deserves to know what I think of it before they spend money on it?
While these are questions I can answer pretty easily in theory (Previous paragraph: The reader. Yes. Yes.), in practice, they’re a little more complicated and, to be honest, unexpectedly overwhelming for someone who has spent so long analyzing novels. But then, as my students struggle to understand, analysis and review are very very different things.
Then again–and here’s what really intrigues me–I’ve received feedback from an author whose book I have reviewed here who explicitly said that reading my review as analysis, precisely because I am an English professor, made it palatable, even acceptable, in ways that it couldn’t have been as a review. And that there? That’s truly fascinating.