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Reviewers' Round Table


Because more books are being published today than ever before, selecting and reviewing books is an art. The Monitor invited three regular book reviewers to discuss their different perspectives on reviewing. Monitor book editor Jim Bencivenga asked the questions. What follows are excerpts from the discussion.

When you review a book do you treat it as a complete entity unto itself, to be analyzed in terms of theme or setting or style? Or do you see the book as a platform from which the reviewer expands or attacks the book's argument?

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Leonard Bushkoff: I know that just as a matter of technique, the first thing I do is I go to ``Contemporary Authors.'' If I get a book [to review] - any book at all - before I even crack the pages I go to ``Contemporary Authors,'' and I see what the author's bio is. Where he or she was when. Who they were in contact with where.

I reviewed, ``Why Do the Heavens Not Darken.'' When I saw the dedication to Herbert Marcuse, I started thinking about the significance of it. Because, after all, most people dedicate books to their wife and their kids, to the memory of their parents, to their teacher, etc. But dedicated to Herbert Marcuse, you're really making a very specific statement.

Mary Warner Marien: That's the absolute opposite way from the way I approach a book. I won't look at any reviews. I don't look up anything about the author. I read the book cold, as if it landed from another planet, so that the book stands on its own, so I can judge it on its own.

After I've read it, I do procedures like yours, but I don't want to be prejudiced going in about that book. ... I'll wonder why I'm not thinking what so-and-so was thinking about this book.

Bushkoff: I don't worry about that. I take it for granted I'm going to be thinking the opposite. But I want to see what the clues are. To me, a book is a mine field. And I'm looking for those little disturbances in the soil that tell me that there's a mine under there.

Marien: We're playing a game with lots of other reviewers out there.

After you've reviewed a book have you read the reviews? I tear them out and put them in a pile and I read the reviews later. It's striking to me to see the similarity in the reviews actually. Not the differences, the similarities.... I want to be convinced of a book. I want the book to convince me. And I try to remain very open to that book. I don't want to be thinking outside the book. Thinking the book's terms, I always start there. I keep faith with the book.

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Thomas D'Evelyn: Maybe I could represent a different point of view.... Reviewers can talk all they want, but a publisher and author have expectations. I think if they feel that you haven't considered the contents, what else has been written, what the field is like, they'll probably think you're not a very good reviewer.

Why do some reviewers do a better job than others in given subject areas? Marien: Accuracy, which is the word I use instead of balance. I really think you have an obligation to present the ideas that are in that book. Bushkoff: Agreed. ... Get some idea of what the geographical, chronological, and other confines of the review are, point one. Secondly, what ideas is [the author] presenting, which is your point about accuracy. Do it pretty straight.... Then I would say after that, the next step is, where do they fit into the intellectual mainstream? Does this build on some other book by someone else.... And then third, of course, you start - at least I start - bringing in my own rejoinders. Gently, of course, not crushingly.

Marien: What would be very wrong with crushingly? What's wrong with crushingly?

Bushkoff: I was kidding. Sometimes it is crushing. If I think the book is awful, I try to say so.

Marien: Books come over the transom to me. I look at those books and I think, this is a couple of years of someone's life, and here are a couple of more years of someone's life, and I think they deserve respect because of that. Just because a lot of time went into it, and a lot of human effort, regardless of what the subject matter is.

Bushkoff: Right. As a reviewer, thou shalt not be frivolous. Thou shalt not be dismissive. You're right.

Marien: It makes you want to review only good books. And it makes me not want to bother - you know what I mean? - you have a kind of triage going on all the time. So it would be nice if you could only do the good ones. But unfortunately a lot of the bad ones and seriously flawed ones become popular and may need some kind of critical corrective.

How many drafts do you do?

Marien: It's hard to count on a computer what a draft is anymore. In fact, the whole concept of draft has disappeared, because we keep polishing as we're moving through now. But you could still talk a little bit in those terms. Bushkoff: Probably the first three paragraphs I may rewrite four, five, six times. Just working to get at least the first paragraphs right. It's terrible, etc. Then it starts to come. And I notice that by the time I'm getting midway, two-thirds of the way through, the paragraphs are getting shorter, the sentences are getting shorter and simpler, there are few qualifications. That's when I say, Hitler was a bad guy. Even his mother probably couldn't have loved him. The sentences get shorter, and I think it gets crisper.

What's the difference between popular culture and high culture in the sensibilities a reviewer brings to the books?

Marien: I don't believe in that distinction any longer. I don't think it's a post-World War II distinction.

Has television brought that about?

Marien: No. Television is often scapegoated for that - blamed for that. But that's not what happens. Something far more complex, I think, happened. ... In the middle of the last century, the distinction between highbrow/lowbrow was not one that applied, at least in this country. You programed Shakespeare with lots of frothy kinds of things and got away with it, because people expected that kind of mixing. At the end of the century there was an intent to purify things. And I think that purity ran on through the 1930s, and again there was a popular school within the arts, and in the postwar period there has been another populist movement. If there were no invention called television, I think we'd still be in a phase where there's a great mixing of the arts.

D'Evelyn: I guess that's saying more than we need to say, but it's documenting what you're saying that there's not only not a distinction, there's a great deafness on the part of artists confronting that culture.

And what I worry about is that the general reader, the newspaper reader - I say journalism - journalism doesn't want to recognize that world. I'm more interested in talking about institutions in the way they censor things and keep out experience. Reviewing should be a kind of Fifth Column within the journalism world, in order to let in a more complex view.... In fact, to let in reality is what it's doing. Because journalism is highly stereotyped.

Isn't it also fair to assume that readers who regularly read book reviews come to the book-review page for just that experience?

D'Evelyn: I want a book review that pretends to be journalism, but knows the difference.

Marien: When I'm reading, when I'm paging through whatever the journal is, something catches me - it's that first sentence, and I'm reading on into the third paragraph and I realize I'm suddenly reading the article. It's not that I intended to read the article and then I turned to that section. I was drawn in. I think those things can be taught. They're a matter of craft. I don't find any mystery to them.

D'Evelyn: For example, books generally are not written in journalistic style. They're not written in short sentences. Journalists, by craft, and in traditionally writing short sentences, start to ape the style of Mencken, or something like that.

Bushkoff: Journalism has a very hard time dealing with two things. One, with ideas, and two, with process.

Journalism is very good at dealing with an event - a plane was shot down today, or Mitterrand and Bush visited (Boston University) and gave speeches, etc. But if you talk about a process of which this is simply the end product, then you've got a lot of problems.... All of the European papers have got their Page 3 where they get professor so-and-so, who also knows how to write, and he deals with some new development and everybody reads it respectfully.

But in this country, it's very hard to get that in. I think that reviewers have a real requirement. I agree with you, Tom, that we should not so much be Fifth Columnists exactly, but guerrillas rading into the confines of journalism sort of shooting in our arrows which are labeled ideas. Hey, we're going to get this idea in here.

True or false? Book reviewing will probably not be the same through the '90s, given what the Ayatollah did with Salman Rushdie's book, ``The Satanic Verses,'' by issuing a death threat to him. Bushkoff: I think that was a flash.... The Iranian revolution has got its own internal dynamics and requirements, and this is a way of putting its own moderates on notice that the revolution isn't going in that direction, and that they hope it'll shape up and be aggressive and they'll act like zealots. I don't think we're going to have situations like that again.

There were books written back in the '30s, for example, that the Nazis disliked very much. I remember Dorothy Thompson had a problem, and Hitler decreed that she could never return to Germany again. It was in this book that she had written about him. It didn't slow her down much. In fact it probably helped her. The advertising people could say, Dorothy Thompson has been banned in Germany, etc. Marien: I find even the question is rather chauvinistic. I think the impact of the Rushdie affair is not on Western literature, but on Islamic literature. That's where the scare is. And that's why people in the Islamic world tend to write more like Mafouz, the guy who got the Nobel Prize. There's a lot like Rushdie out there. And there'll be more as they have the post-modern experience, as they live between two cultures. I think that that's a real threat for people living in countries where the separation of church and state is that strong. D'Evelyn: I think the question is valid. I think the Rushdie novel, and lots of those like it, are symptomatic. They don't give you an experience that's self-contained, that you can enter and exit and have the satisfactions of the well-crafted novel. That's an old argument, but still it bothers people. And when he comes so close to attacking everybody in sight, anyone that comes close to him is going to get stung. I think that's hard for journalism to handle. It's the fact of life that journalism can't digest very well....

Maybe I'm being old fashioned. But I think that literature - art - explores a wholeness of reality that real events don't. They don't even suggest it. I'm not against a newspaper world. A good newspaper is a world. The New York Times is a world. I look at the ladies in bronze as well as read about torture in Tibet on the same page, and you've got it all. I like that world. I want to preserve that world in journalism. But I think that fiction ... is a different thing.

Marien: We're frequently pushed into that. I may defend those reviewers who write relatively bland kinds of reviews. Because the worst word anybody could use for me would be, make this a balanced review. I get very scared.... I don't know what balance is, when someone says make this a balanced review: 49-51 isn't even a balance. What does balance mean? No one's ever really defined that. To make a balanced review means make this sort of a milk-toast review.


Leonard Bushkoff received his doctorate in history from the University of Chicago and has taught modern European history at Carnegie-Mellon University.

Mary Warner Marien has taught for the last 10 years in the fine arts department at Syracuse University, where she received her doctorate in interdisciplinary studies in the humanities.

Thomas D'Evelyn was book editor of the Monitor for five years. He received his doctorate in comparative literature from the University of California at Berkeley.

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