Jillian of A Room of One's Own took exception to my desire for book bloggers to use more evidence and do more analysis in book reviews. I don't agree with her, but not for the reasons she thinks we don't agree. This misunderstanding is worth thinking about.
Some book bloggers are only journaling (me.)A few things to note here.
I would far rather hear what someone personally thinks of a book (I), than what they've analyzed about it according to somebody ele's idea of proper reader response (one should/we believe/etc). In fact, I recoil at a dry 'review' of a book (analysis, supporting evidence, blah, blah, blah) rather than an embrace of the work as a dance beween I and the author.
1. Some book bloggers are only journaling.
I know many people use blogs as reading journals, but my question is this: why make it public? I can only assume that the desire to journal online includes the desire to have people read what you write. My point is that if you readers, hell even one reader, who will read what you write about books, you have an opportunity to do more than journal. Pick your verb for what that is, but I am thinking along the lines of "enrich," "educate," "entertain," "inspire," "complicate," "contribute," and so on. If you are giving your opinions of books, you may well get a readership, but what is it that you are offering that readership? And how can you offer them more?
2. I would far rather hear what someone personally thinks of a book (I), than what they've analyzed about it according to somebody ele's idea of proper reader response.
Unless you are writing history or doing mere description/summary, there is no way to avoid writing what you "personally" think. I am not arguing, nor shall I ever, that there is a way to objective book reviewing. In fact, I am actually arguing for a much more transparent, contemplative subjectivity, a subjectivity that not only expresses your reaction, but gets into details about the source and nature of those reactions. One last thing here: since I write somewhat formally and from an academic background, many readers assume that I think only "dry" and "proper" writing about literature is acceptable. This could not be further from the truth: I want writing about literature to come in all flavors. A diverse, invigorated, on-going literary conversation is good for literature, and it's good for me. No matter the style though, writing about literature can be in service of making us all better readers.
3. I recoil at a dry 'review' of a book (analysis, supporting evidence, blah, blah, blah) rather than an embrace of the work as a dance beween I and the author.
So do I. That's why I started a book blog and don't just write academic essays. The fact that this is positioned as an either/or choice for writing about literature gets to the heart of my thinking. I think that there is a wide, inhabitable space between impressionistic reviewing (describing the "dance") and scholarly writing. That analysis and evidence are cast out with academic/high criticism hurts book blogging. Analysis doesn't have to be boring, nor does using evidence. In fact, I think it can be amazingly illuminative, both for the reader and for the reviewer. Why do you hate the main character? Why do you think the plot is unlikely? What does that say about the book and what does it say about you? Why do you think that is? This is not the stuff of graduate seminars (though sometimes I wish it were)--this is the stuff of living an examined life.
I'm going to put a coda on this discussion with a bit of one my earlier posts. In it, I disagree with Sarah Mancuso's reading of the end of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. I include it here as an example of what I hope to do more often here, not as an exemplar for how other people should review. A few words about it after.
Mancuso on Freedom:
"...Freedom focuses on two fully human adults who, despite their history of betrayals, return to each other. When Patty and Walter drive away from the lake house, they complete the book’s convincing depiction of a mature marriage—one that survives serious conflicts and requires serious mercies. It isn’t nostalgia for Walter’s affair that broke my heart; it’s Patty’s forgiveness, and Walter’s forgiveness of her own betrayal, and the reminder that such forgiveness is possible..."Mancuso reads Freedom's end with considerably more hope than I do. In her assessment of these novels, Mancuso provides compelling textual evidence, but here at the end she abandons direct quotation of the text. To my mind, one paragraph describes the nature of Walter and Patty's reconnection, and it is the reader's interpretation of that paragraph that will determine how positive their reconciliation is. I'll quote at length:
"Her eyes weren't blinking. There was still something almost dead in them, something very far away. She seemed to be seeing all the way through to the back of him and beyond, out into the cold empty space of the future in which they would both soon be dead, out into the nothingness that Lalitha and his mother and his father had already passed into, and yet she was looking straight into his eyes, and he could feel her getting warmer by the minute. And so he stopped looking at her eyes and started looking into them, returning their look before it was too late, before this connection between life and what came after was lost, and let her see all the vileness inside of him, all the hatreds of two thousand solitary nights, while the two of them were still in touch with the void in which the sum of everything they'd ever said or done, every pain they'd inflicted, every joy they'd shared, would weigh less than the smallest feather on the wind" (p. 559).I find it difficult to call this moment forgiveness. Forgiveness implies a kind of ethical transaction in which wrongs against a moral system are pardoned. Here, the moral system is completely obliterated by "the void." This absence of ethics makes any transgression meaningless, any emotional benevolence null. Their relationship here is cast as a strategic alliance against nothingness--not a turn to each other as subjects of meaning and value.
But that’s me.
There are a few things I am pleased with here. First, I used a relevant quotation and looked at the passage in detail---no scholarly apparatus required. Second, my reader can follow my logic because they can look at the text in front of them. Third, I didn't even know I felt this way until I wrote about it. And this is where I will end: writing with analysis and evidence actually tells you more about what you think than you even know. You already know how you feel about something, what you don't know is why. Writing can be the most intense personal exploration there is, a place of deep subjectivity and discovery.
In short, write about books in a way only you can write about them. Do it generously, passionately, and deeply.