What would a review of The New York Times Book Review look like? Having covered hundreds of issues over five years, I've picked up a few notions.
First of all, a review of the Book Review must evaluate the individual reviews. Are they helpful? Presumably, book reviews are, among other things, guides to would-be readers who are asking themselves, "Shall I get this book and read it?"
Second, it ought to judge whether a given book merits coverage in what is effectively the American Book Review of Record.
Finally, it must be brief.
A few words about the first two points. I've come to believe that bad - unfavorable - reviews are all but useless, and they often seem to reflect poor choices by assigning editors. Bad reviews can be very funny, but that doesn't make them good reviews. In the end, nobody benefits from the unsympathetic review.
The sympathetic review, in contrast, always makes it clear to each and every reader that he or she would or would not like the book under review. A reviewer who waxes ecstatic about a subject that I find tedious does me a big favor. The reviewer who tells me that I'll be bored is doing my thinking for me, and I don't like that.
I've also discovered a vice that seems peculiar to reviewers. Reviewers are not reporters. It is not their job to read a book and then to tell us what happens in it. They are supposed to judge the book's literary qualities. What's the writing like? Does the author have a sense of humor? And they ought to support their judgments with abundant quotation. Instead, many of them indulge in a vice that I call "storytelling" (with the admittedly awkward-at-first verbal form, "to storytell"). Storytelling is the elementary school book report. It "proves" that the book has been read.
Useful as such a teaching tool is, it is quite out of place in the adult setting of the Book Review, because its principal effect is to eclipse the book. I'm not so much interested in what the reviewer got out of book as I am eager to learn something about the book. That is not necessarily the same thing at all.
Irritating where novels are concerned, storytelling is particularly obnoxious in the nonfiction context. What happens in a novel happens only in that novel, but the facts that a storytelling reviewer rattles off in the review of a history or a biography may or may not appear in the book under review. We are all familiar with spouses who believe that they can tell certain stories better than their mates can. The Book Review is not the place for such childishness.
I have also observed that storytelling, regrettable as it is, is not easy to produce. Reviewers often fall all over themselves trying to summarize a story while telling it at the same time.
A converse vice is inspired by the narcissism of small differences. Nonfiction reviews are not infrequently written by competitors, and we can count upon such reviewers to point out all the omissions, errors of judgment, and other defects of which the author at hand needs to be advised. These matters are usually of little interest to the general reader, They merely cast doubt on the book's merit.
How can I tell whether a book that I haven't read belongs in the Book Review? Well, I can't, not really. There are, however, books that clearly don't belong in the Book Review. As a rule, books about sports figures ought to be published in the newspaper's Sports section. Ditto books about food. The Times runs such a wide array of sections, in fact, that almost any genre or special-interest book can find a place in which to be noticed. The Book Review, in contrast, presupposes a general conversation among literate Americans. While it is never the case that everyone is going to read everything that's reviewed, the Book Review ought to be composed with that prospect in mind. There is no place for a book about philately in the Book Review.
Nor is there room for a book that a reviewer judges to be dreadful. If a book is really bad, we don't need to hear about it. The reviewer might be wrong; the book might be excellent. But we're not going to find that out from damning reviews, even though, as I say, they can be wicked fun to read.
If you look back at old Book Review reviews, you'll see that I've experimented with two or three classification formats. For several years, reviews were grouped under "Yes," "No," and "Maybe," reflecting my opinion as to whether the book merited coverage in the Book Review. The current format is to review the reviews in the order in which they are given at the Times's Web site. Works of fiction are identified by a label immediately following the title.
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