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Chasing the Orgy: Good Reviews or Good Friends?

July 5, 2011

Elizabeth Gumport’s broadside against the institution of book reviewing in N+1 magazine scores few hits but manages to fill the air with a most pleasant sent of gunpowder.  The essay opens with what can only be termed a ‘capitalist’ history of book reviewing that contrasts quite wittily with the oft-cited and more thoughtful cultural history provided by Terry Eagleton in The Function of Criticism (1984).  Where Eagleton roots the rise of the book review in the emergence of the bourgeois public space, Gumport points to the collapse of artistic patronage:

This unprecedented outpouring of reviews meant that for the first time an author’s fortune was determined by the general public rather than by a private patron. This comparatively vast new audience was perceived by many as a serious threat to social stability. No longer could an author identify or anticipate her audience’s reaction. Her readers were too many, and they were strangers to her. How could she seduce them, and why?

Born of economic necessity rather than artistic passion, the book review has always struggled to meet the expectations placed upon it. For example, if we see reviews as adverts for books then the method of advertising is startlingly ineffective:

Fiction is indeed assessed in the same terms as a fish entrée: fresh, insipid, visionary, uninspired. Reading a book review is like reading about a restaurant in a city you’ve never been to, and have no plans to visit.

Conversely, if we see book reviews as artistic creation in their own right then the form is as restrictive as its aesthetics are confused:

As modified recapitulations of what already exists, reviews are inherently conservative. Space constraints inhibit speculation and dissent, which is why even elegant reviews tend to be dry, aimless, and unmotivated (…) Forced to smuggle thoughts of value into the small spaces between plot summary and biographical detail, reviewers accomplish next to nothing.

Sufficiently individualised and time-consuming to be works of art but weighted down by a host of unreasonable and inconsistent expectations, book reviews receive no respect and satisfy nobody despite occupying an almost central position in what we think of as literary culture. Reviews are rotten to the core and yet they are all we have. Peaking too soon, Gumport’s essay asks an enticingly enigmatic question that she never quite manages to answer.

Why should a writer be ashamed to write for someone she knows? Why should her friends and enemies feign a lack of interest in her work? Affection, attraction, admiration, rivalry, resentment: all are aphrodisiacs, and heighten our interest in what’s before us. Nobody insists we fuck strangers—why must we read them? If the privacy of pure patronage is impossible or undesirable, the traditional courtship can be replaced by the orgy.

This passage goes some way towards explaining the puckish character of Gumport’s capitalist reductionism. Reviews, she seems to be suggesting, are the product of the market and as such they are monstrously ugly… but what if they were not the fruit of the market but of something else? Gumport’s talk of fucking and rivalry speaks not of the vibrant cultural marketplace but of the art school hot house.  Reviewers and authors hating each other, attacking each other, supporting each other and fucking each other… is this the future of the book business or a yearning for the sore joints and rheumy eyes of the college dorm?  What is it that Gumport really wants?

Recognising a good shit-stirring polemic when he sees one, the editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books Tom Lutz uses the opportunity to lay out his editorial vision for the magazine and position himself within the maelstrom of debate:

Taste cultures do have something to do with circles of intimates, and the explosion of book clubs in recent years is testimony to a general desire for, if not an orgy, at least something more personal and embodied than a Sunday book supplement. So she is not wrong. Perhaps the reason we’re working to build the Los Angeles Review of Books is precisely so we can determine who to invite to the orgy.

Sadly, though Lutz hits on the real insight underlying Gumport’s essay, he then veers away into a largely pro-forma defence of the sort of ‘critical essays’ that appear in venues such as the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement:

For all the reasons Gumport names so compellingly, we at LARB have steered clear of simple, single-book reviews, opting whenever possible to post essays that do something more than just anoint or denounce a particular book. There are a million titles a year being published, and millions already published; I read books for a living, as many books as anyone, and yet I need help sorting through them.

However, while Gumport does clearly dislike the sort of facile and formulaic reviews that produce 100 words on the author, 300 words of summary and then 100 words of evaluation with the grim inevitability of death, I suspect that Gumport sees NYRB/LRB-style reviewing as nothing more than a less troublesome part of a wider problem.

It seems to me that Gumport is attempting to confront us about the amount of self-deception and posturing that goes into these sorts of debates about the future of reviewing. Indeed, Lutz’s piece is a fantastic example of just this sort of thing as what his piece does is agree with most of the things Lutz says and then concludes by saying that the LARB are going to do what they were going to do anyway, which is to become another of ‘those sorts’ of journals that form the backbone of Anglo-Saxon literary culture.

Gumport’s point is to suggest that, complaints about the state of reviewing are in fact complaints about the state of intellectual culture and that when people decry the state of contemporary reviewing, what they are really doing is seeking someone out there with which to have a conversation.  When Gumport frames literary culture as an orgy, what she is saying is that rather than standing on hilltops bellowing into the distance, intellectuals should just oil up and get fucking.  The problem with reviews is that they are not much cop as an alternative to conversations.

What frustrated me about Lutz’s argument is that he genuinely does seem to understand the fact that the complaints about book reviewing are an act of projection.  When intellectuals moan about book reviewing what they are actually doing is moaning about the fact that they don’t have any other intellectuals to hand to discuss books with in great detail:

This argument also functions, sub rosa, as a defense of the personal blog and the coterie website, forums which are fundamentally defensible.

No shit.

One of the reasons why reviews are always in crisis is because they are born of an attempt to free intellectual culture from the need for geographical proximity.  The book review was born not of the retreat of patronage as a means of funding artistic lifestyles but of the tragic fact that many people wanted to sit in the same coffee shop as Dr. Johnson than was entirely practical.

The genuine insight that Gumport hits on is the realisation that the plight of the book review is not about book reviews so much as it is upon our bull-headed insistence that reading and writing articles about things can be as emotionally satisfying as sharing one’s thoughts with another human being.

One of the more insightful developments of this idea was, I am proud to say, published on a website that I used to run.  In a review of James Gunn, Marleen S. Barr and Matthew Candelaria’s Reading Science Fiction (2008), Paul Graham Raven riffs on Bruce Sterling and presents criticism as a social undertaking:

Academia is, of course, a networked discussion – but perforce a discussion that takes place at a glacial pace by comparison to the rapid-fire interchange of globally networked fandom. Papers and essays are published and presented, passed around the network of conventions and symposiums, absorbed and responded to, debunked or valorised… but that network has a high cost to participation, whether it be the temporal demands of an academic career, the difficulty of accessing the central and most recent texts that form the foundations to the rolling debate, or simply the idiom in which it is coded. The Internet lowers all of these barriers to participation, and I’d be a fool (not to mention a liar) to claim this didn’t bring difficulties of its own, but the principle benefit is that it enables the neophyte to be caught by the very edge of the critical gravity well during a chance encounter with a topic of interest – caught, and steadily drawn in to the maelstrom.

The same can be said of all forms of criticism and reviewing. The reason why book reviewing took off as a format is that while many people yearned to be a part of a vibrant literary culture, relatively few people could afford the costs of participation; Some people did not live in London, some people had not done all the reading, some did not have time to attend coffee shops and some simply did not want to expend the social capital and effort required in order to become part of Samuel Johnson’s social circle.  Between the aspirations and the realities a market was formed and this market was monetised in the form of book reviews and literary essays that could be sold across the world to all of those people too busy, too shy and too female to hang out in London coffee shops.  Book reviews are born of a compromise and that compromised form has now been fetishized to the point where people are bemoaning the decline of the review rather than seeking new opportunities for social rebirth.  Again, Raven paves the conceptual road ahead of us:

So allow me a little bit of Sterling-esque blue-sky thinking here. Imagine that Reading Science Fiction were developed online, initially in a closed site wherein the contributors could post their essays and respond to each other’s work, engendering some nice long threaded discussions and debates and (one would assume) some revisions and expansions. Being hypertextual, the essays could reach out to quoted and referenced works with direct connections where possible, and the depth of contextual referencing could become an order of magnitude greater because of the way hypertext can embed such links without cluttering the flow of the original material. The result? More material, more correlation, more context, more discussion. After a while, the book is printed and the site goes public, enabling students to cite the essays, respond to them and compare them in a format that is not only more familiar to them for the discursive mode but intrinsically more suited to it.

The question of whether existing technologies really can fill that void is still very much up for debate but I think it would be useful if, rather than rehashing the same old problems with reviewing, people looked beneath the surface and engaged with the real problem, namely the hideous tension between an intellectual lifestyle that is all about sitting on your own in a quiet room and reading and a lifestyle utopia that is all about that messily brutal and furiously intimate exchange of ideas that Lutz and Gumport refer to, quite fittingly, as an orgy.

Debates about the future of intellectual culture really should be all about the fucking and not about the bowl that used to contain the condoms.

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