Writing and the reviewers: Eight hours … really?

malczewski What two words are a synonym for ineffectiveness?

Book review 

I know what you're thinking.  Here we go.  The ex-newspaper reviewer bitterly turns on the industry that used to feed him.  What a jerk.

It's not that, my friends.  I'm still a reader of book reviews; this blog provides me with a modest little foothold in the industry, a place to celebrate the wonderful publishers who are still out there doing God's work — but the reason why I read book reviews and why reviewers write them has little to do with the actual books supposedly under review.

A short NYT Q & A with Dwight Garner ("Book Reviewer Tell-All: Dwight Garner on Reading, Reviewing and Avoiding Blindness") illustrates that point.

I've never met Garner, never worked with him, but I enjoy reading him. His answers made me smile, especially when he talks about the parts of the job I enjoyed (being the eternal student with a book tucked under your arm, the piles of book packages arriving every day, that special sensation of tired eyes after a good day's work).

But this Q & A also reminds us how fickle the business is, how your hope of a review in a major mainstream publications rests on one person's tastes and moods; how your book is sometimes little more than a vehicle for someone else's enthusiasms and interests … far far FAR from a science.

   "A few books I know on sight I want to review," Garner says, "because I'm fond of the topic or of the author's previous work."

Fond of the topic -- professional reviewers tend to gravitate to what they like because, when you're living on a deadline treadmill, it's easier to muster the energy to write well about something that already matters to you.

"I've always got a book I'm carrying for work. The average one takes about eight hours to read."

Eight hours?  I spent eight hours making revisions to just one small section of my current novel.  He's going to give someone's labors eight TOTAL hours?   I probably did the same thing once, but now that the tables are reversed, the whole notion is horrifying to me.  No assessment based on eight hours' of reading can do any book justice.

With a shiver, I turned from this Q & A in search of something soothing and inspiring.  I found it in my old New Directions copy of the poetry of Dylan Thomas, who's been in the news again recently for the exciting discovery of a forgotten notebook.  Why do I write?  Thomas knows best.

I labor by singing light Not for ambition or bread Or the strut and trade of charms On the ivory stages

But to appeal to the lovers out there … even though, the poet adds, they probably won't care, either.