Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Book reviews

For the past year there's been this battle going on between those who review books for newspapers and magazines and those who review them for the net.

The print people seem to see the net people as barbarians who move their lips when they read and stain the pages with God knows what kinds of bodily fluids as they go through the book.

I'm not quite sure why this battle has been joined. I've seen ridiculously inept reviews in print and on net alike. Neither, it seems to me, has any claim on quality.

Likewise I've seen excellent reviewing in print and on net alike.

While I know that this is essentially a turf battle--newspapers and magazines dropping book reviews--I think the issue gets clouded when we start talking about quality. Each side can make substantial claims about quality--insight and style alike.

I'm sorry to see so many print reviewers being dropped but since I now read all newspapers and many magazines on the net...why can't many of the best print reviewers find a home on the web?

3 comments:

Richard S. Wheeler said...

I still give the edge to veteran print reviewers such as my favorite, Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post. He selects books without reference to fad or fashion, and supplies a precis of the contents, and then carefully details the strengths and weaknesses of the work, drawing from his own deep knowledge of the author or the works of similar authors. I see no reason why web reviewers cannot match this skill, but so far, most of them are simply opinionators, and do not present a disciplined case, graciously argued. Time may remedy that.

Gonzalo Baeza said...

I believe print journalists still have an edge, if only for the fact that most of the big names in newspapers tend to have more experience and is more well-read than the typically younger crowd that writes exclusively for the Internet. Having said that, there are good reviewers who see past this arbitrary divide and publish in both print media and the Internet (Ed Champion and Sarah Weinman come to mind). B.R. Myers is another interesting case, someone who in spite of lacking "professional credentials" to review books (a fact that has actually ruffled some feathers) is still an interesting critic. I highly recommend his controversial essay A Reader's Manifesto and the book of the same name (I remember Jonathan Yardley was one of the few major book critics who had positive things to say about this upstart dilettante).

Nonetheless, my favorite critic is Michael Dirda, who also writes for the Washington Post and in my view has the same qualities that Mr. Wheeler sees in Yardley (a good critic in his own right). Dirda, however, boasts an additional trait that I really consider noteworthy and that is the fact that he can write about both genre and mainstream fiction. He will consistently deliver insightful texts that showcase both his passion for good writing and respect for quality works regardless of which section of the bookstore they are located in.

Richard S. Wheeler said...

I agree with Mr. Baeza about Michael Dirda. Both he and Mr. Yardley have won Pulitzers. They both examine the work in review in the context of the author's previous work, noting the direction of the author's evolution, or in some cases, decline. They also routinely compare the work under review with similar works by other authors in the field, thus giving a reader a comparison of the value of the work under discussion. They both have encyclopaedic knowledge of literature. I just don't see anything like that in internet reviewing, though there is no reason why internet reviewing can't reach that standard.