The Freedom of the Book Review
John Wilson on the job of the book critic and the importance of miscellany in the good reading life
This interview first appeared the summer edition of FORMA.
As the longtime editor of Books and Culture, the now-defunct bimonthly review that engaged the contemporary world from a Christian perspective, John Wilson emerged as one of the preeminent voices in Christian cultural criticism. His ability to engage with a wide range of subjects, combined with his thoughtful, careful approach to reading and editing, made Books and Culture the most important Christian literary review of the last twenty-five years. Under his tutelage, a generation of emerging reviewers was given a platform to explore the considerable way in which books (of all kinds) are transformative cultural artifacts.
Today, Wilson—whose writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, National Review, and First Things, where he still maintains a column—lives in Wheaton, IL, with his wife. We spoke with him about his life as a book critic, what he believes makes for a good review, and why miscellany is key to a quality reading life.
You have been involved in the world of book-reviewing for a long time now, as a writer and as an editor. Has your sense of what makes a good book review changed much over the years?
Yes and no. When I first started reading book reviews, I was in high school. I couldn’t have articulated clearly then what so delighted me about this protean form, but I think that from the start I was responding to the same elements that delight me today, as I’m about to turn seventy-one. In part, I was drawn by the appeal of miscellany. I wrote about this for Comment magazine in the Fall 2011 issue, under the title “Magazine as Microcosm,” in which I talked about some of the reviews in a single issue of the Times Literary Supplement (Jan. 10, 2010), chosen at random and offering “an unpredictable and never-to-be-repeated juxtaposition of subjects.” Good reviewers typically share this zest for miscellany and assume that their readers will share it too. They don’t try to “sell” their subject—the “sacred” in modern India, a dictionary of Hinduism, animal suffering, fiction by a nineteenth-century Portuguese novelist, a history of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire, new fiction by the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk and the American novelist Richard Powers, David Hempton’s Evangelical Disenchantment: Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt, or whatever it might be—but rather assume a curious reader whom they seek to inform and entertain, and now and then to provoke.
Many people, I've discovered over the years, have a narrow conception of what a book review can do or should do. This reaches its nadir in the perception of a review as essentially a “book report,” hence (supposedly) boring. But what attracted me from the beginning (though, again, I couldn't have said so at the time) was the enormous freedom the form allows! A good review can be “impersonal” or “personal.” It can be focused almost entirely on the book (or books) at hand or use the book under review primarily as a point of departure. There are very few “rules,” in fact, though this or that editor, this or that publication, may impose all sorts of constraints. That freedom appealed to me enormously (it still does), and I enjoyed seeing how many different ways a review could be done, and done well.
So when you were running Books and Culture did you have to work hard to enable a culture of thought in which that sense of freedom was felt by your contributors?
It wasn’t hard at all, especially once we had several issues out, so that anyone who actually read the mag could get a clear sense of what we were doing. (Strange but true: Throughout the twenty-one-year history of B&C, I routinely received pitches from people who had obviously not read the magazine. Most of these were for free-standing essays as opposed to reviewish pieces, our bread and butter. We did publish such essays, but only in small numbers.) The magazine brought together writers and readers with wide-ranging interests and the conviction that a robust faith should not be narrow or defensive.
In your own work as a book-reviewer do you find that you have to be conscious of crafting reviews that meet this standard or does it come naturally? That is, do you see it as something you are continually practicing? Something you’re reaching for?
It comes naturally, but you have to keep working at it—and that’s part of the fun. I can give you a recent example. I’ve thought a lot lately about the problem of “gush” in reviewing. When there’s so much hyperbolic praise floating around, how do you single out a genuinely exceptional book in a way that will hold the attention of good readers weary of the relentless oversell? That was the problem that preoccupied me when I was writing about H. S. Cross’ excellent novel Grievous (FSG) for National Review this summer.
With that in mind, I wonder: Is it harder to control the “gush” for a book you really like or the harshness for a book you think has major problems?
Ha! It’s not so much a matter of “controlling” gush (just say no); it’s rather a matter of finding a way to single out a really good book at a time when people are acclaiming “masterpieces” right and left, cheapening the conversation. I don’t often review books that I think are terrible, or that are entirely uncongenial to me, but a reviewer who’s never critical—sometimes sharply so—is letting the side down.
But having said that, I’m reminded of another widespread misconception: that reviews are all about “evaluation,” the reviewer—from his or her lofty perch—saying “5 stars” or “2 stars” or whatever. There’s so much more to it. I read tons of reviews in part because I enjoy learning in an entirely unsystematic way. (Here we go back to the appeal of miscellany.) Hence I’ve enjoyed and profited from countless reviews of books that I’ll never read.
That misconception of which you speak has, of course, infiltrated the very way people read in general. The Good Reads-ification of the reading life, if you will. We are constantly thinking in terms of questions like: What am I going to rank this book? How many stars am I going to give it? Where is it going to show up on my year-end list? And then, of course, what is that going to reveal or say about me to all my Goodreads followers or friends—or whatever we call those people. These may perfectly reasonable questions, helpful ones even, but I can’t help wondering if they’re fundamentally distracting from what a reading life ought to be about. So I wonder: Would you say that such an approach to reading has made the quest for miscellany more difficult, and the life of the reviewer less rewarding?
You’ve described the phenomenon so perfectly, you’ve left me feeling terribly depressed. Add to that the shrinkage of venues that actually pay for reviews, and I feel even worse. But then I remember Orwell’s hilariously dour essay, “Confessions of a Reviewer,” written at a time when “literary culture” was comparatively thriving, and (oddly enough) I start to feel better. Like the book itself, the book review really is a wonderful invention. And the appeal of miscellany, if not universal, has deep roots in human nature.
Ah, that’s very interesting. Do you mean that we are instinctively inclined to look for it?
In that 2011 piece for Comment that came up at the start of our conversation, I mentioned that our word “magazine” comes from an Arabic word meaning “storehouse.” Some storehouses hold just one thing, but a lot of them hold many things. “What do you have in your garage, your attic, your dorm-room closet, the back seat of your car, or those other catchalls for this or that? In our garage [which, between 2011 and now, was converted into a library], you’d find bug spray, badminton gear, bicycles, and boxes of books (many boxes of books), along with charcoal for the barbecue, old letters, and large bags of birdseed for the feeder (secured under tight lids to foil invaders), among other things. Seen in one aspect, the world is just like that, except that there’s much more stuff. Everything, in fact.”
So magazines in general and review sections, in particular, give us a taste of the whole shebang. Reality is miscellaneous.
It seems to me, though, that the job of the review section is to assess that miscellany. So as an editor of a review section, how do you balance the sense that you need to assess the quality of what you’re looking for, with the desire to follow your bliss, so to speak.
Hmm. There’s a lot to sort out here. First, and once again, an over-emphasis on one function of reviewing: assessment. That’s an important part of what reviews (and review editors) do, but only a part. There’s no question, of course, of merely “following your bliss” in deciding, let’s say, what books will be covered in this week’s or this month’s issue or next Monday’s postings online. Whoever is making those decisions, whether the editors of the New York Times Books Review in conclave or the book editor (singular) of a weekly or a small print quarterly or the editorial team of a web-only site, there will be many more books worthy of consideration than there are available review-slots. How then do you decide what to cover?
That’s a question I was asked hundreds of times during the twenty-plus years I was editing Books & Culture, and before that I dealt with it in a slightly different form when I was working for a reference publisher (among things) editing Magill’s Literary Annual, which covered each year (in two bound volumes) two hundred books published in the previous calendar year. There’s no simple answer. I started by talking about an economy of abundance as opposed to an economy of scarcity. You can’t endlessly wring your hands over what you’re unable to cover. Better to relish the wild variety in what you are able to cover, always suggestive of much more. My own preference is for a wide range in subjects, a wide range in reviewing style and viewpoint. As a reader, I like to be surprised; I don’t like a narrow predictability.
Given the reality that there is limited time and limited space (even for an online publication), did you feel any special pressure as you chose what books to cover—and how to cover them?
No. Again, think in terms of an economy of abundance. This isn’t Panglossian prattle. There are several stacks of recent and fairly recent new arrivals within a few feet of me as I’m typing just now. Every single book in those stacks could legitimately be reviewed. I do my best to spread the word by various means (Twitter included). But what gets in any given review section will be a small slice of what could be there. It would be possible to brood endlessly about that. But it’s also possible to reflect on the sheer abundance surrounding us (contrary to many popular narratives).
Speaking of which—what effect do you think reviews actually have on the buying habits of readers? And to what degree should reviewers be attentive to their corresponding influence (or lack thereof)?
It probably depends to some extent on the reviewer and the reader. In 1975, I read Hugh Kenner’s review of Walker Percy’s book The Message in the Bottle. After roughly forty-five years, I can still remember how the review began. (Kenner, among his many gifts, was one of the best reviewers I’ve encountered in my lifetime.) Before I even finished the review, I knew I wanted to read Percy’s book as soon as possible. I called Vroman’s, by far the best bookstore in Pasadena (where I’d been working just recently), but they hadn’t received it yet. So I called B. Dalton’s in Hollywood. Yes, they had a copy. I asked them to hold it for me, and Wendy and I drove from Pasadena to Hollywood. On the way back, Wendy needed to stop at Kmart and pick up a couple of things. I started reading the book sitting in the Kmart parking lot. You may remember the amazing first essay, “The Delta Factor,” which opens with a series of questions. “Why is man so sad in the twentieth century?” And so on. By the time I’d read a couple of pages, there were tears in my eyes—not because I was sad, but because the book was so good.
But as I mentioned earlier in our conversation, I’ve profited from reading countless reviews of books that I will never purchase or check out from the library, books that I will never read.
Have you read David Epstein’s new book, Range, by any chance?
No, I haven’t. Tell me about it.
Well in some ways it’s an apology for what you’re espousing in the reading life. The subtitle is “Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” and it makes the case that our cultural inclination to “rush to develop students [well—everyone, really] in a narrow specialty area, while failing to sharpen the tools of thinking” more broadly is problematic. The best readers (and certainly good reviewers), I hear you saying, are, like great jazz musicians, improvisers. They’re capable of creatively interpreting a wide variety of sounds. It takes a long time to acquire a familiarity with a catalogue of sounds to interpret—a lifetime even—but that pursuit is part of the craft. Much like the art of reading. As an art, it’s more than just a set of skills (or questions to ask).
That’s interesting. I don’t think I buy the bit about generalists necessarily “triumphing,” but I love what you say about “improvising” and about certain lifelong practices and habits of mind. There really is a payoff in the long haul—as long as one has one’s “faculties,” at least!
Well, that brings me to my final question: As a longtime reviewer who spends a lot of hours in a lot of books, do you have any recommendations for habits or skills or techniques, so to speak, for helping someone read more closely and remember more?
I don’t think I have anything golden along those lines, but here are a couple of practices (not in the least original or striking, not rising to the level of “techniques”). When I’m reading a book for review, whether fiction or nonfiction, I always have a lot of Post-its handy. (I have a horror of writing on the pages of a book; many good readers would scoff at this notion, I know.) I also use Post-its when I’m reading a novelist that I periodically re-read, sometimes simply to mark a striking sentence, other times for jotting brief notes. When I’m reviewing a book of fiction, or simply reading a novel, say, for the first time, I almost always immediately re-read it, assuming it’s a book I have enjoyed. The first reading is unique. In the follow-up, I try to get a deeper sense of the way the book works. Reading nonfiction is different, and of course “nonfiction” comes in many flavors. But there’s a characteristic excitement, early on, when you begin to grasp the “argument” of the book. Good writers have a way of allowing you to share in the sense of discovery they felt when they were first understanding what it was they wanted to say. You’re getting that experience in a radically compressed form, and it can be intoxicating.
*Photo credit: Gary Gnidovic
David Kern is Editor-in-Chief of FORMA Journal, the director of the Close Reads Podcast Network, and head of multimedia for the CiRCE Institute.