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“Literary Topographies” by Daniel Green

Time for a change?

Recently Lev Grossman explained how he chooses books to review. “I review books,” he proclaimed, “if they do something I’ve never seen done before; or if I fall in love with them; or if they shock me or piss me off or otherwise won’t leave me alone; if they alter the way my brain works; if I can’t stop thinking about them; if for whatever reason I absolutely have to tell people about them.”

Scott Esposito appropriately enough questions how candid Grossman is being, pointing out that his sinecure at Time necessarily constrains Grossman to “a very limited range of choices.” As Scott reminds us, “in most cases he’s functioning as an adjunct of a publisher’s marketing department, essentially adding whatever institutional and personal authority he has to the marketing push for a book that has almost certainly been acclaimed 10 times over by ‘reviewers’ that are similarly empowered.”

Perhaps Scott is correct in thinking that “Grossman is an honest, decent guy” who sincerely believes he is applying his stated criteria, but you don’t have to assume that he has willingly sold out to the masters of marketing and publicity to conclude that he doesn’t really do much for the cause of contemporary literature in his book reviewing practices. It’s surely true that his choice of “top ten” fiction for 2011 is mainstream and predictable (the few lesser-known titles still fall safely within the boundaries of establishment acceptability in form and theme), but this is probably just as much the result of a mainstream, predictable critical sensibility on Grossman’s part as it is obeying the dictates of capitalist overlords. (Although we shouldn’t forget that those overlords depend on the sensibilities of someone like Grossman to perpetuate themselves.)

The absurdity of Grossman’s claim that he looks for “something I’ve never seen done before” is plain just from looking over that top ten list. Everything on that list has been done before. On the other hand, it may be true that Grossman believes himself to be looking for the “never done,” and that he has found it, but ultimately this only reveals that Grossman is truly unable to determine the “never done” when he sees it. Either he is so unfamiliar with innovative fiction, past and present, that he doesn’t have a firm grasp on the concept in the first place or he willfully confines his attention to the publishing mainstream, where small differences inevitably become magnified–although of course these two explanations are not mutually exclusive. In either case, these choices, as well as the kinds of books he habitually reviews, certainly do suggest it doesn’t take much to “shock” Grossman or to piss him off; likewise, his brain must be easily altered.

Later in his essay Grossman foreswears the “hatchet job,” explaining that “a thoroughly negative review needs to justify its existence thoroughly, and for that you need a lot of words, and TIME’s book reviews don’t run long enough. So if I don’t like a book, I leave it alone.” This is fair enough, although such a policy does only reinforce the impression that reviews in a magazine like Time exist primarily to promote the products of mainstream publishing. Further, why does Grossman assume that a positive review, or mixed review, if it is to be a valuable, doesn’t also require “a lot of words”? In my opinion, it’s just as difficult to justify a favorable review as an unfavorable one, and again Grossman encourages us to think his reviewing policy is mostly meant to help sustain the powers that be.

What Grossman describes as his concept of the reviewer’s role is at first sight unobjectionable: “I think of the reviewer’s role now as being more about providing context for a book, tracing its lineage in the tradition and locating it in the literary topography of the present. . . .” Providing context is an essential part of reviewing as literary criticism, although again I don’t know why this can’t be done for a negative as much as for a positive review, and Grossman’s shaky understanding of what makes a work of fiction original makes me doubt he knows that much about a work’s “lineage in the tradition.” Identifying “literary topography” is all well and good, too, but if your notion of what that topography is like is constrained by ignorance of the full extent of the territory, your effort isn’t going to count for much.

Unfortunately, too many professional reviewers like Grossman are similarly unable to reconcile lofty ambitions for what they do with what they actually do. Their elevated notions of book reviewing as real criticism can’t be taken seriously when measured against their hopelessly limited conceptions of how to carry out these ambitions and of what books require their attention. Whether the responsibility for this situation goes to the publications that enlist such reviewers in order to maintain the power of the mainstream status quo, or to the reviewers so empowered, probably doesn’t finally matter, since the result is the same: A small and not particularly interesting part of the literary landscape is singled for not very interesting commentary, while much of the most important work goes on elsewhere.


This piece originally appeared at The Reading Experience – Daniel Green’s blog and website.

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