My View

Context N°17

by Anne Burke

Reviewing the Reviewers

I haven’t commented for some time now on the state of book reviewing. Let’s take a look again. One of the reviewers’ favorite lines about Dalkey Archive titles is that—even when the reviewer is generally praising the book—they aren’t “for everyone.” A number of years ago, this line seemed to be a requirement for any reviewer at the New York Times Book Review or NPR. Its latest appearance is in a review by—of all places—the Complete Review (perhaps the most interesting review source on the net), which recently reviewed Patrik Ourednik’s Europeana. Since these reviewers seem to know that a book “isn’t for everyone,” then should we assume that they have a list of books that are for everyone? Surely they must. Let us also assume that they would all agree that such authors as Homer, Shakespeare, Joyce, Proust, and Faulkner are “not for everyone.”  So, since they  appear to use “for everyone” as a standard to which writers should aspire, what books could possibly achieve this universal acclaim that Europeana fails to achieve? The only one that comes to mind is The Little Engine That Could. I’ve never heard any complaint whatsoever about this book.

All reviewers, in the  future, should be required to list at least five books that they see as “for everyone,” a practice that might allow us to judge their tastes and intelligence rather than simply using the phrase to dismiss a book that they seem unable to dismiss in any other way, or at least any way that can stand a close inspection, though the reviewer in the Complete Review did clearly indicate a distaste for the author’s use of “etc.” Why, he doesn’t say, but this is the kind of thing that reviewers can get away with.

Would it not be better for such reviewers simply to say, “I don’t get this book” rather than assuming their position on Mt. Olympus from which to make their judgments? Rare is the reviewer who could admit that there are some books that he or she can’t get. Better still would be that reviewers start all reviews with a statement about what kind of fiction they like: “Strong plot,” “suspense,” “true-to-life characters,” “patriotic,” “easy to follow,” “nothing too hard,” “just stories about growing up in Minnesota,” “a story that even an imbecile can follow,” “something that reminds me of home,” “anything that shows that true love is true,” or “sentimental Irish tales.” With such statements in hand, the beleaguered reader will have at least an outside chance of judging whether to pay any attention to what follows.

I should add here that Europeana is brilliant, funny, ingenious, risk-taking, etc., etc., etc., etc. I am also convinced that it indeed is not for everyone, as attested to by the Complete Review. Now let’s take a look at a recent review of another Dalkey Archive title in Library Journal by a librarian from an aerospace library—I realize that this sounds like bad satire on my part, but ’tis true. Someone at Library Journal must have perused this gem of a book—Natural Novel by the Bulgarian novelist Georgi Gospodinov—and decided (based upon the novel’s unconventionality) that it would be perfect for an aerospace librarian. Less generous than the reviewer in the Complete Review, this reviewer does not praise the book on the one hand but then dismiss it with the tag line of “not for  everyone.” Etc., etc., etc.

Our Trip to the Netherlands

Consul General Robert J. H. de Leeuw from the Netherlands Consulate in Chicago,  Maria Vlaar from the Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literary Works, and Greet Ramael from the Flemish Literary Fund brought two Dalkey editors and myself to Amsterdam, with a one-day excursion to Antwerp, to meet with a variety of publishers, critics, and scholars, as well as the heads of a few literary organizations. As usual, I was told to stay on the sidelines and keep quiet, and as usual was not put up at the same upscale hotel that the editors were: instead, they put me in a place called simply “Hotel.” The upshot of the trip is that Dalkey will be signing on several  works. The most interesting meeting for me was with Uitgeverij De Harmonie, a small publisher who has offices in the heart of Amsterdam. Like most founders of small presses that I’ve met, Jaco Groot was insistently shy but never stopped talking. His advice to small presses everywhere: Don’t hire very many people because a large staff costs too much. As he put it: “Stay small.” He has a staff of three, including himself. The editors seemed to nod in agreement with all that he said.

Where Next?

An Austrian government agency is funding an editorial trip to Austria later this spring. If I am allowed to go, all that I want to do in Austria is to meet Gert Jonke. Now there’s a writer who’s not for everyone.

The MacArthur Foundation

Not much to say here except that THE MACARTHUR FOUNDATION STILL DOES NOT FUND LITERATURE. A recent study by a Chicago-area research firm found that not a single employee at the MacArthur Foundation has ever finished reading a book. One respondent from the foundation said, “I myself prefer a good  movie. They are over pretty quick and then you can go get something to eat.”

Alone or Not?

Eliot wrote: “Old men ought to be explorers.” He did not elaborate in such a way as to say whether they should explore alone or whether they would need help. Time, as they say, will tell.

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