Book reviews are on my mind. I have that piece about what might be wrong with the current state of book reviews up at Full Stop. Not too long ago, I wrote an entry on this site about being a good reader. I have one book review awaiting publication and two book reviews in the pipeline. Finally, Lee Klein had this fantastic essay published while I was out of town, and it really captured a lot of what I had been mulling over.
I love talking about what to read online. I’m not as great at it in person. Recently, I met one of my cohort for the creative writing graduate program, and he asked me what I’ve been reading lately. My mind went blank, and all I could think of was the fact that I had been reading A Song of Fire and Ice but that I definitely shouldn’t say that because I didn’t want to look uncool. I ended up saying it anyways because I made a decision that saying that series would be better than nothing, which was the only other thing I could think of.
Of course, I have read a lot more than ASoIaF lately, although none of it particularly stood out at that moment.
I think the whole process of deciding what to read and telling other people how they should make decisions about what to read is just fascinating. You have to have a certain amount of arrogance to assume that you have good taste enough to be a source of information on what to read. You have to take into account what the receiver of recommendations likes, and usually this is done in terms of other literary reference points. A friend who is a prolific reviewer recently said that a book was forgettable, but then recommended it as a good beach read, meaning a book’s enjoyment can change based on when it’s being read, not just who it’s being read by. Most book reviews I read don’t really try to capture those nuances, instead describing a book mostly in isolation besides the obligatory three lines of nodding to other literary works.
I wonder if part of the problem is that by setting apart genre and literary work, we have a hard time talking about the subgenres within literary fiction. (There are exceptions, of course. The Addiction Memoir, the Multi-Generational International Historical Fiction, the Timid Story with a Tiny Slice of Magic Realism, the Novel Loosely Based on a Recent Real World Event.) As you could guess, I find the label of literary fiction to be very problematic, and I think it actively hurts the lit community to wall themselves off from “genre fiction” for a semi-arbitrary reason. But that’s a topic for a different day.
This entry is all over the place, but I guess my questions would be what gets you to read something? What could someone say to get you to read something? Who does a person need to be to influence your reading? How do you weight venue vs. author vs. content of a review?
The Review Review always puts out good stuff, but this article about choosing where to submit is especially awesome, since it’s one of the most common dilemmas. I hate people who just say “read issues until you find something that resonates” as there’s just too much stuff out there to do that.
Finally, I’ve taken up a reader position at Noble Gas Quarterly, a new online lit mag. Check it out here.