Saturday, April 11, 2009

Good Critic, Bad Critic

I am often asked why I like to read book reviews, and what it is that they really do. I mean: why not read the original book, for God's sake? It's a hard question and the best answer is, as it often is , the pragmatic one. With non-fiction, book reviews often serve as a substitute for the book itself. With fiction, it is harder to justify. But life is short, so is time and when one has a pile of books to read, it only makes sense to be judicious when adding to it.

I bring this up because I read three reviews of a book recently and taken together, they all bring out the fine line between book reviews that function as, well, just book reviews and book reviews that manage to be works of genuine criticism.

The book in question is the latest sensation from France: Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones.

For a book review that is truly nothing more than book review, see Michiko Kakutani's review in the New York Times.

For a review that rises to the level of criticism, see Daniel Mendelsohn's fine, searching analysis in the New York Review of Books.

And for a review that is written in the spirit of criticism but doesn't quite make it primarily because it follows the fairly predictable arc of the New Republic takedown, see Ruth Franklin's review for the New Republic. (I knew what she was going to say even before I started reading the first paragraph and true to form, she didn't disappoint.)

(Interestingly, both Franklin and Mendelsohn make some of the same points, but they both take them in different directions. In Kakutani's defence, she has to summarize the book and evaluate it in just 2 pages so she really doesn't have that much space to produce genuine criticism.)