Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The state of reviewing, the midlist writer, & the online booksellers

Just as what is profound and beautiful in art is a reflection of the mind of the maker, so the understanding or lack of understanding of a work is a reflection of the mind of the reviewer, who has set himself or herself up as a person who sees and can be trusted to share accurate sight. If that reviewer has a fine mind, the review will partake of the critic's taste, thoughtfulness, and accurate sight. If the reviewer does not, he or she may miss the book entirely--its thrust, its special beauties or lack of them, and the ways in which it differs from others of its species.

The curious thing is that the one who is lacking may achieve ascendancy over others of more experience and trustworthiness, especially in our day of slapdash web sites and online booksellers. Who can be seen as trustworthy? Well, I think a books editor who has long experience and is widely respected by writers and editors and readers is a good source. A writer who has published books of merit is another such. Among the welter of web sites, there are bloggers who are interesting and thoughtful. A full-length critique from one of these is usually a reliable review.

Yet I find that, again and again, perceptive and enthusiastic reviews from such figures are overshadowed by quick, unthinking pans from people who don't understand the book in question. I'm not talking about things such as "customer reviews," because these have their own fascination and interest. What I mean is the reprint of cursory book-in-brief magazine reviews, lacking in any support for a hastily scrawled opinion and widely shared through online booksellers and other sites.

Do online booksellers wish to be friends to the midlist writer? Shouldn't they portray the range of a writer's reviews and not take--as often happens--the most unattractive one or two available from a wealth of reviews? Does this add some sort of perverse "interest" and amusement to the bookseller's site, so that distortion is desirable? Does it have some other purpose?

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.