The Power of Pans

Yesterday I wrote about a mention of a Booklist review in the book I’m reviewing for Booklist, Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker. The pre-pub reviews of Gerald Weber’s book have come in, and his editor tells him that the Kirkus review is “a little mixed” but the Booklist review is “to die for.”

(FYI, I looked up the reviews of Powers’ last novel, The Time of Our Singing, and both Kirkus and Booklist starred it. The idea of Kirkus being more critical and Booklist being more positive does fit with the cliche, as Joanne Wilkinson pointed out to me yesterday, which reminds me that I need to write in the future about why Booklist reviews always seem so positive. Anyway, moving on…)

This morning, I came across a new passage that discusses reviews in even more depth. I don’t want to give away any plot – this is about halfway through the book – but let’s just say that Weber’s book is now about to be published and another review has just come in. Weber bicycles to the library to read it:

Obscene, looking up a review of his work. Like Googling his own name…He wrote for the insight of the phrase, to locate, in some strange chain, its surprise truth. The way a reader received his stories said as much about the reader’s story as about the story itself. No final judgment. Anything this reviewer might say was just part of the distributed network, signals cascading through the fragile ecosystem. What could a pan or praise matter to him? 

But he cares what his daughter thinks, and his daughter has read the review but not the book. Therefore:

…she’d be reading, inescapably, the book this review created, in her mind. Best to know what other volumes were now floating around, spun from the one he wrote. 

Weber reads the review, and it’s bad. (It’s in Harper’s, by the way.) His thoughts must be common to many writers.

In the field of public reviewing, one scored zero for appreciating an already appreciated figure. With a target as large as Gerald Weber, one earned points only for a kill. 

There’s truth to that statement, but it’s more complicated than that. In general, people like to be in agreement. They want to be in agreement on greatness – who is great at the moment – but if mass sentiment decrees that the great one’s time has passed, no one want to be left holding the wrong opinion. So people are always sniffing the air for signs that the group opinion is about to change. Of course, Powers (through Weber), anticipates me (see? we’re having a dialog!):

…people flocked. Already, the core of the intelligentsia, wet forefingers in the air, were gauging the change in the prevailing winds. 

Finally, Weber assesses the damage the review might do.

For every twenty people who read the review, one, with luck, might read the book, while the others would describe it to friends in dismissive terms, without the inconvenience of having to look at it. 

That’s a scary thought – people using reviews as a kind of CliffsNotes or executive summary, so they can have an opinion about something they haven’t actually read. Ideally, Booklist reviews are road maps, helping people find what they’re looking for. (Long-form reviews can also help people tease other deeper meaning out of books.)

The Echo Maker is not, obviously, a book about book reviews. And I can’t assume that Gerald Weber’s thoughts about reviews stand in for Richard Powers’. But as a reviewer who writes about reviewing, I find this particular thread of the book fascinating.

But I’ll be writing about the other stuff, too, certainly when I write my review.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

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