Reviews and Reviewers – Introduction


by Stephen Randorf.

Not all readers check out the reviews for an author’s book before they purchase it. And authors often regard them, the reviews, as a nuisance, especially when they are critical. But for the readers who do read them, I believe what they want, what they are looking for, is some idea of what the book is about: Is this the type of story that I have liked in the past? Will I like these characters? Is this book or author similar to something else I have read? How long exactly will it take me to read this? However, for authors, particularly those in the burgeoning crop of indie authors, such reviews (any reviews) are quite significant for the sale and promotion of their books.

The use of opinions by other like-minded people to judge whether a book is worth their time to read or not – that is – to take that long journey through the pages of someone else’s words and thoughts and come out with a good feeling afterward, is not something new. But I doubt most readers understand the significance of these reviews to the authors. A 5 star review or even a 1 star review? An author parades them like a badge of honor. “Look! See? People like what I have done.”

So I have collected a few interesting thoughts and opinions of reviews from the publishing past of authors and critics who are long since gone. This discussion will be directed more toward reviews and reviewing in general than anything specific to writers of crime fiction.

The first one up in the queue will be Honore de Balzac and his novel Lost Illusions (1837), which is concerned with the commercialization of the publishing industry in the early eighteen hundreds. His characters are used as stand-ins for the wider commercialization of the growing bourgeois class in France at that time. This novel, a wonderful novel and of considerable length, is filled with an interesting cast of characters, including poets, publishers, critics, and reviewers. As one such character in the novel, a reviewer, states: “It’s a dirty business, but I live by it, and so do hundreds of others.” He is referring to taking bribes and selling review copies on the side.

And then I move on to Soul and Form, a short book and one of the earlier ones by Georg Lukacs, an Hungarian writer who frequently wrote on theories of the novel and questioned the commercialized state that our world has moved into. Many of his books are a bit dry and hard trudging, but in Soul and Form his writing is much more lyrical, and in this one chapter (Richness, Chaos, Form.) he uses a dialogue method to review a volume of Laurence Sterne’s work. As we will see he does this by presenting two young men who intellectually compete for the attention of a woman. This dialogue format gives us – the reader – dramatic tension, and with each young man taking opposite sides of each argument, both the pros and cons of Sterne’s work are fully discussed. It is only this one chapter (Richness, Chaos, Form) which I will be referencing.

I personally love the book reviews by Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) almost more for his clear use of language than their content. I think he is read less today because of the fact that most of the books and authors which he reviewed have either become mainstays in our culture and have been written about more fully by others or that the author reviewed has slipped into obscurity and no one cares to write anything more about him. I am grouping Van Wyck Brooks (1886-1963) in this same category of reviewers. He is another writer who one wishes to read just for the pleasure of his use of the American language. Most of Brook’s commentary concerns the early American authors of the 1800’s. Did you ever wonder where the farmers in rural New England or the South bought their copies of The Vicar of Wakefield, Robinson Crusoe or Tristram Shandy? There is a book I would like to tell you about.

Finally, we have Vissarion Belinsky (1811-1848) and his circle of friends, including Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov. And what is there to be said about these people? Perhaps that they took literary criticism to the extreme? They argued that the merits of a book should be judged on a moral basis by what it contributes to society. If it does not contribute in a positive, moral way, then is it lacking. This may appear like a good argument at first or at least one worth giving some thought to, after all, most of us writers would like to believe that literature does matter, but what happens to books and novels, under that criteria? What happens if they fall short of this measure? Or what if an author does not wish to influence society in any way? What becomes of their work? Or of them?

There was a time when critics, these critics and their school of thought, actually had an influence on what books should be read and what books were harmful to society. These men might not have been alive when this attitude was institutionalized by others, such as Maxim Gorky, or when fine writers such as Isaac Babel and others who were silenced or disappeared, but they did plant the seed. I will not be discussing the extremes in which others took this school of thought, but I do think that there is a door which we can open safely to consider the idea that literature does matter, and it can be discussed as a counterpoint to the idea of “art for art’s sake” as Vissarion Belinsky did.

Topic headings:
Honore de Balzac – A Cynical View, with examples from Lost Illusions.
Georg Lukács – Soul and Form, presenting an interesting method for reviewing.
Edmund Wilson & Van Wyck Brooks – An American Perspective, by two classic reviewers.
Vissarion Belinsky – A Russian Idea (or when critics go wild.)

Works Cited:
Balzac, Honoré de. Lost Illusions, trans Herbert James Hunt. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1971.
Brooks, Van Wyck. From a Writer’s Notebook. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1958.
———. The World of Washington Irving. New York : E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1944.
Lukács, Georg. Soul and Form, trans. Anna Bostock. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 1978.
Wilson, Edmund. Classics and Commercials: a literary chronicle of the forties. New York: Farr,
  Straus and Giroux, 1950.
Proctor, Thelwall. Dostoevskij and the Belinskij school of literary criticism. The Hague ;
  Paris : Mouton, 1969.

Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf