… a Conversation
Reviewing a large number of books has created a conversation. It is a conversation among the various works. It is also the works conversing with me, the reader. This blog seeks to expand this conversation further to you, the reader.
Like my review? Hate my review? Have additions, corrections, rejoinders? I encourage you to put your thoughts, reactions, recommendations, etc. in the comment section.
… a Network
Like a conversation, book reviewing has created a network. One of the most enjoyable things about the Internet is its free-associative nature. Hence the wild proliferation of tags and categories on this blog. This book leads to this book that leads to this author I’ve never heard of, etc. Part education, part rabbit hole of discovery, I encourage newcomers and regulars to explore everything this blog has to offer. Follow your curiosity, your instincts, your pet obsessions.
In addition to this network of associations, influences, and categories, I have interviewed a number of writers and publishers. Getting to know writers, editors, and publishers has been an illuminating experience, understanding how “the sausage is made.” Another goal of this informal network is to give deserved shout-outs to up and coming authors along with giving added exposure to lesser known writers and their work.
… a Passion
I’m passionate about book reviewing (and writing cultural commentary). Passionate enough not caring whether or not I get paid for it. I enjoy reading new works, classic works, cult fiction, and so on. I categorize my aesthetic perspective as ecumenical and promiscuous. I’m open to new things, expansive and generous in my outlook, and a believer in the merits of being a generalist. I’ve read everything from Samuel Beckett to Marcel Proust to Roberto Bolaño to Warhammer 40K tie-in novels. I abhor rigid ideological orthodoxies. Sure, I have my artistic, literary, and political allegiances, but what human doesn’t? I’m just not naïve enough to assume that there are only two sides to an argument or the validity of a mindset that shoe-horns complex, nuanced, and challenging issues into Brand X or Brand Y. That’s just lazy.
… a Taxonomy
Classification is one of my obsessions. But taxonomizing things isn’t necessarily one of value judgment (see above, Brand X, Brand Y; ecumenical, promiscuous). The terms highbrow, lowbrow, Art, Commerce, genre, style, and so on have value because of their usefulness. When critics use these terms like cudgels on the reader, this becomes a crass exercise in intellectual dishonesty. Because categories are man-made constructs and the individual who concocted those categories had some kind of agenda involved, then the categories can become porous. I think Zack Snyder’s 300 is a terrible film on numerous levels. I also think it is a contemporary monument of gay camp that has the potential to become this generation’s Rocky Horror Picture Show. When putting cultural objects in boxes, best to avoid obsessing over the box.
… an Opinion
The arts get a bad rap. They aren’t the “hard sciences” and they aren’t ruled by “facts.” (I’m stereotyping and generalizing, but there’s a point to that.) Reviewing things is like being a judge. Is the book good or bad? Among the countless variables involved, the reviewer has to render a verdict. Personally, I avoid overly systematic approaches like stars, numbers, etc. (Although I use them as a reviewer over at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography.) It’s not my thing, but I’m not a strict purist either. Purity is boring.
As a judge of a book’s worth, this creates a burden of proof on my part. Yes, it is an opinion, but it is a learned opinion. One that involves the interplay of visceral reaction and intellectual contemplation. How does the book stack up to the other works of the author? Other books in the same genre? In the end, it is all about being a Taste Maker. And Taste is subjective.
Unlike the “hard sciences,” book reviewing doesn’t involve crunching numbers or plugging data into formulas. There are times when one weighs and measures the worth of the book, but one shouldn’t be overburdened by that. Reading is a reactionary process. One reacts to what is on the page. Joy. Disgust. Envy. Boredom. I enjoy reading books for review on a purely emotional level. Does it engage my interest? Some reviewers over-emphasize the idea of craftsmanship. While writing ability does play a major role in determining whether a book is good or not, for me it doesn’t simply boil down to above average word-writin’. Suffice to say I enjoy punk rock. I prefer the opening to “Anarchy in the U.K.” by the Sex Pistols over the accomplished guitar work of “Hotel California,” by the Eagles. Beyond craft, there is also intention.
The Driftless Area Review aims towards absolute integrity in its reviews. The only compensation I receive are free review copies. All reviews are genuine and forthright in their opinions.
FTC Compliance Statemen
The Driftless Area Review often receives free copies of the books reviewed here, known within the industry as “advance reading copies” or ARCs, but with no expectations on the publishers’ part that the center will write a positive review for doing so, and no such guarantee given. Other than this, the Driftless Area Review at no time ever receives further compensation from either publishers or authors (including either cash or gifts) in return for reviews written at this site, either positive or negative in nature.
… The Art of Reviewing
In the end, reviewing is an art form. I stand on the shoulders of giants, to borrow the cliché. My favorites are Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Camille Paglia, Nathan Rabin, Jeremy Clarkson, and James Wood. While reviewing is, as Jacques Barzun said, “a derivative art,” the best reviewing aspires towards that of art. Beyond the confines of craft and summarization, the best reviewing create an ancillary literature, to be read and enjoyed as much as the work itself.