Monday, April 25, 2011


Between 1977 and 2008, I published over 50 book reviews in The Los Angeles Times (Carolyn See and I were two of a handful of reviewers their editor convinced to do a book review every month starting in 1989); The New York Times Book Review; Washington Post Book World; The Chicago Tribune; Common Knowledge; The London Times; The Wall Street Journal; The American Book Review; The Seattle Weekly; Pacific Northwest; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review;Shambhala Sun; and Buddhadharma.
 I reviewed the work of many authors, among them Richard Wright, Raymond Roussel, Thomas McGuane, Cormac McCarthy, William Trevor, Barry Lopez, Toby Olson, Caryl Phillips, Chinua Achebe, Margaret Walker, Larry Neal, Wole Soyinka, Richard Rive, Stanley Crouch, Reginald McKnight, Shelby Steele, John Edgar Wideman, Gordon Parks, James H. Cone, Ben Okri, Kwame Anthony Appiah, John Updike, Gerald Early, Paul Theroux, Jerry Gafio Watts, Nelson George, Richard Ford, Dinesh D'Souza, Jim Crace, Albert Murray, Madison Smartt Bell, Jan Willis, and Angel Kyoto Williams.

 I decided that after over 50 reviews, I could let reviewing become one of the things I'd done enough of and could finally "let go." But why did I begin reviewing in the first place? The short answer is that I was eager to review books because some of the reviews of my first novel Faith and The Good Thing were shoddy, shallow and profoundly disappointing to me when I was a young man; a few reviewers made, in my opinion, all the mistakes that a critical reader should not make. Also, I began reviewing because I felt a serious writer has an obligation to respond to and be engaged with other contemporary authors during the moment they share in literary history.
Traditionally, and not that long ago, book reviewing was a literary art form in itself. (And not, as my daughter once said when she was a kid, "You're doing another book report, Dad?") Far from being like a high school "book report," a well-done book review can be a thing of beauty as memorable as the book under review---and in some cases more engaging and memorable than the book being discussed. In the case of a writer like, say, John Gardner, his reviews in The New York Times Book Review in the 1970s were often insightful "position papers" on some aspect of aesthetics inspired by whatever book he was discussing.
But I was not interested in my reviews being position papers. I preferred to restrict my taking of intellectual and artistic positions to my philosophical essays. Instead, and in a phenomenological spirit, the first thing I always did when approaching a book I had to review was "bracket" or set aside my own partisan, aesthetic positions, my personal feelings, and my notions of what a story or novel should be. (That was something I hoped each text I reviewed would teach me anew.) In other words, the first step was to get "me" out of the way. I sought to experience the work from within and in its own terms, and to let the text guide the aesthetic and cultural questions I would raise. I found that it was important to give readers as concise and accurate a summary of the book as possible, but in the case of a work of fiction never to reveal too much, because that would spoil the sense of surprise and discovery for them if they bought the book. 
And, most important of all, I found it helpful to quote liberally and (when possible) at length from the book. Why? Well, because that way a reader could directly experience the work without me, the reviewer, as a middle term mediating (or standing in the way) of readers encountering the author's own thoughts and prose style. Personally, I might not like a particular book, and sometimes a reviewer is tempted to just throw up his hands and repeat the line attributed to Abraham Lincoln: "People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like." But generosity in giving quotations gives the reader a taste of the work's flavor, and lets him (or her) make up their own mind---they might just decide that they disagree with my judgment, if it was negative, and that this is a book they would find interesting.
 In a word, I always tried to review the work of others with the kind of mindfulness, sympathy, compassion and care that I hoped reviewers would bring to my own literary creations.

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