Here’s something I missed awhile back: Jacob Silverman’s well-argued essay bemoaning the “the mutual admiration society that is today’s literary culture, particularly online.” An over simplification of his argument: online, book people and/or reviewers are too damned nice.
I myself have stated on this blog a couple times (at least) that, philosophically, in my occasional book reviewing, I don’t care to review books that I find particularly bad or loathsome. Since I’m not a staff writer anywhere, I have the luxury of reviewing—not always, but most of the time—books that I want to review. In the age of what Yochai Benkler termed “information overload,” or what David Foster Wallace termed “Total Noise,” the most important function of online communication is filtering. There are more choices of novels or books to read then ever. The most important role of the book critic, then, is not to suggest that Book A or Book B is good or bad, it’s to find Book C, or really tell you that Book A is worth your time. If Book B is terrible, it’s best ignored, I think. (If Book B is really that bad, chances are I didn’t even finish it—there was something better waiting on my shelf.)
There are problems with this philosophy, I realize. If you ignore Book B then some people might read it anyway, not knowing it’s terrible. Or if you ignore Books D, E, and F, then to the reader they might be considered terrible, just like Book B, even though that was not the writer’s intention.
But that still does not get us past the importance of filtering: practically speaking, if I can get one more person to read a great book I’ve reviewed (like the recent What Happened to Sophie Wilder or Haven’s Wake) then I consider that review a success. It is a small goal for a book review. But anything else seems hubristic.