There was a time when I actually believed … that as a critic I was an avenging angel with a flaming sword, and that part of my job was to help rid the culture of books that were sucking up more of the literary oxygen than they deserved. Lev Grossman, TIME book reviewer
Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. John Updike
As we examine, in this series, the work of reviewing, I would like to consider what a reviewer is, and just as importantly, what a reviewer is not.
If you are a reviewer, you are not an avenging angel; you’ve got no flaming sword to cut down books. No doubt there are books that deserve to be purged from the culture, but that’s not the work of a reviewer. It’s not really the work of anyone. Don’t make it your mission to shape a book’s fate. That is for readers to decide, and whatever influence you have should come on the wayside of your real goal, which is to review well and accurately.
You are not an enforcer of standards, because even if you could enforce any standards, they would only be your own, and there’s no reason one individual’s standards should be imposed on the literary world at large.
You are not a corrections officer, of authors or of books – or of the industry. Never review books with an eye toward changing or policing the genre to which those books belong. A book review is not a battleground for a war against the bad ideas, stupid cliches, or low quality of – well, fill in the blank: the romance genre, dystopian YA, Christian fiction …
You are not a warrior in an ideological battle – unless the author starts it, in the book under review. Any philosophy a book shows, any point or statement it makes is fair game; when a book enters the lists, feel free to sally forth to meet it. It is one of the glories of all books, even novels, to fight in the war of ideas. Just be sure you’re not dragging a book into an arena it doesn’t actually enter. We all have our convictions and our pet peeves, but it’s not fair to take them out on books that don’t explicitly cross them. And another thing to hold in mind: Lack of support should not be mistaken for an attack.
You are not the caretaker of any tradition – or the vanguard for any revolutionary cause. There are all sorts of literary traditions and causes, all backed up by honest conviction. Some are worthy, but probably none are worthy enough to be the yardstick by which all books are measured. Even if your cause is that worthy – the purpose of your book-reviewing should not be to fight for it. There’s nothing wrong with polemics, but a book review shouldn’t be one.
There is one principle behind all this, and that is simply to, as far as possible, take books exactly as they are, and review them only for what they are. Don’t pursue any other agenda. Just read a book, try to see it for what it is, and express what you see.
You are a reviewer.