What should a review do?

This past week I turned in my grades for the students in my Classic Adventure Novel course. It was a miserable business. If anything, I’m a lenient grader, which troubles me sometimes, but I just don’t like evaluating people or their work. This may sound odd coming from a longtime professional book reviewer.

But then I’ve never felt that judgment was all that important to reviewing. To my mind, description is paramount, followed by a certain amount of illustrative quotation, the whole being made as entertaining as possible so long as one avoid being rude to the author or unfair to the book. Readers of the review should enjoy the piece as a work of literary entertainment (and, perhaps, instruction), then decide on their own whether it’s something they’d like to look into further.

I suppose this rather easygoing attitude indicates a lack of critical stringency, and I suspect that’s right. I simply try to respond to any book as sympathetically as possible, do try to enjoy what it offers, on whatever plane seems appropriate. My tastes are notoriously eclectic. I can love both fair and brown.

Still, I think the most entertaining reviews do tend to possess a certain power or strength, whether that grows out of critical standards, political convictions, or personal feeling.

What do the other Reading Roomers think about reviewing? What kind of pieces are most useful? Are we in the midst of a crisis in criticism with the rise of “amateur” critiques and endorsements online? What kind of criticism do you enjoy reading? Please share your thoughts.

- Michael Dirda

 
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