Seattle is known for making nice. Express a strong opinion in a Seattle crowd and folks are likely to look down in embarrassment at their gumboots (or Guccis – a city on economic hyperdrive, Seattle is rapidly leaving its Scandinavian, working class underpinnings behind).
Monday’s NBCC “Good Reads” panel at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, an affluent Seattle suburb, was a diverting exception to the “make nice” ethic: an audience of about a hundred avid readers packed the independent bookstore’s aisles to hear NBCC winner Jonathan Raban, National Book Award winner Charles Johnson and Seattle Weekly critic Brian Miller let fly on books, reading and criticism. This writer attempted to moderate, and passed the microphone.
NBCC winner Raban (“Bad Land”) lamented an era in which, he contends, reviewers give virtual “grades” to books. Raban believes New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani effectively gives books “an A or a B or a C or a D.” The closer a novel comes to a work by novelist Anne Tyler, “the nearer it comes to being an A” for Kakutani – “not that there’s anything wrong with Anne Tyler.” In an age of quick judgments, “you don’t feel like you’re having a conversation about books.”
Johnson, winner of the 1990 National Book Award for his novel “Middle Passage,” agreed that too many reviews today “are like book reports.” Johnson longs for lengthier reviews that really get into the guts of a book – a satisfying review is “a fine mind engaging a fine mind.”
Critic Miller laid blame at the feet of impoverished newspaper budgets, and said too much reviewing is driven by what is being reviewed elsewhere. He considers his role that of a consumer advocate – “should I pay $10 see this movie? – should I pay $25 for this book? Give me a taste of what this book is or is not.”
All three agreed that word of mouth is the most effective recommendation for a book, though word-of-mouth was loosely defined. Raban recalled a recommendation he got from novelist Ian McEwan: “The Riddle of the Sands” by Erskine Childers, a 1903 novel about young English gentlemen tracking German spies in the North Sea, written in part to warn its readers about the threat of German aggression.
What are you doing reading “Riddle of the Sands”? asked Raban. McEwan’s response: “it’s the snobbery. It’s just terrific on snobbery.” “That recommendation was life-changing for me,” Raban said. On a more mundane, Web-based note, Miller said he’s found good books through Amazon.com’s referrals to books he might like, based on his site choices.
Some books “catch fire” for no definable reason, Raban said – a reader finishes a book, “and they feel like in the end they have something extraordinary to share.”
Raban, a British native who now makes Seattle his home, frequently reviews for British newspapers. He says he reads a book twice; first for pleasure, then for “the reviewer’s read,” when he attempts to get at “what the writer is trying to do….Every word in literary fiction is crucial. Every writer goes over their work at least 20 times.” Too many reviews become essays focused more on the reviewer than the book, as the reviewer focuses on his own preoccupations, not those of the book – “what am I going to say about this book? How will I get an essay out of this book? Your reviews become very egotistical.”
Johnson reviews rarely these days. When he does, he favors liberal quoting from the text “to get a sense of the voice, of the flavor of the book.” A University of Washington professor with many interests, Johnson says some books remain indispensable to his life: he rereads Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” every year “to become a better writer. There are certain books I believe we need to check in with every twenty years or so.”
—Mary Ann Gwinn is book editor of the Seattle Times and an NBCC board member.