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May 12, 2003
What's Your Point Of View?

In the first issue of The Believer, Heidi Julavits, who professes a religious allegiance to books, argues that bad books are reviewed too positively, and ambitious books are reviewed too negatively.

The Antic Muse has some things to say about that, and I have one thought to add too...

Julavits brings up the idea of service, exclaiming, "I'm interested in who or what a book review best 'serves.' The reader? The author? The culture? The critic? The first obvious answer: the reader."

While she spends a couple paragraphs explaining how book reviews might serve readers, she doesn't really connect this idea to why reviewers frequently overpraise unambitious books.

To me, it seems likely that this happens because reviewers probably recognize that unambitious books are generally aimed at unambitious readers - that is, people who are looking for less from a book than Heidi Julavits is.

Thus, to review a book as though it should provide its potential readers with a more profound experience than they actually want from it is to fail to serve them. Or to put it in a slightly different way, why bother pointing out that a book lacks literary ambition when that's exactly why its potential readers will likely find it appealing?

And a similar dynamic holds true for deliberately "ambitious" books, which tend to attract ambitious readers who, like Julavits, expect more from books than most people do. To serve those readers well, reviewers have to assess an ambitious book more rigorously than they would a less ambitious book, and thus, the potential for negative criticism increases.

In both cases, it's simply about judging a book on its own terms, and of course this offers a valuable life lesson that can be applied to all aspects of life: if you want to succeed, strive for mediocrity.

Meanwhile, even using the higher standards one must apply to a deliberately ambitious magazine, I think The Believer is quite good, and give the first two issues, and especially the second one, an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Long interviews, long book reviews, interesting features, handsome design, snappy illustrations - what more could you want, except maybe a classy perfume-strip ad or two? Just because you're serious about books and slightly suspicious of commerce doesn't mean you can't smell good!

Posted by Greg Beato at 06:02 PM