Failing The Reviewer’s Test

April 18th, 2005 · 2 Comments
by Booksquare

We have flirted for nearly a week with the idea of posting about this, well, rather strange commentary on Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book. Part of us felt like, “Yeah, it’s a particularly vitriolic review. So what.” Another part of us questioned the motivation of the reviewer. Foer failed the final — despite the fact he wasn’t enrolled in the class.

Harry Siegel walked into the book with preconceived notions about the characters and writing style. The work met his expections accordingly. We would have accepted a review that assessed the story, the writing, the plot, but that wasn’t enough. The sin of the book isn’t the writing, we came to realize. It was the perceived commercial aspirations of his work. It seems Harry Siegel found 9/11 to be a convenient marketing pitch. It also feels like Siegel wanted a different reaction from Foer and other authors to 9/11.

Siegel notes that Foer is a young(er) man. Life experience plays a great part in storytelling. It is not the author’s fault that the received a large advance or Hollywood’s attention — far more books are noticed than you think; a movie option is nice money but not necessarily the sign of bigger things to come. The personal life of the author shouldn’t intrude on a review, though we all know it does in many cases.

American writers will be poking and prodding at this subject for decades. In some cases, 9/11 will serve as the central theme. And it will be a marketing hook. It is even possible that an author will approach his theme with cynical commercial aspirations. The issue becomes whether the story works. We cannot tell from Siegel’s review because separating his personal feelings about the topic and the author from the story grew wearisome. Siegel’s initial instinct to avoid reviewing Foer’s book was right. If only he’d trusted his gut.

File Under: Books/Mags/Blogs

2 responses so far ↓

  • boris // Apr 18, 2005 at 10:51 am

    This puzzles me: the factual errors in the reviews of this book. Updike, in The New Yorker claimed that Oscar has a dog, when he has a cat. (Which plays a fairly substantial role, including in the pictures.) Here, Siegel says there is a man who cannot write, only speak, when in fact it is the reverse.
    What does this mean? I don’t know, except perhaps for a certain kind of blindness (or bad editing) on the part of the reviewer. It doesn’t make Foer’s book better, of course, but maybe there’s something to be said for reading closer than these reviewers seem to have.

  • Booksquare // Apr 18, 2005 at 1:59 pm

    Interesting comment — I think in the case of the review above, the reviewer came in with preconceived notions (based on his own comments), so careful reading wouldn’t have affected the outcome of the review. That being said, factual errors detract from a reviewer’s credibility.