Thursday September 28, 2006
I’ve been writing a few reviews recently, one for Contemporary Buddhism (with another on the way), and a few for the lovely folks at Aesthetica Magazine in York. Reviewing is something that I have always enjoyed doing, but it is also something that I can at times feel uneasy about. Having my first novel about to hit the shelves next year, I am conscious that very soon the boot may be on the other foot, and I’ll be having to read reviews of my own work by folks I’ve never met. This will be an interesting experience.
I’ve been thinking lately about what the job of a review is. For a year or so I had a subscription to the London Review of Books, given to me by a generous friend of mine. There is much that is perplexing in the London Review of Books, but nothing as perplexing as the curious review style in which eminent reviewer Professor P. spends the first four pages of a five page review blowing his own trumpet before summarily dismissing the book he has been asked to review in the final page, usually on the grounds that he could have written better himself. Of course, not all reviews in the LRB are like this, but before too long I tired of all of that eminence and self-certainty. Reviews such as this fail to engage at all with the book in question, because to engage with the intention only of dismissing is not really engagement at all.
I have long been impressed by a lovely passage from Foucault (in the papers collected together under the title Ethics):
I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgements but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes – all the better. All the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination…
Foucault’s dream is a useful thing to bear in mind as a reviewer. Much of the time, I enjoy the books I review, and so this process of bringing the work to life is relatively easy. They may not be the kinds of books I would naturally read of my own volition – they just turn up in the post, and I review them – but often this just serves to open doors to worlds I would not have taken the trouble to explore on my own.
Sometimes, however (although really quite rarely), I receive a book that I simply don’t get on with. In cases such as this, it can sometimes seem as if books that you don’t get on with are every bit as difficult as people you don’t get on with. First there is the reading of the thing. But then there is the engaging with the book sufficiently deeply to be able to write a response to it. A reactive response, one that seeks to dismiss the book, almost always makes for an unsatisfactory review. The novelist Martin Amis said somewhere that it is so much easier to be creative when you are praising, or at least engaging fully with something, and that language that attempts merely to dismiss is somehow less supple and flexible, more prone to cliché. If he is right, then it is harder to do a good review (that is, a well-written and informative review that takes the book seriously) when you don’t like a book, a fact that is borne out amply in my experience of struggling to write reviews of books that I have not exactly relished. But a reviewer does not have to like a book so much as engage seriously with it, and see what comes out of this engagement.
As with books, so with people. It is not that in Buddhism there is some kind of weird demand to like everyone. That would be both exhausting and untenable. We have our likes and dislikes, and we always will. Perhaps it is more that we need to recognise that our own likes and dislikes are themselves contingent, and that if we only relate to the world upon this shifting basis, then we are going to find our existence extremely painful. Instead, in our relations with others it may be that instead of thinking that we must like them, it is possible to aspire instead to the lighting of fires, to watching of the grass growing, to listening to the wind, or to catching of the sea foam and scattering it in the breeze, giving up the all-too-easy habit of handing down sentences…
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