In this review, McAlpin manages to turn the limitations of the newspaper book review--its brevity and its appeal to "consumer service"--into a benefit. She succinctly indicates the nature of the stories to be found in My Father's Tears and just as succinctly links these stories to Updike's previous work. This has the effect of clearing away the detritus surrounding Updike's fiction as it has been received in the final years of his career and bringing readers back to the constant concerns--at least in terms of theme and subject--that have animated Updike's work for fifty years and that are duly updated in what turns out to be his final book.
Since few book reviews do little more than recount plot and pronounce summary judgment, those that either manage to do more than that, or that manage to expoit the conventions of the book review particularly well, are really the only ones worth considering as contributions to literary criticism. (That these conventions usually make book reviews into a slightly more elevated version of the book report accounts, in my view, for the fact that most of the books reviewed in print publications are conventional, plot-bound novels. Innovative, adventurous fiction often resists plot summary, and thus such fiction is either ignored or regarded with palpable disdain.) Although the insights provided by even the best newspaper book reviews are still filtered through the listless idiom of the book review "craft," sometimes they can actually employ that craft to provide intelligent commentary.
May 31, 2003 Newspaper Book Review Sections
I just can't agree that book reviews have ever been, or are ever likely to be, part of "everyday culture." Like or not, book culture is "the preserve of a select few," although a "select few" in a population of 300 million can still add up to a lot of people. "Book talk" may not be entirely "culturally marginal," especially if that includes talk about nonfiction books related to current events, public policy, and history, but it's hard to make a case that book talk about fiction and poetry occurs anywhere but among the "select few" who think such works are important. Perhaps it is true that "Newspaper book reviews are often the first voice in public conversations about issues and ideas," but those conversations also take place mostly among a "select few" and again the books Levin must have in mind are mostly nonfiction. Moreover, this more rarefied view of the role of book reviews seems at odds with Levin's previous claim that "book review sections are still where casual readers, and that's most readers, go to find out what books they might possibly want to read." (I don't think this is true. I think most "casual readers" go to libraries and bookstores and look around, or get recommendations from their friends. I doubt that many such readers ever seriously consult book review sections to determine what "they might possibly want to read.")