If you’ve read my blog on Six Word Memoirs, you might guess I’m a fan of Mel Brooks, and you’d be right. From his early work with Carl Reiner, to ‘The Producers,’ ‘Get Smart,’ ‘The Twelve Chairs,’ ‘Young Frankenstein’ and the brilliantly crude ‘History of the World Part I.’
In the opening scenes of the latter film, Brooks takes the audience on a luge course through evolution. Somewhere in his worldview he inserts ‘the birth of the artist’ and, of course, ‘the afterbirth, the critic.’ I’ve never quite been able to rid myself of the image.
After I saw that movie I swore I would never review a book, not ever. After all, who wants to see oneself as afterbirth. But also because I might be inclined to slam some book - and then not be able to bring myself to be that honest. I know the work that goes into the writing and selling of a book. I do it myself. Any writer is to be congratulated for getting up in the morning and writing at all. And I hate the vocabulary of book reviews. And who am I to be paid for a thumbs up or down – when the author may well have been paid less for their work than the reviewer?
Years go by; I reconsider. These days, most reviewers in print are also writers. There is a fundamental respect for the task at hand and the hoops a fellow traveler must jump through to get to the point where a book reviewer is even necessary.
There are some career book reviewers who apparently enjoy the craft for the craft – I have a difficult time calling it an art – although some reviews I’ve read are brilliant jewels. They’ve sent me swiftly to the bookstore, waving dollars in hand, to buy the source material, only to be disappointed by the book itself. These reviewers know who they are; I’ve written them letters.
These days there’s growing competition among reviewers for plum assignments. Newspapers are sinking ships, as are publishers feeling the glub-glub as the waters close over their heads. And online book review sites are a dime a dozen; who to trust?
I started at an alternative weekly, then left because they felt the early shift in money and interest. Translation: they paid less and less. Portland's base changed. When I first moved here, a great Saturday night date was a reading at Powell’s Books, followed by an espresso or a glass of wine and wild sex. Then Portland the book town became Portland the indie music and foodie/booze scene. Hard to go home and read a good book when you’ve just checked out the latest upscale happy hour.
Now I freelance for four publications – two magazines, a newspaper and an online incarnation of an Oregon literary coalition. Only one of these pays well. More than I’m reimbursed for a highly praised published essay or anthologized short story.
Even the New York Times Book Review section has lost weight on a diet of diminished readership and advertising dollars. If you turn it sideways, it disappears.
At some point I rolled over. I suppose this is an apology of sorts, a mea culpa. I hope I never have nor ever will offend an author just going about his daily rounds. And perhaps evolution will proceed at Mel Brooks' pace and the critic will become extinct. We should ask Mr. Brooks while there's still time.
Causes Evelyn Sharenov Supports
Oregon Humane Society, ASPCA, PETA, HSUS