During my 11 years as an independent bookseller/buyer, the New York Times used to regularly drive my staff bonkers. Our Westport customers were the sort that expected us to be able to tell them how well a book was reviewed in the daily and Sunday editions, so they could then decide if a book was worth buying. This worked out well enough for books that were only reviewed in one or the other and decisively so. It also worked fine for those books prominent enough to be reviewed in both where the individual reviews were in agreement: yea or nay. But what of those times when the Paper of Record couldn't agree with itself? When the right hand said "read, read, read," while the left hand said "run, run, run"? It's enough to make a bookseller scream.
On October 19, Michiko Kakutani reviewed John Updike's latest novel, The Widows of Eastwick - sequel to his 1984 book The Witches of Eastwick - in the daily Times. Amid some praise, she called the new book "deeply flawed," adding later on "Mr. Updike’s descriptions of these magical doings are cringe-making in the extreme, not funny or satiric as he perhaps intends." Doesn't sound like much of a keeper, does it? But then along comes Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the Book Review and the Week in Review, riding in on his white steed in the Sunday edition with a front-page review of Mr. Updike's book that is nothing short of elegiac.
"John Updike is the genial sorcerer of American letters," he opens. "His output alone (60 books, almost 40 of them novels or story collections) has been supernatural." (Gee, they never talk so reverently about Joyce Carol Oates' output. In fact, she's lucky they never outright call her a hack.) Tanenhaus continues, "This isn't writing. It's magic." Oh, and he really loves the book. You can tell because, before long, the reader is hearing about "At 76, he still wrings more from a sentence than almost anyone else"; "genius"; and "No writer of our time..."
The work is "deeply flawed." The man's a "genius"! What to make of the bipolar Times? And why, finally should we care?
We should care because writers regularly argue about the worth of particularly books, and they really argue about the worth of certain genres, as though somewhere in the universe there is some objective measuring stick, when in reality, their opinions are about as scientific as the argument about art v porn: "I know it when I see it." Yes, perhaps you do know great writing when you see it - or at least you think you do - but are you sure anyone else will see what you see? Maybe the other person is right and you're just seeing wrong or seeing what you want to see?
This is all by way of saying that it's fine as far as it goes to rely on the opinions of others in guiding us in our reading choices. But when there's no consensus among even the great critics on what is high art and what is merely OK, on what is "genius" and what is "deeply flawed," what's a poor reader got to fall back on? Her own opinion, apparently, which is probably just as good a yardstick as any.
Be well. Don't forget to write.