Some book reviews are so harsh, so thoroughly biting and dripping with such disdain, you figure either the reviewer has peeled away all of a book's pretense and exposed the fraudulent core to sunlight, or else it's personal—maybe the author stole money from the reviewer at some point in the past, or treated his sister poorly. I'm not sure which is the case with Stephen Metcalf's scathing assault on Thirteen Moons, the new novel by Charles Frazier. He takes Frazier to task for "bad faith" with the reader, a damning indictment, indeed.
Reviewing fiction is a tricky thing, subjective by definition—subject to wildly varying tastes and points of reference. We all have favorite novels that have been both praised and panned. Because of the marketing machine behind Frazier's new release, we can already find an assortment of reviews from major outlets. I read three in the first week, including a so-so critique at Salon.com, and a generally positive endorsement in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Reviewing non-fiction is another matter. The work is still subject to the reviewer's personal perspective, but things like accuracy and organization weigh heavily in the analysis. Some reviewers have vendettas, apparently, but generally speaking, a good reviewer who skewers a work of non-fiction does so with the spirit of a faithful guard dog, whose loud growls tip off the reader that his time and money are best spent elsewhere. Fangs are also bared to serve notice that a particular work does not deserve to share shelf space with worthwhile Civil War books. Sometimes the skewering is simply the natural response to being insulted as a reader, and consumer.
The expanding Civil War market of the 80s and 90s (now rapidly fading), and the advent of myriad self-publishing options and vanity presses, has kept the guard dogs busy. I should have mentioned at top that critiquing a book is a solemn endeavor, and just as surely as there are poor authors, there are poor reviewers, ill-equipped for the task, who do the reader and the author a disservice.
That said, few things are as satisfying to read or write as the authoratative annihilation of a piece of crap passing itself off as a work of serious scholarship. I wish I could find an old clipping I had from The Civil War News, many years ago, of a Richard McMurry review of The South Was Right, by Kennedy & Kennedy. It was deliciously dismissive of one of the worst books ever written on the subject, with all of the sarcasm and wit that has garnered McMurry fans and detractors for decades.
When I started this blog entry, I intended to spend some time musing about the responsibility (obligations) of the book reviewer, and where the best (Civil War) reviews might be found—things I've spent some time thinking about as a former book review editor, and occasional reviewer myself. I have long loved the book review sections of newspapers, magazines, newsletters, and such. The right reviewer for the right book makes for a great essay, smart and informative. Everything I know about some subjects, I read in the Sunday book review section.
But I've rambled enough for tonight, and will weigh in on the subject in a more focused way later, if I can think of a way to do it without sounding like a pompous ass. This entry made mention of skillful skewerings of a work of fiction that might not have deserved it, and a work of non-fiction that fairly begged for the coup de grace. But there's more to the art of critiquing Civil War studies than shish kebab. Sometimes just an honest overview, with commentary on the bibliograpy, suffices.
Photo: Washington, D.C. In the library at the United Nations service center. Boys are urged to take books back to camp with them. Bubley, Esther, photographer. 1943 Dec.