August 05, 2008



Okay I'll jump in, God help me. I agree that most times the "I" creeps in it's wankery. But let's not reduce the reviewing process to some totally implausible scientific method which it never was. The "I" is always there, stated or unstated, just like the ego is always at the wheel.


The 'I' has to remain implicit. As soon as the reviewer strays into anecdote, the only possible reaction is to say; 'It's not about you' and stop reading. If the reviewer has personal experiences that may be relevant to his review, this can be explained to the reader in a sidebar of the 'John Doe spent 5 years in jail for fraud' type.
The colleague or friend who wants to show you holiday or baby photos has always been a hazard. As the 'look at my life' tendency takes over broadcasting and reviewing, we can at least switch off or close the pages.

Elizabeth McCullough

I don't have any data, but I expect the personalizing trend in news broadcasts is an effort at building brand loyalty among viewers. If you feel you know intimate details of NewsTeam 13's personal lives, you'd be more apt to tune in night after night to see your "friends."

The "I" is very prominent in children's book reviewing, I think particularly when the reviewer is someone not familiar with the genre. Reviews of children's book very frequently begin with personal anecdotes along the lines of, "When I was a child, I...," which I guess is the author's way of establishing credibility -- I was once a child, therefore I can properly judge this book.

So, for instance, Stephen Heller writes, "Back in the 1960s, when I was a teenager, I was always melancholic after hearing the last verse of Peter, Paul and Mary’s 'Puff, the Magic Dragon,' released in 1963." Yes, weren't we all? He doesn't mention the title of the book under review until the third paragraph. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/11/books/review/Heller-t.html?pagewanted=print


It's all in how it's used. A well-placed "I" shouldn't be a problem, but a meandering, chatty, cute "I" that dominates an entire article is a disappointment in the NYTBR.

Aram Zucker-Scharff

By creating a personal element in their reviews, reviewers are preserving their livelihood. Without personal customer loyalty (generated by having the reader identify with the writer), the reviewer loses readers to blogs and social networking sites like Goodreads.

Like it or not, this looks to be the future of journalism.

Michael O'D

"The democratic idea is noble -- but the result is often a clutter of ill-informed, reactionary manure that reeks of me, me, me."

Funny to come across this line on a blog; it's a point that's usually marshalled against bloggers and in support of professional journalists.

For my money, Levi's got it right. An anti-"I" fetish is silly (you'll find "I"s in plenty of great works of criticism). No, the problem is personal anecdotes poorly deployed.

Jim Ruland

Aram raises a good point. Many of the reviews I read on Goodreads are spurred by the author of the review, not the author of the book.

My favorite reviewers at Goodreads tend to be those that are more informal, but the reason for the informality is to establish context for the work under review rather than shed some light on "where the reviewer is coming from." That's a crucial distinction, I think.


Here's why, in the main, I really don't care for the "I" in a review: Because, in general, (not always, to be fair, but in the main) it usually signifies an abandonment of a certain level of critical rigor in favor of what Updike called a "flabby impressionism." Ultimately, my own preference is I don't want a reviewer intruding on a review; that doesn't mean a reviewer can't have a strong and identifiable voice - hell, look at my hero Mr. Wood. But spare me your aw shucks anecodtes and self-congratulatory paeans; one can only take so much okeydoke in 800 words.

In the fairness of full disclosure, I did include an "I" once in a review but it was at the specific urging of my editor, who was hungry for a dose of that personal touch in the piece. You can read it here and judge for yourselves whether or not I fell into the same trap:


Michael O'D

A book review is nothing more nor less than one person’s impression of a book. Whether the reviewer hides that fact with clever obfuscations like “one” or “this critic” or (my favorite) “your reviewer,” or comes right out and says, “I” really shouldn’t be the point. (Although “I” is certainly more direct.) The point should be that a review must be a work of limitless prose and must say something sharp and new. Of course I agree that the examples you sometimes post of over-indulgent reviewers letting a silly personal anecdote color an entire piece are spinning flat tires. I just think that’s more because they’re written terribly and have nothing interesting to say than because they used a forbidden pronoun.

Ricky Grove

I don't mind anecdote in a review. After all, a review is autobiography in the first place. I just object when the writing is boring. And I don't think we need to place limits on what a reviewer should or should not write about. It's all fair game. The key is to write well and say something interesting.


I don't read book reviews for enjoyment, I read them to help decide whether a book is worth it or not. So I don't want reviews to give too much away (they usually do); I want them to be readable (they usually aren't because professional reviewers love to showcase their thesaurus skills for some reason); and I don't give a hoot about the reviewer or their cute life. A good review is concise.

I won't miss any of these book review sections in the newspapers, even though it's fashionable to cry about it. What are we really losing that isn't available online?


Me thinks it's a cultural phenomenon of the egomaniacal reviewer/commentator; now there's a way to avoid the "I". Seriously though, I agree with the above statements, especially Levi. In a well-written and insightful review, a small insertion of the "I" will hardly be noticed. It is those derailing and tangential "I's" and "me's" that sends the whole essay or review into a driveling subjective smüsh.

I suspect this way of interacting with a work is a trend and the pendulum will swing the other way when enough readers tire of it.


I'm on the fence about this review. What no one's mentioned is that the whole point of Bailey's starting out by talking about himself is to show what a good book Reed wrote -- he started out mindlessly prejudiced against it (which perhaps means the NYT shouldn't have assigned it to him, but that's another issue) but ended up liking it anyway. It's not your typical book review, but everybody complains when the Times runs nothing but personality-free typical book reviews, so why not try something a bit different? On the other hand, Bailey does go on about himself a little bit too long for my taste, and he should have taken himself out of the review after the lead -- we certainly didn't need to know that he and his wife had a dinner party the night before the storm in order to appreciate Reed's story about same.


Laurie, I hear what you are saying but my question in return is this: Who cares how he started out? Why should anyone care what any reviewer thinks BEFORE they read a book? Is there anything more irrelevant? Every single reviewer has a bias one way or the other, conscious or not, as they approach a book. But it's the reading of the book that counts. Besides, saying "Boy I wanted to hate this but I was swayed," is really a reviewer's way of saying "Look how terribly flexible and open minded I can be." It's still all ego, ego, ego.


Mark, It's not so much that we should care how he started out as that he's written an entertaining lede. It's irritating, but it grabs you and you keep reading. Too many book reviews start out with some version if "Julia Reed lived in New Orleans during Katina, and she's decided to tell us her story and her book is pretty good but not perfect." At least this review is a piece of *writing* rather than a book report. And I have a question for you: Do you think this review would have been OK if Bailey had posted it on his blog? I'm not looking for a blog vs newspaper argument -- I read both! --but since you've written for both forms, I'm curious as to whether you think you need to write in a totally different way for the two media?


Laurie, I think we need to be careful about subjectivity here. You might think it's an entertaining lede that grabs you. That's fine and fair. But I didn't, nor did many others. I found it not remotely entertaining, but in fact banal and self-indulgent, and it made it difficult for me to read on. I certainly acknowledge there is a wide variance to taste to be accounted for, and I've heard from several editor offline, who admit enjoying both more rigorous reviews and the more informal aw-shucks thing Bailey has done here. I suppose in the end, it's all a matter of taste but I find that sort of thing profoundly insulting to my intelligence. It's not unlike David Gates's recent, idiotic review of the new Rushdie. (It's in the NYTRB archives if you want to look it up.) To this reader, that sort of thing has no place in anything posing as a serious review. As for blog or print, bad writing is bad writing whatever the medium. If he'd written it as a post, then sure, chatty is fine - de rigeur, in fact. But as a review, wherever it ran, I'd find it spectacularly unhelpful.

But remember - everything you find here at TEV - everything - is merely one man's opinion.


>everything - is merely one man's opinion.<

yes, and that one man strikes me as a pious, self-important ass. look: i wasn't reviewing ULYSSES. i was hired to review that katrina memoir because i myself am a katrina evacuee, and so a certain amount of personal comparison was almost inevitable--anyway that was the approach that came naturally under the circumstances. one (is that better?) brings a more leavis-like rigor to works of formal complexity, and you'll find that in my books i never invoke the first-person outside the odd footnote. moreoever i don't have a Literary Blog, as i haven't the faintest desire to pontificate ex cathedra like mr. sarvas.


oh, and how _dare_ you glibly smear the author of JERNIGAN ...


If the "Blake" posting here really is Blake Bailey, well, your hit and run droppings have only served to reinforce my opinion about you. And if you're not the genuine article, you're doing him no favors, and you have too much time on your hands.

Either way, whoever you are, please do spare us all your aggrieved melodrama. Glib smear? I didn't say he was a Nazi. I didn't call him a cannibal or a child molester. I didn't suggest he is laundering terrorist dollars or attacking Tibetan monks. I said he wrote a crummy review. Which he did. And so did you. I suggest you toughen up a bit.


>you have too much time on your hands<

says the pompous, indefatigable blogger. yes, i'm the real article, mark, and your opinion about me or any other subject is not the sort of thing that keeps one up at night. so slang away, old thing, while i do something important like clean my toenails. but wait, one more thing: i like the way you advise one to "toughen up," but squeal like a pig on a spit when someone has the temerity of finally, finally rebutting your ad hominem driveling ("fatuous," "self-indulgent," etc). anyway i'm sure you'll have something very grim and pious to say about all this, but i really am going to concentrate on those toenails of mine.


Well then, Blake, I think your coment says all that needs to be said on this topic. I leave you to your toenails, a project I hope will keep you from further reviewing.


Can you clean my toenails too while you're at it?- they are really dirty.
Thank you~

Patrick Stephenson

I'll clean your toenails if Blake isn't up to it.

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