I really only demand three things of reviews, and feel that my demands are modest. Which is why I am so dispirited by the reviews I read.
Firstly, I think a review should actually describe the book. It is unclear from most reviews whether the author has actually read the book or not, the reviews are so lacking in real information. A cursory description is often given, so cursory that it may as well be excised, which then gives way to the reviewer’s opinion. But I must say I care much less about a reviewer’s opinion than I care about learning of new books.
Secondly, since I suppose we MUST hear the reviewer’s opinion at some point, I want an opinion that is supported. I am sick of the vomit that passes for opinions in reviewing. I want insight and arguments. Books are serious things. They should be taken seriously. A review should, at the bare minimum, display that the reviewer has read and considered the book with an active mind. Not simply scanned its cover and contents and pronounced some judgement based solely on the “emotional journey” (or lack thereof) that the reviewer then took.
Thirdly, a book should be approached on its own terms. Reviewers consistently fail to rise to the challenge of the books they read. They deride non-realist novels for a lack of verisimilitude and they deride realist novels as depressing. Reviewers tend to display an utter and consistent ignorance of the breadth and depth of modern fiction and seem unaware that their own values are not universal.
You’re right to point out that I am making perhaps-hyperbolic claims about “dying literary values,” but my complaint is not that the reviewer’s values are misguided, but rather that he seems unaware of these values and appears, to me, to be unconsciously reproducing them — and furthermore, the unconscious reproduction of these values seems to me to be the sole purpose of this review, which offers neither an adequate description of the book nor even any half-supported opinion.
I just want to add that I think Geist are being good sports for printing this letter. You can find the original post here. I would like to add that I think Geist is one of the finest publications in Canada, and yes, as Jonathan points out, good sports about the letter.