Reviewing reviews

Once there was a form of reviewing called a review of reviews. Or, rather, there is a form of reviewing called a review of a review, but it is probably not referred to as often as it should be or known as such.  This may well be because it probably doesn’t quite deserve the dignity of a definite form.  It is, at bottom, not much more than an expanded book notice, directed at other periodical publications.  But the strange doubling or folding over of the medium that occurs when one review begins to direct its attention to another one–not in the most active dialogue or argument, but simply in admiration, or in curiosity–makes the thing have a character all its own and makes it extremely compelling. Here, among my other personal work, I’ll be exploring the chance that it is so.  It will also see what such a form can bring to an audience of interested readers.

That is, among other bits of my portfolio, you’ll find  reviews of recent publications, chiefly other literary reviews, along with summaries, stories, discussions, evaluations, and simply information related to the world of letters. The aim is to give a sense of what is being reviewed and show a little bit of what there is to appreciate in reviews I have found–usually while reading around as I write my own.

After all, literary reviews are still perhaps the freest and freshest and most lively arena of the discussion of literary and cultural topics out there. They beat much on TV hands down, however informative and analytical. And they beat more expert forms of analysis that do not care to speak to other people so obliquely, however relevant the subject matter might be. They promote discussion and reflection, yet not of a complacent and calm type; reviewing involves thinking in which passions become pointed, and run up against each other in productive exchanges, or become twisted and tweaked and interestingly contorted in meditative involutions, whirlpools and eddies of feeling.

And despite the sob stories, the stories of decline and fall and wreck and ruin, this only becomes more clear as the media universe expands, and what used to be literary, and even unliterary, begins to lose the coherence of a culture and be set back into its proper context–into a world of letters, which is itself a kind of flow or stream or complex organization of the world and worlds of media. There is more good reviewing, more good discussion, more insightful and sympathetic commentary, than ever before.  There are more good writers, good thinkers, sensitive feelers, than ever before.  And there is more energy being invested into its proliferation and spread than ever before.

If however The Review of Reviews can encourage investment and interest in any of the publications it looks at, that will not be a bad thing at all–and this is one of its aims as well. One of the areas of great review-reviewing is the promotion blog that many publishers now put together (Verso, FSG, etc.), and in a way if this does anything similar to that, it would be an achievement of its aims by another route.

Occasionally there will be original reviews (rather than original review-reviews), looks at other types of reviewing (performances, media events, and what have you), and other things of interest. But mainly it will be in the review of review format that most articles will appear here–with a few twists.

*

This form or format is, as was already said, something of an expanded book notice, summary, or puff piece. In the process of expansion, the view becomes both more holistic and more nuanced. Enough information is given so you can judge for yourself what is being said. And–at least as we shall practice it–the critical lenses are not removed, and so instead of just an objective view of judgments you get that most interesting of things: a judgment of judgments. Not entirely judgments in dialogue with one another, but one wrestling with comprehending another, agreeing with another, saying what another knows, sympathizing with another. Not “intervening in the critical conversation,” as it is sometimes called and triangulating so much of what has already been said–useful as this is.

No, the judgment of judgment is a much stormier, often more useless, but also often more passionate and honest affair, involves much more the wrestling with one’s own opinions, and coming to some sort of understanding where in the end no one is quite comfortable, but everyone feels a bit more aware–more involved in a situation, though more skeptical in assessing it, now that they’ve got more than one partial opinion.

It is no accident, then, that one of the first models of the review of review in English was highly controversial and appeared in the Anti-Jacobin Review. The Anti-Jacobin was, as its name makes clear, a highly nationalist, anti-gallic paper edited in 1798 by the wonderful George Canning, the power-hungry, flamboyant career politician, who attained fame early as a promising Pittite, but really shined later as Foreign Secretary in the years after Waterloo, eventually becoming Prime Minister shortly before his death in 1827 (it later failed, and was reborn shortly thereafter under new editorship). Regular reviews then in general were not even the detailed and opinionated things that they are today, though that was rapidly changing, and involved.

Essentially other reviews were scrutinized–particularly the radical press headed by Joseph Johnson’s Analytical Review–and if they contained any offending content, they were excoriated. Too much this might resemble the efforts of a censor–indeed it’s full title later became the Anti-Jacobin Review or Literary Censor. But it has to be remembered that this still showed much more faith in the freedom of the press than the Gagging Acts themselves, which stopped the mouths of radical critics of the Pitt ministry and the British prosecution of the war against Revolutionary France outright. It indeed poisoned to a great degree the literary climate with its continual suggestions of sedition and treason, but to explore the possibilities of a “counter-conspiritorial periodical form,” as Kevin Gilchrist has called it, can also enliven the literary world around you in interesting ways, change its organization, tempo, ethic, as well as its politics (see his very interesting Writing Against Revolution, 106).

Blackwood’s Edinburgh Journal was less shady about the whole business, though it got into worse scrapes and more quarrels. The model was much more review-based, less based in surveillance and the creepy overlap between reading and spying. This had a lot to do with the intervening years (Blackwoods appeared more than a decade later), the eventual acclimation of the British people to the strange state of war, crisis, hardship, innovation, decay and growth that was to become even more more typical in the Nineteenth Century, and the experiments in the press this brought about, whereby reviews came to be in much more active dialogue with other reviews, and conduct themselves less like disputants in pamphlet wars than as competing institutions.

All this involved a subtle but interesting change in the view of of the print medium itself. Cheap print like that of the review could be more readily interchanged with the print of magazines and indeed with nicely books themselves–not just because of the proliferation of low culture publications, as it were, but also because of the diversification and fragmentation of the higher (we see indeed how the dire rhetoric of fragmentation is more often than not just the other side of what people in coming years, like those looking back from the era of Dickens’ cheap and interesting middle-class publication Household Words for example, may call an flowering). There were almanacs, encyclopedias, books for the distribution of useful as well as learned information, and anthologies. Among the latter was the very interesting and very good Spirit of the Public Journals series, not quite a review of reviews, but a collection and anthology of good witticisms and interesting articles from among the papers, which themselves were beginning to contain more interesting leader-writing, better poetry, and more interested mentions of literary intelligence.

Blackwood’s after all this very nicely assembled other reviews and commented on them. Theses reviews of reviews are not great, but we are here in the presence of something definite–it may be filler but it is good filler. A particularly bad article will make the writer prickly, and another extra page might be expended in denouncing one particular review this time around–one particular article usually. Sometimes this writing seems to have migrated into the review itself–and it is here that things become quite interesting for the review review. Whatever the further developments of the form, it has now become something rather interchangeable with the book review itself, and when the mere information begins to swell into well-formed thoughts, we are witnessing a sort of familiarity that is just rather wonderful: suddenly, we find people interested and reading and worked up enough not just to write the bland Yes! or, Untrue! They feel like they can expand on the topic rather profitably, even if not organizedly. There is something virtuous in this style, which is curious and open even if it is indignant or rather too enthusiastic. The thing has legs now. For those who choose to pick it up, it can be a diverting and interesting little area of writing, a rather open and interesting form of journalism.

*

The era of the independent Victorian periodical should have found much more in this than it did, but in a way the journals were so focused on the excellent material they could produce in such quantities and with such quality, thanks to interesting economies of scale and a wonderfully industrious population of journalists, that we have to wait a little while for really excellent work in this weird little nook of writing. Eventually, though, along comes the best and most straightforward effort, and the one which most realized the potential of the thing, was indeed the Review of Reviews itself, published by the great, invincible W.J. Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette. Stead was casting around for a new idea after getting kicked off the Pall Mall, somehow happened upon it, and did the thing right all the way. He started out, noting to himself:

Boundless possibilities, the unexpected first step to a world-wide journalistic, civic church, with a father and religious orders and all the rest of the paraphernalia of the Church Militant.

A bit much, but the idea, while small in scale, was indeed going to be doing a lot. The idea behind it was to publish a “monthly guide” to the magazines, with “abstract and brief chronicles” of their contents. Modern periodical literature, Stead says, is a maze.

It is the object of the REVIEW OF REVIEWS to supply a clue to that maze in the shape of a readable compendium of all the best articles in the magazines and reviews.

But he also adds that it is an excellent way to put Matthew Arnold’s idea of culture in practice:

The aim of this magazine will be to make the best thoughts of the best writers in our periodicals universally accessible.

And part of that is the process of selection:

The work of winnowing away the chaff and of revealing the grain is the humble but useful task of the editorial thresher.

The idea was extremely welcome. The absolutely madcap first issue reproduced in facimilie a pile of letters Stead had sent out. The best is perhaps Tennyson’s, printed in full with its huge thick ungraceful letters:

Dec. 11th 1889

Lord Tennyson presents his compliments to Mr. Stead and begs to say that he lives so apart from the world that he can pronounce no opinion as to the proposed Review.

Also amusing is the lukewarm praise of Henry Drummond:

Anything is better than the present bewilderment.

But there are other people slightly more excited about the idea. Gladstone called it “ingenious.” George Meredith says it “promises usefulness.” The circulation of the first number was 130,000.

Stead, however, meant what he said, and he did an unbelievably good job. Each issue began with a small summary of the world events (“The Progress of the World”) and any information necessary to the understanding of the articles that would follow, a character sketch of prominent people in the papers who were often referred to, rather good size summaries of the “leading articles” of the month, and then finally summaries of entire contents of each of the periodicals. Informative and interesting, well put together and well written, the thing eventually had a circulation of about 130,000. It indeed achieved it’s object:

To enable the busiest and poorest in the community to know the best thoughts of the wisest; to follow with intelligent interest the movement of contemporary history; and to understanding something of the real character of the men and women who rank among the living forces of our time.

(The entire story of the review, as well as Stead’s life in general (along with that of the Great John Morley’s) and the larger story of his relationship with the Pall Mall Gazette, can be read in the endearing book The Life and Death of a Newspaper, by J.W. Robertson Scott (Methuen, 1952), a wonderful work written by a knowledgeable newsman in light and lissome Edwardian manner native to him.)

*

Obviously these little reviews of reviews will not be able to do such a thorough job, nor really even be that informative. We now subdivide many of these tasks or pursue them along different paths. In many ways, the website aggregator comes very close to doing most of the work that a review of review does. The only thing really missing still from a lot of informative sites aggregating the content of others is a wise and insightful commentary itself to be interleaved with the material linked to. Blogs by reviews (the New Yorker, the NYRB, the Times, the LRB) often do the review of reviewing, and often have too enough independence to not be strictly promotional, but also original contributions of themselves. This only though proves that to do the thing right, it simply requires a lot of work of interested writers, as much as aggregation.

In the end, if these little efforts can come anywhere near any of these great efforts of the past or present and what they did for their readers–there is reason to be happy.  Hope to be talking to you, and hearing from you, in more articles soon to be published here.