Not all books deserve review

beware of the bookBy Theana Kastens and William Eaton

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At times book reviewers receive books that should not be reviewed at all because even bad publicity may prove “better” than no publicity. A reviewer might return such a book, largely unread, to the editor, saying, “Send me another. Leave this one alone.” But sometimes the reading is done, the writing begun; editors want their copy. What to do?

Having read an enticing blurb in a highly reputable publication, Zeteo requested a review copy of a certain book only to discover that it was—among other things, and despite its unstinting scholarship—in dialogue with a particular category of media products. These products, which may be historical accounts, news stories, commercial movies or TV dramas, display the suffering of others in a way that may appeal, above all, to the carnal interests of readers. A common example is the rape stories that are published in tabloid newspapers or described or re-enacted on TV news programs. Of course the writer or narrator encourages readers and viewers to be outraged, all while giving salacious details. “And as he shoved the bottle into her, Jackie fell into a stupor, mentally untethering from the brutal tableau, her mind leaving behind the bleeding body under assault on the floor.” This from Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s discredited November 19, 2014, Rolling Stone article about rape on the University of Virginia campus. The article made headlines as much for its graphic violence as it did for its attempt to speak out against campus sexual violence.

As for the book that has inspired this column, perhaps, for some, it would have been more “enjoyable” if it had stuck only to sex. But sex is the focus of just one chapter, with others devoted to torture, murder, economic oppression, and so forth. There is even a chapter about how prominent religious leaders and institutions tolerated and leant their support to the oppression—a familiar story which it would be nice to never have to read again, though we would not ask writers to ignore unpleasantness or brutality in the name of easy reading.

When brutality is presented in a clever, “engaging” manner, we find ourselves looking around, and with a certain desperation, for some higher purpose

When, however, brutality is presented in a clever, “engaging” manner, we find ourselves looking around, and with a certain desperation, for some higher purpose, some reason for the presentation, a reason that goes beyond entertainment or cataloging historical facts. But of course there is a whole subgenre here, in which carnal details are mixed in with preaching. Think only of the stories and pictures of proper school mistresses who cane their students’ raw behinds to “teach” them to be less naughty. There are the seemingly earnest writers and filmmakers who take on the Holocaust not least because of the money and celebrity to be gained from reminding people how awful it was. An “important story” is a profitable story.


Weak works of art (journalism and history here included) make us feel bad about ourselves. Perhaps it’s like bad sex, or like having sex with someone you didn’t want to have sex with. You feel sullied and ashamed. The good news is how great works exalt us. With this in mind, we would close this review by quoting from two great works that relate tangentially to the book in question.

Our first source is Oscar Wilde’s dialogue “The Critic as Artist,” wherein he writes that it is not the artist but “the beholder” (i.e. the critic) “who lends to the beautiful thing its myriad meanings and makes it marvellous for us, and sets it in some new relation to the age, so that it becomes a vital portion of our lives.” We propose that the same is true of un-beautiful, of horrible things: a beholder, a historian, say, can find in them myriad meanings and set terrible past events in some new relation to our age. Thus, for example, in the case of the Holocaust, Claude Lanzman’s documentary Shoah or Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.

This is a relation we know all too well: some people try to make money from the suffering of others, and some, too many, succeed.

This is among the things that the author of the book in question did not do. The author may well have had a hidden laudable agenda—for example, to condemn the ongoing oppression of human beings and to achieve this by writing about a particular past example of it. Or perhaps the author wanted to remind us, as we sink deeper and deeper into wage slavery and confusion—“It could be worse! At least you’re not as oppressed as these other people were.” But such an agenda, if it indeed exists, is entirely hidden behind the book’s clever facade. This is not some “new relation” to our age; this is a relation we know all too well: some people try to make money from the suffering of others, and some, too many, succeed.

Finally we quote from one of the great books about oppression, this one written by and from the point of view of someone who, thanks to an almost superhuman strength, was able to escape his oppression and, in a sense, turn it into a thing of beauty—that is, by writing the book he wrote. We have in mind Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass:

He [Mr. Covey, Douglass’s slavemaster] asked me if I meant to persist in my resistance. I told him I did, come what might; that he had used me like a brute for six months, and that I was determined to be used so no longer. With that, he strove to drag me to a stick that was lying just out of the stable door. He meant to knock me down. But just as he was leaning over to get the stick, I seized him with both hands by his collar, and brought him by a sudden snatch to the ground. . . .

We were at it for nearly two hours. Covey at length let me go, puffing and blowing at a great rate, saying that if I had not resisted, he would not have whipped me half so much. The truth was, that he had not whipped me at all. I considered him as getting entirely the worst end of the bargain; for he had drawn no blood from me, but I had from him. The whole six months afterwards, that I spent with Mr. Covey, he never laid the weight of his finger upon me in anger. He would occasionally say, he didn’t want to get hold of me again. “No,” thought I, “you need not; for you will come off worse than you did before.”

This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. . . . I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.

This is a message that many of us in this day and age would do well to re-read and re-make into a vital portion of our own lives.


*     *     *


Theana Kastens and William Eaton are editors of Zeteo. They thank Nancy Derr who, with unflagging professionalism, copy-edited the several revisions of this piece.



Image appeared on a Stanford University blog, The Book Haven, by Cynthia Haven. The post reports on a study by two business professors: Wharton’s Jonah Berger and Stanford’s Alan Sorenson. The bottom line: Any publicity is not always good publicity, but negative publicity can help sales. Those who read bad reviews of well-known books seem to be less likely to buy such books. Bad publicity can, however, help lesser-known and obscure authors.

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