Lev Grossman talking about reviewing books is a little like that 50 Shades of Grey person talking about bring an author. Here, Grossman talks about how he picks books for review:
But then there’s the signal – that delicious, delicious signal. People often ask me how I choose books to review. There’s no simple answer; also no especially interesting answer. I review books if they do something I’ve never seen done before; or if I fall in love with them; or if they shock me or piss me off or otherwise won’t leave me alone; if they alter the way my brain works; if I can’t stop thinking about them; if for whatever reason I absolutely have to tell people about them.
I haven’t always done it that way. Early on in my career I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I thought other people would want me to review, and what I thought other people would fall in love with, and then reviewing those books. But the truth is I was just guessing, and when I did I generally guessed wrong. Over time I retreated to the following position: I am a book-loving human being, and if I love something, then some other book-loving human elsewhere will probably love it too.
I don’t doubt that Grossman follows his heart, but c’mon, he’s following his heart within a very limited range of choices. Just look at his top 10 list from 2011 and try to find a book that wasn’t published by a major American publisher and wreathed with praise from just about every dependable organ of book reviewing in the United States.
I bring this up because immediately before this Grossman talks about the 30 or 40 books that arrive at Time magazine every day, no doubt many from worthy small presses that would die for the kind of attention Time could give. And this is to my point—I’m sure Grossman is a honest, decent guy, but the PR push (read: dollars spent) that a publisher puts behind a book, plus the fact that Time has certain audience expectations that must be met (and Grossman’s periodical isn’t unique here by a long shot), means that those sorts of books have no chance of being covered by this kind of a publication.
I’m fine if Grossman wants to go around saying he’s a book reviewer, but let’s not mistake what he’s doing here: in most cases he’s functioning as an adjunct of a publisher’s marketing department, essentially adding whatever institutional and personal authority he has to the marketing push for a book that has almost certainly been acclaimed 10 times over by “reviewers” that are similarly empowered. In other words, what I’m saying is there is no need for a Lev Grossman review of Freedom, whereas there could be a plausible justification for a Lev Grossman review of My Two Worlds. Using Time magazine to help push a book such as the latter would be to help literary culture emerge from the morass of dull, mainstream novels that it seems destined to remain mired in perpetually, whereas using Time to push the former is only to perpetuate a system of mediocrity.