The Impossibility of a Book Review

I'm currently recovering from top surgery. Please enjoy these musings I've drafted over the past several months until regular review returns. If you're interested in supporting me, feel free to tell your friends about my newsletter or purchase a book via my affiliate shop at Bookshop.Org.

I often think that I'm not a great reviewer. Yes, I have training in critical disciplines that provides me with tools to discuss literature. Yes, I have wide palate and read voraciously. However, what I still find hardest to discuss when writing a book review is the critical parts.

See, when I read, I read overwhelmingly for enjoyment. I take an intrinsic pleasure in reading, and the amount of issues that a book has to have for me to stop enjoying it is a lot. I recently attempted to read a book that I quit after 100 pages of dated Tumblr and Supernatural references, as well as repetition of some of the most annoying queer community arguments. Most of the time, I lean into what's good about a book, and gloss over what's bad.

This does make my review structure good for a particular type of reader: someone who is interested in exploring the possibilites of what is useful in work. However, I'm constantly worried that I am missing aspects of a book to be critiqued, particularly right after I finish the book. I still think about my review of Iron Widow and wonder if I got it right. As I've sat with it, I think more of the problems of the novel and less of what I enjoyed about it (mostly that it needed more development, certain stakes from the beginning of the novel were left hanging, and its appeal to me is that it is the reading equivalent of an action novel - impressive in the beginning but with questionable staying power).

I don't think that I'm unique in this issue. Regularly on social media sites, a hotly anticipated title will be read and reviewed in advance and given praise. Then, the book will release, and a skeptical reader will point out major flaws with the book, often racist or ableist passages. Once pointed out, the momentum stops and the early reviewers apologize, often with the air of wondering how they missed such an obvious issue.

This something I grapple with as well: I don't want it to be true that I will miss critical passages or gloss over tropes that add up to stereotypes. However, the type of content I'm talking about is not the big-picture, happily offensive work people think about. Rather, it's the way that works act as a whole. For example, I remember when Pacific Rim first came out and there were people who fawned over how well-written Mako Mori was. Rewatching that movie in 2022 makes it obvious that Mako Mori's plotline was relatively thin, and the hype around her characterization doesn't hold up.

This is partially why I've been revisiting books for this little newsletter. When I first read Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel, I only focused on my annoyance at the longest story being my least favorite. When I revisited it, my reading was deeper and richer. It grew on me as I was able to look past one flaw and see how well-written the rest of collection was.

Now, of course, some of this is that I'm not the same person reading the book now than I was the first time around. I've read The Argonauts four times. My change in life marks how differently each reading went, from the grad student that loved theory intertwined with memoir, to being elbow deep in surviving a pandemic, to undergoing my own transition and chafing against how the book talks about transness. What I had found so charming and worthwhile originally now seems harmful to me.

This is part of why I chose to write a newsletter instead of a blog: I feel like the temporality of a newsletter is more obvious. It's what I think in the moment, instead of a long-lasting archive of what I think forever. Maybe in two months, I'll look back and say "you know, I was wrong about that one". If I do, I think I'll be the better for it.

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