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On Being a ReviewerCelia McGee

Sometimes I feel like introducing myself, "Hello, my name is Celia, and I read books."

Booklovers like me are supposed to rejoice in the fact that so many other people are also reading nowadays. You see them on airplanes. You see them on the subway. At Starbucks. You see a lot on the beach on vacation, or by the pool in their suburban backyards. Most of all you see them in Barnes & Noble or Borders, which are touted as our new village squares, our libraries for the all-consuming American.

The problem is, most of what these page-turning people are reading are, well, page-turners: middle-brow novels, cookie-cutter thrillers, celebrity biographies, dubious self-help books. They’ve been aided and abetted in this mal-literary diet by a publishing industry that cranks out sky-rocketing stacks of schlock, while neglecting anything with half a brain, an original thought, a distinctive style, or intellectual brawn. I think it’s the job of the reviewer—at least this reviewer—to get people to read better books.

Until recently I was an arts writer and book reviewer for New York’s Daily News, a blue-collar, working-class, immigrants-on-their-way-up newspaper. I wrote for a particular demographic, but never down to it, and the books I reviewed were ones I wanted to read myself. I wanted the Daily News readers to read them too. Often those books disappointed me, and my review was a pan; but when I found something good, I also let my readers know. I respected their ability to set their own taste.

Now I’m reviewing for publications like The New York Times, The New York Observer, USA Today, The Chicago Tribune and People. That’s all over the book-buying map. But I’m still not reviewing Danielle Steele. Or John Grisham. Or Barbara Taylor Bradford. Or you name it, the list keeps growing. I wouldn’t. Because the only way to raise the standards of literature and literacy in this country is to give people better than they expect, and better than the publishing and book-selling industries have expected of them.

And it’s also because I am selfish and self-centered. Choosing the kind of books I’ve ended up reviewing gives me a chance to write and think about everything from politics to social issues, current events, history, fashion, prejudice, child-rearing, art, architecture, love, life and death, race, high society, deep depression. I’m also a journalist by training and experience, and like to treat book reviewing as a kind of journalism of the mind. I hope that anyone who reads my reviews gets out of them the sense of discovery and engagement with people, places and plights that reporting--whether of the outer or inner life--brings.

These days writing about books also calls for writing about the flawed judgment and bad behavior plaguing authors, editors and publishers. Just when we thought we’d been James Frey-ed out, along comes the “Opal Mehta” morass to wade through. I think it’s absolutely a book critic’s place and responsibility--or a publishing journalist’s, which I also consider myself--to address the underlying problems in our culture and our way of life that lead to these kinds of situations.

For instance, the fact that writing a book to help get you into college has become a standard cliché says something about both the American academic process and the publishing industry--the former getting kids to grow up too soon, the latter in pursuit of the next new, as-young-as-possible thing. Taking publishing to task for the amount of meretricious books it has been releasing is of a piece, sad as it is to say, with exposing the flim-flam mindset of Enron, Karl Rove or “American Idol.”

But, then again, what do I know? My mother used to complain that I spent one family vacation we took driving through the south of France--I grew up in Europe--with my nose buried in the novels of Henry James. How could I ignore the beautiful scenery that way, she would say. Did it not occur to her that I was a teenager trying to escape being with my family? And, of course, I wasn’t really, because if I hadn’t had the parents I did, both great teachers of English and American literature, I wouldn’t even have known about Henry James. And now when I’m in the south of France--or Paris, New England, New York, in front this computer or the next book I’ve been assigned to review--I see a lot filtered through my reading of James, and I am glad. It’s certainly better than looking around me through the lens of Jonathan Kellerman, Sue Monk Kidd, Dr. Phil or Mary Higgins Clark.

(This essay was adapted from remarks presented at The 2nd Annual New York Round Table Writers' Conference, April 28, 2006.)

Celia McGee is a book critic and arts writer in New York. A former publishing columnist for The New York Observer and entertainment reporter for the New York Daily News, she now writes for The New York Times, Elle Decor, Culture and Travel, USA Today and others. A board member of the National Book Critics Circle, she holds an undergraduate degree in American History and Literature from Harvard, and a graduate degree in American Studies from Yale.

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