Like most readers, I imagine, of this blog, I like reading - I like reading widely, across many fields and I both enjoy and value quality book reviews that, in some cases, point me to books that I want to read and, in others, give me some sense of what's in books and in intellectual debate in fields I am not in.
I also like to write book reviews, often outside my particular academic specialties in law and international law - most of my book reviews can be found here, at my academic writings page (scroll down). They range from photography books on the Manhattan skyline to musical amateurs, plus stuff in line with my academic speciality in international law. I have long written occasionally for the Times Literary Supplement in London, and occasionally for the Los Angeles Times book review, and then in academic journals and law reviews. I very much like writing and reading the longish review essay, even though I have been repeatedly told by academic colleagues that as a genre, it is not taken very seriously among academics, I guess because it is essentially "derivative" in discussing other people's ideas. I don't think that's necessarily true - the last long review I wrote (and it was really long, as in 30 or so journal pages) was on Anne-Marie Slaughter's A New World Order, and although I gave it a close textual analysis, I also thought there were an awful lot of my own ideas developed there - but I take my colleagues' point.
Over time, though, there have been editorial turnovers at the TLS and other venues, as well as editorial shifts there, and I feel like I have less access to those pages. Partly it's because my contacts with the editor at the TLS aren't as close as they were with the previous editor, Ferdinand Mount, and partly because the TLS under Peter Stothard seems less focused on political books and less focused, actually, on American books and more on Britain itself. Which is fine - one of the reason I read the TLS is in order to know what is happening outside of American letters. On the other hand, I no longer think of the TLS as I once did as the broad survey of arts, letters, and science as I once did. But this has led me to think about the extant general book reviews, both as a reader and writer:
- TLS. As I said, it seems both more British-centric and less interested in politics than it was. Which is a perfectly good editorial decision for a "literary" supplement, but it does make it less accessible to me as a writer and less comprehensive as a reader.
- London Review of Books. Its essays are longer than the TLS's, and often given over, in the fashion of the New York Review of Books, to the writer's ideas rather than the books' under review. But I enjoy the writing even though finding the political line of the LRB - well, parochial. That's as a reader - as a writer, I can't imagine it giving a center-right American writer the time of day.
- Spectator (London). I find the magazine silly, but I do like reading the book reviews because they make me aware of a wide array of serious British books that will never make it to America. Given the journal's taste in books, however, an American reviewer is not exactly what they need.
- The Guardian. It would not, of course, be interested in someone like me as a reviewer, but I read it regularly online because it often has interesting writers and excellent book reviews of books from everywhere. A friend of mine told me recently that British intellectuals are not polarized the way Americans are, and it allows for a more subtle and fluid discourse, so that although the Guardian's editorials are scrupulously leftwing, one could read much conservative thought there. That's not exactly how I would characterize the Guardian. More importantly, though, what generally strikes me about the Guardian is how little factual reporting it typically contains - maybe that's more honest than American journalism, pretending that the fact stories are kept separate from the opinion pieces, when in fact they aren't and can't be - but the Guardian has long seemed to me long on style and short on reporting.
- New York Review of Books. Long, long before my own political views moved sufficiently to the right to rule me out of the NYRB, I couldn't abide the tone of the journal - an offputting combination of smugness, an intellectual conversation among the in-crowd confirming its own prejudices, and the unpalatable tone of God Addressing Eternity. I wrote something like this back in my diary, when I still kept a diary and still counted myself as a leftwinger - I was still very much a Californian, and had an instinctive aversion to this kind of East Coast pretentiousness, even before I knew what it was. It was such a relief to discover the TLS - I speak entirely of intellectual style, nothing here about politics - with its straightforward elegance - somewhere Orwell is smiling, and not, alas, upon the NYRB.
- NYT Book Review. I don't quite know how it works - but every writer for it winds up sounding exactly the same. I do skim it every week, and it is the fastest book review to read, because everything said has been pre-processed into the same blather.
- LAT Book Review. Since Steve Wasserman left for New York, I haven't followed it. Steve turned it into something magnificent during the years he was there - a quite remarkable achievement. He wasn't pleased with something I wrote about Gore Vidal and Joan Didion, and I dropped off the radar screen there - he then made a valiant effort to bring me back with a review of something by E.D. Hirsch - but then I dropped the ball and never got it to him, something I've always regretted - and regretted losing touch with him and his lovely kids (in DC with their mom).
- New Yorker. Too mannered.
- Granta. I haven't really followed it in recent years.
- The New Republic. I am told that Leon Wieseltier is, umm, difficult, but if you look over the ten year or more time line, I think his back of the book at TNR is the best arts and letters section in the US. He has enough space to do very serious review essays. The range - poetry, dance, visual arts, the whole range - is what a serious review should cover. I think it is what keeps the rest of the magazine going.
- The Atlantic Monthly. As a general magazine, it has gotten better and better over the last few years - nearly all of the virtues of the New Yorker without the corresponding vices. Say what you will about Mark Steyn's political views, there's no question he's who you want to write your obituary. The book reviews are also quite good - but they don't quite fit what I have in mind, which is really an essay which is central, frankly, to the publication rather than a peripheral add-on.
- The Weekly Standard. It has emerged as the conservative magazine, and quite good, too. Its arts and letters back of the book has improved as it has been given more space, but the fact remains that it does not really give enough space for genuinely lasting review essays. The model here is TNR, and there is just not enough space to write. In addition - in a problem it shares with most of the other self-consciously conservative publications - there remains (not as much as in early days and not as much as in other conservative outlets) a certain whiff of "here is book x and here is what a conservative should think about it." That's annoying with books, and ludicruous in other arts - dance, poetry, etc. It's not all politics, thank you. It has gotten, I repeat, much better about that, but not enough.
- The New Criterion. I have great respect for Hilton Kramer's achievement in making a serious intellectual journal of the arts with a conservative bent fly - yet it seems to suffer from precisely what the journal often says is the problem with the arts - making them into politics. It needs less politicization and more arts. What I'm looking for is a genuinely pluralistic outlet that looks for good, interesting writers and is not looking for them to fill a certain editorial line. Unfortunately the New Criterion is not that.
- The Claremont Review of Books. I enjoy reading it - it has some excellent writers and writing. It is limited to politics, and frankly I don't understand all the ins and outs of its conservative pedigree - is the Claremont Institute Straussian? Not Straussian? What does any of that mean? I frankly have little clue - I came to positions on some important things, such as terrorism and security, that I consider broadly speaking to be center right without any background in conservative intellectual thought - I came from the left, and worried rather more about varieties of Western marxism. I tend toward Burke, with the proviso that you can find pretty much whatever you like somewhere in his writing, and in culture toward undoctrinnaire libertarian, certainly not social or cultural conservative positions. But mostly I have no clue about the intellectual internecine wars of the right, and don't much care. So I wouldn't mind writing stuff for the Claremont Institute, but it seems a rather limited audience, ideologically as well as numerically. (I grew up in Claremont, California, and rode my bicycle most days past what are now the Institute's offices on Foothill Blvd - it seems rather remarkable to me that a conservative think tank could grow up in the fashionably upper middle class liberal left college town that was - and is - Claremont. But then, I was a kid in Claremont in the 60s and 70s, and the Claremont Colleges were not centers of learning for me, but a bunch of lawns and secluded gardens where I went necking with my girlfriend Lauren. (Well, maybe centers of learning of a different kind.).)
- The Boston Review. I hadn't seen it in a while - had an invitation to write for it a couple of years ago but never followed up, as I went on sabbatical to Spain and spent my time eating tapas in Sevilla - but just sat down and read it in Barnes & Noble today. Well, I have fond memories of Josh Cohen - my teacher on Marxism at UCLA and a friend through my friends Sharon and Bob at Harvard - but really, isn't the Boston Review just the parochial version the NYRB? What's the difference, really? I like the idea of regional reviews, so I am not unhappy with the idea of a review for Boston area intellectuals to write, but it's really a local thing.
- Policy Review. This a splendid outlet for book reviews and review essays to a select crowd - it is a very broad minded journal published by my very own Hoover Institution and my very good friend Tod Lindberg. It allows the possibility of good essay writing and more length than most of the other venues. It's not precisely an academic journal although much of its readership is academic, while being something quite, entirely different from the usual think tank production, which is mostly just PR for the tank. This is a very serious, very electice, and very intellectual journal. It is also a place that is not afraid to review something that very few people will care about - I am working on a review of the International Committee of the Red Cross' massive, 5000 page new study of customary law of war rules - talk about obscure - and know that Tod will give me the space to adequately critique it. This is a very good venue, one that deserves much wider circulation, on the web and off.
- Telos. I had dropped out of touch with the critical theory journal Telos years ago; I was saddened to learn, a year or so late, of the untimely death of Paul Piccone, its editor, to cancer. But an old Telos friend, and now Hoover friend, Stanford professor Russell Berman, has taken over as editor, and I am eager to get involved. It is a good place for a particular kind of book review, focused on social theory, that engages a certain conversation about the critique of bureaucracy, social theory, and freedom, somewhat located in - yet without being a prisoner of - Continental social theory.
Well, sometimes I wonder if there is room for a genuinely pluralistic general book review on the web - with full coverage of the whole range of arts, science, culture, literature, politics, history, law, etc., with a wide range of authors and viewpoints? You see attempts - Harry Siegel and friends attempting to resurrect a new, web version of Partisan Review, for example - but none of them ever seem to quite make it.
Maybe there aren't the readers and maybe there aren't the authors available purely on the web - it's a club that everyone can join so no one does. There remains a gatekeeping function of print publications to attract readers interested in not merely what's quality but what's at the cultural center and to show a certain screening function that the web exists to demolish - while unfortunately risking inundating us with junk. One of Steve Wasserman's many smart innovations at the LAT book review was to send it around in the mail to a long list of East Coast intellectuals - so they knew that if they wrote for the LAT book review, their friends would see it in New York. Clever moves like that plus a rolodex to die for and a talent for editing (Steve once coaxed - maybe extorted is a better word - a long overdue review out of my good friend John Ryle, while he was attending a meeting with me in Budapest years ago by going on a hunger strike until John produced his review, which John did in short order) gave the LAT book review cachet and intellectual heft. Who else but Steve Wasserman would have thought to deliver to the Sunday morning readers of Los Angeles a special section of the book review devoted to long out of print dead classics - in translation (for which I wrote him my review of Story of O, here, under the title "the erotics of virtue")?
Still, sometimes I dream of having a pure labor of web love, devoted to putting out a broad spectrum book review, just called, I don't know ... My Literary Supplement. The MLS. The difficulty is, I would want My Literary Supplement to be edited not by me, but by my dear friend and one of the three finest editors I know (Tod Lindberg and Steve Wasserman being the other two), John Ryle. In which case, would it still be My Literary Supplement?