John Crace is a cherry on the top of the literary world. He’s a writer for the Guardian’s Books section who pens the “Digested Read” column. In it he satirizes the most popular writers, going after clunky plots, pretentious styles, risible dialogue, and anything else he can sniff out with his wonderful sense of play. He says he does it as a semi-serious critique and to entertain. And I wouldn’t argue.
As a reader and a writer (who has a short story in an upcoming sci-fi anthology, Timeshares, out on March 2 by DAW Books) I like his style of critique. Most reviewers of books these days are nothing more than panting tongues who never find a thing wrong with the story. It’s all a bunch of positive ions with a net electrical charge of loss. And I mean loss for the potential reader.
I’m not advocating for scathing reviews that butcher, but I am looking for clear, insightful, literary criticism. And it doesn’t have to be dull and serious and over a person’s head — as Crace has amply proved.
A good review can help a reader decide if in the great overload of books to choose from, a certain title is worth the time and money.
But I’m the first to admit that I hardly ever buy or take a book out of the library (which is the finest example of democracy at work) based on a review. I find books to read by browsing bookstores; reading authors that my favourite ones suggest; or even checking out the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” at Amazon. Rarely do I pick up a book because of a review.
That’s my own bias, of course. I’m just not that interested in what someone else has to say about a book before I’ve read it unless he or she says it in a way that captures my interest. And as I’ve already mentioned, most of the reviews I do read, when the bug bites me, I find are paying lip service to the author, rolling around in the author’s patch of clover and telling you to do the same. Nettles to that.
Not John Crace. Every “Digested Read” gets to the fibre of the book through his satirical take. Yes he can be cruel at times, but the best satire is a way to get to the difficult places in a narrative (or even in life), places we might otherwise over-look because it’s easier to ignore the demanding.
Crace is like a particle accelerator as he sends the beams of his satirical and critical mind (like protons in opposite directions) into a book and then smashes the narrative up and lets you as a reader sift through the critical explosions that should result in a Big Bang of new thinking, seeing, and even understanding.
The thing is, though, who is going to parody Crace?