This WSJ review in which Stephen Budiansky is mostly scathing about four new food books got me thinking about the art of reviewing. I’ve occasionally written book reviews and enjoy doing it, but if I feel anything less than wholehearted enthusiasm for the book, the pitfalls are legion. However cathartic it would feel to lay into a work that has ticked me off or wasted my time, I can’t help remembering that this thing in my hands took up years, most likely, of the author’s life. Maybe authors shouldn’t review books. An ounce of empathy and you’re on an emotional roller coaster.
I also subscribe to the view that there’s no point in publishing a terrible review of an obscure book by a little-known author. If, say, Martin Amis or Margaret Atwood write something crummy, the world deserves to know. But who, exactly, is being served when a reviewer tells readers that this thing they probably wouldn’t have heard of anyway is best avoided?
Budiansky’s review, though—of the titles “Change Comes to Dinner,” “Culinary Intelligence,” “The Locavore’s Dilemma,” and “The Taste of Tomorrow”—feels more justified. He uses sentences no author ever wants to read about their book: “We are not in such capable hands…these topics tend to be more fascinating to oneself than to others…one of those high-concept ideas that sound great in a book proposal but prove to be little more than a phrase…a complete mess of a book.”
With the exception of “The Locavore’s Dilemma,” whose co-author has been cheerfully challenging local-food extremists on the radio waves, I may never have come across these books anyway. But Budiansky’s calling out the badness of several new books on one theme has alerted me to a broader issue. This is what happens when budget- and staff-starved publishing houses jump on a hot subject trend, in this case the future of food. They acquire these projects and process them like factory sausages, slapping on shiny wrappers and shipping them to store shelves before the supposedly fickle public attention span moves on. That, I think, is worth pointing out.