Q: How Is An Orgy Like A Book Review?

A: They're both usually more fun in theory than in real life. Or so I imagine. Up to this point my life has been noticeably free of orgies.

Not free of book reviews, however. Like every author, I've got some good ones and some not-so-good ones. (So far, nobody has told me never to put words on paper ever again, but believe you me I know that day is coming. Remember that earlier post on one-star Amazon reviews for Melville, Dickens, and David Foster Wallace?)

Which is why I was interested to read this recent piece in n+1 by Elizabeth Gumport, who argues that book reviews are essentially meaningless. But what struck me most about Gumport's piece was the way she eroticizes both writing and reading. After claiming that only an author and her friends read reviews, she goes on to say:

Why should a writer be ashamed to write for someone she knows? Why should her friends and enemies feign a lack of interest in her work? Affection, attraction, admiration, rivalry, resentment: all are aphrodisiacs, and heighten our interest in what’s before us. Nobody insists we fuck strangers—why must we read them? If the privacy of pure patronage is impossible or undesirable, the traditional courtship can be replaced by the orgy.

At the risk of understatement, reading and fucking are very different things. For instance, only one of them can be done quietly and legally on public transportation. Also, unless you're being much more, um, creative in your reading practices, as far as I know books cannot give you STIs. (Well, maybe herpes. But you can get herpes practically by breathing, so that hardly counts.)

While there is definitely an intimacy that can spring up when you find an author that particularly speaks to you, I bristle at the notion that we should write for/read books by only people we know in the course of normal life. Some of my favorite books were in fact written by total strangers! Some of those strangers have been dead for centuries! If I wanted to leverage personal relationships for profit, I would sign up to be a Mary Kay representative.

No: what I want is to tell stories that resonate with people, even if we've never met. I want to read books by people whose experiences don't match my own and see what truths they have found that I may have missed. I want someone to stand up on the internet and shout out, "I have read a marvelous thing and you might want to consider taking a look."

Because some of my favorite books of the past few years I've found on account of a review from a trusted source.

There's a well-worn academic theory that says writing about sex is really writing about death, and after all this talk about sexy patrons and modern literature Gumport brings this out:

But our lives will end, sooner than we think, and our youth is already almost over. The self is not a renewable resource. If we wouldn’t describe a book to someone we wanted to sleep with, we shouldn’t write about it.

It is really tempting to dismiss this as pure disaffected hipster drivel. "Our youth is already almost over." As though there were no old people anywhere near bookstores, or writing for the New Yorker or the Times Review of Books. And as though all our social interactions should be viewed through the lens of our sexual desires. There are plenty of people I'm happy to talk to and books I'm happy to read that have nothing to do with adding another chapter to my slapdash sexual history.

When the erotic romance author is telling you that perhaps you have too much sex on the brain, it may be time for some self-examination. (Not like that!)

Linda Holmes from NPR's Monkey See blog has a completely lovely post on how it is tragic that we cannot read every book in existence, and that's okay. And one bit that stuck with me was this:

What I've observed in recent years is that many people, in cultural conversations, are far more interested in culling than in surrender. And they want to cull as aggressively as they can. After all, you can eliminate a lot of discernment you'd otherwise have to apply to your choices of books if you say, "All genre fiction is trash." You have just massively reduced your effective surrender load, because you've thrown out so much at once.

Gumport is making precisely this mistake when she writes:

Not only do we not want to read about Gary Shteyngart’s latest novel, we don’t even want to know it exists.

This is the frustrated cry of someone who feels obligated to be on the cutting edge of literary hipsterhood—the book-lover who feels ashamed to admit that A Visit from the Goon Squad is still sitting unread on their bedside table. She wants the same freedom from peer pressure in the book world that she feels she has in her sex life—nobody's making her fuck people she's not interested in, so why should she have to read authors she's not interested in?

But if you ask me, a lot of that pressure's internal. I know: I've been there. But I've also found books that have changed my life, such as Night of the Avenging Blowfish, which nobody in the world but me considers important, but which broke my readerly brain in some very nice ways. And I've read some very important books (cough cough Wide Sargasso Sea) that felt like a waste of my personal time. Ultimately, I've learned not to ask whether or not a book is going to be important, but whether or not a book is going to be important to me, with the limited lifespan I have on this earth.

So bring on your orgies, your lists of summer books, your lists of highly anticipated fall titles, your new doorstop biographies, your Night Circuses and your Marriage Plots. I can't read all of them, but there are millions of readers out there. Together, we can read every book ever written, with time to spare to tell each other about the great ones.