In her early review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani explains that the paper scored its copy at a bookstore on Wednesday. Her 1,100-word review posted that evening. Wait, how can you read a 784-page book and write a considered take on it all in one afternoon? In a 2004 column reproduced below, Slate’s Jack Shafer looked into the instant-review phenomenon after several critics pumped out their responses to Bill Clinton’s My Life a mere 24 hours after getting their copies. The secret: Skip and skim. One writer told him, “Did I read the whole thing? No.” Another writer said he had read the whole book, but with this caveat: “Closely enough to take a short quiz? No.” Kakutani’s working method may remain a mystery, though. She refused to dish on her quick take on My Life.
My Life, Bill Clinton’s hulking, 957-page memoir, huffed into anchorage on June 22 where it was greeted by the press mob as if it were the Queen Mary II. The publicity wizards at Clinton’s publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, had stoked interest in the admittedly newsworthy book by denying reviewers copies prior to the official June 22 release date. Also, Knopf’s decision not to sell prepublication serial rights to a newsweekly or newspaper added to the mystique.
Every newspaper worth its salt published some sort of news story gleaned from the book’s pages on June 23, but the Los Angeles Times, the New York Observer, and the Associated Press ran full-fledged reviews that day. Newsday published its instant review on June 24. The New York Times had beaten everybody by publishing its review on June 20, with its reviewer probably getting My Life on June 18 if her source was the same as the one who provided the Times news pages with a copy.
The 24- to 48-hour turnaround of these reviews poses the question of whether a barge-size book like My Life can be read in its entirety in such short order—let alone reviewed. How long might it take to read My Life? Slate assigned one-third of My Life to three staffers for our “Juicy Bits” feature, and they recorded 27 man-hours of reading and note-taking. Surely a full-fledged review of My Life by one person would require somewhere in the neighborhood of 27 hours for reading, plus sleep breaks, and maybe another couple of hours for composition.
Are the book blitzers Evelyn Wood speed-reading graduates, vampires who never sleep, corrupt book-skimmers, or hacks? All of the blitzers who spoke about their instant reviews defended their velocity, with some saying their assignment wasn’t to judge a masterpiece of literature but to assess a public figure’s retelling of events with which everybody is mostly familiar.
“This wasn’t really a book book,” says Robert Sam Anson, who says his design was to write a “news review” of My Life for the New York Observer.
“This is a political event more than it’s literature,” Anson says.
Anson prepped himself for the review by talking to people who’d been read long portions of the book, which gave him a sense of what it contained before he opened it. He then logged 26 straight hours producing his review.
“Did I read the whole thing? No. Lucky for [Clinton]!” says Anson.
Media columnist Tim Rutten, who reviewed the book for the Los Angeles Times, says yes, he read the entire book but adds, “Closely enough to take a short quiz? No.”
Encouraged by his editors, Rutten has become the go-to guy at his newspaper for book turnarounds, writing rapid reviews of Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack and Joseph Wilson’s The Politics of Truth. He pulled an all-nighter for My Life, spending about 26 hours reading and writing.
Rutten defends instant reviews as “a service to readers who are engaged by the 24-hour news cycle.” Whether instant reviews are a service to letters or history, he says, is debatable.
Novelist Francine Prose spent 12 hours reading My Life—”The first 200 pages very carefully”—and a few hours at the keyboard composing her Newsday review. “It’s the sort of book that’s writing the review in your head while you’re reading,” she says. Newsday published her review in its June 24 edition; the Web version carries a June 23 12:33 p.m. time stamp.
Prose agreed to write the instant review in part because the paper offered a premium rate—which she won’t confide. But her main motivation was the opportunity to write something political.
“I knew that regardless of the literary merits of the book, the human being that was going to appear from those pages would be superior to the people in the current administration,” Prose says.
Washington Post editorial writer and columnist Anne Applebaum (a friend and former regular Slate contributor) wrote a sweeping assessment of My Life for her paper’s June 23 op-ed page, and while it’s not billed as such, it’s a review in every respect but name.
“It isn’t just that it’s dull, like so many political memoirs, or that the sections on Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky are weirdly abrupt and uninformative; it’s utterly lacking in perspective,” Applebaum writes in her piece.
Did Applebaum read the whole thing? No. Just “600-odd pages,” she e-mails.
“I read the early chapters on Clinton’s childhood, high school, and Oxford experiences, skipped the Arkansas governorship, and went on to the presidency. Then I got stuck. Pretty quickly, it becomes obvious how disorganized the book is. As it happens, I do read unusually fast and always have. But even if I’d had six months, I wouldn’t have learned more than in the several hours I had,” she writes in e-mail.
Having written this column in my head before I started to report it, I expected to conclude that no book review should be written on amphetamines against a short deadline. Instead, I’ve concluded that blitz reviews have their place. To begin with, publisher Knopf encouraged the day-hits of My Life by breaking with the standard procedure in which publishers provide advance review copies to publications but request that no review run until the official publishing date—or until the book appears in bookstores. If Knopf—or Clinton—desire reviews benefiting from longer deadlines, they know how to make that system work. If they want to treat the book as a news event, there’s no reason why reviewers shouldn’t do the same.
But what really convinced me of the value of blitz reviews was the Washington Post review by Walter Isaacson. The Post gave Isaacson days rather than hours to write the piece, posting it to the Web on June 28 at 5:41 a.m.
At 2,000 words, Isaacson’s slow-food take is much longer than its fast-food cousins. It’s also better-written—the jokes are sharper, the allusions better-grounded, the rhythm better-paced. But Isaacson’s basic takeaway doesn’t differ much from that of instant reviewers Anson, Rutten, Applebaum, and Schwartz: Isaacson finds the first half of the book fascinating but complains that Clinton surrenders to his self-indulgent, psychobabbly, slapdash tendencies in the second half. Clinton should come back in 10 years and rewrite the second half of the book, Isaacson recommends in his conclusion.
From Isaacson’s point of view, it sounds like My Life got the instant notices it deserved.
The “Juicy Bits” treatment of My Life mentioned above was removed from Slate after Knopf protested copyright infringement: See this note from Slate’s editor.
Correction, July 1, 2004: In the original version of this story, Associated Press writer Jerry Schwartz was described as a blitz reviewer, and the piece stated that he did not make himself available for an interview. An AP spokesman says Schwartz obtained the book on June 18, so he was not a blitz reviewer. However, the AP did not respond to a request to interview Schwartz. (Return to the corrected sentence.)