I note from my work logs that in 2003 I published 17 book reviews; a total of over 30,000 words (there are a couple of long literary divagations in there), with gross remuneration — I mean, not augmented for the value of the free books — of $5,860. That is an average fee of 20 cents a word, though spread across a range from 11 to 42 cents a word, depending on the periodical commissioning the review. It is, as Cockneys say, not a bad little earner.
As a book reviewer, however, I am not my own best friend. I take the whole business much too seriously, actually reading a book all the way through — this is by no means a universal practice in book-reviewing circles — and then, if the subject matter has some moment, or catches my interest in some way, or if I believe myself inadequately informed about it, reading a couple more books for background before forming my thoughts. This reduces my hourly remuneration to something below that paid to illegal-immigrant fruit-pickers. I console myself with the thought that I am wiser, or at least more knowledgable, for the effort, and that knowledge has no price.
Currently, for example, I am reviewing Volume Two of Roy Foster's biography of W. B. Yeats for another magazine. Since I had not read Volume One at the time of accepting the commission, I thought I had better, so I did. That raised my total page-count commitment to over 1,400. I then realized I didn't know the poems half as well as I had thought I did, so there was another 435 pages — which should really count as 870, since a page of poetry requires twice as much attention as a page of prose. I have also done some heavy browsing in Douglas Archibald's Yeats, Donald Torchiana's W. B. Yeats and Georgian Ireland, and William O'Donnell's breezy but excellent The Poetry of William Butler Yeats. Oh, and I am trying to set up an interview with Maureen Murphy of Hofstra, the only academic-class Yeats expert within easy geographical range. Fruit-picker? My hourly rate for this review is probably going to be down below that of the crossing-sweeper in Bleak House, not adjusted for inflation.
Why on earth do I bother? Mostly it is just vanity and greed, the normal human motivations for doing anything. I am aware of secondary forces, though, both lower and higher in moral standing.
Chief among the lower is the vituperative urge. Every book reviewer's dream is to get a thoroughly bad book for review, a real stinker, and to comprehensively trash it, and get the review published. This very high level of spiritual fulfilment is not often vouchsafed to humble drudges like the Straggler. Most periodicals will not publish negative reviews by anyone not an accredited academic or a literary celebrity.
It occasionally happens, though. National Review, bless their hearts, once let me loose on one of Tim Pat Coogan's books. Coogan writes about recent Irish history. He is much read by the fiercer kind of Irish American, but is a bit of a joke in Ireland herself. A friend over there alerted me to the book, I suggested it to our literary editor, he gave me the nod, and I let Coogan have it with both barrels. My review is still passed around at NORAID meetings as a specimen of the vile calumnies heaped on the long-suffering children of Erin by the contemptible hirelings of British imperialism, and I got a gratifying amount of hate mail in response to it. One letter-writer took particular exception to my noting Coogan's persistent belief — it has appeared in at least two of his books — that Ireland contains a place named "Loughall." Ireland does so have such a place, sputtered my indignant correspondent from his Massachusetts address, as I could easily verify for myself by a quick Google search on the name. After a minute or two at the keyboard I was able to reply that, by this test, the U.S.A. contains places named "Washnigton," "Batlimore," and "Los Agneles." (A cautionary tale for those who depend on the Internet for their information.)
Of higher motivations, I think the hope of discovery is foremost, though again, opportunities are hard to come by. Once your name has been spotted on a book review, people interested in getting a notice for their book, or for a book by a loved one — mothers are a major force here — send in their pleas, and of course their books. This is generally a waste of time for all concerned. It is not that the books in question are uniformly no good. Most of them are no good, but then so are most of the books that get full-page attention from Professor Deepbrow in the Sunday New York Times. Publishing is a gross lottery: Much gold sinks, much dung floats. No; it is generally a waste of time because, at the Straggler level, a reviewer has very little say about the books for which he can depend on getting a paid review into print. He may propose, but literary editors dispose.
However, these barriers sometimes fall. An over-the-transom book, picked up in an idle moment, seizes the reviewer's attention. A literary editor is amenable, and has a space to fill. One then has the satisfaction of having brought some small measure of recognition to a worthy book that would otherwise have been without. I was recently able to pull this off for Stephen Bodio's Eagle Dreams, which I described in my review as a travel book just because it reminded me so much of the great 20th-century travelers — Robert Byron, Eric Newby, Evelyn Waugh — but which really defies categorization.
Perhaps this satisfaction, too, is a species of vanity. I feel sure it is; but the knowledge that one has added a pebble, however tiny, to the great cairn of literature banishes all negative reflections, and lifts reviewing up from the ignominy of drudge work for dwindling "Books" sections at the backs of newspapers into the sunlit uplands of true literary fellowship. Then it's all worth it, even at a fruit-picker's wage.