In January 2017, after nearly five years online, the Portico Good Reading Guide will come to an end. A subscription-based review site and bookstore—and cybersuccessor to the brick-and-mortar Portico Books and Fine Stationery in Sydney, Australia—the GRG made it their mission to identify the most rewarding new publications, and to put every review at the disposal of their complex, age-and-genre-based search engine.
Children’s books were a special emphasis, and helping adults to identify those titles that best instruct and inspire developing minds. With the shuttering of the GRG comes the end of a family business, an independent bookstore, and a noble-minded venture. It is also a great loss to the book industry, whose swelling corpus seems determined to shake off every canon as a potential shackle, and whose landscape resembles less a wild west than the dystopian sprawl of a William Gibson novel.
I had the privilege of contributing to the GRG for almost its whole lifetime, beginning with Eowyn Ivey’s Snow Child in March of 2012, and finishing with Kate Beasley’s Gertie’s Leap to Greatness in September of this year. In all, I reviewed over 320 books for the GRG, and contributed more than 150,000 words. My work with the site launched when editor Clare Cannon contacted me after reading my first article on MercatorNet, which compared Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. I recall approaching the gig gingerly, having been misled, like many, to distrust moral appraisals as marmish handwringing and censorship. I believed fully in the GRG’s mission, however, and embraced the opportunity to read more or less nonstop.
At first, I had only my indignation and militant taste to guide my assessments, as well as years of studying critics and theorists I believed in, but whom no one seemed to cite anymore. My time in university had made it clear to me that traditional standards of dignity were on the wane in modern literature, if they had not been pitched to the hillside and stoned.
I had also been put off by mainstream reviewers, observing that many of them were authors themselves, and institutional insiders. As a result, most of them have guns to their heads, and seem to use reviews more as an opportunity for proving their own literary finesse than for demonstrating insight and keen judgment. To top that all off, few things affect our opinions about people more than their taste in art, and I balked at the arbiter’s role. Whether a happy warrior or a curmudgeon, the critic walks a ridgepole of respectability, and will always appear off-balance to someone.
My area was adult fiction, but I ended up reading a bit of everything: preschool board books, chick-lit, pop philosophy, science, social science. Some of the most memorable titles I reviewed include Voyage to Alpha Centauri by Michael O’Brien (2013), Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013), Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande (2014), and The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill (2016). In nearly five years, there were only two titles I asked to be excused from reviewing. One was We Are Not Such Things by Justine van der Leun (2016), which I put off partly out of time constraints. The other was Emily Rapp’s The Still Point of the Turning World (2013), a grief memoir about the author’s infant son, who was born with, and died from, an incurable genetic condition. My own son was only four months old when the book was published, and I could not get past the first three pages.
As it turned out, I came across only a handful of books that proved challenging to evaluate, and I came to some conclusions. For one, readers are drowning in potboilers. Hundreds of books arrive on the scene every month, the only explanation for whose poor quality is that they provide their authors and publishers with a steady income. I understand writers have to eat, and that most readers read what they already know they will enjoy. The only real problem I have with this state of affairs is how it piggybacks on literary prestige, its culture unduly ennobled by the idea that reading is inherently beneficial. Reading is no more beneficial than eating is healthy, and there’s as much literary junk food in bookstores and libraries as there are empty calories in the grocer’s aisles. I fundamentally reject the notion that a lousy book makes for time better spent than a great film, television show, or video game. Miguel de Cervantes knew four hundred years ago that fatuous books addle the brain, but there are books that do much worse things to the mind than chivalric romances.
Beneath the froth, however, lies the bedrock of the weightiest modern literature, the best of which is designated by our literary institutions: faculties, arts councils, awards committees, and others. Nonetheless, what the professionals come up with every year has become a joke among recreational readers, who would sooner vote for the “Trump” of a Lee Childs novel than for the “Clinton” of a Toni Morrison one. There’s no denying it: most of the prestige titles make us feel awful. Too few of the literati seem to appreciate the symbiotic nature of fiction, and that the imaginations of readers are the playhouses in which books come to life. Their situations rummage through our memories for props; their events are directed by our experiences. Stories involving pain and misery are hard to shake off, especially when we’re told we’re reading the best there is.
I’ve always agreed with Northrop Frye, who wrote that “literature is the place where our imaginations find the ideal that they try to pass on to belief and action, where they find the dignity and the joy of life.” As such, some theorists have used the language of depravity in describing bad literature, with John Gardner writing that “the immorality of an inept poet is like that of a sleeping guard or a drunken bus driver.” Michael Walsh goes even further, calling subversive art a tool of Satanism dedicated to undoing the heroic values of Judeo-Christian Western civilization. I have never been comfortable with the language of diabolism in such things. Like Father Damien, I just about need to see the horns. Nonetheless, there is consensus among moral critics that bad literature does something unhealthy not just to individual readers, but also to a culture’s moral compass.
The Portico Good Reading Guide understood all this. Its people also believed that identifying the best books is a service that deserves to be paid for—a mentality increasingly at odds with the communalism of unregulated review sites such as Goodreads and other social media. For my part, I want to thank all the GRG subscribers who are MercatorNet readers for supporting us, and to acknowledge no better place to do so than here, where in many ways, it began.
I was never part of the business side of things, but by the end it became clear that the GRG was not generating enough revenue to break even, much less to provide its owners with a living wage. They deserve great praise for keeping the site going as long as they did, in service to good reading and the dignity of the literary imagination.
Harley J. Sims is a writer and independent scholar living near Halifax, Nova Scotia. He can be reached on his website at http://www.harleyjsims.webs.com/