You might be wondering, What does this thing have to do with Mars?
The short answer is, nothing, really. We just thought it sounded cool.
And we figured we’d have a leg up on the competition once humanity becomes a multi-planet species. The long answer will require us to examine why book reviewing is a dying art, and talk a bit about a new computing platform called Urbit, which is the digital home of this magazine. (If you’ve never heard of Urbit, you’ll want to give it a Google. We recommend the introductory piece “Urbit for Normies” if you’re a normie, and “Urbit Is For Creators” if you’re a creator.)
But let’s start with book reviews. In Harper’s in 1959, Elizabeth Hardwick wrote of the book reviewing scene, “[s]weet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns.” She could have been talking about today. Soon after that essay was published, Hardwick sat down for dinner with Robert Lowell, Jason and Barbara Epstein, and Bob Silvers, and they discussed the idea of a new book review, which would eventually become the redoubtable New York Review of Books. Their opportunity back then was that a printers’ strike had temporarily shut down the New York Times Book Review, and book publishers had nowhere else to place ads. Our opportunity today is that there exists a glut of supposed book reviews, but no one particularly cares about any of them.
What’s wrong with book reviews today? There are three main things:
(1) Traditional publishing is a fandom. (2) Book reviewing is a Ponzi scheme. (3) All writing is prayer (and if you use the wrongs words, your prayer goes unheard).
Let’s take these one by one.
(1) Traditional publishing is a fandom.
Critic and MRB contributor Default Friend has pointed out that journalism is a fandom; that is, while it appears to be reality-based and universal, it is actually fictional and niche. The same is true for the books that traditional publishers release. Their output is designed to please only those who are already members of the fandom, and anything outside the Traditional Publishing Cinematic Universe, as it were, must be excluded. Certain opinions are off limits, as are certain subjects. All the same, the landscape of this fictional universe is highly compelling, and plenty of consumers are happy never to leave. It’s simply too good. No longer do individual novels, like Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, induce young lasses to heartbreak and young lads to suicide. The great tearjerkers of today address the Current Thing and appear serially in the non-fiction section.
This would not be such a terrible thing for book reviews, except that they seem to be compelled, by whatever strange magic, to treat traditional publishing houses (a group of corporate conglomerates known as the Big Five) as the canonical source for deciding which books are interesting and worth review. This is despite the fact that anyone today may publish anything they want and distribute it immediately to the world. The organization and distribution of the written word has changed rapidly in the last two decades, and much that is inspiring, eccentric, and brilliant has risen to the top through non-traditional channels. An adequate book review, to say nothing of an excellent one, ought to address that fact.
(2) Book reviewing is a Ponzi scheme.
This subject has been ably treated by the editors of n+1 in their Summer, 2021 issue. I’ll summarize: Once upon a time, every local newspaper, along with legacy magazines such as Harper’s and the New Yorker, alternative weeklies, and even some general interest magazines like Entertainment Weekly, employed a book reviewer. This is no longer the case, in part because books now compete with podcasts and other media even on serious subjects (and on science and technology, podcasts pretty much have them licked), and because reviewers compete with online criticules (“The packaging was too sticky!” “The book is called Of Mice and Men. . . I thought there would be more mice in it!”) who work for free.
The result is that reviewers treat their reviews as a launching pad to a book deal or tenure track job (or as a way to settle scores), while publications treat the reviews section as a publicity arm (whereas magazines used to refuse to review a book for which an advertisement had been placed in order to be impartial, today I’ve heard of some publications that will only review a book once the publisher has placed an ad). Neither party treats the book review as an end in itself, as the subtle art it truly is.
(3) All writing is prayer (and if you use the wrongs words, your prayer goes unheard.)
There’s something strange about writing—about language in general. What, for example, is this business about “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”? Why would God be a word in the beginning, instead of some fantastic creature like a behemoth or a unicorn, or a series of angels dancing on the head of a pin?
The fact is that language can be holy, at least when it’s used correctly. Every writer who is a real writer and not a mere reporter knows what it is when sound and sense form a feedback loop with one another, and the world itself comes to seem more sinuous and more clear, and the hairs on the back of the neck prickle. It doesn’t work when you cheat on the sound— which is why, for instance, a thesaurus is so handy, and why Flaubert drove himself mad over choosing just the right word. And it doesn’t work when you cheat on the sense—which is why, for instance, Joyce made such obsessive inquiries about the height of the railing Bloom and Daedalus would have to jump over in the Ithaca section of Ulysses.
And it especially doesn’t work when you use language instrumentally. That is, when you’ve got something to sell, or a guillotine to line up over someone’s head. It works when you look closely at the things of this world and describe them dispassionately and thereby glorify them. If you’re editing a new magazine, there are a thousand things to keep you up at night—but a devotion to this underlying goal is something with which any editor ought to be able to rest easily. To look deeply into things is in and of itself good. That requires grace, intelligence, and discipline. Thank goodness the contributors of the first issue have shown those qualities in spades.
But beyond that, what do we intend to do differently in this review? And how does all this explain what this thing has to do with Mars? To answer that, we’ll want to talk a bit about Urbit. Urbit enthusiasts sometimes refer to the network as Mars, and to themselves as Martians, in reference to a 2010 blog post in which the system was first described. The conceit was that the author had met a superintelligent race of Martians, who described to him their “diamond-perfect software.” I.e., they described the Platonic ideal of what our digital world ought to be. And it was his job to bring that software down to earth. So, in calling this magazine the Mars Review of Books, we’re not trying to sound sci-fi or to make any kind of comment on Space-X. We’re saying we’d like to re-think the idea of a book review from scratch.
What would the ideal of a book review be? We can start by saying what it would not be. It would not be a vehicle for driving engagement. It would not be propaganda. It would not be for cutting authors down to size or building authors up. Ideally, it wouldn’t even really be for selling magazines—although that should probably be a part of it.
To be truly idealistic about it: A review would exist for its own sake, like any piece of art. This is an idea that’s contrary to the logic of most organizations. Luckily for us, Urbit is contrary to the logic of most organizations. Urbit was not built to make a quick buck. It was built for the long haul—to provide an elegant, convivial and human-centered method of computing that can last for generations. And thus the people who organize around it tend to share some of those same concerns.
Urbit is a software project. But one might suggest that at its core it also implies a different way of looking at the world. The short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” which lent the first Urbit company its name, tells the tale of a parallel universe that slowly subsumes reality. It may be that such a parallel universe—one where quality beats quantity, permanence beats a flash in the pan, and a deep concern for human flourishing beats venality—is slowly twisting its way, ivy-like, through the nooks and crannies of our otherwise humdrum world. We’ll have to wait and see. In any case, we couldn’t be more grateful to the Urbit Foundation and its sister organization The Combine for their support in getting this project off the ground, and for the steady belief that something so quixotic might have staying power. However the Mars Review does conclude, we can say confidently that no other project could have provided the necessary premise.
by Noah Kumin