by Siena Oristaglio
I’m lying in bed listening to the sound of wasps gnawing at my windowsill.
Sunlight sprawls sleepily across my pillow.
I blink into its glow.
I open an article from Harper’s on my phone.
The article is called, “Like This or Die: The Fate of the Book Review in the Age of the Algorithm.”
“The book review is and always has been an unsatisfying form,” its author, Christian Lorentzen, writes.
I think about the book reviews I’ve read.
The ones I’ve enjoyed.
The ones I’ve skimmed.
“The wrongs a reviewer can commit within this space are many; clichés are pandemic,” he continues.
I take a sip of cold water.
Outside, insects buzz.
It’s unsettling, the drone of these tiny creatures undertaking their daily work.
I open a new tab on in my phone’s browser.
“Do wasps have teeth?” I enter.
A science journal informs me that wasps have mandibles adapted to biting and cutting.
These mandibles enable them to tear through wood and meat.
Their other mouthparts form a suctorial proboscis, through which they drink nectar.
Their tiny jaws rattle as they devour the edges of my home.
The sound is somehow both ticklish and ominous.
“Can wasps chew through walls?“ I type.
I’m on my back, now, staring up at the sky.
A cloud races past.
It has somewhere to be.
It’s 9 a.m.
I have nowhere to be.
I turn back to the Harper’s article.
Lorentzen lays out the structure of a typical newspaper book review.
“A dreary formula persists,” he writes.
“A prolix yet cursory summary topped with a smattering of more or less irrelevant biographical information yielding to polite and generic adjectives of praise (compelling, engrossing, charming) before a dip into enthusiasm-draining caveats.”
My eyelids flutter as I read.
“... At last a kind conclusion to make sure we’re all still friends and no one’s time has been entirely wasted.”
My mind drifts to the wasps.
I imagine them working on a fine new literary work titled Nest.
I imagine I’ve been asked to review this work in the style that Lorentzen despises.
Nest is a new work that takes on the concepts of home, community, and cooperation in our contemporary era of social division.
Early on, the work sets itself apart from others of its genre with well-crafted cells that are fashioned in a beautiful honeycombed pattern.
Each individual segment of Nest is comprised of wood fibers that have been carefully softened by chewing and mixing with saliva.
With their close attention to detail and bold construction, there’s no doubt that the authors of Nest have devoted much time and energy towards honing their craft.
One can’t help but admire the persistence of this work, the audacity of its authors, and the drive required to produce it.
Of course, the work is not without its pitfalls. It is weak in places: namely on its underside, which has yet to be fully formed.
Held up to close scrutiny, Nest may fail to stand the test of time; specifically, it is likely to crack and crumble in the colder months.
Overall, though, the work is an engrossing masterpiece — the result of thousands of years of evolutionary biology culminating in a unforgettable triumph of spirit and wood pulp.
I’m startled awake by the sound of a siren.
I take a few breaths.
I take a sip of water.
I lift my phone and read on.
Lorentzen describes the shift towards a less analytical variety of books coverage invented for our age of social media, where shares, likes, and engagement reign supreme.
“The edifice of ‘books coverage’ that has been constructed around the work of critics looks a lot like the coverage of television—a tissue of lists, recommendations, profiles, Q&As, online book clubs, lifestyle features, and self-promotional essays by authors of new books—an edifice so slapdash it could be blown away in a week. And if the house collapsed, nobody would miss it.”
Wasps don’t understand social media, I think.
The branding and PR for Nest would be sorely lacking.
Or would it?
Though most wasps are solitary creatures, some breeds, like the one currently toiling outside my window, have adapted to form self-contained communities.
These communities follow a caste order: queens, sterile female workers, fertile females, and fertile male drones.
Fertile male drones share their reproductive cells with the queen and expire shortly thereafter.
Sterile female workers like the queen wasp enough to cooperate in raising the young she spawns.
Fertile female workers engage in the community for the length of a summer. It provides them with shelter until they are able to build new structures, new futures, new families.
A wasp’s social capital is biological, its social media chemical.
I flip onto my side.
The sun warms my cheek and neck.
Lorentzen’s lamentations continue.
“Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns. A book is born into a puddle of treacle; the brine of hostile criticism is only a memory,” he writes, quoting Elizabeth Hardwick.
He criticizes insubstantial author interviews that serve, in his view, only to build fame for publicity and sales.
I realize that I have some questions for the queen wasp.
What’s on your nightstand?
Larva. Pulp. Nectar. Spit.
Can you describe your creative process?
In the winter, I am alone.
I must survive the cold.
I find a tree with deep cavities.
I rest and wait for warmth.
In the spring, I search for nectar.
I eat and eat.
I construct a small nest.
In it, I lay eggs.
I feed nectar to my young.
Some become workers.
Some become drones.
My workers construct a larger nest.
I watch as they build with plant fibers.
Their own secretions.
Using my male drones, I repopulate the larger nest.
In the winter, everyone dies.
I am alone again.
I find a tree with deep cavities.
Who or what inspires you to create?
My compulsive need to reproduce.
If you could invite three writers, living or dead, to a dinner party, who would they be?
An author with fruit trees in her yard.
An essayist with a fondness for sweets.
A poet carrying tulips.
I’d come to them.
The sun disappears behind a cloud.
A wasp flutters along the smooth glass of my window.
Perhaps it’s searching for nectar to feed its young.
Or maybe it seeks more soft wood to chew into pulp for the nest.
I watch its tiny thorax bump along.
I lift my phone.
“Writers and their readers are ill-served by a culture that treats their books merely as props for selfies or potential gift items,” Lorentzen claims.
“They deserve critics who can deliver painstaking appraisals within a tradition of lost and found books that itself requires the constant work of rediscovery.”
I think about the wasp mandible, adapted to both suck nectar and chew meat and pulp.
As a reader, do I sometimes suck nectar, i.e., drink up the sweet review, the formulaic interview?
Do I also like to dig my teeth into a meaty critical analysis?
Has drinking nectar ever whet my appetite for something heartier?
Can readers, like wasps, devour both, enjoy both, feed on both?
For myself, at least, I know this to be true.
It’s 10 a.m. now.
The gnawing has paused.
I glance up at the sky.
Not a cloud in sight.
What kind of book reviews am I most drawn to? I ask myself.
Answers float by like cumulus:
Those that enter the world of the work.
Those that ask more questions than they answer.
Those that don’t shy away from the personal or experimental.
Those that aren’t afraid of their own teeth.
Every moment of reading a book is a moment in a person’s life.
As a reviewer reads, they exist somewhere, sitting, breathing, reacting, emoting, remembering.
The reviews that attract me most acknowledge this truth.
They gnaw at the soft wood of a book and let their readers listen to the strange sounds produced.
They digest the work, turn it to pulp, and construct a nest of their own.
The new nest hums under a late spring sun.
Siena Oristaglio (all pronouns) is an artist and educator. She co-runs The Void Academy, an organization that helps independent artists thrive. She lives in New York City.