a fun genre with a lot of pitfalls
I find most of your posts interesting and thought provoking, but the book reviews and literature posts have been my favorites and the reason why I became a paid subscriber. Modern book culture is sucking the joy out of books. The reviews in mainstream publications, the sites like Good Reads, and the online book discussion groups and clubs that should be a refuge for people who are curious and love discussing ideas and language and who love good stories are in reality nothing more than yet another place to project a personal brand and judge other people. None of the people in this culture seems to love books! They only want to distill down precisely what/who the book represents in the context of our current political culture and either joylessly accept it as worthy of being read or declare it harmful. I love reading reviews with which I disagree, but I dislike reading reviews from people who don’t actually love or even like the books they give rave reviews to, or possibly don’t trust or love books at all. I am definitely looking forward to lit week.
NO BANALITY allowed.
"The Complete Review" website (now 20 years+) is a one man show (M.A.Orthofer). It has thousands of reviews, often translations, and his editorial policy is the best:
"The complete review makes no claims whatsoever to any form of objectivity in its reviews and opinions. We acknowledge that the biases and personal views of the editors colour all aspects of this site."
"Nevertheless, we go to great lengths to make users of this site aware of other opinions, and to provide them with links to these -- although we reserve the right not to link to a site or page if we deem the information provided irrelevant, uninformed, uninformative, banal, available elsewhere, or it just plain does not suit us."
Just want to throw in how when I was in grad school, one of my professors didn't give us any kind of formal final, and instead simply had us write a book review. His reasoning was "this'll prepare you far more for academic life than a test, since you'll probably need to write tons of these to pad out your CV and earn a little extra cash on the side."
"nobody ever declines to read a book they wanted to based on negative ones"
For me, that isn't true. It really depends on the specifics of the criticism. There have definitely been times a review of a book that I'd been interested in, for whatever reason, has made me say, "Meh, there are plenty of other things I want to read" and pick up a different book. Life's too short to read everything.
This is a great piece Freddie. The art of book criticism, and it is an art, is nearly lost. There are not so many critics like Geoffrey Hartman any longer. I read the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books for some thirty years or so (the NY Times Book Review is trash and always has been) until i got tired of the standard manhattan literary voice that is in vogue esp in the NY Review. I still read the LRB from time to time. (It was when they began bashing Tolkien and Kipling and Twain for being "problematic" that i finally began to give them up.) Your comments on Voice are great; most writers, much less reviewers, don't understand that no matter what you are writing on the other side of that is someone wanting to hear a story (fiction or nonfiction, it doesn't matter, it is still a story). And the child inside people wants to be told a story from someone whose voice is warm and caring and which loves telling stories. Reviewers, no matter how high brow, that are good know this. William Gass is a great example, as well as being a fine writer (though i never could get into his fiction, i have read all his nonfiction).
That is Voice. And we all have our own; it comes out naturally if you just tell the story the way you yourself would want to hear it. Doing so automatically contains respect for the reader and all those other qualities that make the storyteller's voice wonderful.
Style: this is simply the techniques you use to write the story. There are thousands of them. I never paid much attention to the RULES of writing; i just knew what i wanted to do and worked years at figuring out how. I have always been a better bottom up learner than top down; top down took all the life out of it. (and besides the only writing class i ever took in college i got a D and the guy told me i would never make a living as a writer so i should give it up; i think of him every time I deposit another royalty check.) In this way i developed my own style, some of the techniques i use are common, many are not. Grammar is meant to serve the writer, not the other way around. I always found that old saying: you have to learn the rules before you can break them, to be incredibly stupid. If you understand that writing is merely the composing of meaning and not the manipulation of words, it makes all the difference. We shape meaning through words and words are only meanings surrounded by a thin membrane which can be altered in a great many ways that few writing books understand). Style should be unique, not the MFA sameness of the illiterati.
I always believed that besides what the reviewer needs to do for the reader (which you summarize very well Freddie) is to actually understand what the writer is trying to do so that they can legitimately write about whether or not the writer has achieved it. I have never been able to understand a reviewer who hates Tolkien reviewing his work, or one who dislikes science fiction or fantasy reviewing it. But it happens all the time. I hate most jazz (yes, i am a cretin) so i would never review it, ever. and i hate most literary fiction so I am not a good person to review that either. What i don't see these days is a reviewer who loves a particular genre and actually understands what the writer is trying to do and analyzes and then writes about it well. A critical reviewer is someone who knows the craft and can comment on the excellence and sophistication of the execution of it in any particular instance. I think i have only had one real review of any of my 23 books over the decades of my writing. it is irritating.
Besides the problems Freddie noted, there is the standard review process, used by that paragon of inexactitude, the NY Times. It goes like this: A summary, some positive comments, then the crucial negative comments which show that the reviewer is not a fool and can't be conned into liking something without discrimination, then a final few comments on the book. it is like hearing one song over and over again, endlessly. ick. They suck.
again, thanks for another great article Freddie.
I watch this a couple of times a year. It is 2 minutes.
It is the funniest things about books on the Internet:
One of my favorite jobs soon after college was at my tiny hometown twice-weekly paper because I got to write reviews for the movies the "real" critics (one of whom was my high school drama teacher) didn't feel were worth their time. It's probably the most fun I've ever had writing, but it was much harder than I thought it would be. As the rejects, these were usually aggressively mediocre films, which is a tough category to review (there's only so many artful and personal ways you can spin "meh" and "yawn" before you fall asleep at the keyboard). But I got a couple of unexpected gems along the way (e.g., "Office Space"), and it was a fantastic learning experience.
Great post. The best reviews can be enjoyed by someone who has no intention of reading the book. It's the same with TV and movie reviews.
One of my frustrations as a reader of (mostly amateur) reviews is when the reviewer has a strong reaction to a plot development, but holds back to avoid spoilers. A review will say something like, "I was rooting for Britney, but then she did something so awful that I lost all respect for her. I won't spoil it, but her actions ruined the book for me."
Then I'm just thinking, "What?? What did Britney do?" I'd much rather know... but then I'm one of those weird readers who likes spoilers. When I'm shopping, I seek out the tedious summary guy on Goodreads, because it relaxes me to know what happens in advance. (Also my genre is romance, so it's not like the outcome is ever in doubt. Only the "how" can be spoiled.)
"Distinguishing between style and voice intelligently would take me an essay in and of itself, which I’ll probably write someday."
Please do, I would love to read this.
A very fine read as always. One thing I've always wondered about book reviewing is the cruel fact of life: people really enjoy reading bad reviews. Love them, the bloodier the hatchet job the better. Some may say, "Oh not me!" but.. a little bit of everyone does. I think other writers might have sympathetic pangs, putting themselves in the shoes of the panned. Or maybe schadenfreude, seeing someone they dislike taken down a notch. Theres a whole vast range of human emotions that people bring to how they feel about a real massacre in print.
And a lot of temptation too, perhaps especially for younger writers who want to make their name, go viral, kill Daddy. A range of motivations. But of course that's often a professional dead end for a writer, to be known as nasty or overly harsh. Not invited to parties, most writers want to be liked, or liked enough.
So in my imagination, the temptation for a reviewer must be strong when they encounter a book that they absolutely loathe; find unbearably pretentious; by an author they detest; or just , nurturing whatever stripe or degree of sadism they might harbor. Letting it out of its cage. Wouldn't it be FUN, to shoot this fish in a barrel? Can you imagine the internet high-fives and LOLs for your scathingly witty takedown, from utter strangers? I bet some do daydream of that. But where does it get you after that rush, Mr. Peck?
I don't see you in this way, I think you'd rather drop the review than be needlessly cruel. I just find the current world of book-reviewing in the US to be a bit dull, a bit bland, a bit *nice*. (The Brits don't mind defenestrations on the review page with their morning tea, though they're subtler.) I probably sound like a jerk, but I'm just being open about enjoying a good literary evisceration once in a while. Is that so wrong?
Very excited for lit week, whichever direction you end up taking it.
I've grown weary of Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic too. It would be great if we just junked them. Not only would viewers be a little more adventurous when there's no magic number to guide them, but there would be less social pressure for critics to walk in lockstep.
A whole week of lit shit? Ugh.
In my early days as a librarian I was required to append two review to each book order. This was a lot of work and I soon learned which reviewers did more than summary. So, if today were my days of having that job you would be one of my go-to reviewers because it would have made that labor more worthwhile.
Then publishers devised "order plans" and sent each library a pre-selected box of books we could peruse. This was more efficient, I guess--but not nearly as much fun.
This is helpful. I like films watch plenty and have no idea how to review them. I’d like to do more of that on my podcast but an awareness of how clueless I am slows me down.
There is way too much content for me to search back and find it, but I swear that there was a post a few months ago that, in reference to book reviewing, said that you should under no circumstances talk about your personal history with reading a particular author or the book in question. Seems like the opposite of a lot of this advice, unless I've made it up. In which case, carry on.