Tuesday, May 10, 2005

My column ...

I have been asked from time to time why, in my "Editor's Choice" column, I only review books that I like. Well, there are a number of reasons.
I started writing the column because budget cuts made it likely that I would have to run a wire review to fill the space on the page on Sunday. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to run only original reviews, written specifically for The Iquirer. So I decided to write one review a week myself.
One of the first I chose to read was The Slynx, by Tatiana Tolstoya. It is a very gloomy book, hard to pick up once you've put it down. I wasn't looking forward to spending a weekend in its company. Whereupon the thought occurred to me that I didn't have to. Why not spend my time looking for books I enjoyed and telling other readers about them? Space is at a premium in newspapers these days. Why waste it telling people how much I didn't like something?
Bear in mind it's easy to write a negative review. They practically write themselves. It's much harder to explain why you think a book is good.
Moreover, not everything I review is recommended without qualification. I had definite reservations about Chet Raymo's Climbing Brandon. But Raymo is such an engaging writer and so much that he has to say is informative that I felt the good far outweighed the bad. More problematic was Ian McEwan's Saturday.
But I'll have more to say about that in my next post.


  1. Oh, Frank, admit it: you're just a big ole softie! *hehehe*

  2. As a former book review editor myself, I have to agree with Frank. Many years ago I read an insightful book, "An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction," in which the author, Thomas J. Roberts, extolled not only the pleasures but the merits of "junk fiction." He also made quite a useful distinction between a reviewer and a critic. I cannot recall the subtleties of it, but I do remember how he succinctly summed it up: "Critics try to make the world better; reviewers try to make the world happier." Reviewers out there may decry what sounds like a diminishing of their trade, but I have always thought Prof. Roberts was on to something, for many reasons. As a freelance reviewer now, I do know it is tough to "sell" to editors an unsolicited review that is unfavorable.

    Willis Wayde

  3. Like Frank, I'm reluctant to write bad reviews most of the time. They just don't seem of much value. (I think most readers automatically discount them.) If the book is awful, I'd much rather not read it.

  4. Okay, this is a little off the topic but what I've been wondering lately is why so many critics (and reviewers) feel the need to apologize for so-called "difficult" literature. I've certainly been guilty of it in the past. "This is a brilliant novel but a challenging one." When did difficulty become a problem? Shouldn't we be advocating some literature because it challenges us?

  5. I can see the point in doing it. If a book is challenging or difficult to read, it might not be a bad idea to alert the reader to that fact.

    You want them to know: the book is challenging, but it's worth it. Stick with it.

    I don't see that as an apology. A good review should alert the reader to something like that.