Monday, September 25, 2006

I knew this would happen ...

... as soon as I read what Lev Grossman had to say at Critical Mass: On Amateur Book Reviewing. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

The question that comes to mind is what constitutes a professional book reviewer. Is that somebody who has an advanced degree in literature or something? "There's a pervasive notion that anybody who can read can write a book review." There is? It doesn't have to do with whether you can read, but with whether you can write. On the other hand, to be honest, I can't agree that "an exemplar ... can easily be found in the New York Review of Books." I've read some good reviews in the New York Review of Books, but I've also read plenty that were interminable, diffuse, and tendentious. That judging a "book in context of other books that may be related" gets a lot of reviewers in trouble; that's where they often come off as being primarily interested in showing off how much they know. The other thing that gets reviewers in trouble is being preoccupied with demonstrating how cleverly they can phrase their judgments. Good reviews aren't about the reviewers.

12 comments:

  1. An ideal review of a book is an essay on the book's subject that happens to touch upon the book. I HATE reviews, especially of non-fiction, that give a competent summary of the contents along with a comment that "this book offers a fresh look at a controversial/eternally interesting subject that should interest all thinking readers." Publications that print reviews like that should save the space and instead print the book's title and give it one, two, three or four stars.

    Professional or amateur, if you cannot bring critical perspective to bear on a book (or movie or piece of music or art), you should not be writing about it for publication.

    There is one valid test for a critic of the reviewing kind: Can his or her work hold the interest of an intelligent reader who is unfamiliar with the subject? My ideal has always been Robert Brustein's theater articles in The New Republic. His pieces were exciting even though I knew nothing about theater. Thanks in part to Brustein, I got interested. Now I even know something.

    ====================

    Detectives Beyond Borders:
    "Because Murder is More Fun Away From Home"

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  2. I don't think we really differ here, Peter. My philosophical training was in phenomenology and I learned there that if you accurately and precisely describe what you experience, your feelings will necessarily be clear because you will have to choose your words with care. True, in addition to being informative, you ought also to be able to put together an entertaining read. That said, there is no one-size-fits-all formula for reviewing.

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  3. Susan Balee8:32 PM

    I think having an opinion, stating it clearly, and then defending it with evidence are the criteria that matter in a review. And of course competent prose to carry the message is essential.

    My favorite reviewer doesn't review books but movies: Anthony Lane of _The New Yorker_. Even if I never see the movie he's talking about, I know I'll love the review as an object in itself.

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  4. I have given up completely on the NYR because I have never read anything there that compelled me to go out and buy a book. Most of my book finds come from amateur book reviewers, mainly bloggers. On the surface, they seem more honest since a paycheck isn't involved and I am usually pleased with their recommendations. If I enjoy a blog, I'm more likely to trust that person's opinions over a professional reviewer. And besides, sometimes a book just sucks. Many bloggers have no problem getting straight to the point.

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  5. I think you have put your finger, Marydell, on the appeal of blogs - but it isn't all that different from what Susan says. We become familiar with a tone, an outlook, and come to trust it. One has to review for the common reader, not other reviewers, the critics, the academy, whatever. My own method, for what it's worth - and insofar as anything so casual can be thought of as methodical - is to sit down and talk to the reader about the book I just read - I hope engagingly.

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  6. "Frank Wilson said...
    ... I learned there that if you accurately and precisely describe what you experience, your feelings will necessarily be clear because you will have to choose your words with care."


    Sure, but what if the reviewer lacks the feelings in the first place? (I wish there were some special font I could use to indicate when I was being whimsical.)

    You'll know more than I will about reviewing, of course. But, while there may be no one-size-fits-all formula, a thousand roads can still lead to that one necessary destination: an intelligent reader's satisfaction, in a tone appropriate to the subject, whether that take the form of edification or entertainment or outrage or what have you.
    ====================

    Detectives Beyond Borders:
    "Because Murder is More Fun Away From Home"

    ReplyDelete
  7. Well, there's not much to be done if a reviewer lacks feeling. As with everything, so with reviews: some work, others don't. I have to write them regularly - I have to write one today - and I'm content with getting wood on the ball as they say. I don't expect to hit it it out of the park every time - and probably rarely do.

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  8. I had a particular review in mind when I wrote my "lacks feelings" comment. So much writing is just bad grammatically, bad mechanically, full of jargon and so on, which is usually what I mean by bad writing. This one review was none of that, but it said nothing.

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  9. I love a good review. This summer I read John Banville on Robin Robertson in the NYROB and I had a great time reading it even though I'd not been familiar with the poet before that. Now I am!

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/article-preview?article_id=19141

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