Thursday, May 23, 2013




Reviewing the Reviews

Many and deep are the pitfalls lying in wait for the unsuspecting book reviewer. For years I’ve been trying to climb out of the one I blundered into.
My predicament is partially excusable because, in the beginning, the reviews I wrote weren’t meant to be seen by anyone but me. I set out on this endeavor in an attempt to pinpoint what succeeded or failed in a book, and this could best be achieved by the focused process of putting my thoughts into words. Also, I wanted to have a record of my reading life. Lastly, I’m someone with strong opinions but no one to share them with; writing them down was a form of communication.
Then literary blogs popped up on the internet and I became aware of how easy it would be to start one of my own. Thus “How Jack London Changed My Life” came into being. Into it I copied and pasted reviews that had been accumulating in my computer for over five years.
But as I reread what I was posting — now to be seen, potentially, by visitors to my site — I wasn’t pleased. What first caught my attention were grammatical errors and glitches in the wording. Most of these were minor, though in some instances I was downright embarrassed (how could I have done that?). So I went back to the beginning and tidied up the old reviews. It wasn’t a major cleanup — that wasn’t necessary, I thought. A quick dusting and vacuuming would suffice. As for the new reviews that I was posting, I took more care.
But not enough care. Nor had the quick cleanup been sufficient. There was a day of reckoning awaiting me — a day when I finally faced the grim fact that I had been resolutely avoiding: all the reviews, both old and new, were rife with problems. And it wasn’t just grammar and glitches; often I had structured my thoughts poorly.
I hadn’t recognized from the outset how rigorous an effort it takes to write a good review. I’m paying dearly for that error in judgment. I’m now halfway through a third revision of all the reviews (we’re talking about over 90,000 words in toto). This time I’m down on my knees with a scrub brush.
But engaging in this hard labor has given me plenty of time to think about all aspects of the art and science of book reviewing. Properly chastened, I’m more aware.
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           Before I started writing reviews I spent many years reading those done by others. Often I felt annoyed and impatient. Sometimes this was due to a disagreement as to the worth of a book; but before I get into the subject of opinions, there are more obvious pitfalls to examine. Though the writing of the top-tier reviewers is polished, in other aspects of the craft they don’t fare so well.
Take something as fundamental as length. Does anyone read long reviews — much less the long, long, really long ones? A reviewer mustn’t lose sight of his role. In the case of a novel, he needs to provide the reader with a clear idea of its content, but more than a clear idea is too much. If the style of prose is an issue, a short excerpt should be included. Readers also want a succinct opinion as to whether the author succeeds or fails, and why. And that’s it. In the lengthy review (some reach four thousand words) these essential elements get lost in a sea of verbiage. A review should not be an essay.
Excessive length is a pitfall I avoided altogether. My reviews are capsule size — you can swallow them with a sip of water. A recent one came to 326 words, which was quite sufficient for me to say what was needed. I usually stay in the two to four hundred word range; six hundred words is my outer limit. This reflects my belief in the virtues of selectivity and conciseness. But the brevity of the earlier reviews arose not from any belief but from the fact that I was writing them for myself. I had no other reader in mind, so I concentrated on my responses and usually didn’t have much to say about plot and character. This presents a problem, one that is both sizable and unsolvable. I can’t add substance to the reviews I wrote years ago because I no longer remember the books well enough to do so. How rarely does something we read remain distinct over time! One lesson I learned was to be wary of the word “memorable.” I came across that word in some reviews but retained only a hazy recollection of the “memorable” book.
Unlike the sloppy prose, the meagerness of the old reviews doesn’t distress me; at least I express how I feel. But in doing so I can give too much away. Endings are often critical to a book’s success or failure, and I delved into them too fully. I’m not going to remove these “spoilers” because it would reduce the reviews to a shell. I have to consider “How Jack London Changed My Life” as a work-in-progress; my hope is that it will show steady improvement. I try to make the current reviews more full-bodied — to have heft without being heavy. And, if an ending is an important factor, I now suggest in what way it adds or detracts.
I’m also working to improve how I describe content. I ask myself “What matters in this book?” Then I try to come up with grounded statements which capture that essential feature. To point out that a novel is populated by people who are all extraordinarily beautiful, or enigmatic, or tortured lets the reader know that the author is presenting an overly-romanticized world. Or to write that a character probably never, in her entire life, said “I love you” to another person is a significant observation.
We’re still on the subject of excessive length. If you can strike at the heart of a book in a few sentences you’ve done what’s necessary. But the long-winded reviewer has a different agenda in mind. For the sake of research I’ve skimmed through some blockbusters and what I find is people whose objective is to impress with the depth of their knowledge and their many insights. This leads them into another pitfall.
             The subject of this essay is reviewers who write for respected publications with a wide circulation. Their audience deserves knowledge and insight; what matters is how those assets are delivered. I’m referring to approach and attitude. Reviewers must not ascend a podium and pontificate. Instead they should mingle with the crowd, all the while respecting the fact that this crowd is made up of people intelligent enough to read a book review. There’s absolutely no need for reviewers to dumb down what they have to say. On the other hand, to describe a novel as having “ontological gusto” may be appropriate in a scholarly journal, but not in the Chicago Tribune. Any barrier to communication is a mistake. Not only is accessibility a goal, but an effort should be made to entertain. Lively perspectives, humor, a personal touch and an engaging prose style are valuable attributes. Reviewers should keep it real and down to earth.
Although there are times when they can climb up on a soap box; they can even rant and throw their arms about. And that’s when they’re giving their opinions. To be opinionated is part of a reviewer’s job description. I relish the role of judge; I get satisfaction from awarding a blue ribbon or throwing a swindler into the hoosegow. So it baffles me when I finish a review in which no clear idea about a book’s worth emerges, or when a reviewer expresses how he feels in such a wishy-washy way that it’s no more than pablum. This abdication of a primary responsibility is one of the many pitfalls to be found when entering the jungle of opinions.
The ranting reviewer is an entertaining spectacle, and at least he’s showing passion. Yet only books that spark love or hate prompt a person to climb onto a soapbox; most books aren’t outright good or outright bad. Still, with every one the reviewer must come up with reasons to support any opinion that touches on its overall merit. Giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down or tossing out descriptive words (“intriguing,” “one-dimensional,” etc.) is not enough. Everybody has opinions, about almost anything under the sun, but few people have the inclination to explore why they felt as they did. And this is precisely what reviewers must do. They need to give the reader some idea as to why a plot was intriguing or what was missing in a portrayal that makes a character one-dimensional. Not to take this extra step is to sink into the bog of insubstantiality. 
I don’t envy the job of a professional reviewer. They’re getting paid for what they do, but it involves reading anything a major novelist comes out with and presenting substantiated opinions about it. I read what I please; if I don’t like a book I drop it, and the only ones I review are those I get at least halfway through. Sometimes distaste for a book will propel me to the halfway point because I want the opportunity to rant about how bad it is. This selectivity factor results in my caring enough, pro or con, to back up my opinions. Though occasionally my response to something is so lukewarm that I don’t expend much energy in a review. This may be seen as a failing on my part or a luxury I have that the pros don’t.
When expressing opinions a reviewer’s one tool is words. He should be as diligent as the skilled woodcarver, who knows he must keep his chisels sharp in order to make precise cuts. Too often reviewers use words like bludgeons. They can’t seem to restrain themselves from being wildly extravagant in their praise.
I’ve been concentrating on the top-tier reviewers, but let’s take a brief look at their less highbrow colleagues. Some get extreme emotional reactions from what they read, such as the weeping and howling with laughter reviewers; but anyone who goes so far as to state that “you’ll be cheering as you turn the pages” is not to be trusted, as he’s obviously crazy. “You won’t be able to put this book down” strikes me as ominous. I once got my finger stuck to a piece of plastic with one of those Super Glues (that never work, except in this instance); I wound up losing skin. Painful, but nothing that required a trip to the Emergency Room. Though there are books that should carry a Surgeon General’s warning, such as those that are “heart-pounding, “heart-wrenching” or — a definite 911 moment — “heart-stopping.”
Nonsensical, right?
            But what about “luminous,” “profound,” “mesmerizing,” “rhapsodic”?
I found these high-toned examples in reviews of literary novels. Such effusions are often strung together: “seductive, musical, scathing and relentlessly inventive” raves an ecstatic reviewer. Someone on National Public Radio stated that after reading a novel she was “numb for days.” However wondrous, can any book bring on this symptom of a neurological disorder? Like their less sophisticated counterparts, top-tier reviewers can blather; they just use classier words. The pitfall for both is the same, and it’s a muddy one. Blasting away with superlatives or making absurd claims is an irresponsible way to get a reader’s attention. Praise should be sensible and down-to-earth, if only out of respect for language. Like alcohol, language must be used in moderation or damage can be done. The words “great” and “masterpiece” have been irrevocably cheapened by repeated misuse.
Though I’m not by nature prone to hyperbole, I recently described the ending of a novel as “stunning” (that word has been since been replaced). In my revisions I scour for excessiveness; “deeply-moving” has been improved by dropping the “deeply.” Even reasonable words can be a problem if they appear too often. I have my tired nags that I constantly trot out. These I can try to clean up (like Norman Bates with his mop and pail), but it requires a lot of concentration. The re-editing of the old reviews and the care I take with the new ones has been a blessing, though I have to avoid becoming a Sisyphus. I’ve accepted the fact that I may miss the random spot of blood. Still, you’ll never see the words “rhapsodic” or “luminous” in my reviews, and when I call a book “great” I mean it.
The final pitfall in the realm of opinions involves honesty. Only the words on the page should affect a reviewer’s opinion. Yet the dishonest review is commonplace, and the main culprits are authors. Blurbs from big names that appear on the back covers of novels are routinely solicited by agents and editors; often the writer of the blurb has never read the book they’re lauding and only have a sketchy idea of what it’s about (their payoff is similar treatment when their book comes out). Authors also write many of the full-fledged reviews that appear in major publications. Often ambition is the motivating factor behind a glowing review; its purpose is to score points with people further up the food chain. Lawyers, criticized for their moral shortcomings, recuse themselves from cases in which they have a personal interest, yet “I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you’ll-scratch-mine” and “brown-nose” reviews are standard procedure among many high-minded literary folk. When an author gushes over a book written by a friend or lover, they should begin by disclosing the relationship. On the flip side, a negative review can reflect someone’s personal antipathy; if a writer hates another writer’s guts, they shouldn’t review their work. Attack review are rare, due to fear of retaliation. I look with suspicion on any novelist’s review of another novelist’s book, and so should you.
Authors aren’t the only guilty parties. In the newspapers of cities that aren’t intellectual hubs (Minneapolis, New Orleans, Phoenix, etc.) “sweetheart” reviews are bestowed on books written by local authors. This is due to social considerations. It’s risky for a reviewer to criticize someone they’re likely to meet at a party; the wise course is to be on friendly terms with people in a limited literary community. Knowing this, an enterprising writer makes a determined effort to meet and get on the good side of the chief reviewer at the local newspaper. In hub cities the same social aspect is at work, but added to this is the fact that prestige and money are at stake. Do staff reviewers at publications that have wide circulation get paid to write a positive review of an “important” new book? I doubt that this happens — though there are pressures. Trashing such a book (or, worse, ignoring it entirely) will alienate the author, agent and executives at the publishing house. Wouldn’t the head of a newspaper or magazine want to avoid this? Maybe they ask that the review be steered to somebody who’ll write a favorable one. When a major literary figure comes out with a dud, why doesn’t it get the lambasting it deserves on the front page of the Sunday New York Times Book Review? At the most polite reservations will be proffered. I detect a clubby reluctance to step on certain toes. Granted, the role that reviewers once played in our cultural life has greatly diminished; nevertheless, those who abandon their responsibility to publically declare that an emperor has no clothes forfeit all credibility and become nothing more than hacks.
I often find myself in disagreement with the opinions of top-tier reviewers, so a question arises: what are their qualifications? I want the surgeon who operates on me to be a graduate of a respected medical school, but writing a review isn’t brain surgery. Though many professional reviewers have a degree in English, that wasn’t crucial to their success; they had to make important contacts in publishing circles. As is true in most aspects of life, what gets your foot in the door are networking skills. Prestigious authors (who almost always have a academic background) get a free ride onto the pages of newspapers and magazines. But taking classes in college or charming literary folks or being an author aren’t, for me, impressive credentials; actually, those factors are detrimental: too much baggage is accumulated. Being free of sanctions (or social and economic pressures) as to who or what is to be treated with respect and who or what is undeserving of it allows for an unencumbered perspective.
Since I have no personal ties with the literary world, I’m not affected by such pressures or extraneous considerations. But I’m no exception to the rule that everyone’s opinion is subjective. It’s shaped (and limited) by our experiences, sensibilities, temperament, age, etcetera. I stand on one side of a generational divide. In a world that has changed radically I’m holding onto literary values of the past. I’m not about to make modifications in what I admire and what I deplore. I recognize that I have my blind spots and biases, but what can I do about them (and who is free of them)? You should pick a reviewer who’s on the same wave length as you; I may not be that person. Regarding fiction, I have a literary credo, one which applies to work by writers both dead and living. Clarity in prose and a concern with real people caught up in situations that I can relate to are virtues; to make a point about life or human nature is an added plus, as is a fresh way of seeing things. It follows that an obscure or precious prose style is a turnoff; I consider such writing a sign not of genius but of self-indulgence. I look with suspicion on novels populated by freaky characters in outlandish situations; in most cases it’s no more then cheap gimmickry. Graphic sex, gore or obscenity will probably result in an abrupt termination of my reading. There are exceptions to this credo — I’ve loved books that contain every negative cited above.
Love . . . a strong word. Yet it describes how I feel about a work that creates a world I can enter into and occupy. Occasionally a book not only strikes an emotional chord but is done with such expertise that it induces feelings of awe. These are the masterpieces.
            Such books are very rare. Much rarer in the last forty years then in the previous two hundred. I don’t treat today’s major literary figures with kid gloves. They can win me over with excellence; that has happened, though infrequently. My mean-spirited reviews (and I can be hard on an author or a book — very hard indeed) are sometimes directed at time-honored classics, though a more common target are recently-published books that are praised by reviewers and receive awards. The esteem in which they’re held prompts me to take them up — or it did in the past. At this point I seldom review new work. Disaffection and anger, though invigorating emotions, are negative ones. I read for pleasure, so why waste my precious time with books that won’t, most likely, please me? It’s my belief that people who restrict their reading to what’s current are shortchanging themselves.
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I recognized from the beginning that I was operating on little-frequented wave length, but I thought that I could attract a small niche audience. Apparently that hasn’t happened. Though the reviews in “How Jack London Changed My Life” have been in existence since April of 2008, the lack of comments suggests that the number of people visiting my blogsite is minuscule. Still, that doesn’t negate my belief that I have something unique to offer.
I don’t trod the same ground as other reviewers. This is not to say that the paths I take are paved with gold. I review books as I read them; because I’m choosey in what I select, quite a few are admirable and even contain aspects that are remarkable. But only a small percentage succeed wholly, on a small or a grand scale. Some are widely recognized as works of art. But others never got the attention they deserved, or once had their day in the sun and are now forgotten. My goal is to promote and get readers for these neglected books; I owe that to them, in payment for what they gave me. I believe that the list on the left side of my blog — what I call “the books in my life that have been most meaningful” — could serve as a guide for a young person looking for reading material outside their school’s curriculum (I was once such a person). I envisioned like souls browsing, grazing here and there and finding something that caught their fancy, to read and to make a comment about, either in agreement or opposition. That’s what I wanted, what I believed, what I envisioned, and it hasn’t materialized. It could be that my blog lacks the bells and whistles needed to attract a readership (but why are bells and whistles necessary; don’t mere words suffice?). Or maybe a potential audience exists and I’ve simply been unable to reach it. Another conclusion, more bleak, is more probable: there are no like souls on the other side of the wall I’m tapping on. Yet I’ll persist in this undertaking. Why? Mainly because I want to. If what I’m doing goes unnoticed, that doesn’t mean I’ve failed. At any rate, the reviews are out there. Maybe they can stand as the only autobiography I’ll write. One day someone might glance through them and, before moving on to more meaningful things, say, “He sure did a lot of reading.” That’s a summing up I can accept.

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