Reviewing Books

Given that there have been several recent posts in the blogosphere about reviews, including on OF Blog of the Fallen and, just today, Mumpsimus, I thought I’d weigh in with my two cents, for what it’s worth. (These thoughts aren’t responses to either BoF or Mump, just FYI, both of which seem to me to contain clear and cogent arguments, most of which I agree with.)

As readers of this blog know, I’m primarily a fiction writer, but I’ve also reviewed books, off and on, for almost twenty years. This gives me a twinned perspective as a giver and receiver of formal opinions about books. As might be expected, the same things that bother me in reviews of my work that I think are unfair or poorly written, beyond simple errors of fact, are also things I try to avoid in reviewing other people’s books.

By a “review,” I don’t mean two paragraphs I post on this blog or some of the capsule summaries of 200 or 300 words that appear on Amazon and elsewhere. I mean a “review” in the sense of an attempt by a person, whether formally identified as a reviewer or not, to fully engage a published text at a length of anywhere from about 500 words to 2,500 words.

So, that said, here are eight things I try to avoid doing as a reviewer—things that also bug me as a writer being reviewed, to a greater or lesser extent. Some of them are easy for me to avoid as a reviewer. Some are less so. But with every review, I think seriously about these issues.

1) Bringing an agenda to a review that makes it impossible for the reviewer to appreciate what the writer intended with his or her book. In most of these cases, the reviewer proceeds to hang the book on a gallows not one timber or thread of which came from the book itself (or, conversely, piles on undeserved praise). Thus, the review is a kind of closed system displaying certain aspects of the reviewer’s mind–a psychological portrait of the reviewer, not an analysis of the actual book: a kind of alternate reality; ironically enough, a fiction. Since this is perhaps the number one or number two most annoying thing to encounter in a review of one of my own books, it is something I work hard not to do when reviewing.

2) Making a (veiled) personal attack on the author. The easiest way for a reviewer to launch a personal attack is to imply base motives to the writer–to insinuate through word choice. Sometimes, of course, there are outright personal attacks, but these are usually so roundly denounced that the stealth attack has become the norm. As a reviewer, the easiest way to avoid personal attacks, if you have some issue with the writer that you cannot overcome, is to not review the book. The most ethical approach, however, is to recognize your bias, your particular weakness, and do your best to see the book as independent from the writer. This is the approach I try to take, although, admittedly, this sometimes leads to me being too easy on a book, perversely enough. As a writer, I find the personal attack bewildering, mostly because I could think a particular fiction writer is a jerk and it wouldn’t affect my review of their book one iota. So, I wonder, “What did I do to piss this person off? Why’d they do this?” A personal attack makes a writer less sure of their place in the world and of their relationship with other people in the field. It’s an awful thing to weather, although if you’re in the business long enough you learn to live with it.

3) Placing yourself at the center of the review. Overuse of first person and cloying personal anecdotes in lieu of penetrating analysis typify the kind of reviewer who believes, for whatever reason, that imposing their persona is more important than actually reviewing the book. In the case of an overblown ego, the reviewer tends to see reviewing as a way to garner leverage and power (however limited in scope). As a reviewer, I try, for the most part, to be nowhere in sight, unless as in my review of Erickson’s Zeroville for The Washington Post Book World, a personal anecdote lends itself to discussing the book or easing the reader into the review. As a writer, though, I just find this approach hilarious–like watching a campy bad movie–and I’ve parodied it several times in my Ambergris books. It can be entertaining, especially if it happens to someone else.

4) Engaging in territorial debates. Every area of writing has Gatekeepers of the True Way, people who insist on engaging in territorial debates over whether something fits a particular genre or subgenre. This tends to involve generalizations about other territories—for example, a genre reviewer making generalizations about the literary mainstream, or vice versa. But beyond the fact that generalizations are usually false, the real problem with this kind of reviewing is that it clutters up the review with material that is ancillary to the book. As a result, such reviews tend to be less comprehensible, and readers often come away from the review having either no idea what the reviewer actually thought of the book or a sense that the reviewer liked or disliked the book for reasons that have nothing to do with the actual book itself. Every time I find myself drifting in this direction, I also tend to find the review harder to write, and, ultimately, writing the review becomes simple as soon as I strip away anything of this nature. As a writer, this kind of review is exasperating because I’m left with the feeling of a wasted opportunity–that the reader of the review will get no sense of the book at all.

5) Employing inappropriate/self-important diction and approaches. Of all bad reviews, the worst, in my opinion, are those that cloak a core emptiness with “academic” terminology and references. The reason for this is that a poorly realized review in this guise has the appearance of authority–it trades the real authority of engaging a book honestly for the false authority of elevated vocabulary. It can be very difficult to unravel the language to get to the point where it’s possible to see that the review actually has very little to say. It’s for this reason that, except in analytical essays, I don’t employ elevated prose. I believe writing a good review is an art, but, unlike in fiction, the range of prose styles is more limited by the need to be purely functional. As a fiction writer, I can’t say this approach does more than give me darkly humorous amusement, although it makes me take the reviewer less seriously in future.

6) Making snarky, tangential asides. Sarcasm is not a welcome thing in any review, except in those rare cases where the book is itself sarcastic, thus opening the door (and even then it’s not recommended). However, the worst kind of sarcasm or snark is the aside in a review that doesn’t pertain to the book except in a tangential way. In these cases, the review writer cannot refrain from barking out some personal prejudice or pet peeve. Such a concern may be legitimate, but a snarky aside is not a legitimate way of expressing it. Whenever, as a reviewer, I feel the need to engage in this kind of behavior, I instead try to deal with my concern head-on by writing about it as the actual subject of a review or article. As a fiction writer, I hate this kind of zinger because it gets under my skin and colors the world around me. It’s in a sense another form of personal attack.

7) Encountering the profound every time out. Some reviewers feel the temptation to make a profound general statement about every book they review. These reviewers will never be content with engaging intimately with the book at hand. Each book is instead an opportunity to display an understanding of the Big Picture. Sometimes, this means the reviewer begins to have a thesis written before even reading a particular book. Sometimes, this means the reviewer believes he or she is more important than the book. The result is, oddly enough, a vast simplicity–a reduction of the book before the all-mighty altar of the Idea. Most good books, however, are complex, contradictory, contrary things. The best are not reducible to profound general statements. Admittedly, I can be as taken with my own pomposity as the next person, and so I’m on the look-out for this kind of thing as a reviewer. Which isn’t to say that sometimes a grand, far-reaching approach isn’t warranted, but a reviewer who does so every time out begins to seem oddly…desperate. As a writer, my reaction to this kind of review, whether positive or negative, is simply to parody it in my fiction (when the opportunity presents itself).

8) Trying to intuit personal details about the writer from the fiction. Some of the very worst reviews, in my opinion, attempt to guess things like the writer’s political motivation from evidence in the book itself. Obviously, when reviewing certain kinds of nonfiction this is unavoidable, even desirable. But when analyzing fiction, reviewers who make statements about the writer based on the actions of character or the machinations of plot or what they think they know about the writer are making a terrible mistake. The mistake they are making is a fundamental misunderstanding of the word “fiction.” They also make a fundamental mistake about the relationship of a writer to, for example, even the text of an interview. I know from personal experience that during an interview a writer may say anything that comes into his or her head, may make things up with a kind of innocent honesty of wanting to be interesting–or simply do not want to engage some aspect of the book publicly, and thus misrepresent or change their real intent. Which is why reviewers should ignore most public statements by the author about their book. Just as they should not apply their own attempts at playing amateur psychic. There is the book and there is you, the reviewer, and any positive context or experience you bring to the experience. (For example, you review a novel set in 1800s India and you have a background in the India of that era.) That is all, and that should be enough. I don’t believe I ever make this mistake in my reviewing because, as a writer, knowing my own motivation for things and the effects I’m going for, it drives me nuts when I see it in other people’s reviews—in either a positive or a negative context.

In addition to avoiding these kinds of mistakes, there are a few other things I try to keep in mind as a reviewer.

First, I always try to tell the truth as I see it, regardless of how others may perceive me or the review as a result. Admittedly, there are good reasons sometimes for revealing the truth gradually, or allowing the reader of the review to do some work in interpretation, but you must tell the truth.

Second, telling the truth doesn’t require me to be mean. A good negative review should be written with respect and affection–and even praise where it can be applied. The fact is, writing any book is a gargantuan accomplishment, a huge application of time and resources on the writer’s part. That some turn out to be lesser than others should not be a cause for a tone of triumph, elation, or smugness on the part of the reviewer. (My major flaw as a reviewer would be an unwarranted over-enthusiasm at times; my mixed reviews tend to be more nuanced.)

Third, writing a positive or glowing review is as strenuous a task as a mixed or negative review. Nothing is worse than a positive review where the reviewer, for any number of reasons, manages to misunderstand the book. Most writers hate misguided positive reviews more than negative reviews.

All of this is simple. All of it is straightforward, and most of it has to do with being fair, honest, and forthright. In my opinion, reviewing a book ought to be a simple thing. You read the book. You think about what you’ve read. If you have time, you re-read the book. You think about it more, take notes. Then you report back to the reader your thoughts about the book. In doing so, you make sure to tell readers enough about the book to give them the context to understand your opinion…but not so much summary that readers feel they’ve read the book after reading the review. In your review, you analyze and synthesize what you’ve read, taking as your cue, your foundation, (1) what you think the book was trying to do, (2) whether it was done well or poorly, and (3) whether what the book tried to do was worth doing. In a skillful review, nothing in the middle should come as too much of a surprise after reading the opening. The writing should be clear, clean, almost invisible, and follow logical progressions. These things must be accomplished before a reviewer can think about going for more complex effects. I do often try for more complex effects and approaches, but only after I’m sure my fundamentals are sound.

Finally, I would like to challenge the conventional wisdom and urge new and established fiction writers to do more reviews. In the past, especially in the mainstream, there was a rich history of discourse and often raucous argument about books between various authors—in print. This occurs less frequently now because conventional wisdom says that writers who review hurt their careers by sometimes expressing negative opinions of their fellow writers’ books. I can’t say this isn’t true, in that I know—have had concrete evidence in front of me—that reviewing has hurt me in certain quarters. However, the world is too various and too diverse, due in part to the cross-pollination and inter-connectivity of the Internet, for anyone to be wounded too badly career-wise by reviewing books. More importantly, the health of any field requires open, transparent, honest, affectionate disagreement and discussion in order to strive to become better, more ethical, and more human.

ADDITIONAL DISCUSSION

L. Timmel Duchamp on the reviewer’s hardest task

Torque Control points to Strange Horizon’s review guidelines

Cheryl Morgan with exceptions and worst-case scenarios (note: “open season on reviewers” is an unfortunate mis-characterization of all of the posts she mentions in her blog entry.)

OF the Blog of the Fallen on troublesome reviews, self-conscious reviewers, and bad positive reviews.

Abigail Naussbaum on reviewing the reviews.

Comments

  1. says

    Yes.

    I can’t honestly claim I ever hit anywhere near it, but this is what I aim for when reviewing. Maybe when I’ve had twenty years at it I’ll be a bit closer to the mark!

  2. says

    Good things to consider. I would add one other observation that just now came to mind. Just as I believe it is short-sighted for writers to declare that they won’t read other writers when they have a story to tell (in fear of somehow aping the other writer’s style and story points), I also believe it to be short-sighted for reviewers to fail to read a wide range of reviews. I’m going to comment on this more later on his blog, but Cheney brings up an excellent point when he refers to Borges’ career as a literary reviewer. I have bought at least a half-dozen of Borges’ books on other authors and story motifs and I have learned a lot from seeing how he approaches the writing of introductions and of the short review of less than 1500 words. And if it was good enough for someone I consider to be one of the most erudite of 20th century writers, then what are other authors afraid of? Like any good interaction, one can learn as much about him/herself as about others and their approaches to life/writing/etc. by engaging in reviewing. That’s the main reason why I write online reviews and also a factor in my writing of those posts that you mention in the opener. If only more would-be reviewers would challenge themselves and stop falling back on pat responses. That I think is behind many of those no-nos that you discuss.

  3. says

    That’s a great idea, Larry. I mean, I read reviews, but not systematically.

    After reading Matt Cheney’s piece, btw, I realized I should have clarified above that the clearing away in the reviewer’s mind of the kind of subjective detritus that can build up in considering a book doesn’t mean I think a book review should be clinically objective, or that the “truth” mentioned above is anything more than the reviewer’s truth at the moment of reviewing, while keeping the mind clear of the other crap.

    JV

  4. says

    I like to blame all such systematic suggestions on having been forced to do so as a history grad student – vicious cycle of abuse and all that. :P

    As for the “objectivity” argument, I agree – such a thing is not something towards which one ought to aim. I have an intense loathing of apples of all sorts, so for me to weigh in on the merits of one type of apple over another would be ludicrous; best to acknowledge that I loathe them all and that I can’t be fair to any. Same with books/authors. Sometimes, I’m just not going to be looking favorably towards a book or author and in most of those cases, I prefer not to say anything at all rather than to review something that doesn’t interest me.

  5. says

    Yeah, I don’t generally review or comment on books or other contemporary authors because 1) if I say something negative I risk hurting someone’s feelings 2) if I say something positive, it might be seen as toadying up to another author. So, for this reason I think it is hard to review books, since many of the authors are people we have some kind of communication with. Or if not the authors themselves, then the publishers or editors.

  6. says

    I had to have my trepidation of wounding another’s feelings from a negative review almost beaten out of me in grad school. Nothing says learning how to critique and accept that it’s natural and often divorced from personal feelings as sitting in a room while another grad student reads aloud the problems found with your monograph. After that experience, I’ve come to see any criticism as being more palatable than that, and even that public critique was bearable and I learned a lot.

    But I do agree that a great many who write or review (or both) do fear hurting another’s opinions. But if we’re so conscientious of that as to prevent us from giving an honest appraisal that might help another with his/her writing/reviews, then what will they (or us) learn in the process? It’s just one of those situations with nary an easy answer, I fear.

  7. Andrew says

    2,500 words… Wow, that’s 10 pages.

    Anyways, great post, but when a book is REALLY bad I think sarcasm is welcome.

  8. says

    Jeff—

    Yes, but I think they are less likely to actually be working with some of the writers, editors and publishers. Because many writers are also editors and many of the publishers are the people we send books to. It is true that in a perfect world this wouldn’t change anything. But I think most people are not that open-minded. That is one reason I think most people really don’t say what they think.

    On another note, I think reviewers in general try to take on a sort of fair and balanced approach, which mimics the MSM. You are not allowed to simply pan a book, but have to look for something positive to say. In the same way you can’t just praise a book.

    It all sort of reminds me of those progress assessments many people get at their jobs (or sometimes you fill them out yourself), where you have to list “accomplishments” as well as “areas for improvement”.

  9. says

    One of the most hilarious documentaries I’ve ever seen was a NFB Canada documentary done by some woman intent on seeing Surfacing as some kind of manifestation of Margaret Atwood’s psyche. The director really didn’t get what she wanted, and the documentary turned into something other than what she had planned, I suspect. And Atwood is gloriously pointed in her commentary, as usual ;)

  10. says

    Reviewers, not excluding me, often confuse your #3 with their attempts to create a unique voice for their reviewing. In trying to create a personality for their reviews that will reliably lead readers to know that, if this reviewer likes a book, they are likely to as well, they get too caught up in their own lives and loves and tell too many stories. It’s a fine line sometimes, especially in the informal world of blogging.

    As to #5, don’t know if you’re following the 2008 Tournament of Books, but one reviewer started her comparison of Marianne Wiggins’s The Shadow Catcher and Brock Clarke’s An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England thusly:

    “Fredric Jameson says of Adorno’s use of Freud:

    ‘Neurosis is simply this boring imprisonment of the self in itself, crippled by its terror of the new and unexpected, carrying its sameness with it wherever it goes, so that it has the protection of feeling, whatever it might stretch out its hand to touch, that it never meets anything but what it knows already.’

    “He might have been writing of The Shadow Catcher and An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England.”

    I confess that, despite 45 years of constant reading (starting at age 6), an undergraduate degree in English, a graduate degree in law, a few post-graduate classes in literary criticism just for fun, and so forth, I hadn’t the faintest idea what the hell the reviewer was getting at.

    Finally, I’ve said this before and elsewhere, but I think that a reviewer’s best helper is an editor. It’s also the hardest thing to come across in this day and age, it seems, and more so if you’re a decent writer to begin with (that is, one who has some facility with grammar and sentence/paragraph structure, and therefore requires little basic line editing, as opposed to some more sophisticated work on how to write a better review). So one simply soldiers on, hoping to improve with experience. After all, the more you write, the better you get, or so the theory goes.

  11. says

    Sara–that cracks me up!

    Terry–yes, talk about getting someone else to do the heavy lifting for you! (re that quote, which doesn’t make much sense). I agree about editors. I think editors need to be more proactive. One problem is that there isn’t much money in reviewing, especially outside of places like the Post, etc.

    JV

  12. says

    I think for many, the only “money” they get in reviewing are the review books. But that’s a topic for another time and place, I suppose, as I’ve grown weary of discussing that.

  13. Kathy says

    I think many reviewers — of the personal blog kind especially — fail on the very fundamental level. They do not recognize that 1) their expectation of the book is a poor strating point for the review; 2) there is more than one way to write a good book.

  14. says

    I stayed up until 1 a.m. last night finishing “Zeroville.” Two concepts which struck me the most were, one, that God hates children, and two, that the doorless church is to keep you in, not out.

    Having grown up in a staunchly Mormon family, even serving a two year mission for my church – at my expense – I especially resonate with these concepts. In all of the religious studying I have done, it has never occurred me that it is always the children that suffer. Isaac at the hand of Abraham, Pharaoh in Egypt’s own son and the sons he sent his soldiers to murder, God sending his own son to suffer, and so on. In word, who can possibly believe in a god who demands a father murder his own child.

    When someone is raised in a particular religion, told repeatedly that it is the only true church (as was my case in Mormonism) , it is almost impossible to get out. Not the organization per se, although that is challenging because they just don’t want to let you go, but the idea of God, Heaven and Hell, the years and years of brainwashing that has been drilled into your head since childhood. It takes a long time for the guilt to go away. Not the guilt that now you are doing things that we strictly forbidden by the organization, but the guilt of wondering if you were wrong to leave that organization, if it were right after all. If you have turned your back on god. It’s the notion and existence of god that is hard to get out of.

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