While I gird my loins to write my first, thoughtful and considered book review (and egads, which one to choose?), here is my third installment of notes and thoughts. It’s messy and somewhat incoherent, something I will try to avoid when reviewing though I can’t promise much. I haven’t had a chance to proof this, nor to look at the structure, it’s just a blech onto the page but I’m hoping you can see the gems here, and what I’m getting at. I have to be up at 6am to get a flight at 9.30, so must go to bedski now, it’s after midnight.
With reviewing, I know there’s a lot to consider and I won’t have any trouble expressing an opinion and having a response and plenty to say but what I’m trying to work out is how do I manage to be critical while being respectful; how do I work out balancing a helpful review that will assist readers with being honest to myself and my reactions? I know the work it takes to write a book and I don’t want to be mean, but at the same time I don’t want to be a suck. Some people say they don’t review books they don’t like, but I have read plenty of books I haven’t liked or which aren’t my usual ‘thing’ so where exactly does my responsibility lie and why should I not have a response to book I don’t like that much? How thorough do I try to be? How closely do I interrogate the book? I can’t help but form a private opinion of whether a book is good or bad, works or doesn’t, but do I go public with this?
I’ve decided I need to be balanced and fair, but honest. I may not say everything I could about a negative reaction but I am going to aim to include something of why I didn’t like the book, or why I thought there were flaws. The best reviews I think are the ones that tell more about the reviewer’s experience of reading the book and where it took them, and their thought processes rather than a precis or summary and some stars. How we look for meaning, how we create meaning, rather than see it as a fixed object (this is from an earlier point made by critique Wyatt Mason, Among the Reviewers.
There are some simple rules from John Updike, a couple of which are really pertinent:
1. try to understand what the authors wishes to do and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt: that is, for example, I shouldn’t be critical of an author for not being ‘literary enough’ when it’s clear the intention for the book is to be commercial, or is genre and not literary at all.
2. give enough direct quotation – at least one extended passage – of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, get his own taste
The recent copy of Australian Book Review has an article by Kerryn Goldsworthy called Everyone’s a Critic – a timely piece (for me) on exactly this: how to write reviews. She surveyed 16 people in the biz, from authors to bloggers, editors, publishers, reviewers and booksellers. The general view was that there’s a discrepancy between critics’ private opinions of books and the polite reviews of them that appear in print. Recently, James Bradley tweeted that he was ‘writing a review that will make me deeply unpopular with everybody. Hee-hee.’ (16 May, 2013). I’m sure I’m not the only one waiting to see what the book is and what he says. That ‘hee-hee’ on the end taps into my shameful tendency towards schadenfreude - there’s something gleeful in thinking that someone’s gonna get it, and I hope it’s deserved. But also, there is a large gap between what people might privately think and what is published when it comes to reviewing books; we are all so scared that when someone like Bradley announces his intention we all start rubbing our hands together and going ‘hee-hee’ too.
When asked about the responsibility of the book reviewer, these were some of the responses from the 16 people:
On what people want in a review
Delia Falconer wants ‘literary genealogy, place in family of other work, in the author’s wider oeuvre’
Fiona Stager, bookshop owner, ‘where does it sit in the literary landscape’
Aviva Tuffield, publisher at Scribe wants the genre context. Someone else: ‘you need to know whether the reviewer has any knowledge/taste in the area or not.’
Stephen Romei, literary ed of The Australian, ‘I expect them to tell me something about the author’s background, including their nationality (something very few reviewers do)’
James Ley ‘a reviewer should not be condescending towards either the writer or the reader. No cheap shots, no dumbing down, no gratuitous name-dropping designed to impress or intimidate, no pretentious flourishes or grandstanding. It should be a conversation between equals.’
On making a call - where do you stand?
Aviva Tuffield, ‘I always want a book reviewer to make a judgement call… for reviewers to tell me if they enjoyed and admired the book, or if they didn’t.’ Jason Steger and Stephen Romei agree.
Is the responsibility to the reader, the author, or yourself?
Most respondents felt that the reviewer’s greatest responsibility was to the reader – to help her make a choice when selecting a book, to not waste money etc. Susan Wyndham said the responsibility was to a ‘wider culture… to help create an intelligent conversation about books and a belief in their importance and value.’ The feeling comes through the article that most people feel that a reviewer owes it to the reader (and the writer) to not soft-pedal, but not try to be ‘flip or dismissive’, to show the writer ‘basic respect.’ Peter Rose believes ‘the ultimate responsibility is to the work itself… not to its hopeful maker, intended audience or national honour.’ Lisa Hill says ‘As a reader I have been suprised by some glowing reviews of rather ordinary books – and have learned not to trust the reviewer again.’
Geordie Williamson says ’50/50 split: to the book under discussion, which deserves your attention and respect, as well as a default optimism regarding its worth; and to readers, those who are trusting you to arbitrate honestly.’
Peter Craven says ‘A critic meets her responsibility to her readership by meeting her responsibility to herself.’ A person shouldn’t review on behalf of the audience because that leads to second-guessing and isn’t helpful.
James Ley – ‘Whenever I write a sentence that sounds like the kind of thing that gets plastered across a book cover, I cross it out’ and Geordie Willliamson ‘I’m proud of the fact my reviews contain little in the way of grist for the publicity mill. It means I haven’t gushed.’
On being part of a gigantic conga line of suckholes (thanks Mark Latham for giving the world this expression)
James Ley: ‘gigantic conga line of suckholes constantly on display at writers’ festivals, Twitter etc’ (gulp) and
Ley again ‘criticism cannot do what it should be doing if it is worried about anything other than the task at hand.’
So, if I can put all of that into a mixing bowl and stir, and leave it to rise, I’ll see what happens.
I’m off to Hong Kong tomorrow and I’m thinking pearls… Back next week.