Monday, September 10, 2007

A Plea For Brevity

Remember Goodby to All That? The essay on book reviewing that I told you about last week? Sure, you do.

One of the author's points was that there is a movement toward shorter reviews, which does not give a good critic much space to really analyze a book. He argued for longer reviews. At Critical Mass, I just found a response to that. Michael O'Donnell says, "...rigorous writing—rigorous thinking—is concise, not stretched out, corpulent, flabby. I'll take a lean review, spare as a runner headed round a quarter-mile track. I know I can't be alone in disagreeing with the notion that it takes 2500 words to express an idea, or in feeling a little impatient with those writers who are too grand to pick the important things, say them, and then stop."

No, Mr. O'Donnell, you are not.

While I was reading Wasserman's essay I wondered about the desirability of a lot of long book reviews, too. I wasn't thinking so much of the quality of the writing as I was of my lack of time. (O'Donnell also points out that he's a busy guy.) Even if we all had all the time in the world, there's supposed to be 150,000 books published every year. The reality is that in order to be exposed to as many titles as possible so that I can make decisions about reading as many books as possible, I can't sit down and read too many term-paper length reviews. In fact, since I prefer not to read detailed reviews until after I've read a book, I like something short to make me aware titles are out there, what they're about, and a little bit of the reviewer's impression of the quality.

Now, I realize that reviewing is actually an artform, a type of writing. I should be reading them for something other than my own selfish purposes. I shouldn't be using them to seek out some other type of writing (books) that I want to read. But, well, life is short. The reality is that I have to seek out shorter reviews.

Reviewers really do have it rough. I actually read books, and look what a poor attitude I have.

5 comments:

Sheila said...

"...reviewing is actually an artform, a type of writing. I should be reading them for something other than my own selfish purposes. I shouldn't be using them to seek out some other type of writing (books) that I want to read. "

I'm not sure if you were serious or had tongue in cheek, but that right there is the problem in a nutshell. Reviewing isn't supposed to be an exercise in proving how smart and literate the reviewer is. It's supposed to help us figure out whether or not we want to buy a book.

I also think that some books lend themselves better to longer reviews than other books. But in general I agree that I prefer shorter reviews.

Jackie Parker said...

Yeah, I have to say that lengthy reviews don't really help me when it comed to selection. I try to be objective, but I find that if I review is too long, I often get bored reading it, and that does the book no service.

gail said...

Sheila, In one of the many, many pieces I've read about reviewing recently someone made the point that the purpose of reviews isn't to promote/sell books. Criticism actually is a specific kind of writing. That sat me back on my heels a bit because, as a writer, I tended to think of them as ways to sell my books.

Jackie--I agree that a long review--or the quality of a review, period--can turn me off from a book.

Sheila said...

When you say that the purpose of reviews isn't to promote/sell books, I can agree with that, because a review intended to promote or sell books implies that the review is biased. It's not supposed to be a promotional tool for the publisher. However, I strongly think that a review should help the reader make a decision. Otherwise, what's the point of the review?

Now, academiccriticism is a different thing entirely. However, a newspaper review should be written to help the newspaper reader make a decision about purchasing the book. Just as a review in a library journal should be written to help library buyers decide whether to add the book to the collection. Audience is everything. Now a review in a literary journal? I could be persuaded that that's writing for its own sake. But c'mon, do newspaper readers really want to read a literary snob chase his own tale about a book's essence? Maybe that's why we're seeing the death of newspaper reviews - because they forgot who their audience is and what that audience wants.

Ooooh, I probably made some enemies with this comment!

gail said...

I found the post at Critical Mass I was referring to when I said book reviews are supposed to be a type of writing apart from book selection. http://bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com/2007/06/quality-of-writing-x-size-of-audience.html The lines that struck me were, "...the purpose of book reviews is not to sell books. The purpose of a review is to discuss the book at hand and aspire to a minor-but-real art form along the way."

I agree that there is a strong whiff of intellectual snobbery in a lot of the discussion of book reviewing and certainly pretension in many reviews.