Thursday, November 20, 2008

But Seriously, Folks...

Joe Queenan (I read his book My Goodness: A Cynic's Short-Lived Search for Sainthood but remember just about nothing about it) had an essay in last weekend's New York Times Sunday Book Review called Enough With the Sweet Talk. It was an amusing piece about the abundance of "unjustifiably enthusiastic" book reviews. Queenan's angle involved the response of authors who have received such reviews, and he quotes a number of them on the subject. Dave Barry was once called the funniest man in America in a review. In an e-mail message to Queenan he said, "This is a ridiculous assertion; I am not the funniest man in my neighborhood."

As I said, the essay was clever and witty and all that. But, you know, Queenan is touching on something more serious. You do see an awful lot of positive reviews, so much so that I've sometimes wondered if reviewers at print journals get more work if they're careful to only say nice things. Sometimes you have to read between the lines to pick up on the fact that perhaps not everything is as glorious as it may seem. Is "Will call to mind Holden Caulfield" really praise or a warning that this book has been done before? Is "filled with southern eccentrics" code for run for your life?

When I was a senior in college about to apply for teaching jobs, I was told that school superintendents in Vermont were insisting on written assessments for student teaching for UVM grads because everyone was receiving A's. In a pool of candidates that are all excellent, excellent doesn't mean much.

When all books are wonderful, don't we lose touch with what wonderful means?

7 comments:

TadMack said...

I've been pondering that last question -- in terms of writing. Read a review on GuysLitWire which made me think about it --

None of these abandoned books were bad. The characters are familiar. The author’s voice is soothing dulcet tones. Every major plot point is proceeded by the proper amount of foreshadowing. And if I ever did get to the end of one, I’m sure it would come to a satisfying conclusion. The evil queen would be banished or everybody would learn an important lesson about tolerance or both. True love would conquer all. There’d be just enough loose threads left for the sequel.

These books are worse than bad, they’re perfectly adequate. They’re tidy. They’re polite. They wouldn’t dream of talking over the reader’s head or asking questions they don’t have a ready answer for or making the reader feel uncomfortable or out of place. They’re perfectly adequate except that they have nothing to say and absolutely no reason to exist.


We do lose touch with what's good when so much of what is merely adequate is lauded. But... one person's adequate is another man's "funniest man in America." It's all a matter of perspective to some degree... isn't it?

gail said...

It is a matter of perspective and opinion. But I think in reviews/criticism (and I'm not sure if they're the same thing), perspective and opinion should be backed up with some knowledge. Maybe some knowledge of the field so that the reviewer is aware how the book under consideration fits in and whether or not it does anything different with its subject matter, is "perfectly adequate," or is something worse. Maybe some knowledge of technique so that the reviewer realizes that, say, a character only exists to provide information or that the narrative flow keeps stopping altogether while the author describes some scenery or that the climax of the story takes place off stage and we hear about it later.

Many positive reviews of adequate books really do sound as if they are put together with phrases from a reviewers' handbook without a lot of consideration as to how to justify the choice of those phrases.

That post from Guys Lit was a great essay. The only thing that would have made it better would have been if he'd concluded it with a couple of sentences about whether or not anyone would ever remember reading those adequate books on his floor the way he remembered Dick's work.

Terry said...

Could it be that we see more rosy reviews because we don't take time (I have heard some say waste time) with books that are "just okay" or less?

beckylevine said...

I've been going around on this for a while. For the past four or five years, I've been writing reviews where I have no choice about the books I get. And, because I'm reviewing for librarians and teachers, I really do have to be honest about what's good and what's not.

I tell you what. I'm worn out putting the bad stuff "out there." With my new book project and all the research I need to be doing for this (and a historical YA I'm mulling about), I have to cut down on my extra reading, anyway, so I'll be stopping these reviews this year. I know how hard these writers work to produce their work and I have just gotten tired of being so critical.

This is a personal thing. I think the publication I review for does a wonderful service, and I think I've done a good job in my work with them. But I'm done. I've signed on to review a YA book once or twice a year for a newsletter, but I get to pick it & its supposed to be a book I think the kids will like. I'll keep reviewing books on my blog that I love and want to pass on to others.

It just feels a bit icky, after all this time, to keep the negative going. I've just joined GoodReads, and--if you see I'm reading a book and then it disappears--well, that's probably a good indication that I didn't like it. If I can't give it three stars or above, I probably just won't talk about it.

In a few years, I may shift back out of this. But for now, it feels like the right place for me to be. A little recovery. :)

gail said...

Terry--That's probably the case with bloggers (I just gave up reading a book this morning--the quality of the writing was fine, but the subject matter just didn't interest me and life is short, as they say.), but I believe that with print journals, books are assigned. I don't know if reviewers in those situations have the option of bowing out of books they don't feel they can write a glowing review for.

Becky--Interesting point of view from an actual reviewer. Are you saying that a lot of the books you've had to review required you to point out a lot of flaws? And do you find a lot of really "enthusiastic" reviews for books you wouldn't have reviewed the same way?

I think we need to find words to use about reviews other than "negative" and "positive." I don't think a professionally done, nonsnarky review is "negative" if it points out what the reviewer feels are weaknesses in my work. I want to be part of the literary conversation, and a conversation about any subject is rarely going to be all favorable or all unfavorable.

beckylevine said...

Gail,

I do find good reviews of books I haven't liked, of course. And, yes, some are raves.

The reviews I write are very short (the requirement), but basically are asking me to point out one or two things that would make someone decide to buy/not buy the books. So, yes, I do have to point out weaknesses. Which, yes, is a job that needs to be done and can, as you say, help the writer. I think its just time for me to let someone ELSE do that job! :)

MotherReader said...

I do think bloggers tend to focus on books that they want to promote, because why waste time, energy, and space on a book that you don't like.

I wonder if as space for reviews shrinks in papers, if reviewers are more likely to do the same thing. Unless the book is the book that everybody is talking about, why waste your one column on telling people NOT to read a book. Seems like a better use of limited resources to point people to good books and let the bad ones die of neglect.

That said, I don't know how print reviewers are working these days. Are the books assigned? Do the reviewers have choices about which books to write about? Are the papers or other media making the decision to not run the negative reviews when they have a book they could promote instead? I skim the Wash Post book reviews more than read them, but I see a fair number of negative or lukewarm reviews there. But I'm not sure where the difference may lie - reviewer, editor, or publisher.