The OF Blog: Bad positive reviews

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Bad positive reviews

Almost three weeks ago, I wrote a post on "muddled" negative reviews. That post generated some good discussion, plus there were reactions from two of the people involved. I promised to make a post about flawed positive reviews of books, but the following Monday, I got hired for a new teaching position at a local residential treatment center and getting the basics set up for the students I have (with more on the way in the next few days and weeks) and I've been so swamped that I haven't had much time to even think about this topic until now. My apologies for those who have been waiting for such pontification to emerge; doubtless there are a few readers out there who prefer review essays over Entertainment Weekly-style bulletpoint/grading of books.

Reviews are very idiosyncratic writings that ought to reflect strongly the reviewer's engagement with the work at hand. If the review doesn't dare to engage the work, then in my more-than-a-novice-but-not-officially-an-expert opinion such reviews aren't going to be worth shit, to put it mildly. There are those who will disagree and argue, with some justification, that if a work is not placed in its proper context, then the review will suffer. I agree with this to a point, but only to a point. If the focus shifts away from the book at hand and threatens to draw the reader's attention to the reviewer, to other books not being reviewed, to how Bush is assraping America, it weakens the force of the review and can make the readers wonder if the book at hand is worth reading on its own merits.

Many reviewers, both online and print, in my opinion often struggle more with writing a strong positive review than they do with writing a solid negative review. Sometimes, it is quite easy being specific with what one dislikes, especially if one writes with the purpose in mind of swaying readers to consider or to reject a book. But it is much more difficult, however, for many reviewers to pinpoint what exactly it is that they like about a book. I am not referring to stating things such as "Erickson's writing in Arc d'X is fluid," but rather in describing the hows and whys of its fluidity. ­¹ A well-written review, depending of course upon space constraints, ought to contain at least some exploration of just what it was about the work at hand that caused a positive reaction. All too often (and I myself am guilty of this), reviewers at the blogs that I frequent appear to settle for pat expressions, as if such encomiums as "strong characterization" will carry the day. In a full-fledged review article (those over 1,000 words in length), the reviewer has the opportunity to expand and to go in-depth; sadly, many refuse to take the plunge.

As I said earlier, reviews ought to contain a minimum of references to other authors. Umberto Eco and Dan Brown wrote stories that contained elements of conspiracy theories, but the mechanics of their stories, how they approached character and plot development, the basic themes, etc. - all of those elements makes those authors so different as to make any passing comparison between them to be nigh ridiculous. If comparisons must be made, at least do it in a fashion that reveals an understanding of the thematic and plot similarities and differences that would enhance a reader's comprehension of just what it is that the book in question is all about. By all means, refrain from say such trite comments such as "Author Y is this year's Author X!" For those who don't know Author X from a hole in the ground and who might stumble upon an online review for Author Y's book and sees that, what in the hell are they going to glean from that? So again, I would suggest avoiding such comparisons if at all possible.

But enough of the general talk. Time to skewer a positive review. This time, I shall choose an older writing of mine from 2005, back when I believed that I didn't have to be as rigorous with my online fiction reviews as I had to be with my academic critiques of historical monographs. This is a June 2005 review of Yuri Andrukhovych's Perverzion:

A Postmodernist Bulgakov?

What in the world could I have been thinking here? For those who have read The Master and Margarita, they would be pardoned if they would ask if there might be any allusions to Satan or to metaphors for a totalitarian state. I am afraid that this title is false advertising, because Andrukhovych's writing differs greatly from Bulgakov in its style, its thematic interests, in so much more when the two works are considered in-depth.

The work of an Ukrainian novelist/poet/essayist/translator, Yuri Andrukhovych, Perverzion is a great many things all bundled up into one paperback volume of 326 pages. It is in turns a murder/suicide mystery, a exploration of morality and the interstices that take place in human lives. It is a farce, a prosy poem full of allusions to other allusions. It deals with religious matters of the soul; it is concerned with the postmodern decline and fall of the Carnival. It is also a love story, and a story of love misled. It is all of these things and many more.
This is all nice, but have I really told you anything about this book that makes it stand out from any hypothetical number of books that might touch upon similar topics? No? Then I should have, although I can make the weak argument that I did not intend for it to be a professional piece that would explore these descriptive claims at all. To make such claims with exploring their validity just leaves the curious reader hanging.

The story revolves around the last days of one Stanislav Perfetsky - poet, gadfly, one-time stripper in a club catering to older women. He is a romantic and yet utterly beyond this. His travels across Europe, from Lviv in the Ukraine to his apparent end in the canals of Venice, are the stuff of legend. But just who is Perfetsky? Andrukhovych explores this with a series of chapters written apparently from the perspective of those who knew him, who were baffled by him, who were sleeping with him, and who were spying upon him. It is a fascinating mosaic quilted together with a deft comic touch.
While this paragraph at least gives a hint of the story itself, there are no examples illustrating these various points-of-view mentioned above. If I were writing this review today, I would have included them to show just how different the characters' voices are and how adroitly Andrukhovych builds this mystery of Perfetsky's disappearance. Without them, the review lacks any real specificity.

Now I mentioned Bulgakov in my title, because the translator in his introduction refers to similar thematic elements present in both, combined with a mutual gift for the absurdly meaningful. While I need to re-read Bulgakov to ascertain just how accurate these claims are, I do recall a certain sense of devilish glee in both works, as the authors tweaked the noses of the pretentious (the chapter on the conference regarding post-Feminism is something to behold, intersplicing the "saintly" Perfetsky's making out with Ada with the speaker's Andrea Dworkinesque denunciation of almost all sex as rape) in their satirical ramage through their tomes.
I lost the focus here. Not only do I mention Bulgakov again, but I do not really provide any evidence of my claim in the first sentence of this paragraph. What "similar thematic elements" are present in both? What "mutual gift for the absurdly meaningful" is there? It just sounds like a load of bunk.

While this book certainly contains elements of the supernatural (as does Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita), it is very difficult to classify Perverzion as belonging to any one school or genre of writing. It is simply sui generis, which certainly would be pleasing to Perfetsky himself to know. If you are a reader who likes challenging books that have a high reward potential, then I highly recommend that you buy Perverzion.
I might as well waved the white flag of surrender here. You have any firmer idea about this story's plot, themes, characterization, or style? Didn't think so. I might as well have said, "Hey, this book is like really cool, you know, with these Wow! moments that made me go 'Cool, man!', so you need to go out and read this, okay?" I did the book, which I did enjoy, a great disservice here by being so vague with my praise and with my examination of what made it enjoyable to me that I might as well have written a Harriet Klausner-like review.

While there are doubtless other faults that I am overlooking in this article, I am going to close this by noting that I have found with an increased attention to detail and to questioning the book at hand, there have come more comments about the books at hand, more discussion (because there is something to discuss, regardless of whether or not the commenter agrees with me), and most importantly, more readers at least considering the books that I praised. I don't claim to be the Second Coming of H.L. Mencken, but I have found my "voice" by daring to explore the why behind the "I like this."

¹ I might write a review of this book in the coming weeks, but I still am putting the finishing touchings on two reviews, one of which will be posted by this weekend.

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