The OF Blog: Digression and reviews

Friday, April 24, 2009

Digression and reviews

A little over a week ago, the Guardian had an article on digression in book reviews. It focused on the issue of whether or not digression is an acceptable thing in a review and if too often there might be reviewers who spend more times focusing on anything but the book itself. Considering that there have been complaints on several blogs that I visit frequently about how Blogger X reviews books compared to Bloggers Y and Z, this article appeared at a fortuitous time.

I've made several posts in the past about things that I preferred in book reviews. However, I never really addressed the issue of digressions as much, in part because I saw that as a stylistic issue more than a substantive one. Over the past 17 years, ever since I started my collegiate studies, I have read hundreds, if not thousands, of reviews that run the gamut from Amazon fluff pieces from the likes of Harriet Klausner to 20+ page academic journal reviews. For each type of review, there were positive and negative traits alike, but on the whole, I found that when the reviewer was informed and had something to add, digressions can add to the work as a whole.

I myself sometimes will digress in a review. Sometimes there is a personal issue that I will interject in order to cast the book(s) being reviewed in a different light than if I had strictly focused just what was between the covers. A good many really good reviews will take the work at hand and contrast it with a larger whole. For example, Jorge Luis Borges is almost as well known in Argentina for his literary criticisms as he is for his short fiction and if one were to read a review of Borges, one would see that very often he would take one or two thematic elements from a story and he would pull them out from the text and then play around with them a bit, exploring what their implications could be before weighing in on this thoughts on the book.

Other times, a work can be so derivative and lacking in substance that a skilled reviewer, rather than just baldly stating that the work in question is deficient in X, Y, or Z, s/he will discuss the work in a larger framework, perhaps (this is especially true for non-fiction, particularly historical works) examining it from another writer's point of view. If I were to write a review of Daniel Goldhagen's works, I probably would have to digress a bit to cover just what other, more meticulous historians such as Christopher Browning, had to say on an issue before declaiming Goldhagen for some rather shoddy use of historical evidence in regards to the Einsatzgruppen and the beginning stages of the Holocaust. Sometimes, just stepping back and letting others speak for you can strengthen what you have to say when you want to explore just why a book did or didn't work for you.

But this still avoids the point. A point that the Guardian article could have made to bolster its arguments is that a review essentially is an essay that strives to communicate a specific point or points. I could load all sorts of invective into a bit of writing, but if my review doesn't read like a well-written essay, I would have failed to communicate the necessary points. While certainly essays need something of substance to sustain them and to help deliver maximum impact on a reader, a good review can incorpate digressions to strengthen the flow of the review essay and to make the whole something worth reading rather than a tedious writing exercise that bores the writer almost as much as it will bore the potential readers. So why not digress, if it adds to the telling of a story about a story a reader may or may not want to learn more about?


Anonymous said...

Sorry for the OT, but it seems feedburner is broken.
I don't get any updates via feedreader...

Elena said...

I think you hit the crux of the issue (at least what it would be for me) in qualifying "as long as it adds something." I can see cases where a digression would really be useful and meaningful--even a personal anecdote to explain why something hit the reviewer in a particularly good or bad way that is influencing their opinion of the whole work in a direction someone without that experience may not go--but I think it's a fine line between what really adds and what is self-indulgent rambling on the part of the reviewer. unfortunately with blogging, rambling is sometimes encouraged or perceived as encouraged because when done well it is witty and interesting. but too often it is not done well...

Harry Markov said...

My opinion on the matter mirrors Elena's and it all boils down to one fine line, which is hard not to cross, especially when it comes to reviewing. This is probably the reason I try to avoid digression. I get the vibe that I am not doing it right and it wouldn't benefit the review itself. As with all things complex, subtelty and moderation are needed to make digression work for the reviewer. I would love to see how a novel, short story or whatever affects the reviewer as an additional benefit of the reading experience, but it's not for everybody.

Terry Weyna said...

I think it sort of depends on where your review is appearing. On my blog, I add personal bits and pieces because I'm trying to give my reviewers a bit of information about who I am and establish a real "voice." In this way, regular readers can get to know me and my tastes, and therefore get a better idea of whether what I read and like is something that they will like when they read it. I want it to be more personal and experiential than a review or a review/essay I might post elsewhere.

My reviews for SF Signal, on the other hand, are straightforward reviews with as little injection of the personal as I can manage. I will digress when I consider it necessary, as, for instance, to compare to another book (something I know you don't necessarily approve of, Larry, but which I consider a positive addition to a review almost always, if used properly).

In academic papers, such as for the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, the only personal interjections come in comments I might add spontaneously as I give the paper based on what I've heard elsewhere in the conference.

I don't consider myself an expert on reviewing, but I do write the kind of reviews I like to read, so I rather hope for the best.

Anonymous said...

I don't mind digressions as long as they are entertaining or informative.

Check out some of the reviews at Teleport City, a website dedicated to exploring and reviewing movies. Part of the fun of the reviews there are the lengthy digressions, and introductions that may only be tenuously related to the subject at hand.

For example, there is the review for "Manos, the Hands of Fate," which contains this beautifully vivid paragraph:

'I also said it had a kindred spirit in the film Manos: The Hands of Fate, and it was right then and there, when I wrote that sentence, that I knew my own hands of fate were guiding me slowly but inevitably toward grappling with a review of Manos.

It’s a fitting name for the movie, because my fate seems intrinsically intertwined with Manos. If any movie was my long lost evil twin brother, it would be Manos. I know that one day, billions of years from now, as the earth boils and dies, Manos and I are fated to stand atop a craggy cliff as a tumultuous sea of lava crashes below us and volcanoes spew fire and dinosaurs into the sky. There we stand, face to face, battered, bloody, aware of the fact that we are both doomed, yet never the less unable to extract ourselves from the eternal combat into which we have been and always shall be locked. I have seen the road lain before me, and I know that it leads to Manos: The Hands of Fate just as surely as its road leads to me. My ties to Manos are sundry, and even I did not realize most of them existed until I started peeling back the layers of the onion, each one confronting me with a revelation more unspeakable than the last, until one day I found myself actually standing on the very grounds that served as the location for the film, at which time I fell to my knees, cried out to the heavens, and went stark raving mad.'

Does any of that actually add much to the review? Maybe not, but it still damn fun to read.

And then there is my all time favorite digression that took place during the "Night of the Lepus," review:

'Back when I was in college, I took a script writing class as part of the film studies program I was dabbling in to augment my journalism degree and equip me with the proper intellectual background and tools I would eventually apply to writing about films like Gymkata. The class was lorded over by an unkempt, white-bearded hobo of a man in a rawhide vest. What his qualifications were to work as a professor at a major American university, I do not know. I do know that, for a while, he was homeless and slept on a surplus Army cot in his office. Odd, at least until you take into account that this was a department where Harry Crewes was also a professor and could occasionally be found passed out in the elevator with no pants on and an empty bottle of booze lying next to him.

This cat teaching my class had never had a script made into a film, or even purchased with the potential that it might one day become a film, and his primary function in class, aside from brandishing Syd Field’s The Screenplay, was telling us the same story over and over about helping his grandmother roll big fat joints on the front porch of their one-room backwoods shack in Georgia (sort of how I think I’ve told the same story about this professor in like half a dozen reviews at this point). I half expected during any given class session to be interrupted by a mousy guy in a tweed jacket and wire-rimmed glasses walking in and, shocked, screaming, “Who are you? What are you doing in my classroom???” to the wild-eyed Bohemian madman, who himself would promptly grab his checkered hobo bundle tied to a long stick, and chirp “Fare thee well, my good man!” in a gravel voice as he tipped his ragged hobo fedora at us and hopped out of the window and onto a passing box car.

Of course, I also half expected to go to this guy’s office and find the tweed jacket professor tied up in a closet, shouting, “He’s insane! I’ve been tied up in here since the beginning of the semester! For God’s sake, man, call the police!” And if I ever saw that, I would simply back out slowly, close the door behind me, and head down the hall to Harry Crewes’ office to see if there was anything left to drink in there.'

Once again, the preceding paragraphs didn't have much to do with the actual movie, but I think that I, the reader, would be much the poorer if I hadn't had a chance to read it.

Anonymous said...

I think it depends what the review is for. If it's a straightfoward "should I buy this book?" review of something just published, directless is commendable.

But when people review a book that has been out a while, that has been reviewed many times, what's the point of directness? It seems to me the reviewer should ideally add something new in what the say that couldn't be got from any other review. In that case, digressions, and unusual or contrived perspectives or evaluations, are commendable. They can make people see things in new ways.

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