The OF Blog: Why your reading (and your reviewing) sucks

Friday, November 12, 2010

Why your reading (and your reviewing) sucks

You know you hate it when someone states so baldly what you perhaps have worried about in secret or have dismissed nervously in comments on Twitter, Facebook, or other online communication tools.  You want to be the best, but perhaps view with suspicion those who proclaim "worthy" literature that ought to be considered.  Maybe you want to aspire to become a "critic" someday, only you worry that the likes of me will say to you:  "Your points are facile, your arguments weak, you lack structure and vision in outlining just why this work is important and your breath reeks as well."

I have largely stayed away from such discussions of how and why online reviewers ought to "raise their games" over the past two months, mostly because I'm much more focused on my new job than I am on anything else.  But I've seen a few links to discussions hither and yon, on blogs and on Twitter, over the past few weeks.  I just haven't had time to comment at all on them until now.  Not that there is really anything new or vital to say, mind you, but perhaps this will be a sort of sounding board for those who get their jollies from these sorts of posts.

Reviewing traditionally has been a literary art form.  It has been the province of writers and thinkers for most of the past three centuries.  It is akin to literary criticism, but yet it is not one and the same, despite the efforts of some to conflate the two.  It is above all an essay, in the more antiquated meaning of that word.  It is in the essay form, with its expectations of analysis and interpretation, that perhaps lies at the crux of the latest round of discussions on the online review form.

For myself, a good review contains a combination, often in varying levels of content, of analysis and interpretation.  A review is not a book report; just regurgitating information does little more than to show, that unlike Harriet Klausner, you likely have read the book at hand.  Reading a book does not mean that you understand it.  If you are complaining about "unlikeable" characters in a work that is meant to explore the depravities of human nature, you need to buy a clue, perhaps several.  A review is more than just stating likes and dislikes.  I can recapitulate until my face turns blue that I find Humbert Humbert to be a creepy, disgusting character.  Still doesn't challenge the perception that Lolita is a brilliant literary classic; such arguments only show that you swim in the shallow end of the reviewing pool.

But at the same point, a good, well-written review does not have to ape the mannerisms and tools used in literary criticism.  I myself, by my own admission, rarely write literary criticism.  That is not my goal nor is it conducive to my goals here on this blog.  I'm certainly capable of analyzing a text at that level, but when I am focusing on perfecting the 750-1200 word review essay form, I find it pointless to have some wish that I would write more 3000-5000 word essays.  Contrary to what some might think, it is more difficult to have a lot to say in less than 1500 words than it is to say something profound at twice that length.  If you don't believe me, try this little experiment:  Take a book that you are reading now.  Try to not only give a brief idea of what type of book it is, but also try to analyze its strengths, weaknesses, and how this book "works" (or doesn't).  Try to do all that in under 500 words.  Then come back and tell me how much over it you went in order to make it a "good, reflective" review.

Yes, it never hurts to be reminded that the quality control too often sucks when it comes to blogging.  Too often it seems that some online reviewers want to be "fans first" and reviewers second.  Perhaps there is a time and place for enthusiasm (hey, look!  Squirrel!), but showing some thought and originality is never a bad idea (unless you decide to write your reviews in iambic pentameter).  It certainly can begin by trying new things and reviewing them.  Think you could review a history?  What about a memoir or short fiction collection?  Could you handle reviewing a work of realist fiction and doing so in a fashion that befits that sort of story?

Or will it just be the familiar paths, the familiar refrains, and the familiar accusations?


Walter Rhein said...

I think it's more important to acquire your readers and be true to THEM, rather than the abstract ideals of stuffy professors (who never offer anything of their own except criticism).

For the record, I thought the writing in this article was rock solid.

Aishwarya said...

Are you implying that writing reviews in iambic pentameter is a bad idea?

redhead said...

I consider myself a casual reviewer. most of my articles are in the 400-800 word range. some I write in 20 minutes, others I agonize over for days before posting.

I'm a casual reviewer, and my goal is to help you decide if this book/series is worth your time.

Paul Smith said...

While I don't think there is anything wrong with not writing a lot of literary criticism, I think this post underestimate the worth of using it in reviews. They may not be the same thing, but that doesn't mean that there isn't value in applying parts of literary criticism and theory to reviews when it is applicable.

For example, comparative literature and social history can sometimes make the difference in understanding a novel that is purposely saying something about a country or a society. Marxist theory can help get a better grasp on the problems at the heart of Dostoevsky's Demons, just as gender, feminism and queer theory are all useful when looking at the work of Angela Carter. Psychoanalysis can help in understanding both conscious and unconscious thoughts and actions of characters.

You don't have to structure your whole review as a piece examining the book from one theory, but the use of theory as tools (as long as you ensure the uninitiated are able to understand what you mean without having to read Foucault, for example) can only add to the review. That is the point as was trying to make in my own post, and I stand by it.

Sam Kelly said...

I find that using literary criticism tools - of a relatively simple kind, admittedly - helps me understand where an author is coming from, and gives me a better framework for interpreting the work.

For spec-fic in particular, I find that the most important part of a review is not in deciding whether something's good or bad, but who it's for, what the axioms behind it are, and how well it works based on those. Whilst it's perfectly possible to analyse something without theory and models to measure it against, it makes it so much easier.

Anonymous said...

Paul--I agree to some extent but the fact is that if you're not up to date on approaches to literary criticism an ad hoc injection of same can make a reviewer look anachronistic or ignorant--although I have it on good authority that quite a few SF/F individuals who self-identify as lit critics are, shall we say, operating without a license or with an expired license.

But the main problem isn't injecting lit crit. It's instilling the basics. jv

Larry said...

OK, back from UT's Homecoming (we won, of course). I think Jeff covered much of what I would have said in response to Paul and Sam, but here's a brief response:

When I write a review (as opposed to say a translation, for example), I have a particular audience in mind. That audience is comprised of individuals who have some grounding in literature and history, but who might not have the patience to deconstruct certain literary constructs. There is indeed a time and place for utilizing more of the tool kit associated with various lit theories, but I've found that utilizing too many of those limits the ability of my intended audience to care about what I'm discussing.

I might like some esoteric reads, but I tend to eschew writing in a fashion that intentionally excludes a greater part of my reading audience. I prefer to tread the middle ground between a "populist" review and a review designed for those who want to discuss specialized matters. That itself can be a tricky, difficult position to stake out.

Amy said...

A lot of great points here. I find it SO hard to stay short in my reviews, there is just so much to say, so I'm with you on that. Many different styles work and there is no only way to do things, I think.

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