The OF Blog: The Critic as a Reader: Reactions to Others' Recent Reviews

Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Critic as a Reader: Reactions to Others' Recent Reviews

Even though I receive a lot (well, used to, until eight months ago) of review copies, I still read a lot of reviews for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes, I want information about a particular work, while other times I stumble across a new work due to a serendipitous find in a magazine like The New Yorker.  I try to approach each review differently, gauging its value based on the work in question and how the reviewer's thoughts are developed.

I thought I might illustrate this by writing an extended version of typical reactions to a few reviews that I've seen online or in magazine.  I'll link to the online reviews and quote one or more snippets before providing a brief commentary on my reactions.  Hopefully, this exercise will help me as a reviewer, as I do sometimes forget when writing a review that what I write might not satisfy those readers like myself.  Anyways, here goes:

The Speculative Scotsman, review of Elspeth Cooper's Songs of the Earth 

For the most part, I enjoy reading Niall Alexander's reviews, even though they are more colloquial than my typical reading fare.  He often has cogent points to make, so it was with some disappointment that I read this review (he also has a two-part interview with the author that he's posting this week, so that might have affected things).  Below is an excerpt that led to my eyebrows being raised:

Well. There's a lot about Songs of the Earth you'll find familiar if you've kept up with the genre since The Name of the Wind redefined success and our expectations thereof in 2007. Fantasy tropes old and new proliferate, in fact, from the very first: "The magic was breaking free again," the telling of this tale begins. "Its music sang along Gair's nerves as if they were harp-strings, a promise of power thrumming through his fingers. All he had to do was embrace it, if he dared." (p.5)

This paragraph says so little with so many words.  "since The Name of the Wind [Patrick Rothfuss' debut novel] redefined success and our expectations thereof in 2007?"  The comparative approach rings hollow, since there's really nothing substantive behind "fantasy tropes old and new proliferate" other than it sounding nice, trite, and palatable for those who make their book buying decisions based on how closely Book X mimics successful elements of Book Y.   Niall usually is a more astute reviewer, but here in this review he rarely dips beyond platitudes to discuss a debut novel that sounds as though it is a generic genre work due to a lack of engagement with the story itself.  Sure, it is "spoiler free," but one of the problems of making a review so devoid of specific references to the actual story is that the review feels bland and lacking of any real exploration of the text itself to say whether or not it itself is worthy of consideration.  Making passing references to a work without explicating those apparent connections serves little good, especially when the reader (such as myself) had only a lukewarm reaction to works such as Rothfuss'.

The Mad Hatter's Bookshelf & Book Review, review of Genevieve Valentine's Mechanique:  A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti 

I don't read Michael's reviews as much as I do Niall's, so I don't have as much ground for comparison.  I have noticed that he tends to be effusive in his praise and that his reviews are oriented more toward the "fan" side of viewing book reviews as a means of recommending works to others.  There is nothing wrong with that approach, other than certain readers (and I often am among them, but not exclusively) might not benefit much from it.

In this particular review, Michael does provide at least some basis in his introduction for describing the subtype of book Valentine's book may fall under.  However, my eyes glazed a bit when I saw blurbish descriptors like "unforgettable" and "haunt your dreams" appearing alongside "pacing" and "unlikeable characters."  It felt a bit more like a reworded press release (with the dubious addition of the "unlikeable characters") in places because while there is the illusion of analysis, the whole felt more like a breezy commentary that tries to avoid any contentious discussion of the book's "meat."  I am intrigued by this book, but not because I see "Fans of early Mieville and VanderMeer will fall in love," but rather because there might be something worthwhile about this book that just isn't being discussed here.  Again, this is not the type of review aimed at readers such as myself and I would readily admit that it serves its purpose well for those readers who want a new title to consider without having much more than the review equivalent of a back cover blurb.

Dazed Rambling, review of Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife  

I also enjoy reading reviews of books I've already read (and sometimes reviewed), just to see if others like what I liked or if they have a different slant than I did on the prose, characterizations, theme, and plot.  James Oliver often is a bit more introspective in his reviews than what I encounter from several other online reviewers and I found it interesting to see how closely his take on Obreht's debut novel dovetails with my own.  Of particular interest was this excerpt:

Mostly, we learn about war. It runs in the background, a perpetual nightmare that inspires a range of reactions from the surreal to the horrific. People sit in cafes, sipping coffee and chatting as the war drops bombs around them. Everything breaks down as people stop caring—why do this or that when there is a war on? A village is whipped into paranoid superstition, the tiger lurking in the hills as dreadful as the war lurking on the horizon. The tiger is present though, something real and tangible that they can focus on if only to forget about the war coming for their out of the way mountain home. The Tiger’s Wife is tinged with war that has seeped into the lands, villages, and cities that the characters and stories inhabit. In the midst of the horror that it brings, we see the bits of wonder—the strange behavior that comes to the forefront and the strange little events that become the stories that we keep to ourselves. 
There is more content in this one paragraph than in the two previous reviews combined.  If anything, I think James discusses the war/tiger connection better than I did in my review.  It is a good interpretation of what is happening around and behind the stories highlighted in the novel and I think it is an effective review because it provides more for the reader to consider without analyzing every last iota of information available.

Empty Your Heart of Its Mortal Dream, review "The American Dream in 1969:  Two Films of the American New Wave" 

Paul Charles Smith is one of the best reviewers I've discovered in the past year.  Paul and I have collaborated on several group reviews with Jeff VanderMeer over the past eight months and I believe he offers some approaches to reviewing that could help myself be a better critic.  Paul's reviews are more "formal" in the sense that they often engage more with particular critical theory elements, but what makes his reviews interesting is that whether or not I am familiar with the medium and/or work(s) being reviewed, he manages to balance erudite commentary with clear, limpid prose.

In the film’s most memorable scene, after arriving in New Orleans and visiting a brothel George talked about, Billy and Wyatt take LSD (given to them earlier by the hitchhiker) with two of the prostitutes and find themselves in a graveyard. Utilizing experimental techniques to emulate a bad trip, the scene blends overexposure, sound overdubs, spliced imaging in conjunction with elliptical cutting, and perhaps the most unsettling, Hopper’s direction that Fonda should talk to the statue of the Madonna as if it were his mother who had abandoned him as a child. Shortly afterwards, Wyatt admits to Billy that they have “blew it”, as despite having money, they are unable to attain the freedom as an almost transcendent experience, as they desire. The film’s final shot, the burning wrecking of Wyatt’s motorcycle (seen earlier in a flash forward) stands as a reminder that what you hope for is often unattainable.
Although I am not much of a cinema watcher, I found myself wanting to see Easy Rider in whole due to Paul's exploration of the cinematic techniques employed within the film.  Instead of giving away information, his treatment of the film's substantive elements makes it more intriguing to me because it is obvious there is something present in the film that merits attention.  These are the sorts of reviews, if the story justifies such treatment, that can sway a lot of noncommittal readers (and viewers) such as myself because the review makes it obvious that the work at hand as a depth that warrants discussion and further exploration on the part of the reader/viewer.

Matthew Cheney, Strange Horizons review of Gary K. Wolfe's Essays on Fantastic Literature

I've said before on several occasions that Matt Cheney has been an influence on how I approach reviewing and why I even have a blog in the first place.  Reading this review only solidifies my high esteem for his approach to reviewing and it reminds me of how sketchy and incomplete my own reviews often are in comparison to his thoughtful, cogent analyses of a variety of genres and authors.

One thing that struck me in this particular review (there are too many to comment at length here) is this passage, which underscores a key shift in his own interpretation of the essay collection and its value to other readers:

Wesleyan University Press has published some of the best literary criticism of science fiction in recent decades—the nonfiction of Samuel R. Delany, Justine Larbalestier's The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction (2002), Carl Freedman's Critical Theory and Science Fiction (200), John Reider's Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (2008), Farah Mendlesohn's anthology On Joanna Russ (2009), Istvan Csicsery-Ronay's The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (2008)—and so when I began reading Evaporating Genres, I assumed it was part of this lineage. A third of the way through Wolfe's book, I found myself terribly frustrated, but I struggled to identify the cause. Wolfe's writing was supple and elegant, his knowledge of science fiction's history impressive, his ideas sane and reasonable. Yet reservations nagged at me; at the end of every chapter I thought, "Is that it?" and, worse, one observation after another made me ask, "So what?" without gaining a satisfying reply from the sentences that followed. Eventually, I wondered what the best audience for Evaporating Genres might be, and it was then I realized I was applying the wrong template of expectations to the text. This was my failure, not the book's.

The ideal reader of Evaporating Genres, in my mind, is someone who has either just begun to explore the wonders and possibilities of science fiction, or someone who needs to be convinced that science fiction can be something other than formulaic pulp stories. This is simply the best book I've ever encountered for such readers. At the same time, though, because Wolfe is so well read in the field of SF, the book provides even very experienced readers with fascinating and insightful connections between texts.

Too often reviewers (and I am guilty of this as well) make the mistake of considering a work solely based on their own personal reactions.  Seldom do we critics take a moment to consider the work from the vantage point of various possible "ideal readers," to test whether or not that book's flaws and shortcomings might be due more to its goals differing from the reviewer's desires than to any uniform deviation from form and quality.  Matt's admission here allows the reader to consider Wolfe's essay collection from multiple perspectives, those related to what baggage the reader/reviewer might be bringing to the table and those concerned with readers considering an unfamiliar genre.  In this regard, his review is successful because it combines a personal reflection on the story with a look at how the work might be of interest or value to readers who might not share Matt's views on the subjects presented within Wolfe's book.

What which of these disparate reviews do for me is make me think in turn about how I approach the craft of reviewing.  I have noticed recently that my own reviews have declined in length and in quality.  I am not saying as much and I seem to be content with utilizing the form of critique without really delving into the substantive elements that such techniques enable the critic to perform the necessary textual vivisection.  Reading these reviews, as well as previous ones on sites such as Eve's Alexandria or Asking the Wrong Questions, do make me think a bit more about why I read and what I enjoy as a reader.  Hopefully, this reflective essay will lead to better reviews from me in the near future.  There are, after all, more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy.


The Mad Hatter said...

I think you let me off a little easy. However, you described my general approach fairly well. I try to write for the common fan, which I would include myself in. Occasionally a review of ends up a bit more incisive, but I don't tend to giving away too much about the story. Personally, I hate it when read a review that ruins a certain aspect I would have rather discovered on my own as I have seen in some of your own reviews.

Either way I think there is room enough for all types of reviews.

Larry said...

I don't know about letting you off easy, as I was fairly direct with what I don't like about that particular style of review, but I do try to be fair as well. Besides, some of those comments were meant to set up parallels with what I read in Matt's review ;)

I would find a uniform style of reviewing rather boring, just like I find repeating one's self to be rather dull as well.

S.M.D. said...

I sure hope you never critique my reviews (book reviews rather than TV/movie ones). I'd hate to find out you can't stand what I do :P

Larry said...

Ha! :P

Well, if I had critiqued older reviews of mine, those would have been much worse than anything I said here. I'm my own toughest critic at times.

James said...

I look back on my old reviews and flinch. They are so bad, I won't link to them anymore.

S.M.D. said...

I'm with both of you: some of my older reviews are downright terrible. I've improved quite a lot, but I have huge problems with trying to convey what I mean without spoiling the book. I agonize over every sentence in my reviews, and they still don't turn out as good as I would like. *grumble*

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