Monday, October 27, 2008

Taking up the Review Cudgels

Emerging Writer has picked up on a New York Times article that highlights the seven most overused words that reviewers employ when writing reviews. I've seen a similar vein taken up on Poets On Fire forums recently too.

The problem, I guess, might lie with the time that you have between reading the book/journal/zine etc. and having to write and then deliver the finished article to whichever editor is taking it.

It's a topic fraught with its own rules and regulations and areas of writing negotiation that the reviewer must come through. Last year (at QUB), we had Ian Sansom (he of the Guardian reviews) come talk to us. Not so much about how to write a review, more how not to write a review. Some of it makes perfect sense.

There's no substitute for knowing what you're talking about. If it's the poet's third collection, you should, in all honesty, be familiar with their work. If not, go get familiar with the work. Perhaps this is what leads to reviews that employ such overused words as the ones listed in the NYT review of reviewing; the time constraint of having to make your deadlines as you whizz through the tenth book in that bursting jiffy bagful that you've agreed to review.

If you're going to diss a writer's work, at least make it humorous. Ian used Randall Jarrell's prolific output as a good example. But the thing about Jarrell's reviews is that they were good; in fact some would argue that they were far better than his poetry output. Which makes me wonder whether reviewing is such an art, in and of itself, that it impinges on the other work of the writer - whether they are involved in poetry or prose.

I am reminded of Rob MacKenzie's recent post, where he asked what people are looking for in reviews. I know that this pertains to poetry reviews in particular; prose reviews are more telling what the book is about and whether it is well written or not; poetry reviews have to look at the techniques involved and whether they contribute to the sense of the collection. Form informing content, and all that, which makes poetry reviewing far more specialised than the general all purpose reviews.

Reviewing is an art: I think that a reviewer should be aiming to convey their passion and knowledge about the book they have read to the reader. It's an act of persuasion as well as conveyance; a gentle balancing act of accessibility and refined language. It is, after all, only an opinion. But it should be the very best opinion for the reader to trust your words.

Having said all that, there's one book that I would really recommend for the would be reviewer: How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, by Pierre Bayard. Read it and smile with amusement at how much we know about books that we've never opened... I am thinking of Joyce now, for some reason...

12 comments:

Emerging Writer said...

I think writing reviews in Ireland is treacherous territory. It's such a small community, there is too much mutual back scratching/mutual scratching-each-others-eyes-out to trust many reviews. And then you get the ones from people on the same publishers list.
I would find it very hard to give a bad review to someone's book. They'd always find me and shout at me and I'm a complete wimp.
I'd have to be nice about everyone. I can't help thinking about the amount of work and passion that's gone into it before I get it and I'd dither into meaningless platitudes. Or I'd worry that I hadn't seen something that was obvious to everyone else. Take the Boy in the Striped pyjamas. Isn't it written in a little bit of a talking-down-to-children style?

BarbaraS said...

Now, I shall have to pinch the Melodramatic Queen's copy and read it myself, in order to decide.

Yes, reviewing in Ireland is a whole can of worms best opened with a rusting tin-opener... ;)

But reviewing, honest reviewing, is giving your own personal opinion. A close reading of a text may actually point out something that no-one else has spotted. Some reviews will point out the odd failing as well as the shining stuff. I think it all comes back to the time x knowledge hinterland approach... the reviews I enjoy reading are ones that bring out the wider connections as well as what the actual material is trying to say... listen to me, you'd think I knew what I was talking about!

Rachel Fox said...

Good list of seven (could be a longer list I think). I went and looked a couple of the words up in the interests of thinking about it and, oh dear, have I been misusing 'poignant' for the past 20 years? Quite likely. Good job I don't use it that much. Or maybe its meaning has changed and the dictionary is out of date...Yes, that must be it.

Bernadine Evaristo's new blog had a piece on reviewing recently too (it seems to be a popular subject just now). I put a comment there so I won't just repeat it all here!

x

BarbaraS said...

LOL, Rachel - oh, I think I misused a good few of the words meself over the years. Had a good chuckle at your dictionary being out of date... note to self: that's the excuse to use! Must have a look at BE's blog too, thanks for the ref.

Kay said...

Informative and well put - I agree with every word - especially re Joyce and that it is an opinion not a judgement.

BarbaraS said...

Cheers Kay - I do hope it makes sense, and above all shows a wee bit of humility...

Women Rule Writer said...

I think the reviewer has to get to the intention of the writer: did s/he achieve what they intended to with the book, regardless of whether the reviewer likes it or not.
Also, reviewers could often be matched more closely with the book. I hate non short story enthusiasts reviewing books of short fiction. They always want the book to be a novel, and it isn't one, so it can't live up!
Like Emerging Writer, I find it hard to give a bad review: I'm too aware of how much work goes into a book. I have sent back books I hated to eds rather than diss them on paper. No one gains from that.

BarbaraS said...

That's the crunch WRW; getting to the heart of the writer's intention... 'tis no easy thing and requires a complete retuning or reorienting of oneself... like an ariel being adjusted to receive the correct station (although with analogue rapidly giving way to digital, not as much fun these days).

Dominic Rivron said...

What are reviews for? I'm an avid reader of the Saturday Guardian reviews. I don't usually read them with a view to evaluating the book. I usually read them instead of the book and expect the review to have some meat to it, contributing to the discussion of the book's content. I've probably learnt a lot from reviews of books I'd never dream of reading. I suppose I'm saying I find a good reviewer's opinion of a book is often of secondary importance to the other things he or she says about it.

BarbaraS said...

I'd be lying if I didn't say that I do the same with Sunday Times reviews. But in those cases the writer has the luxury of a longer word count to give a ful(some) account of the book.

I still think you are getting an opinion, in them writing about the book... discussing what's in the book and issues outside of the book, because the writer of the article wouldn't go that far if they didn't like/dislike the book, but then again that's probably just me splitting hairs... thanks for the visit and the addition to the issues, Dominic.

Women Rule Writer said...

I have to say that I hate reviews that are just a summary of the book's plot. That is lazy reviewing. It can also make me not want to read a book cos I already know what's going to happen. I like reviews that talk about the craft of the writer and, like I said, if they achieved what they set out to/hoped to with the book.

BarbaraS said...

Well said WRW. That's pretty much how I'd see it too.