The Quandaries of a Book Reviewer
It would seem, at first blush, that a book reviewer needs only to read the book in question and then write-up his or her thoughts. Sometimes it is just this simple. However, I’ve found that some unexpected issues – almost moral in nature – arise from time to time. Let me go over a few of those here with you.
The Twin Books
Sometimes two books, fiction or nonfiction, are released at the same time and contain virtually identical content. It may be that both books are biographies of a former First Lady or of a 70-year-old folk rock singer… It may be that both novels tell a story that is the same from start to finish. How does a reviewer handle this? Is it relevant? I think it is, but then how is the reviewer to make use of this factor?
Do both books get downgraded due to a lack of originality, or does one accept that this is simply what happens in life (independent and spontaneous creation)? If two books are almost the same, does this not beg for a comparative review – a determination of which is better (like DVD versus Blu-ray)? And doesn’t this mean that one of the two must be selected as the winner, and the other as the loser?
Should a reviewer ever express a suspicion that one writer may have copied the other – or at least cribbed an idea from the other? Or should all of this be put aside, so that the reviewer is – in effect – placing his hands over his eyes, ears and mouth like a monkey?
The Shooting Star
Let’s say that the reviewer has a favorite author and is very much looking forward to reading this writer’s latest work (in our example, a novel). For illustrative purposes, I will use one of my favorites, Pat Conroy. If I’ve loved every one of his novels and then I find that his latest release is a dog, what do I do? Or, rather, what should I do? Do I compensate for this by stating that every author is going to have a down period (a compensation for a lifetime of achievement), or should I slam him since I know full well that he’s capable of doing better than this?
Is a talented author to be given a pass when he delivers something less than his usual best, or should the reviewer explicitly make the case that this author has gotten lazy – or something worse?
Some less-established authors may have only published a couple of novels. I’ve found instances where one of the two is near-perfection (more often the debut novel), while the sophomore effort pales by comparison. Is this something that should be mentioned in a review of the more recent release, or is it outside the bounds of propriety and relevance? Is it acceptable for the reviewer to write something like, “While this new novel is not up to the standards of the author’s first, he clearly has demonstrated the ability to produce an impressive product the next time around.”
Does the average book review reader really care about whether the author is getting stronger or weaker, or does that reader simply want to know whether this book is worth purchasing?
The Same Thing, Over and Over
There are a few authors who write a great story – the sole problem being that they’re known for writing the same story, the same novel over and over again. In one recent case, a publisher stated that a very successful author’s new novel was “completely new and different,” as if to apologize for all of the almost-photocopied novels (with similar cover images) that preceded it. Should the reviewer judge each and every novel with the almost-same plot and resolution on its own merits – on “all fours” as law professors state, or is it justifiable to critique the author’s novels for a lack of originality?
If you love a particular author whose books happen to be very similar, does it bother you or is it something that you’re able to put aside – like knowing that some rock bands are continuously original while others are not?
If you happen to know the answers to these questions, please feel free to let me know. In the interim, I will continue to stumble along not quite knowing (in the words of the immortal Van Morrison) “what is worst or what is best.”
Pictured – Jackie as Editor: The Literary Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis by Greg Lawrence (Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99, 322 pages). “The vision Jackie brought into editing embraced the recognition that every life has its own riches and meaning, waiting to be revealed by what she called ‘the hard work of writing.'”
Sequels and Prequels
“If you introduce a character that’s already familiar to somebody they have a vested interest.” Sarah Bagby, managing partner of Watermark Books
One of the pleasurable facets of reading modern popular fiction is that once you discover an author (and it’s more likely to be a she than a he), you can read her earlier works and/or plan to read her future releases. Once we arrive at a place of comfort with an author, we hope and presume that we will feel the same about separate works by that writer. Generally each work will be separate, except when the author of fiction decides to create a series around a character, which is when we wind up with sequels and prequels.
The author who decides to extend a character’s life into a continuing series has a few minefields to deal with. One is that people like continuity until they get tired of it. Think of a new rock band with a successful initial CD. Let’s call this band the Purple Onion (PO). Everyone loved PO’s first album, Single Whammy, so when they release their follow-up album, Double Whammy, their fans are thrilled that it retains their “trademark sound.” But what happens when Triple Whammy is released? PO is then likely to be beaten up by both the critics and formerly rabid fans who say that they’ve become stuck in one place and have displayed little or no growth as musical artists. (If Triple Whammy sounds nothing like the first two CDs, they are likely to get hammered for a different reason – for arbitrarily changing their style.)
An author faces the same issues in building a series of novels around a single character. One example is Sarah Paretsky who has written for many years about the crusty Chicago-based detective V. I. Warshawsky. Paretsky was praised for writing several “V. I.” books until some critics felt that the lead character had changed too much in later novels. (Was V. I. getting soft?) Her latest effort in the series was praised for being more like the original “V. I.” books. Get back, V. I., back to where you once belonged!
So there’s a bend but do not break aspect to fashioning a lead character. He or she must stay the same yet must evolve and grow the way most humans do in their own lives. Suddenly the idea of hanging onto a main character doesn’t sound so easy, does it?
There’s also the fact that some readers may view the author as getting lazy, or feel that she/he is not challenging herself/himself enough. What does one get out of writing about the same character(s) all of the time, except maybe a relatively safe source of income? What about stretching oneself as an artist, a writer, by taking on new themes and styles? This tends to be a valid critique, but only to a point. That’s because authors like Richard Ford and John Updike wrote several books structured around a single character and both series were well-recognized with journalism’s highest awards.
The lesson here is that some skilled authors can write about the same character repeatedly and make it not only interesting but fascinating. The key word, though, is skill.
Novels in a continuing fictional series based on a lead character tend to be sequels, but on occasion a writer decides to fashion a prequel. This is a novel that deals with events that precede, rather than follow, the author’s introduction of a lead character. In my view, prequels are much harder to write well because the mind of the average reader does not deal well with a character’s pre-introduction life…
Let’s say that I read a novel featuring detective L. A. Jones. When I read the first book in which L. A. Jones appears he’s in his early forties. If I finish this book and pick up the second in the series eighteen months later, it does not bother me that L. A. is now in his mid to late-forties; this seems natural. But if I pick up the third book in the series and see that it deals with L. A. when he was a young man in his teens and twenties, it seems odd and hard to follow. The mind tends to ask, “Why did the author do this? I’m not interested in the character’s life before I knew (encountered) him!”
Yes, prequels can work in extending the life of a successful film or TV series, but that’s a bit different. Fans of Star Trek, for example, so desperately wanted the series to continue in some form that they eventually learned to accept a prequel version. But, when it comes to prequels in popular fiction, the words sung by Ringo Starr would seem to apply – “It don’t come easy.”
The take away point may be that an author who has developed a popular character would seem to have climbed on board the gravy train, and he/she would seem to be crazy to abandon that character. But the public is extremely fickle about characters they’ve come to know and love. These characters must stay the same while changing, but not too much so.
Perhaps the biggest issue, however, is with the author who fails to change his lead character enough. One of the most critical and deadly comments is one that can often be found at Amazon. It goes something like this, “I LOVED Joe Blow’s books about detective L. A. Jones and I bought every one! But this book, the 17th in the series, stinks! Joe Blow should have killed off detective Jones before now. Blow’s now writing on automatic pilot, and these books are now nothing if not repetitive and boring.”
A fan of an author can go from loyalist to attack dog in an instant. Woe to the author who creates a continuing character and lets that character over stay his/her welcome! Better to let the character leave the stage a bit too early rather than far too late.
Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review. This article is one in a continuing series.
Pictured: Innocent, the sequel to Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow; the sequel released 20 years after the original.
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