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On Book Reviewing – Plausibility is the Thing

One of the key items that a book reviewer of a novel needs to consider is plausibility.   Does the basis of the tale told in the book ring true?   Are the characters like people one would encounter in real life, or are they either too perfect, too flawed or strange?   Sad to say but if the story’s premise and/or its characters are not plausible then reading the novel becomes an exercise in futility.   Oh, the story may have some positive features but lacking plausibility, it’s like saying that someone’s done a good job of putting lipstick on a pig.   Great makeup job but it’s still a pig.

What does the reviewer do when in this situation?   Focus on the writing itself while reminding the potential reader that this may be a talented writer but he/she has not met his/her potential this time around.   In other words, offer hope for the future.

Now here’s the funny thing…   If a reviewer questions the plausibility of a novel the author is never going to concur with this finding.   Never, ever, ever.   His or her response will be something like, “I based this on something that actually happened and I know (or knew) people like the characters in this book!”   Fine but that’s the author’s perspective not the reviewer’s view.   What it translates into is a case where a plausible story – supposedly based on real-life – was botched in the writing.

A U.S. Supreme Court justice once said about pornography, “I cannot define it but I know it when I see it.”   The same is and should be true for a reviewer – either he or she “sees” the plausibility in a fictional setting or he/she doesn’t.   Either way, it is critical for the reviewer’s credibility to call it as he sees it.   Play it as it lays.

There’s another famous quote, one attributed to an actor, “Once you’ve learned to fake sincerity, you can fake anything.”   But a writer of a fictional work can’t fake plausibility – its either on the written page (“on all fours,” as law professors say) or it’s absent.   And if a reviewer makes the call that it’s absent the writer should remember that it’s nothing personal – your next book may become one of the reviewer’s favorites.

Joseph Arellano

This article is one in a continuing series.   Pictured: The False Friend: A Novel by Mya Goldberg (author of Bee Season) which will be released by Doubleday on October 5, 2010.   This is one of those books that we look forward to reading and reviewing.

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The Matter of Perspective

On Book Reviewing

wangs-vs-the-world

One of the issues that will come up for the book reviewer is the matter of perspective.   From what perspective will the reviewer summarize a book, a novel, for the prospective reader?   In my view it should be a middle-of-the-book perspective.

Let me explain what I mean.   Let’s say that I’m reading a popular fiction novel about a young woman in the Midwest who is bored with her life, hates her parents, and wants to run away to New York City with her artist-musician boyfriend.   One chapter into the story the reviewer doesn’t know enough to write anything.   Fine, but a reader does not actually want a “last page” review – meaning that the person who’s considering reading this novel does not actually want to know “what happened at the end.”   (At the end, she moves to Manhattan, dumps her boyfriend, gets homesick and moves back to Ohio where she meets the quiet guy she marries.   See, you didn’t really want to know all this, did you?)

So I think it often comes down to that middle-of-the-book perspective.   Halfway through a novel I should know whether it’s a page turner or boring, a book filled with surprises or highly predictable, etc.   Most importantly, I should know whether it’s a book I want to finish in order to find out what does happen at its conclusion.

I’m not saying here that a reviewer should stop at the halfway point and write the review.   What I am saying is that at this point a reviewer should be able to see how his/her review will start, and what pluses and minuses are going to be included in the review.   Conclusions are often over-rated.   If you read a book that you love for 399 of its 400 pages, and it ends in a way that you aren’t completely fond of, the odds are you’ll still recommend it to others (“I wasn’t totally happy about the ending but it was really, really good!”).   And a great or perfect ending never saves a boring and predictable story.   One would never say to a friend, “You know, I hated all 399 pages of this book but once I got to the 400th page I realized I loved it!   Those last two paragraphs saved it for me!”

Thus, a reader-reviewer’s perspective reached halfway through a new novel is likely the viewpoint that he or she is going to retain while writing the review.   There will of course be an exception, as there is to any and every rule in life.   On occasion, there’s that novel that starts off like a house on fire and somehow at the halfway point falls off of a cliff.   I hate to name names but, for me, I Thought You Were Dead was one of those stories.   Dead started out funny and unique but once the beloved talking dog Stella died, the story was essentially over.   Hhhmmm.

The reverse situation does not matter much.   If the first half of a story is awful and painful to read, there aren’t many readers who are going to stick with it for what might be a surprisingly brilliant second half.   At least I think most reviewers can assume this and write a review that honestly states, “This book may have gotten much, much better in its second half, but it was almost impossible to get through the first 200 pages of this mess.”

One final point is that a review written from the middle-of-the-book perspective means the reviewer is never writing a review with a so-called spoiler alert.   Remember, the reader does not really want to know what happens at the end; that’s his/her personal payoff for reading the story all the way through.

Joseph Arellano

One in a continuing series of articles.   

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