Tag Archives: positive reviews

The Conundrum of Context

A question that one reviewer struggles with.

Here’s a question that I struggle with as a book reviewer, “Is it appropriate to make reference to other books when I review a new one?”   For the reasons I’ll explain here, my answer tends to be situational.

Let’s say that I’m reviewing the latest novel from author Joe Blow called A Kick in the Head.   If I think that this work from author Blow is the best thing he’s done – and it quite clearly calls for a highly positive review, I’m unlikely to reference any other works by Blow or other writers.   Why?   Because I’m explaining why I like or admire this release.   Many readers, and most especially Blow’s longtime followers, are happy to accept a positive review on its face.

But if Blow’s latest book blows (sorry, I couldn’t resist…), there’s a good chance that I’ll refer to either his earlier, better works, or to those of other authors writing in the same genre.   The reason for this is that I would expect to be challenged, either by a reader new to this author or by one of his loyal fans.   Generally, negative reviews require more information – more context, if you will – to set the stage for the reviewer’s not-so-pleasing conclusion.

What Blow’s fans are really asking of the negative reviewer is, “What makes you think you’re correct?”   Or, in plain English, “What’s your ammunition?”   So my first option – and often the best one – is to compare this new work to the author’s earlier ones.   Maybe the writer was clearly hungrier earlier, or fresher and this stance provides me with the basis to make the claim that his work is now sounding worn and tired.   Regardless of whether a fan of Blow’s buys my argument, I’m not too subtly making the point that I’ve also read all or most of his writings.   (It makes a difference to me personally if someone criticizing one of my favorite authors indicates that he/she has read all or most of his/her works.   I’ll give more weight to that criticism than to someone’s who notes that this is the first book they’ve read by an author I know and love.)

The next option is to compare Blow to his direct competition.   This can be preferable when time seems to have passed Blow by…  He may have been the best writer of his type back in the day (heck, he may even have created the genre in his youth) but this doesn’t give him a pass today.   There may be a dozen or so new and younger writers who have tailored Blow’s style into something that’s fresh and new on the runway.   But I’ll have to give some specific examples of how and where this is true, which is why I would likely include a comment like, “A Kick in the Head is not only not as engaging as Blow’s classic The Last Bus Home, it also seems dull compared to Judy Bling’s brilliant debut novel of 2010, Fighting Back.”   In instances where another author’s work is cited, I think it should be something current (written within the last year or two).But there is another instance in which a positive review should include a reference to other writings.   This applies to cases in which the reviewer – I or someone else, attempts to make the case that a work by a new writer approaches greatness.   If  I’m going to argue that new author Judy Bling’s first book is stunning, I think I need to provide context by making comparisons to some well-known or accepted best writers.   Does she set scenes as effortlessly as Anne Lamott, or write with a cool and icy focus like Audrey Niffenegger?

If one’s going to argue that a new writer approaches greatness, then I think one had better be willing to specifically compare that writer to other exemplary writers, past or present.   (Not everyone’s going to agree with the validity of the comparative selections, but that’s beside the point.   They don’t have to concur with the review either.)

Now let’s all hope that Joe Blow’s next book is better than A Kick in the Head!

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:   The Marriage Plot: A Novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, which will be released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on October 11, 2011.

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Judgement of the Moon and Stars

The Impression

Recently, I was communicating with an author when he happened to reference the “judgment” contained in book reviews.   And that’s when it dawned on me that I don’t see reviews as necessarily being judgmental; instead, I see them as impressions.   A review reflects the way in which a reader-reviewer perceives the book at a particular point in time in his/her life.   As with everything in life, this is subject to change.   It may be, for example, that a novel that a reviewer could not get into while battling an illness would be highly enjoyable at another time.   Many of us have had the experience of reading a particular book years ago and labeling it as a favorite, only to be surprised when we return to that book and find it flat and dull.   Did the book change in any way in the interim?   No, our life – the reader’s life – changed in such a way as to change our perspective of the book.

Let’s think about this in terms of a physical landmark.   Let’s say that I view the Golden Gate Bridge on four occasions – firstly in the middle of the afternoon on a warm and sunny day, next during a rainstorm, then while the bridge is bathed in fog, and lastly on a moonlit night.   Each time the bridge will appear to be different, and I would likely describe the bridge in different terms if I were writing about it.   The bridge itself never changes, but my view of it – my impression – will change based on external factors.

So, one thing to keep in mind while reading a review is that it’s a point-in-time statement.   It’s also something that’s subject to revision.   The reviewer who slammed a book with a negative review might find, to his surprise, that he enjoys it when he looks at it months later.   And the reviewer who loved a book and added it to her personal collection might wonder a year or two later why she loved it – something she’ll ponder while putting it on the giveaway stack.

What does this mean for an author?   Simply that both positive and negative reviews can be discounted.   The book that one reviewer perceived as a flop may be a hit later, and vice versa.   Life changes and so do impressions.

The Choice

The author of a recent survey book noted something interesting about how film and book reviewers are perceived.   According to a study referenced in the book, the authors of generally negative reviews are viewed as more intelligent than reviewers who almost always draft positive reviews.   This is due to the perception that “anyone can say nice things,” while the negative reviewer is seen as a person who must have an extensive in-depth background – otherwise, how would he/she know what to nitpick and criticize?   This does not mean, however, that the average person prefers to read the reviews of a generally negative reviewer.

When given a choice between reading mostly negative or positive reviews, the typical person will more often select the positive ones.   And when asked about the people who write the reviews, most people will select the positive one as the nicer person – the nicer person is, therefore, the one whose reviews are read more.   So this leads to a choice among limited options for the book reviewer.   Do you want to be perceived as smart and well-read, or as the less smart writer whose reviews are more often read?

The appropriate response may be to write a mix of positive and not so positive reviews, so that one is viewed as both smart and nice, if not both at the same time.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured – The Other Life: A Novel by Ellen Meister ($24.95, 320 pages) which will be released by Putnam Adult Books on February 17, 2011.

Note:  After writing this article, I happened to come across the following statement from Robert Christgau, music critic for the Village Voice:  “I don’t usually fluctuate wildly with what I initially thought about an album because I wait to write the review until I know what I think…  My first judgment is solid and secure.   But records do tend to either gain or lose aura as decades pass.”

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Watching the Wheels

On Book Reviewing and Reading

During his unfortunately short lifetime, John Lennon had to deal with a lot of guilt.   Some of it was due to the break-up of his personal and working relationship with Paul McCartney.   But for a time, the public viewed his relationship with Yoko Ono as the likely cause of the Beatles’ dissolution (in retrospect, there were other factors involved).   It finally arrived at the point where John felt compelled to sing, “I don’t believe in Beatles/ I just believe in me/ Yoko and me/ and that’s reality.”

It may seem odd, but a book reviewer is sometimes affected with guilt.   This is especially true after spending hours and days reading a novel, a memoir, a nonfiction account or a survey book and finding it a disappointment.   You might not think so, but most reviewers would love to just write positive reviews.   Except that in the real world, writing exclusively positive reviews just would not reflect reality.

So the books that don’t meet the reviewer’s high expectations must be documented with a dreaded negative review.   And here is where the guilt comes in…  As the reviewer begins to draft a not-so-positive review, he/she begins to wonder if he/she did something wrong or miss the point?   Is it somehow my fault that I didn’t like it?   It’s an odd question but it’s one that I find me asking myself.   Other reviewers that I talk to ask themselves the same question.   Regardless, it’s a thought that must quickly be put aside.

Each of us, after all, is providing only one perspective, one that each review reader (and author) is free to accept or reject.   Talk to four or more people about the Beatles, for example, and you’re likely to hear all of the following:  “John was my favorite.”   “I was always a Paul fan.”   “I always loved George.”   “Ringo was my guy.”   If you were a Paul McCartney fan, you didn’t wonder if it was somehow your fault that John wasn’t your cup of tea.

When I talk to people about music, I get a sense of honest straight forwardness about one’s opinions.   You may know that I love Van Morrison but have no problem in telling me that he is not someone you listen to.   Why should it be different with literature, with books, with popular fiction?   I think it’s because many of us grew up seeing academic standards applied to literature that were not applied to modern music.   There was a sense that opinions about books were more formal, more standardized; therefore, there should be a consensus as to whether a particular book was “good” or “bad.”

Of course, all that has changed with the advent of the internet and with the more traditional style reviews (especially those printed on paper) moving into the background.   We’re entering the new world where, it might be said, we’re all “free to be you and me.”   So your opinion about a book is just as good, as valuable, as mine and vice-versa.   We’ve entered a zone where everything in life is, as one New York City newspaper observed, both large and small all at once.

So when, for a moment, the feeling of guilt crops up because you love something that other people don’t – or fail to admire a book that others may – it’s time to move past that moment and accept that you simply feel what you feel.   You think what you think and this is fine.   You get to judge what you want and need to judge, and don’t ever believe those who tell you that you “shouldn’t judge things.”   Everyone judges everything in life almost every minute of the day, but only some admit to it.   Book reviewers, by necessity and by role, must admit to it.

And John Lennon offered us some valuable advice – in the song “Watching the Wheels” – as to what to do once we’ve boarded the merry-go-round of guilt…  Get off of it.   “I just had to let it go.”   We just need to let it go.

Joseph Arellano

One in a continuing series of articles.   Starting Over: The Making of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy by author-musician Ken Sharp was published by MTV Books.

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Finding the Balance

Finding the Balance in Book Reviewing

A book reviewer needs to find a fine balance in approaching a new work of fiction, although the reviewer is not always going to deliver the product that each reader is seeking.   A review should perform a service by answering the question, “Is this book worth my money or – even more importantly – my time?”   Still, there are other considerations.

Just a Synopsis

First, there’s the knowledge that some readers simply want a synopsis of the story.   Although they could look this up at Google Books or Amazon or elsewhere, they want to know the plot and what the book’s about.   And some reviewers, often newspaper-based, just deliver this skeletal information.   But it’s about as helpful as one of those new car write-ups in which the test driver/journalist tells you everything about the car (price, features, and available options) except whether or not it’s fun to drive.   So a review needs to be more than just a summary.

Is it the Singer or the Song?

The first thing to be analyzed about a new novel is whether the magic lies in the story or in the telling.   Is it the song (story) or the singer (writer)?   If the strength is in the story, then the plot should be laid out in the review, stopping short of revealing the conclusion.   Some authors who are not necessarily the most skilled writers make their living off of great plots, great set-ups.   This being said, many new authors write debuts that start off strong but lose their focus half or two-thirds of the way though.   Good to great ideas are not always sustainable over 300-plus pages.

If the story is not much, but the writing is impressive, then that’s what the reviewer should focus on.   Audrey Niffenegger, for example, does not come up with the most complicated plots…   Her Fearful Symmetry is a ghost story.   So much for the plot, except that she writes the heck out of it; which is why she makes millions per novel.   Hand another 100 writers the same plot, and it’s doubtful that any one of them would write a tale that’s in the same league.   And that’s reality, as John Lennon would say.

Negative Reviews

Once a decision is made as to whether the book has a strong plot or rests on technique, the direction of the review should be clear.   Some novels, sadly, are not going to be excellent in either category.   This may result in what’s called a “negative” review, which may bother some readers of reviews.   It bothers the review writer, also.   Reviewers would love to love everything they devote their time to reading but, in the end, reviewers must have a commitment to truth as they see it…   And if you don’t like the reviewer’s opinion, keep in mind that it’s just that.  

What is, and should be, the reviewer’s obligation is to explain how he or she arrived at his opinion; building the case for the opinion.   You do not have to agree, but you should be able to examine the thought process that a reviewer went through in arriving at a positive or negative opinion.

Opinions

About opinions – sometimes they’re everything in life, sometimes they’re nothing.   Brian Epstein’s guess that the Beatles were a pretty good band was a pretty good opinion.   The opinion of the guy at Decca Records in London who passed on signing them (“The days of guitar bands has passed.”) was nothing.   But he may have been the guy who signed the Rolling Stones to the label.   Such is life.

A Final Issue

Should a reviewer read other reviews of the same book before writing his or her own?   It is probably best avoided until after the review is written, so that the reviewer is not influenced by the opinion of others.   Reviewing is not – and should not be – about finding consensus or mirroring public opinion.   It can, however, be helpful for a reviewer to scan other reviews in order to spot unique literary devices.   For example, earlier, I read a review in a newspaper in which the reviewer compared the novel’s story line to a bit of poetry.   I really liked that, so the very next time I read a novel, I searched for a line of poetry that seemed relevant for the review and I included it.

A nice idea and, hey, I don’t think anyone has a copyright on dead poets!

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review and San Francisco Book Review.   First in a series.

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