Tag Archives: records

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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Gaining Traction

When I first thought about writing book reviews (decades removed from writing music reviews at the college newspaper level), I thought it would be easy to get new releases from publishers.   I had no idea how difficult it would be.   I discovered that publishers – being reasonable business people – want samples of your work before entrusting you with their product.   It was then that I contacted a female book reviewer, a pioneer in the field, and asked her for advice.   Being wise she offered no A-B-C- guidebook steps, no formula to follow, although at that point I would have willingly purchased a Book Reviewing for Idiots book.   Instead, she told me something that was far more valuable:“When you start out, it will feel like you’re trying to climb a very steep and difficult mountain.   No matter how hard you try, you can’t seem to find the path upward.   But then one day you will suddenly realize that you’re making progress – you’re gaining traction – and from then on every step becomes easier than the one that preceded it.”

She was right and you might think this article is about how to gain such traction.   No, because that’s something that every novice reviewer is going to have to learn on their own.   So I thought about using this space to answer a question that someone recently asked me, “How do you choose (or select) the books that you review?”   My answer was a simple and truthful one, I don’t choose (or select) the books, they choose me.   It’s true, as I almost never request a book on a blind basis.   I have generally read or heard something about the book prior to its release and I rely on my instincts to tell me that this is going to be either a most excellent or truly awful read.   As I’ve mentioned before, very good books and very bad books make for easily written reviews.   If nothing else, they tend to be interesting.   Interesting is not that difficult to write about.

I think some people would be surprised to learn that I decide to refrain from writing reviews on about every fifth or sixth book I read.   Why?   The logical answer would be that it’s because they’re average, but that’s not really the case.   Instead the answer is that with certain books I just cannot find “the hook” to make them sound interesting.   Recently, for example, I read a unique novel that was satisfying in every respect except that, two days after finishing it, I couldn’t think of how I would begin a write-up.

With some very good stories the only way you can begin to describe how good they are is to give away too much.   You know those movie previews where they show you the entire film – beginning, middle and ending – in two or three minutes?   Yeah, it’s like that.

And I won’t discuss the novels that are not bad; it’s just that there’s nothing special there.   Or they tend to be repeats of stories written by others.   Retreads…  Covers.   (Sometimes, and this seems to be happening more and more often, multiple novels are released that are built around near-identical plots.)

Let’s draw on a possible parallel to music reviews…  Writing about the latest concert performance by U2?   That would be easy.   Writing about the latest gig by a U2 cover band?   Not so easy.

So, to come full circle, there are books out there, generally fictional, that are fine and maybe even very good.   But if they’re derivative (the writing equivalent of clothing or musical knock-offs) it’s hard to locate the center that makes them worth writing about.   And the ones that are 100% original can be very hard to write about – sui generis (literally one-of-a-kind) works are difficult to compare to anything else.   Just think about trying to write about something that no one has experienced before – be it a book, film or record – and it may give you the beginnings of a headache.

Traction, such a tricky thing; it’s either there or it’s not.

Joseph Arellano

One in a continuing series of articles.   Pictured:  K2 – Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain by Ed Viesturs with David Roberts (Broadway Books, August 2010, $14.99; also available as a Kindle Edition download).

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