Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Why I hate book reviews


critics

Asking a writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp post how it feels about dogs - Ann Landers



Over the past few months various publishers have made contact with me wondering if I might be willing to review one of their products. I say 'products' rather than simply 'books' to keep this in perspective a little. Although individuals within these publishing houses may be idealistic souls – I'm sure many are – the reason they have jobs is to sell their services and make a profit. And their existence depends on them turning out a product that a certain demographic of the population will want to buy. The problem is they're not selling something that's a constant. Rowntree's have been happily churning out Kit Kats since 1935 at least until they were taken over by Nestlé in 1988. Since then we've had a few variations but they have very wisely kept the original Kit Kat as it always has been; it's what the public are used to and what the public want. No two books are the same and so every one, if it's going to sell at all, needs to be marketed on its own merits even if its author is well known, although that helps considerably. And that's where people like me enter the picture.

Anyway, it started off as a bit of fun. I was flattered especially when I found out that one of my early reviews was been handed round the office as an example of what a good book review should be like. Once I stopped feeling smug about that it then hit me that every review I would write from then on would have to stand up to that one. (And, no, I'm not going to tell you which one it was.) I started to think: What the hell did I do right? I've had no formal training. I don't have letters after my name or anything. I'm just a guy who can read.

Now – especially now since I've been cutting back on my posts – I'm finding that if I'm not careful all I'm going to end up doing will be book reviews. At least until I clear my feet. And then you see there are the books I've bought myself that I want to tell you about. So I'm not sure what to do about all this because it's hard to say, "No," to a free book and besides I don't always have a choice, they just plop through my letterbox with that kind of satisfying thud books make always followed by a scurrying sound and I rush off down the hall to see what the postie's delivered. If I keep getting better so that I can write a post a week and a review then I might feel a bit happier about things. We'll just have to see how things go. But for the moment just expect a wee run of book reviews, okay?

This post though is entitled 'Why I hate book reviews' and so I should make it clear that I don't hate doing book reviews. I thoroughly enjoy doing them actually especially if it's a book I've appreciated and really want to recommend. Writing a bad review is not so easy I find. I take review writing very seriously. Because I'm a writer myself I know how much effort goes into writing a book and I don't think you'll ever read a review on this site where I completely pan something. If I hate it that much then I'll say nothing. If I have some reservations about a book then you'll hear them but you'll never hear me say: "This book is utter drivel. Do not buy it. Do not even accept it as a gift." The odds are, if the book was that bad, I'll never have finished it and not be in a good position to write a review of any kind.

I also read a lot of reviews. I never read other people's reviews of something I'm reading until after I've finished; I'm always scared I've missed something obvious. I rarely find these of any great help I'm afraid although I sometimes get ideas I can develop. The problem with the majority of them is that they are too short. Now I know I can be a bit long-winded – okay a lot long-winded – and I fully realise that some people will simply scan what I've written and then move on. And that's fine. But once they've scanned it the option is still there for them to go back and read the article in detail if it looks like a book they might be interested in.

Length


I wouldn't like to have to write reviews for a paper where I have a column to fill and that is my lot. There you go, Jim, a whole 1500 words. That would be about the top end. I based that figure on a couple of interviews in The Guardian. That's the luxury end. Some of the reviews in The Metro Size Matters were more like 150 words. I can write sentences that long! What can you say in 150 words? There are blurbs on the backs on books longer than that.

I limit myself to 3500 words including quotes. I think quotes are important. They're the reviewer's equivalent of a film trailer. You're not going to be reading my words if and when you buy the book, you're going to be reading the author and so you want to see if he or she is an interesting read. How many books have you bought because they sounded interesting but you have simply never been able to get into because the writer's style simply doesn't gel with you? I have probably half a shelf's worth.

Authority


The next thing I hate is authority. Now, I have nothing against authority (I have wielded it myself in the past) but what I hate are people pretending they are an authority on something when they're not. Let me illustrate. When I was at school I was a member of the debating team. I'm sure that comes as no great surprise to anyone. I took the whole thing very seriously and would sit in the library surrounded by encyclopædias making sure my facts were spot on. When I met my first wife one of the things I discovered was that she also had been a member of her school's debating team. She, however, had not bothered her backside doing research; she simply made up her stats. "As long as you say it with authority," she told me, "people will believe you." I'd never heard anything like it in my puff. That simply wasn't cricket. Yes, of course I wanted to win my debates but I wanted to be fair and square.

So, when I write my reviews I spend a lot of time checking stuff online, hence all the links in my articles. Now, I don't know how many people click on them (I suspect not too many) but they are available and serve to demonstrate a certain level of commitment. Only rarely will I quote from a book or source that people can't check there and then. It also means I can make my words count. When I recently wrote my review of Kafka's letter to his father I found, as you might imagine considering the subject, a ton of information I would have loved to include in my article but one has to know where to draw the line. If people want to know more I provide the links and leave them to it.

I would like to get to the stage where people say: "Well, if Jim recommends it then it must be a damn fine book," but what I don't want is to develop an inflated sense of my own importance. I have an opinion and that is all it is. In my opinion Ambrosia Creamed Rice is the vilest food on the planet but I suspect all those who have been buying it since 1917 might disagree with me. By the way here's where I got that date from.

Objectivity


Can't be done. And even if it could, what would be the point? When I get the product in my hand I'm damn well not going to be objective so why would I want my reviewers to distance themselves from the subject. No, far from it. I want to see them knee-deep in it. I want to believe them. As I mention later on, they are my proxies. Yes, yes, by all means give me the pros and cons, the ups and downs but tell me how it affected you. How did you feel about it?

Let's cite an example. My good wife bought me a compact digital camera a while ago. She bought in online, did her research, found the camera with the highest technical specs for her budget, read user reviews and was so pleased with her purchase that she gave it to me a couple of months before Xmas. Now I was pleased, don't get me wrong, but she could see I wasn't excited. And finally she wormed out of me what she'd failed to factor into her calculations: it didn't look like a real camera. So, I'm sorry. I've had SLR's all my life and this thing didn't look like a real camera and all the bells and whistles in the world weren't going to change that. I hung onto it for a while but it was obvious I wasn't going to make use of it and so, what do you know, for my birthday – okay a few weeks before my birthday – she presented me Sony A200 with a real DSLR one you can buy lenses for and filters and with an actual viewfinder and everything. And I'm sure it has bells and whistles too.

Do you see where I'm coming from? A camera is not just an object. It's an extension of your arm. The glove has to do more than fit. It has to be the right feel and colour and style. I've just finished a review of a book and I specifically mentioned its feel. What on earth has that to do with anything? Aren't we told not to judge a book by its cover? Yes, true, but if it feels nice too, isn't that a plus, something worth mentioning?

Maulers


Here's a quote to have a think about:

On April 23, 2009, a federal district court in the southern Russian province of Dagestan issued an unprecedented ruling, ordering a journalist of a local newspaper to pay compensation in an amount equal to US$1,000 to a writer who did not like a review of his book published in the newspaper. The plaintiff, an author whose work of fiction was reviewed in the publication’s book review section, sued the reviewer, claiming that the author and his family had experienced severe mental suffering and that his professional reputation was damaged as a result of the review. The writer stated that after reading the book review, he experienced chest pains, headache, and elevated blood pressure. He demanded to be compensated in the amount of US$150,000. Both parties were dissatisfied with the court ruling and expressed their intention to appeal. – Library of Congress Global Legal Monitor

You can read the original Russian article in MKRU here (don't worry Google will do the translating).

I've not had that but I have had a writer's daughter contact me because she felt my review didn't do her father's work justice. The irony was that particular review took me weeks (literally) to write because I was writing about an area I wasn't too familiar with and I insisted on reading up on stuff so I didn't come across as a complete doofus. For all I personally didn't care for the book much I still believe I did a fair job. Anyway, she didn't sue me. Maybe if she runs across this article she'll think about it. I do hope not.

In principle I'm in agreement with the judge. There are too many critics out there who are so full of a sense of their own importance that they don't take the time to think about what they're writing; they're too busy trying to think up new and interesting way to be witty and disparaging at the same time. I think it's sad that a phrase like "mauled by the critics" should exist and be used so frequently. You can do a search on Google yourselves but the one I found that struck me was a quote from The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams by Michael Kennedy:

Of Holst's last works R.V.W. was especially enthusiastic about the Choral Fantasia of 1930 which he declared as 'it all right' and after the first performance at Gloucester of 8 September 1931, at which the work was severely mauled by the critics, he wrote: 'It is most beautiful – I know you don't care, but I just want to tell the press (and especially ****) that they are misbegotten abortions.'

I can cite many other works that are now staples that were also mauled by the critics but I'm going to stick with classical music for now. The main two that jump to mind are Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony (Pathétique), which I know I've mentioned before, indeed it has been speculated that Tchaikovsky committed suicide after its first performance.

So affected by the critics' response to his Third Symphony Bruckner spent the rest of his life reworking it. No less than nine versions of it exist today. Just think what else he could have been working on. Elgar's magnificent Cello Concerto was ignored and dismissed in the '30s and '40s simply because its reputation never recovered from poor reviews of the debut concert. It wasn't till a 1965 recording by a 20-year-old Jacqueline du Pré that people sat up and took notice of it, thank God.

Rachmaninov had to undergo many a critical mauling during his career, but none worse than with his Fourth Piano Concerto, which had critics like Pitts Sanborn of the New York Evening Telegram falling over themselves to disgrace their profession with self-righteous vitriol:

It is long-winded, tiresome, unimportant, in places tawdry. The orchestral scoring has the richness of nougat and the piano part glitters with innumerable stock tricks and figurations. As music it is now weepily sentimental, now of an elfin prettiness, now swelling to bombast in a fluent rotundity”. – BBC

I could go on. I'd love to go on. I could easily move onto playwrights, poets, novelists and even bloggers next but I think I've made my point.

Who do you trust?


ghostbusters Ghostbusters. Right. I know. Can we move on?

When I want to buy something my first port of call these days is the Internet, and Amazon is usually my first and last call. And one thing I like about it are the reviews. I always make a point of reading them.

What I like about them is (most of the time at least) they're not trying to sell me something. And, of course, the more reviews the better. That way you get a balanced review from real people. That said I'm not going to buy Metallica's latest album just because a whatever-the-collective-noun-for-a-lot-of-metalheads-is give it all five stars. That would be silly.

I do read other reviews online on blogs and mainly by people like myself. By that I mean people who don't get paid a dime to write them. The most I get for writing a review is a free book worth between £7.99 - £11.99 which if I waited for a few weeks I could pick up used for pennies and, if you work out my hourly rate for doing a review, let's just say it falls well below minimum wage.

There is a lot of valid concern about the quality of online reviews, a) because anyone can do it and who's to say they're qualified or knowledgeable enough, and, b) there are a lot of bogus reviews out there. These concerns apply more to the hardware market than something like a book or a film I'm sure. But since I'm not limiting myself let me just say that I'm a lot less trustworthy when it comes to buying a camera, for example, and I would check multiple sites. Actually I never bother doing any of that. Carrie's far more thorough than me at stuff like that.

So what makes a great review?


This is a hard question to answer. Actually it's not so hard but by answering it I'm providing fuel for my own critics to say, "Ah ha! You said such-and-such and looky here, you never did that. You're going to go to the bad fire, you are."

Aw, what the hell. Here goes:

I think a review should be honest, passionate, accurate, balanced, intelligible, considered, the right length for the subject, not give away the ending and not take itself too seriously.

Honest

Quite simply, don't lie. And don't hedge your bets. If you like a thing then say you do and the same goes if you don’t like it. And be prepared to say why. It doesn't matter that you're speaking of your own personal tastes as long as you make that clear.

Passionate

By this I mean you need to be passionate about what you're writing about be it books or films or cameras. It's not the same as knowledgeable although the more passionate you are the more knowledgeable you'll likely become.

Accurate

If you're quoting from a text then get it right. If you're not sure about a fact, be it a spelling or a date then look it up.

Balanced

Very few things are all bad or all good and your readers need to know this. I personally am more inclined to believe a reviewer who doesn't gush. Or at least one who, once he's got his gushing out of the way, then give you the pluses and minuses. Air your reservations. Just don't be nasty about it.

Intelligible

Know your audience. Don't talk down to them or talk over their heads. But more importantly, make sense and argue logically. Talk their language.

Considered

Read the damn book. Take pictures with the camera. Watch the film. Eat the pizza. Whatever it is, experience it for your reader. You are their proxy.

The right length for the subject

How long is a piece of string? There is only so much you can say about any topic but the aim in a review is to say enough, enough so that they can make an informed choice.

Not give away the ending

Yes, fine, good, experience the thing for your reader but don't spoil the experience for them. No one wants to go to the pictures when they know what's going to happen at the end of Planet of the Apes, or The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects.

Not take itself too seriously

This is a review, not an academic paper. Know just how deep you need to go. Discuss the product not the subject.

I could probably refine these over time but you get the idea. If you're interested in other people's opinions about how one should go about writing a review here are a couple of links worth having a wee look at:

University of Alberta Libraries

LEO: Literacy Education Online

Conclusion


I'm not going to stop doing reviews. I'm going to try and not let them take over my life but for the moment bear with me. Most importantly I'll try and keep in mind that list I've just put up. Reviews of it will be most welcome. Be kind.

The feel good bit at the end


News programmes have been trying this for years. The stories usually involve quirky things happening to people especially children or cute stories involving animals. I'd like to point you to this blog, The Worst Review Ever which is a site that does what it says on the tin. People talk about the worst reviews they've had and how they reacted to them. It's a new site so if any of you feel like sharing then I'm sure Alexa would be grateful.


12 comments:

Reymos said...

Very informative journal on writing reviews. In some way, I disagree on the last item... I do reviews and have a personal reflection on the story or themes and lessons derived from it. So in some way, I take it personally. This is the reason why I love watching movies and reading books. To reflect on them! All the best. Rey

Conda V. Douglas said...

Jim you really put your finger on the difficulties of writing and even reading reviews. I read reviews more often after I've read the book, to see if I agree with others. Because it is completely subjective.

koe whitton-williams said...

Jim - I usually learn more in reading one of your posts than I did in my last 2 years at college. . . this posting is no exception. Perhaps a nifty coincidence. . . today (may 29) is the 96th anniversary of the premiere of 'the rite of spring.'

It's so funny that you open with a quote from Ann Landers - nice touch. . . About the only link I did not click on was 'the worst review ever' which, the whole, is probably better that being ignored.

Lastly, I don't think even telling the ending to the planet of the apes could ruin that movie. . . some books are probably the same - they're awesome even when you know, before you start reading, that the butler did it.

I'll read all your reviews more closely now that I know - you hate them.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Reymos, I think that's the only way a review can work and that's where it is personal. It is also a weakness which is why I favour reading multiple reviews until you find a critic who reflects your mindset in such a way that you come to trust him. That takes time but it's certainly an ideal I aspire to. Just because someone sends me a free book doesn't mean they're necessarily 'bought' a favourable review. My responsibility is to my readers.

Conda, I really don't have a hard-and-fast rule. If I'm going to write a review then I like to stay clear of other people's comments but before I write my own review I usually read everything I can lay my hands on, mainly I like to think so that I don't say the same thing everyone else is saying. Occasionally something will jump out at me that I didn't see and I'll make use of it, anything really that will present a rounded view of the book.

If I read reviews before I buy a book then it's usually so long before I end up actually reading the book that I can't remember anything more than this was something I really wanted to read.

And, Koe, what were you doing during those last two years of college is my first question. I wish I'd caught the Rite of Spring thing but thank you for mentioning it. There was simply so much scope for slagging off critics that I could have written a half-dozen posts on that one topic. The fact is, like so many politicians critics are pretty much held in open contempt which is a shame because there are some principled individuals out there doing a good job. Perhaps the ease with which they can attack people has more to say about general falling standards and they come to expect to find fault and after a while they think it's their job to find fault. May I never get that way.

As for Planet of the Apes – and by that I mean the original 1968 film – I saw it in the pictures when it first came out and I had no idea what to expect; no one I knew had seen it before. I was only nine then and so I'm afraid the ending didn't have the impact on me that it might have done.

And, lastly, please do read my reviews closely and let me know where I've made a mistake. I caught one myself recently where I got the gender of a composer wrong. I mean, 'Bright' sounds like a female name, doesn't it?

Art Durkee said...

What makes for a good review? interestingly, I've been participating in a civil but hot debate about that very issue, with regard to Cormac McCarthy's The Road, over here:

http://booksinq.blogspot.com/2009/05/literary-discussion.html

with followups here:

http://booksinq.blogspot.com/2009/05/farther-down.html

I like most the points you list under what a review ought to be. Where I find debate points with many is on that interface between purely fan reviews, and more critically objective assessments. But you can't convince people that something they love is just a bad book; they won't listen. So it's a mostly futile game regardless.

Which I why I don't feel like bothering anymore.

Jim Murdoch said...

Art, what a fascinating exchange. You do realise that there's no way I'm not going to read that damn book now.

Dave King said...

Jim,
You missed out the one thing that most bothers me about book reviews: it should be about the book. So often I pick up a review of a book I think I might like to spend a few coppers on and there is little or nothing about the book, there is a great deal about what the author has written in the past, probably the plot of his last book - all of which I may well know in any case - but nothing, perhaps until the final paragraphs, about the book in question.

A quibble: a really fine post which, unlike many a review, held my interest all the way.

Jim Murdoch said...

I agree totally with that, Dave, well, maybe not totally. Up to a point. I think it depends on the subject. In my last book review I wrote a fairly lengthy preamble about Tibet before I ever got onto the but I felt that was justified because I wanted to get the reader on my side – yes, we're two people who know next-to-nothing about Tibet and have seen next to no reason to find out anything about the place, so why of why should we read this book? Maybe it worked, maybe it didn't. At least when I did get to the book I talked about it.

It's like the book I've just finished writing a review on, it's about Shakespeare and I spend a fair bit of the review explaining why the what looks from the cover as a bodice-ripper is worthy of any serious attention. To do that I wound up spending a whole day on research but I came out of it a wiser man. Even if no one buys the book based on my review, reading it will have educated them.

As for writing about the author, well, most of my regular readers will already have had a fair taste – if not a bellyful – of me so they should have a pretty good idea who is writing the review so I don't feel a great need to explain a lot about me and why I feel the way I do although I think it's important to point out relevant facts, e.g. when I was reviewing a book which was basically a history of the seventies I only thought it right and proper to point out my age in comparison to the lead characters and that I was a prime candidate for the book as I was already allowing in nostalgia for those times. It's a balancing act.

kpe whitton-williams said...

Jim - funny enough (maybe) I spent part of those last two years learning to play 'rite of spring' and 'petrushka' for four hands piano with a young lady with whom I was entranced. She once told me that I played the most sorrowful and percussionless piano she'd ever heard. . . in other words, I couldn't play stravinsky worth a damn.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Koe, I think the young lady may well have been right. I've heard the two-piano version of The Rite of Spring (I think I even have a copy) but I'm too familiar with the original to enjoy the transcription. It sounds cluttered.

Rachel Fox said...

You are a good reviewer, Jim, no question about that. I think reviewing on blogs can be of the highest quality and you know that, on the whole, the reviewer is not rushing to a deadline, rushing to a word limit or rushing off to a big media lunch/launch etc. There are good reviews in the papers still of course but a lot of the time I read better, more interesting pieces online.
x

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you, Rachel. I certainly do my best to maintain a high standard. Some books are easier than others. I could have written 10,000 words on the Kafka easily. The book was really just an outline for a biography and where do you stop?

I actually feel sorry for those reviewers who have to cram their thoughts into tiny columns. And to be fair some do a damn good job condensing their thoughts. If I didn't enjoy a good preamble followed by a leisurely ramble through the text I guess I could get down to 1000 words but that would be without quotes from the book and I really think they're a major selling point myself.

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