Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Who is reviewing the reviewers?

I am. So is Seana Graham. Declan Burke takes a peek, too, from time to time, and that's a good thing.

The occasion is a review in the Guardian of Adrian McKinty's novel Fifty Grand. I've always been partial to reviews that establish context, that show the reviewer knows his or her subject, that could interest even a reader unfamiliar with the matter at hand.

I like that the Guardian begins by invoking McKinty's "Dead" trilogy and goes on to find traits common to that superb series and the new book. This tells me that the reviewer, John O'Connell, prepared well, embraced his subject and took his job seriously. A reviewer owes his readers no less.

Seana Graham's Things You May Have Missed blog takes up this subject in a post aptly titled What the Guardian knows that The New York Times doesn't. And Declan Burke's Crime Always Pays is apt to snap its jaws at lazy reviewers' hindquarters when they deserve it.

With newspapers devoting less and less space to books coverage, the coverage that remains had better be good. Because we're watching.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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36 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

Thank you very much for the mention, Peter.

Of course, Declan is a much abler critic of other reviewers ability to discuss a book than I am.

Along with other fans of Adrian's writing, I'm just very happy that his latest book is getting some major publicity finally and wanted to do my small bit to spread that news.

August 11, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

Oh, and I hope it goes without saying that I would put your level of critique up there with Declan's as well.

August 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Now that newspapers have relegated books coverage to roughly the status of an occasional bridge or chess column, let's acknowledge that all it takes is a bit of intelligence to say something interesting about a book -- or a book review.

I wrote that I liked reviews that offer context. Your post did that. It was not just "Here's what the Guardian said." It spelled out its context of hardworking booksellers and of newspapers that just don't consider books that important anymore. And it was refreshingly forthright about its position. Hell, this isn't criticism, it's social science!

August 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know about that. I don't tend to snap at reviewers the way Declan does. Again, reviews are as fair game for comment as anything else. So I'm pleased that he critiques reviewers from time to time.

August 11, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

It isn't social science as much as it is a plain old-fashioned rant. But I suppose a rant does have its place, especially in the blogosphere.

Yes, you do seem to try and find the reviewer's redeeming qualities, even if it may be a stretch. I enjoy Declan's occasional tongue lashings, too, but then I haven't been on the receiving end of them!

Yet.

August 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If newspapers had a greater proportion of intelligent rants, they would be livelier, more intelligent and just plain better than they are now. And your rants are astonishingly well-mannered, among the most genteel ever commited to print under the name of rant.

My stance on reviewing was formed years ago when the back of the book was my favorite part of The New Republic, with its reviews that were really wide-ranging essays. It was Robert Brustein's theater reviews that got me interested in theater. Since then, the highest accolade I can bestow on a piece of writing has been that it got me and kept me interested in a subject that had not interested me before.

August 11, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

The landscape of book reviewing is constantly changing as newspapers cut corners (and go out of business) and publishers flood bloggers with ARCs in hopes of getting positive mention throughout the blogosphere. Now, what this change means to the quality of reviewing is anybody's guess. So, any guesses?

August 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I'm smack in the middle of that trend, so I may be unable to maintain the detachment necessary to render an objective opinion. My quick and dirty guess is that blogs have made far more good book discussion available than before, but that this discussion may be harder to find than ever before because the blogosphere is so vast.

One thing I am sure of is that that blogs have expanded the range of writing about books. Most newspapers restrict their book coverage to reviews. Blogs allow something more like the sorts of essays that I spoke highly of in a comment above this one.

August 11, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

FYI re: review of FIFTY GRAND at Booked for Murder.

August 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And a tip of the hat for your tip of the hat. These links are not a bad way to get some buzz going, I'd say.

August 11, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Once again you've opened a topic that I was just thinking about only the night before. This time the fairly vast difference between UK and US book reviews. I was on LEXIS-NEXIS reading the reviews of John Lawton's "A Little White Death" (1998).

The differences are readily apparent.

THE TIMES (London): John Lawton has set himself an ambitious task: that of becoming an alternative chronicler for the 20th century at its close. On the other hand, you might argue that he is just exploiting the truth that there is no greater source of plot material than history.

THE GUARDIAN: Reading A Little White Death, which is set in a fictionalised sixties England but owes its narrative to real scandals - Philby's defection and the Profumo affair - the parallels between then and now become increasingly clear. A knackered Tory government is on the way out, Britain is about to go boom and youth have its say.

NEW YORK TIMES: JOHN LAWTON is so captivating a storyteller that I'd happily hear him out on any subject, including pig farming. In fact, he does display an English gentleman's command of 'pigmanship' in A LITTLE WHITE DEATH (Atlantic Monthly, $23) when the hero of his series, Scotland Yard's commander of criminal investigation, Frederick Troy, is called away from his family's estate (with its Gloucester Old Spot sow) to answer a distress call from Charlie Leigh-Hunt, an old friend who has fled to the Middle East after being run out of England as a Soviet spy.

Have you noticed how many US book/film reviews begin with some trivial observation (usually drawn from the oh-so-clever reviewer's likes, dislikes, personal experience, etc.) and that it can take him/her a number of paragraphs to get to the subject at hand? The UK reviewers get to the heart of the matter right off.

It *is* sometimes difficult to tell the difference between a US reviewer's MySpace page or Twitter feed with all the me-me references.

August 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think reviewers safely ensconced amid the aristocracy of the New York Times may feel pressure to seem folksky, to avoid talking down to readers. Unfortunately, the result often seems to be as wince-makingly embarrassing as that horrible example.

One such review by Michiko Kakutani will forever color my impression of her. She's a respected, Pulitzer-winning critic, but this one review went so far out of its way to seem loosey-goosey and kicky, probably in the manner of the book it was reviewing, that the result was just embarrassing. I got the feeling either that she was a dope or that she was afraid to show her intelligence.

August 11, 2009  
Blogger Dana King said...

I write about fifteen reviews a year for a web site, and I'm happy to be held to account for what I say. A reviewer can never fully escape his personal tastes and preferences, but criticism and praise must be earned by the author and justified by the reviewer. We can't afford ourselves to have to depend on Amazon reviews.

If Peter or Seana or Dec ever catches me out on a review, I'll be happy for it (though upset with myself), and use it to make a better reviewer.

August 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I might disagree with your opinion one of these days, but I'm not sure I'd catch you out in the Declan Burke manner.

One of his posts, for example, took to task the reviewer of a crime book by a Northern Ireland author not because the reviewer didn't like the book, but because he seeemd to suggest that the Troubles were not a subject fit for polite discussion.

Certain reviewing tropes drive me nuts, and I might mention them from time to time. All I'm saying in this discussion, though, is that reviewing and criticism are themselves fair game for reviewers and critics.

August 11, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

May I weight in again on this topic of reviews and reviewers? The ongoing discussion seems to imply concerns about tone, style, and substance of reviews, almost as if there were a preferred (accepted) template for reviewers to follow (though perhaps I am misunderstanding some of the comments). I would argue that many variables determine the rhetorical considerations for a reviewer. For example, if I am writing for an online site like BookLoons or Secondary English or Nimble Spirit, or if I'm writing for a print publication like KLIATT, Mystery News, BookPage, Foreword, or some other outlet, each assignment demands a different kind of approach because of the difference audiences; my style, tone, and content must necessarily be suited to the audience (and the editor's requirements). With that being said, it seems to me that the world of reviewing simply must contain all sorts of forms, styles, and approaches, and if authors or book publishers do not care for those forms, styles, and approaches, they are missing the point, which is--after all--a fair and accurate review of the book. In other words, if the review is fair and accurate, the author and publisher really have little about which to complain. I hope all of my late evening rambling in the foregoing sentences makes sense. Someone correct me if I've gone wrong somewhere.

August 11, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

POSTSCRIPT: Please overlook all the typos in my previous posting. My command of language (and the keyboard) is better than what is evident in those sentences. Excuse? It is too late in the evening.

August 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., far from presuming to dictate what form reviews ought to take, I applauded the expansion of the form that I think blogs have allowed:

"One thing I am sure of is that that blogs have expanded the range of writing about books. Most newspapers restrict their book coverage to reviews. Blogs allow something more like the sorts of essays that I spoke highly of in a comment above this one."

I occasionally review international crime fiction for my newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer. Those reviews are closer to a traditional review format than are most of the little essays I post here. I don't presume to declare which format is better.

The New York Times review Elisabeth cited is gratingly precious, as was the review to which I referred. That does not imply that reviewers should not take liberty with the form, just that these two did not work.

August 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And I excuse your typos. I have made plenty myself.

Typos are another feature more prevalent on blogs than in newspapers, though newspapers are taking steps to redress that imbalance.

August 11, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

No, I think you've been very clear R.T. I do think the way reviews are written in the U.K. is different from the way they are done here because they are speaking to different audiences. Although I am a bit surprised to hear that Machiko Kakutani ever let anything sway her towards a, shall we say, populist viewpoint, in general I do think there's a strong strain of anti-intellectualism in American life, and a cardinal sin is to "talk down to people".

I did a very brief stint as a book reviewer last year, just before our local paper decided to dispense with the book section all together, and the book editor advised me from her own long experience to write as though I was talking to an intelligent eighth grader. And I think she was probably right on the money, though that didn't make the job more appealing.

I don't like reading reviews before I've read something as a rule. They tend to give away too many plot points. Even the in general excellent Guardian review that started this discussion off has a few too many spoilers for my taste. But I do enjoy reading reviews of books and movies after I've seen them. I love being able to look at something anew through someone else's eyes. And I really love long essays about books that have a lot to say about the whole context of the book and the author. The New York Review of Books, The Believer, Paris Review, and Tin House are some of my favorites.

August 11, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

I suppose that I should add that my own 'review of the reviewers' was just basically to say, "Come on, American reviewers, where the heck are you?"

And R.T., that was a very nice review of Fifty Grand.

August 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, what could be more high-toned than to pretend not to be high-toned?

A professor of mine once preached the virtues of writing for an intelligent but ignorant readers. That's good advice, I think, though -- and this is another argument against the suggestion that I was presuming to dictate the form a review ought to take -- I will sometimes assume that readers of this blog know more about international crime fiction than do my newspaper's readers, and I may take this into account in my writing. I might be likelier to explain to a newspaper audience what the Dagger Award is, for example. I intend no slight of my newspaper's readers; the readership of this blog is simply a more specialized audience.

I don't know Tin House. Worth a look, I take it?

August 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, that's how I took your post, as chiding the New York Times for not having reviewed Fifty Grand.

August 11, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

No, I know you got the tone, but for the casual reader here who isn't going to click through on the link, I'm just saying that my aim was a little different than to critique individual critics.

Tin House is a very nice little magazine. The format's great and they publish good short fiction and essays. A nice feature is their 'Lost and Found' section, where they highlight books from the past that have slipped from memory but deserve to be brought to the light again.

I am lucky in that I get to see a lot of things in our magazine section that I wouldn't know about otherwise, and even have a few lulls at the cash register where I can actually read a few paragraphs.

V word=scoph, which is what the overly highbrow do when they're afraid they might actually be understood.

August 12, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Scoph is one of the best.

And yes, I would not want anyone to think we're going all Alice Hoffman just because one or more of us may criticize a given review or reviewer or the state of reviewing.

It's nice to hear about the "Lost and Found" section. I've long thought that the time and space to write about old books was a special advantages of the Internet. It's good that a magazine does it.

August 12, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Eek! I think I'm glad neither Seana nor Declan have read the reviews I've put up on my blog; they're hardly deep essays! Even my reviews of the two Larsson books ("The Girl..." were mostly of the gushy "Read this now!" variety.

August 12, 2009  
Blogger Declan Burke said...

Erm, the Big Bad Wolf says huff 'n' puff ...

I wouldn't say I 'critique' reviewers, Peter. I take the piss out of bad reviews. And by bad reviews I mean the stupid opinions of the uninformed. A negative review is one thing; a badly written negative review complaining about a badly written novel is quite another. Rubbishing Fifty Grand on the basis that it's not like a David Baldacci novel is another.

Actually, rubbishing Fifty Grand would qualify as the stupid opinion of the uninformed. You're entitled not to like it, of course, but if you're honest, you'd have to concede it's very well written.

But good reviewers, be it in print or on the web, will be heard, because people will come to trust their judgment and return to them time and again.

August 12, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, Linkmeister, relax, will you? We are all part of a big discussion about books. And if you say that you gushed over the two Stieg Larsson books, you'll have to concede that you join a large party of gushers.

Declan's comment immediately after yours, as fierce as it may seem, ought to make it clear that you're not what he's aiming at.

August 12, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Declan, I recall an exchange somewhere, perhaps on your site, about reviewers. If my rough recollection is close to accurate, the argument was something like "All opinions and therefore all reviews are equal" vs. "No they're not."

I come down on the side of the no-they're-nots.

August 12, 2009  
OpenID bookwitch said...

And the reason we all liked this review so much wasn't just that it praised a book we like. We are discussing it because we are almost surprised a review can be so well written.

August 12, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

I don't actually think you have to worry about me at all, Linkmeister. And I was going to leap to Declan's defense if he hadn't already pointed out much of what I was going to say.

My impression, though,is that what really gets his goat is when someone trashes someone else's work with a 'I didn't like this and I really don't know why' kind of review.

August 12, 2009  
Blogger Dana King said...

Seana hit my pet peeve about reviews with her "They tend to give away too many plot points." Too many reviews are more like book reports than reviews, walking you through the major plot points until the reviewer's conscience gets the better of him and even he admits he's near to spoiling the book. If I want to know what happens in a book, I'll read the book. I want the review to tell me if it's worth reading, and why. (Or why not.)

August 12, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Bookwitch, that raises the question of that old cliche that the British write with more clarity and precision than Americans. My selective and infrequent reading of top British national newspapers has done nothing to disprove this.

Also, I had to smile at the review's reference to the "un-fucking-killable" antihero. We at American newspapers may not be too strong on good writing, but we sure aren't going to let our readers see any naughty words.

August 12, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

My impression, though,is that what really gets his goat is when someone trashes someone else's work with a 'I didn't like this and I really don't know why' kind of review.

Seana, I think that argument emerged in the debate about reviewing that I cited in my reply to Declan here.

August 12, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I think you're right. Even when reviews don't contain spoilers, too many of them read like dreary plot summaries. Why this is, I don't know. One possibility is that out of desperation or ignorance, too many newspapers turn to just anyone to write book reviews -- because, after all, a review is just a set of opinions, and anyone can have opinions, and all opinions are equal.

What I want from a review is compelling discussion of a book or of issues that it raises. I suspect that some editors are too timid even for the latter.

August 12, 2009  
Blogger Declan Burke said...

Peter - this notion of 'all opinions are equal' has probably run so far it's impossible to kill, but it's patently untrue. It's probably become confused with the idea of democracy, and everyone being entitled to a vote.

But if I say a Stephen King book is rubbish, say (although I like Stephen King), then I have some kind of qualification to do so, given that I read quite a bit, am familiar with Stephen King's work, and understand what Stephen King is saying.

If I say a Stephen Hawking book is rubbish, on the other hand, then my opionion simply isn't valid, given that I haven't the foggiest clue about Stephen Hawking's work, and don't understand the context.

That ties in with the increasing tendency for reviewers to say, "I didn't like / get this, so it's rubbish." It never seems to occur to reviewers that maybe the problem is their own lack of knowledge and / or appreciation for the subject matter, style, etc.

For someone to say, again for example, that they didn't like an Adrian McKinty novel because it didn't appeal in the same way a Baldacci novel did, is akin to saying "I don't like millk because it doesn't taste like eggs."

Context used to be very important in reviewing - and still is, with good reviewers.

Cheers, Dec

August 13, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Declan, I'd agree, though with a small qualification specific to Stephen Hawking. Anyone who has appeared on The Simpsons, Futurama and Star Trek: The Next Generation is fair game for commentary and criticism as a cultural phenomenon. But yes, one would not want to read a review that did not like his theories of physics because, well, it just didn't like them.

August 13, 2009  

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