Tuesday, September 15, 2009

... and a bad bad review ...

There are four kinds of book review. There's the good good review, which is both favourable about its subject and skilfully, knowledgeably written on the basis of a careful, thorough reading of the book in question. There's the good bad review, which is well executed in all respects but unfavourable. There's the bad good review, which is favourable but a bad example of the book review genre.

(There are many ways of badly writing a review: not reading the book properly, making opinionated and magisterial assertions instead of properly arguing your case, getting your facts wrong because you haven't actually read the book, pushing your own pet writers and ideas at the expense of the book you're supposed to be reviewing, blowing your own trumpet about your own achievements, not distinguishing between your personal opinions and the actual facts, making wildly offensive statements, and so on and so forth.)

And finally there's the bad bad review, which is ... Well, you know.

A few years ago I was invited to participate in a forum at the University of Sydney on the subject of book reviewing. Allotted a generous amount of time for my talk, I needed to come up with an infinitely expandable structure for it, something with a strong backbone that I could sketch out and then amplify here and there, both at the keyboard and then again, if called for, on my feet.

In the end, I came up with a way of doing it that meant I had a single central line of argument and organising principle: the text of the talk was a heavily annotated list of the people and entities to whom/which I believe a book reviewer has a responsibility. It was a list whose length surprised even me (for over the decades I have given these matters a great deal of thought), as I thought about just how many people and things I have at the back of my mind, or even halfway to the front, whenever I review a book. The list looked something like this:

1) To the readers of the review, to

(i) describe the book accurately,
(ii) tell the truth as you see it, and
(iii) provide entertainment and useful information.

2) To the potential readers of the book (some overlap there, obvs),

(i) not to mislead them about its contents, and
(ii) to save them $30+ if that's what you think.

3) To the writer(s) and/or editor(s) of the book,

(i) to read the book carefully and comment on it thoughtfully,
(ii) not to misrepresent it, and
(iii) not to say anything that will actually make them want to slash their wrists.

4) To the literary editor who saw fit to commission the review from you, to

(i) justify her or his faith in your (suit)ability and expertise,
(ii) write to the word length you were given,
(iii) provide clean copy in the requested format (e.g. not phone it in, say) and
(iv) provide said copy on or before the deadline you were given.

5) To the publication for which you are writing,

(i) to pay attention to its house style,
(ii) to fit in with its general editorial approach and standard of writing,
(iii) not to write anything that will either require extensive and expensive legalling, or, in the absence of said legalling, get the publication sued, and
(ii) not to compromise, or indeed trash, its reputation.

6) To the people who are paying you to do a decent job of work, to be worthy of your hire.

7) To the literary culture in particular and indeed to the culture in general, to make a worthy contribution to it and not demean or devalue it by adding junk rather than good useful stuff.

8) To yourself,

(i) to maintain your standards, not just professional but also moral (say, turning down editorial requests to review books by friends, rivals, enemies or old lovers),
(ii) to refuse to say anything you don't mean, and
(iii) not to make yourself look like a wanker or a dickhead, or both. 'Both' is possible but not attractive.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat


Elena said...

Do you think book bloggers somehow manage to get around some of this responsibility? (Not all aspects, but for example, they're writing for their own publication, not the Australian Literary Review).

As a book blogger I'm trying to write as if I were being published by someone else, but the opportunity to write in my own voice overshadows that a little. It's easy to go too far in the meanness factor when trying to be funny, which I've noticed in some other book blog reviews.

But this article has definitely given me something to think about, I hope my writing is getting better!

Helen said...

Shiny New Coin on Twitter: "NYT reviewer describes Dan Brown's latest as "impossible to put down". Is this because it should be "thrown across room" instead?"

dogpossum said...

This is really useful stuff. I do quite a few book reviews and I've often wondered if I'm doing the right thing. I think that I've been following your rules of responsibility unconsciously, but it's nice to see them articulated so usefully.

Anonymous said...

John Updike's 6 rules for book reviewing are also pretty useful. This link may re-direct you which is a nuisance - but persist with it.

I guess my golden rule of reviewing is to try to be fair, which encompasses the idea of reviewing the book you've read rather than the one you thought you'd be reading, or wanted to read. You'd be amazed at how often that seems to happen, even by people who should know better.

I was also pretty impressed a few years back by a review, of Richard Ford's latest novel, which basically stated that the book was boring because it was about a bloke suffering from prostate cancer. It was obvious that the reviewer saw no connection with the book and dismissed it on that basis.

I like your notes regarding the reviewer's responsibility to a potential reader of the book. I'm not interested in "good" and "bad" as descriptors of a book, but I do want to finish a review with an understanding of whether the reviewer thought it was worth my time or not. Half the time I come away from a review with no idea at all.

Perry Middlemiss