Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Rose-coloured Review Policy

About a year and a half ago, I began the Rose-coloured Reviews project, whereby I try to learn to write literary reviews by writing them, as well as reviews of all sorts of things. The project has been slow, spotty, and subject to flippancy, but I have learned a lot anyway, as well as looked closer than I would have otherwise at some really interesting things. Here's the review tally, thus far:

Restaurants: 3
Candy Bars: 2
Short Stories: 5
Movies: 3
Music (songs or albums): 2
Trains: 1
Plays: 2
Magazines: 1
Books: 6
Recipes: 1
Exercises: 1
Shoes: 1 (pair)
Religions Experiences: 1

What have I learned? That reviewing is hard and I can do it only if I think I have something to say that is worth bothering other people about. I don't necssarily need to like something to review it, but I need to be interested in my own reaction, positive or negative. If I read the book or watch the film or eat the tuna and my response is, "Great! What's next?" or "I'm glad that's over!" and then I stop thinking about it, I would find it very difficult and unhappy work to write a review of it.

Since Rose-coloured is my fun side project and not a job, I don't do anything on it I don't want to do. Hence, there are no reviews in the above list that were miserable to write, though certainly, all were challenging. I am amazed that people who have the gift of writing excellent prose or poetry--so many of the people I know--also can spin out an insightful and interesting review on assignment, on deadline. I consider it magic.

Of course, it is possible that I am forever scarred by the fact that I wrote a book that itself was reviewed. And those reviews were *good* (mainly) but I fretted intensely before they came out, and parsed every word for meaning. The best piece of advice I got about that insanity came from my friend Scott. I was trying to apply a comment from a review to some current work I was doing and getting nowhere. "I just don't know what I'm supposed to *do* with this," I wailed, to which Scott responded, "*You* aren't supposed to do anything. He didn't write it for *you.*"

Oh, the flares and lightning bolts. I have been doing a lot better with reviews since I convinced myself that they aren't letters to my book, neither love nor poison-pen, but letters to readers *about* my book. I think most writers eventually come to some version of that position--otherwise, how could they not go insane?

What's interesting to me is that, despite the great number of articulate and insightful reviews I see in print on the web, is that *reviewers* have not necessarily come to this position. If you read Canadian book blogs, you may lately have seen a great amount of debate about how reviewers should approach books under review (and if you don't read those blogs, I am not sure I should initiate you into the fray--keeping up with the confusion can get obsessive!) It has been inspiring to read about how serious reviewers have serious ethos and poetics (and prosodics?) about the process, and how hard they struggle to put the emotional reactions all of u have to books into a critical system.

And yet. In these posts, I don't see much mention of why, by which I mean "for whom," reviews are written. I certainly believe that reviewing is a way to learn both about books and how I read, and to improve my critical clarity. That's a good reason to review and certainly why I am trying to do so on this blog. But the reason that reviews are printed in newspapers and general interest magazines (I'm not talking about literary journals here, which are something of a separate subject), the reason people are paid to write them, is to help readers find a good book to read.

This is one of those things I write that make people hate this blog, but: I do believe reviewers have an important role in making people happy. As a TVless, hobbyless human, books are a sizeable portion of my good times, and I am always very sad when I read a book that slacked in its duty to be excellent.

I think it's a reviewer's first and principal duty to tell what a book is and how good it's doing at being that. Is it a cozy mystery with shoddy details of life in a florist's shop? A diabetics' cookbook with sloppy measurements? A literary epic with dull digressions and obscure metaphors? I suppose we can never know intention, and marketing/jacket copy is often misleading, but it is a reviewer's task to see if it both walks and talks like a duck (even the library is categorizing it as a squirrel). And to assess--with rigor, with precision and examples, with comparison to other writers; whatever it takes. We want to know about style and structure and political hints and purple flourishes, and what it feels to read that it the whole way through the book.

Because we're trying to decide if we want to spend our money and time in order to do so.

To think that general interest reviews are geared towards something other than explaining a book to readers to help them decide whether they should offer up their $22.95 and week of reading time--well, if they aren't, that might go a ways towards explaining why general interest publications are cutting the space for them.

The critical discussion--take a book apart to find out what makes it tick, taking a criticism apart to find out if it is valid--*is* critical to vibrant literature, but by and large it takes place elsewhere: on blogs, in journals, in bars and cafes. Newspaper and magazine reviews should, to my mind, be an invitation into a given book for its potential reader: an invitation to assess, perhaps to read, an invitation to that very critical conversation that is happening on some other page somewhere else.

I think that's a huge responsibility, and though I *am* trying to get better at it--because I think it would be so amazing to be able to offer that invitation to people--the learning curve is steep and I have a lot distractions. So here's the Rose-coloured review policy:

I rarely review, and still more rarely review books--less than once every three months, perhaps, and then only books I feel very strongly about. If you offer to send me a review copy, I will likely try to dissuade you. If you insist, I'll take it (I do like books, after all) but likely the best result of this you can hope for is that I'll read it, and sit on the bus with the cover showing, and someone will take that as invitation to the conversation.

That's it for now, but I continue to try to improve.


AMT said...

i want you to know that i find it inexpressably charming that you pointed out that your review of shoes numbered 1: (pair). that is, you did not review just the right or left shoe.

this is relevant to the following mel brooks short which i keep meaning to send you... the connection to your one or two shoes comes late in the movie, but it is all worth it.

Kerry said...

I like the reviews in The London Review of Books because I don't even have to read the books in question, but come away from the reviews with a wealth of knowledge. Also, when I write a review, I hope it is implicit that the books are good and worth reading. If they weren't, they wouldn't be worth reviewing.

These thoughts are unconnected and I am tired.

AMT said...

i agree about the LRB reviews. once for reasons i cannot quite remember, nor ever quite understood, i got a free subscription for half a year and it almost supplanted my reading of books full stop.

AMT said...

um, and so now to make a comment that is actually related to the meat of your post rather than your shoes: i think that your field (as opposed to mine, being academia) is lucky to have a lively public review discourse built into the culture, via blogs or newspapers or anything.

in my world, reviews are for the most part private, shunned, tortured and twisted things: living in the shadows, aiming for anonymity but failing, written too often for the reviewer more than anyone else. i would imagine they cause all the same various rages and heartbreaks and vendettas in both our worlds, but at least yours are part of a larger discourse, and usually written with the understanding that many people will be able to read them, so their level of professionalism has that audience to live up to. our public reviews are few and far between, and pretty damn tepid (i am writing one right now and it's HARD) and so i envy you and yours in this regard.

Rebecca Rosenblum said...

I don't read LRB but if their reviews are similar to the long ones in The New Yorker and NYT Book Review (my roots are showing), yes indeed. Those are almost like sourced essays more than reviews, because the reviewer talks about the title under review in the context of similar books out now, the author's past work and previous criticism thereon. Judgements are offered, but they are small and specific--sparkling prose style, the third section lacks formal coherence, the character of the nanny doesn't seem accurate, whatevs. It's an evaluative discussion, not a summation.