Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Presumption of Certain Possible Joys 

This post is first to recommend the blog Critical Mass, "the blog of the national book critics circle board of directors", i.e. those behind the annual National Book Critics Circle awards, one of those literary awards on par with the National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prizes for fiction. It's interesting to read a blog from literary enthusiasts outside any particular genre, in this case from a professional/critical perspective (contrasting the reader/fan perspective of Bookslut), and yet who do notice genre publications once in a while.

A while back Critical Mass quoted Reviewing 101: John Updike's rules, taken from the introduction to his 1975 nonfiction collection Picked Up Pieces, which I can't help but re-quote, omitting an aside or two:

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give him enough direct quotation--at least one extended passage -- of the book's prose so the review's reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author's ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it's his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author "in his place," making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

Amateur reviews, legion on the web, tend to indulge in plot summary and simple thumbs up/down pronouncements without justification, or when they attempt justification, tend to reveal more about the reviewer than about the work being reviewed (Updike rule #5's question).

Way back when, the reviewing rules I learned (possibly from Algis Budrys, I'm not sure) and tried to adhere to, were: 1) what was the author trying to do?; 2) how well did the author do it? 3) was it worth doing?

All separate questions. In SF, the second of these questions is especially difficult because fairly evaluating the idea content of a story or book requires a knowledge of the many many other stories and books on similar themes; SF is more like science in that way, with each new work potentially built on all past works. The third of these questions -- related to Updike's first -- can allow a reader to dismiss an entire genre, if his conception of what fiction is supposed to be about eliminates entire categories of what fiction writers actually write and what readers actually care about and respond to. And Updike's vaguer sixth is problematic in the SF field, where so many critics/reviewers are personally acquainted with, through our social networks of conventions, the writers they may be reviewing.

But the bottom line is what this entry's title suggests; a review shouldn't be about sniping or fawning; it should be to allow the reader to judge, given the context of who the reviewer is, if reading this book or story is worth the reader's time. And to show the reader why the work is significant, if it is, providing background and context the reader may not have been aware of.

That's why I glance at reviews of books I haven't read, and read thoroughly reviews of books I have read.
(Catching up to this late) Thanks for the post! Both Updike's rules and your addenda make good sense. As a reviewer, I try to do pretty much as he says -- not always succeeding, of course, since like everyone else I have my quirks and some "bad column" days. But the value of the quote over the precis, ah yes! And maybe all reviewers skim or pore over other's reviews as you mention doing; it's certainly my habit, though as something of a "review junkie" I also read a lot of coverage of books I'll never see.
This is exactly what I need to remember, and your quoting Updike helps me remember that. I have to remember not to blame the author for what he did not attempt. I am a reviewer of independent comics and have to remember that. Thanks!
Nice post, Mark. And you're dead right that most amateur reviewers seem to equate a review with "plot summary and simple thumbs up/down." I've been publishing reviews for a decade now (between SF Site and Black Gate), and I still find reviewers who don't know any better.

Here's the irony though: frequently I tune out everything in a review *except* the plot summary. As I get older I find I'm less and less interested in what someone else's opinion is of my entertainment choices. My habit nowadays is to skim reviews until I get to the plot summary, and make up my own mind on whether I should be interested.

Isn't that interesting? I'm now seeking out exactly the kind of thing I scorned and refused to publish for years.

I originally picked up the habit with reviewers whose tastes were polar opposite to mine (Spider Robinson comes to mind), but nowadays I find I skim reviewers unless I'm pre-disposed to trust the reviewer.

Perhaps I'm just getting old. But it sure seems I get just as much out of reviews as I used to. ;)
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Mark R. Kelly

The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Mark R. Kelly, and do not reflect the editorial position of Locus Magazine.
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