On Book Reviewing
with Danielle L. Parker
Since David Redd mentioned discussing books, and the discussion has kindly invoked my name, I have to respond with a few thoughts.
I agree with David: the desire to discuss books is a sign of a maturing reader. We’re not simply consuming entertainment and throwing it away like a hamburger wrapper; we’re thinking about what we read, visualizing those worlds and characters, and applying some sort of criteria to evaluate our reading experience for ourselves. And reading becomes a more powerful experience when those thoughts are shared.
But critiquing what we read, discussing books, is a tricky business.
Many reviewers believe independent standards of literary worth to apply to all books. And yes, that is partially true. We generally recognize illogical plotting, inconsistent points of view, excessive wordiness, unconvincing characters, lack of originality, cliches and stereotypes as negatives.
But as soon as we try to decide whether a book is “good” or “bad,” we run into trouble. Is the book only “good” or “worthy” when it has something “important” to say? If it fits all literary standards, even though some of our acknowledged “greatest” works may not? And what is “important”? It’s different for everyone, of course.
Or is the book “good” only if we find it entertaining? If it has all the worthy ideas in the world but makes our eyes cross in boredom, is it “good”? Do we all agree a solid healthy meal, sustaining to one’s moral soul, is better than that box of chocolates that lifts our mood?
In truth, there’s a time and place for both. I read some works for pure escapism and evaluate them for that. Those works — take Edgar Rice Burroughs as one example — might be unworthy to be called “literature” in the sense most English Lit. professors might apply the term. But if the work has succeeded in its goal of entertainment, I’ll give it a good rating. It did what it was supposed to do.
Other works focus on ideas. Blindsight is an example of such a work reviewed previously in Bewildering Stories. Such works have to be evaluated for the worth of their ideas. Sometimes I give good ratings to a story for simply making a worthy effort, even when I disagree with the ideas expressed.
But let’s remember, Shakespeare had to be entertaining first, or the rambunctious boys in the pit would have booed the house down. So Shakespeare was. Speaking for myself, I think simple entertainment may well be a writer’s most honorable goal. Well and good to have lofty aims, but if you want to educate or lecture other adults, you’d better hold my attention in the meantime, and you’d better beware of your own hubris. The most boring approach out there is Papa Knows Best and For Your Own Good.
I could say tongue-in-cheek that some works are intended for literary snobs, and the New York Times Bestseller List and should be evaluated as such; others, such as romance or male-oriented Westerns, for how well they satisfy the psychological cravings of their readers.
What I’m saying is: all writers have a goal. One of the factors — but only one, of course — a reviewer should consider is what that goal is, and how successful the writer is in reaching that goal. That means a rip-roaring yarn we thoroughly enjoy can achieve its goal just as successfully as that headache-inducing Great Novel or sappy kiss-kiss romance.
Playing into all this is, of course, why we read the book ourselves. It’s not just the author’s goals; the reader’s purpose in reading the work factors into our evaluation. If you pick up a book for entertainment and it’s as dull as a cereal box, the book’s a dud as far as you’re concerned. Ditto if you want some meat and find you got marshmallow fluff.
So I never offer my reviews in the spirit of “this is an evaluation of the literary worth of this book.” No, it’s my personal impression, my feelings, my thoughts, at that point in time, for that particular book. Anybody who rebuts my opinions can only offer the same personal response.
Even my opinions may change at other times or in a different mood. There are no absolutes in reviewing books. All a reviewer should express is their own honest response. Once in a while, as in The War of the End of the World, a current reading project, even I have trouble formulating my response.
So reviews are personal, pure and simple. I love a lot of books other readers hate. Ditto: some popular authors I can’t stand to read. It’s a oft-repeated cliche there’s a reader out there for every book. Maybe not 100% true, but that comment is close. And yet, we’re still required to apply evaluations of good or bad. And so we should. But it’s our ideas of good and bad, not necessarily the standards of others.
As for the joy of discussing books with other readers, I consider it an act of creation, which is why such discussions give so much satisfaction. Here’s a world, people, that exist only on the page, only in black and white words that evoke images in our mind.
If the author creates when he or she writes, so does the reader become a creator as he reads. To discuss that creation with other readers is to add our own touch. It is its own act of creation. Which is why one of the supreme joys for any writer is discussing their own books with readers.
I, too, love to hear rebuttals and comments on my reviews. A few have been less than comfortable. Don received a furious flame from a fan of an Anne Bishop book I sneered at as “pink.” But others have been simply thrilling, as when author Stephen Marlowe wrote me in reply to my review of his wonderful Lighthouse at the End of the World.
So feel free to write and let us know your own opinion of the work!
Thank you, Danielle, for a forceful statement of Bewildering Stories’ official stance on criticism: authoritative but not authoritarian.
So I never offer my reviews in the spirit of “this is an evaluation of the literary worth of this book.”
Exactly right, Danielle. In fact, only a charlatan would imply “There are absolute literary standards, and I happen to be their prophet.” What does that leave for the rest of us to do?
Book reviews are editorials. Literary scholarship has a function that is related but not the same; it addresses one or more of four basic questions, which I never tire of repeating:
- What does the work say?
- How does it say it?
- What did it mean in its own time?
- What it might mean for ours?
Scholarly articles are intended for audiences already familiar with the literary works in question. A book review differs mainly by telling prospective readers why they might or might not want to read the book.
The ethics of reviewing imply a “strait and narrow path.” Shortcuts may be understood as such and allowed for. Or they may be misunderstood. One can never be too careful. For example:
But if the work has succeeded in its goal of entertainment, I’ll give it a good rating. It did what it was supposed to do.
I understand what you mean, and a long and happy experience with your book reviews has shown me you’re knowledgeable, honest and fair-minded above all: you speak for yourself and expect others to do likewise.
And yet... How can I be sure what a book — or story, or poem — is “supposed” to do? Or what its “goal” is? Do even the authors know? Speaking for myself, I find that stories very easily take on a life of their own.
For example, is Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel supposed to be a comic novel? It certainly is one. Was its goal to entertain the public? It certainly did. But what does it actually do? It tells us what the early Renaissance was all about.
“Taking Notice” began as a rebuttal to another story in issue 412. But that “goal” quickly became no more than an incidental footnote. The story’s form gave it another goal, to address the question “How might we study and learn from history?” But in the end even that is not what the story is about. Rather, it examines the nature and function of literature itself. That’s what happens when stories “write themselves”: they tell the authors what they’re really thinking. In my case the result is more of a dramatized essay than I would like, but such is the fate of “occasional” works, especially ones written for a deadline.
In writing critiques for the submissions we receive, our review readers and I do not use the words “good” or “bad.” They don’t even occur to me. Rather we try to explain our reservations, and, if we can, suggest variants that the author might prefer.
In fact, an ancient authority points out that the word “good” is not always very helpful; it can mean either everything or nothing. And he avoids a trap by implying — very politely and with a touch of humor — that a man who calls him “good” doesn’t know what he’s talking about (Mt 19:17).
Point taken. As readers and writers we have our work cut out for us. Care for language will make sure it gets done.