I was sent a link to an interesting couple of articles about book reviewing, and where it can all go so horribly wrong. Start with Jeremiah Chamberlin’s preliminary post on the concept of The Good Review. Read it, then come back. I’ll wait. (Don’t I always?)
Then there’s Charles Baxter on that classic Amazon-style me-fest, the Owl Review. (Yes, go, go go.)
Having read it, I’m having to work very hard not to go back through the reviews I’ve written to see how often I’ve been guilty of owling. (Do NOT mention the book you’re planning to mention. In case you haven’t twigged to it yet, I do make a distinction between book reviews and book reports. In the former I attempt to be intelligent, dispassionate, considered and fair. In the latter I say what I’m really thinking, although I do try to support my arguments. Let. It. Go.)
Short digression: I’m quite active on LibraryThing, which is ostensibly a book cataloguing site, but really more of a Facebook for bibliophiles. One of the groups I took part in last year was the 75 Books Challenge for 2010 group – the idea being to try to read, and then comment on, at least 75 books over the course of 2010. It was a lot of fun, and gave me the chance to see the enormous variety of ways that people like to talk about books. For the most part mine were book reports, and stayed firmly fixed on my personal response. But a couple went further, and those I ended up cross-posting as reviews to the books. (If you’re desperate to read them, my LT handle is Joannasephine, and my 2010 75 Books Challenge thread (curtailed by the first earthquake and our subsequent move) can be viewed here.) What I loved about this was that people would quite often come and comment on your comments, and the discussions could go on for ages. And LibraryThing is primarily a readers’ site, so the right of a reader to express their opinion was always strongly championed. Although people who were stupid in the way that they expressed their opinions could be, and sometimes were, shot down in exquisitely phrased flames. Which may make the place sound frightening – it’s not, but it is somewhere that people who take books and reading very seriously indeed go to hang out, and so the adolescents who crash the more intellectual threads with rants about how cool Twilight was tended to be sent packing. (If it’s any consolation, there are plenty of places for them to hang out too, where things like punctuation and grammar are never mentioned …)
And back to the point. What I adored in the 75 Books group was the fact that we could all argue about the merits of a book without it every being considered rude to do so. The author was certainly not revered – a somewhat unnerving experience at times, especially when a couple of people got hold of The Summer King to read. But it meant that the readers were free to argue and rant and dis/agree long into the cyber-night. It was inspiring. You could argue that it was the semi-annonymity of the internet that gave us that freedom, but I don’t think so. (Hell, it’s never saved me from pissed-off authors, or their friends.) I think it was (and is) because that particular intellectual freedom was (and still is) considered important, and was defended by ‘the people’ quite vigorously.
Which brings us to the third article: Stacey D’Erasmo talking about An Education in Book Reviews. I have to confess that I read the article whilst sighing gustily. Because I agree with her. Reviews and reviewing shouldn’t be something ‘out there’: they should be a passionate conversation about literature. Shouldn’t they? (Side thought: I realise I’m conflating reviewing with literary criticism here. Presumably it’s reasonable to think of reviewing as a subset of LitCrit? Or at least as something that, if done well, should be a facet of LitCrit?)
To round off this post-of-links, have a squizz at Keith Taylor’s essay on Reviewing Poetry, and then Anis Shivani’s collation of opinions on that subject in the Huffington Post. (FWIW, I think Jay Parini and Jane Ciabattari are dead on when they talk about the need for reviews to be longer – presumably that’s one of the good things that we can thank the internet for? Or maybe it’s my own inability to complete a review in under 500 words that makes me feel that way …) Don’t you agree with Taylor’s comments about reviewing as an extension of learning to think your way around your own, as well as someone else’s, poetry?
I’ve been meaning for a while now to post a series of … um, posts … on reviewing and how I think of it. Possibly time to grasp the nettle and
end up with swollen hands address the question? It’s not as though there’s any point in pretending I don’t have strong opinions and a near-complete lack of any sense.
Sorry, that full stop came early. The sentence should have concluded with: “any sense of self-preservation”. And to prove it, I’ll end this post-of-thought with that favourite ominous cliché :
to be continued …