Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Two Ways to Improve Your Book Reviews (Part 2)


Decades ago, when I was first taken on as a client by the legendary Virginia Kidd, she had two pieces of advice to offer me.  The first was, "Never rewrite your old books."  The second was, "Don't write reviews."  Her reasoning being that positive reviews don't win you friends but negative reviews create enemies like nobody's business.  These were wise words and if I've disobeyed her second dictum from time to time, I've tried to only do so when there was something I wanted to celebrate.

A more nuanced approach was taken by John Updike, who for many years wrote long critical reviews for the New Yorker.  They were both entertaining and elucidating.  So much so that when I discovered that the library had a copy of Hugging the Shore, a cinder block of a book which was largely a decade's worth of those reviews, I borrowed it and ripped through all the reviews in less than a week.

At first glance, all the reviews were positive.  That was part of their charm.  But midway through the book, I finished a description of the virtues of I forget which book it was and realized that he hadn't liked the book.  This fact, however, he had left out as irrelevant.  Instead, he carefully described that book in such a way that those who, like himself, wouldn't enjoy it, would not feel compelled to buy a copy.  Those who would like the book, however, would shortly be holding a copy in their hands.

This is much more work than recording one's gut reaction to the book.  But it's worth it, as I discovered when I borrowed the previous collected cinder block from the library and discovered that in the Sixties and Seventies Updike had not been shy about letting you know the ways that other people's books had failed him.  That was a highly politicized time and Updike was a believer in the moral propriety of the Viet Nam War, so his scorn tended to fall upon left wing writers.  Who in turn and for whatever reason (drugs may or may not have been involved) were more likely to be writing "experimental" fiction than those he admired.

Negative reviews are always fun if it's not your own book that got caught in the wringer.  But the collection was nowhere near as enjoyable as the later one was.  That aura of great-souledness was gone.

This insight proved useful to me sometime later when I agreed to review several books for a serious publication and found that I had serious problems with one of them.  Having spoken with the author's admirers on many occasions, I knew that my problems were not theirs.  So I doubled down on the work and wrote a careful description that would leave the fans salivating but warn away those who, like myself, would not enjoy it.

That was many years ago.  Have I ever once regretted not doing my best to take the author down?  No.

Similarly, Neil Gaiman's review of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant, ends with him admitting that it's a "a novel that’s easy to admire, to respect and to enjoy, but difficult to love."  Reading those words, I could feel Gaiman's reluctance to commit them to paper.  But he had an obligation to make it clear that this was a novel that might not satisfy readers of traditional fantasy.

It was a nicely done essay.  It made me want to read the novel and then make up my own mind about it.

You can read Neil's review here.

So am I saying that you have to refrain from writing savagely negative reviews . . . ?

No, of course not.  Do whatever you wish.

And by sheer coincidence . . .

I received my contributor's copies of "the Philadelphia issue" of Asimov's Science Fiction yesterday (more on the Philadelphia part Monday), and this morning discovered that Robert Silverberg had dedicated his column to... John Updike's reviews.  His slant on them is different from mine and well worth your reading and pondering.

So if this topic is of interest to you, I urge you to buy a copy of the April/May double issue of Asimov's as soon as it hits the newsstands.  March 17th, I believe.


1 comment:

Marly Youmans said...

I like that way of thinking about reviews--striving toward clarity-for-all and being "large souled."