Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

On Reviewing Books

Yesterday Ed Champions’s blog led me to this commentary about book reviews.

Scott Esposito puts an interestesting call out to litbloggers, one I only partly agree with. I don’t know of any litblogger who isn’t currently tossing his/her hands up over the abysmal state of print book reviewing. We all rant about the Grey Lady, which, to paraphrase Monty Python, merely farts in our general direction. The truth is tons of people will continue looking to the NYTBR for literary information, including those of us who want to poke holes in its hoary hide.

Esposito moves on to the purpose of the book review. The good reviewer—wherever he/she appears—should convey a sense of the book; the reviwer’s opinion should be implicit in this sense. Esposito writes:

“In fact, I’d go a step further and say that reviewers should not bother making any good/bad pronouncements at all. If your book review is such that by the end of it readers can’t tell whether you endorse the book, don’t, or stand somewhere in between, then you probably wrote a bad review and need to try again.”

Initally I agreed. Since joining the litblog world, I’ve been paying more attention to what constitutes good writing about books. And while most reviews aren’t of the wholesale Kakutani—slays--Franzen variety, they are clear about stating an opinion. Janet Maslin and Liesl Schillinger both loved Special Topics in Calamity Physics. They weren’t shy about saying so. But they also told the reader why. The described plot and utilized quotes, something Esposito feels there is a dearth of in good reviewing. As a potential reader, I finished both reviews knowing Pessl wrote a good book if you like Postmodern Lit. I don’t. The book is good, Pessl is a new star on the lit horizon, I have no desire to read her. Thanks to both Maslin and Schillinger, who helped me make an informed decision.

Which leads us to the question of taste. I am not a professional book reviewer (Though I’d love to be. Email me!). This affords me the luxury of reading only those books that appeal. People who are nice enough to read my blog know my tastes and aren’t looking to me for a finely nuanced assessment of the lastest David Foster Wallace. Professional reviewers, confronted with an incredible variety of literature, must step back and read with acumen whilst suspending, to an extent, personal feeling. Let us return to the NYTBR, where Janet Maslin reviewed the latest John Grishamlast Sunday. I was appalled that Grisham made the NYTBR. “But lots of people will read that book,” My husband pointed out.

“It’s airport reading!”

“A lot of people read in airports.”

They do. And most aren’t reading Half of a Yellow Sun.

Maslin gave Grisham a good review.

Esposito’s words on context within reviews and concision of language merit inclusion in Strunk and White:

“Providing context is more than mentioning an author’s previous books...we should get a sense of what territory the author has worked previously and whether this book is a new the author has (sic) further refining and perfecting a style (and is it worth swimming in these same aesthetic seas?), or is she treading water, or has she struck out into the woods and gotten lost?”

I wish I’d read this before posting about Paint it Black. Esposito neatly scalpeled a problem I’d been chipping at with a spoon.

Esposito writes: “I like to think reviewers are talking to other reviewers, other readers, fostering an ongoing discussion of contemporary literature.” Amen, brother! One of the best things about joining the litblog world has been the discovery of fellow passionate readers. In some ways reading is such a covert activity—performed alone, increasingly marginalized. Those 800 little words allotted the print reviwer may better serve the reader by throbbing with opinion. Intelligent, contextualized, thoughtfully measured opinion—neither wholesale attacks nor the scraping and bowing reserved for the Updikes of the world.

And now, back to the books.

Authors, Books, Litblogs, Book Review


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home