This Business of Reviewing

Scarcely a day seems to go by without some new attack or challenge to the notion of the review in the blogworld, and for the most part, I don’t find them helpful. But I’ll make an exception for two interesting posts, one from Book Riot and one from The Millions, more interesting than others of their ilk because of the serious attempts made to think about what good review might do. Both are suggesting a move away from the stranglehold of summary-plus-personal-opinion that dominates the orthodox review structure, and I’m all for experimenting with new approaches.

My own feeling, which I’ve mentioned many times here, is that personal-opinion based reviews tend to say a great deal about the person reading, but less about the book. When you read them, you have to measure yourself against the taste of the author of the post, rather than the nominal subject of it. And you come away with an idea of whether you should read the book or not, rather than anything more durable and useful concerning literature, reading, and their place in the world. Sometimes that’s all a person wants, and that’s fine. But books are so rich, so full, so fascinating – don’t they occasionally deserve a little more of our mental energy?

The Millions post provides a good account of the latest round in the review wars and makes some suggestions about what is reliably useful to read in a review. My only objection to this post, and it is a strenuous one, is the idea that negative reviews are ‘better’. To be fair, the justification put forward for this is that readers tend to be fuzzily warm over books they’ve enjoyed, but dislike or dissatisfaction requires a sharper more focused approach, and I can see the logic in that.

However, I simply cannot abide this idea that picking out what is ‘wrong’ (highly subjective in itself) is the highest emblem of quality. Whilst I am no more in favour of always writing positive reviews (prescriptions of all kind distress me), I think negativity has to be handled delicately and in great self-awareness. It can so easily be about the critic claiming intellectual superiority over the stuff that feeds him, or throwing a hissy fit because a book has proved to be a disappointment. We read books from such a deep, private, sensitive place that they can affect us disproportionately, and we don’t acknowledge this enough.

I think it also risks conflating the experience of reading a book with a judgment of it. The experience of a book is unique, powerful and set in stone. We cannot be persuaded that our experience was other than it was. But an experience is based on so many factors that have nothing to do with what we are reading – which is why we can return to a book twenty years later and have an entirely different experience of it. So pure experience is not to be trusted to communicate the very essence of a book. It provides a springboard into the story, a starting point, not an end in itself.

Over at Book Riot, the blogger formerly known as the Reading Ape (is there a symbol for that?) discusses his frustration with reading and writing reviews and posts an excellent list of ideas about what a good review should do. His point here is that we rarely say; this is a great review and you should read it. So what would a great review look like? My initial response is that whilst this is an impressive list of ideal review qualities they pose a substantial and often abstract demand. How to set about achieving any of them? Among the comments there are a number of responses that argue that incorporating such qualities into a review would turn it into literary criticism instead. To which I am obliged to say: what would be wrong with that? A little literary criticism is like a little spice in cooking. The right amount enhances the flavour, even if too much is indigestible. Now whilst I cannot tell anyone what a good review ought to look like, I can offer the basic principles of literary criticism, which are simplicity itself.

The basic building block of interpretation is critical commentary, or taking a chunk of text and seeing what’s going on in it. You can take as much or as little as you like, a paragraph or the whole book. Then – and this is what I used to teach my first years – you consider it from a series of perspectives. I’ve created a list of possible questions that readers can ask themselves but it is by no means definitive, simply an initial suggestion that can be altered and built on as wished:

Narrative voice.

Who is speaking here and what impact does this have on the story?

Are we dealing with a first or third person account? The first person tends to be intimate, partial and particular, the third to be distant, even invisible, but authoritative. Or is the text polyvocal, with lots of different voices undermining the idea of a coherent argument or approach informing the story?

How to describe the register (colloquial or formal, poetic or lyric) and tone (so many possibilities – confiding, ironic, subversive, playful, cold, etc)?

What does the narrator want us to know about themselves and what is being hidden?

Form and Structure

What are we dealing with here – a conventional story with a beginning, a middle and an end, or something more fragmented? A text studded with letters or newspaper reports, or a stream of consciousness?

Does genre play a part, and if so, does the book follow the conventions of the genre?

Then we need to dig down into the words – even to think about whether we’re dealing with long or short sentences, and their rhythm, their musicality or lack of it.

What sort of lexicon or discourse are we presented with? For instance, are there lots of analytical words (creates an argument) or abstract words (philosophical or spiritual leanings) or fantastic ones (appeals to the world of private imagination), etc.?

Are there particular devices at work – metaphor and simile?

In all these instances, we need to ask ourselves what the effect is. Each word has been chosen for a reason, busting its little guts to affect the reader, so what are they actually doing?

Themes and Characters

It’s interesting to look at questions of energy and balance when considering themes and characters.

Do the different personalities in the narrative balance each other out, or do they tip the scales one way or another?

Where’s the energy going in the book – towards what purpose, or what end?

How do the characters play out the themes of the novel?

Is there a clear moral universe being constructed (who wins, who loses) and what does this say about the culture the book is set in?

What systems of values dominate the story – are the values clear cut, or is the book confused and contradictory? Sometimes the best books are confused and contradictory; it can actually make for a very powerful effect on the reader when the answers do not come at the end, and of course it’s very comforting when they do.

Change and Transition

So what is actually different by the end of the book, or even the end of a scene? All sorts of issues come into the aspect of change concerning the version of time and space the story functions in.

Are we looking at characters who develop in linear fashion, or are we all about the circularity?

Repetition is a very powerful device in literature, and when you come across it, it’s worth a moment’s thought, as it can suggest quite contradictory possibilities: depressing and even cynical entrapment, nostalgic, conservative desires for stability and a cosmic view of a natural order that inevitably reasserts itself.

Change, by contrast, tends to indicate lessons learned, characters developed and the scary unpredictability of consequences, both good and bad.

There is a fundamental message here about whether we can change and alter the world – both our personal one and the external world we live in – which is the basis for all political readings of novels.

The Role of the Reader

It’s interesting to take a step back from reading to see how and why we are responding to a novel.

Are we being manipulated and if so, how, and to what purpose?

Are we kept in line with the narrative development, up to date with everything the characters themselves learn, or are we kept in the dark, mystified, held in suspense? What knowledge do we need to bring to the text to understand it?

What knowledge are we readily given, and what is withheld?

How hard do we have to work to extract the meaning of the story?

What are we asked to bring our sympathy to, or are we instructed instead to mistrust, to disapprove, to disagree?

And lastly but fundamentally, what were our expectations? Have they been met or not, and if not, is this because in actual fact, the novel is challenging conventions and asking us to be more broad-minded?

Ok, so having gone through all these sorts of questions, we have a lot of information at our disposal. Of course not all the questions will have yielded fruit, and that’s fine. The way forward now is just to pick out the information that seems most interesting to us as basis for a discussion. The whole reading thing is about being playful and open-minded, asking lots of questions, and avoiding those deadening assumptions that prevent us from getting the most out of what we read.

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46 thoughts on “This Business of Reviewing

  1. I don’t know… I think your approach, and your pointers, all suggest your qualities as a teacher. That’s a large part of why I come here; clear-minded, perceptive, succinct criticism. A blog, especially one with active commenters, is the perfect place for this, of course – a virtual salon.
    I do think there’s space online, if nowhere else, for another type of review, which prioritizes the experience of reading over judgement of it. I understand why you distrust experience as a means of interpretation; my feeling is that it is the demands of interpretation that have left the review as a form feeling bland. To use your analogy, experience is not so much the springboard ibto as

    • And you are exactly the person to write those other kinds of reviews, Dervish. You know I’m a huge admirer of what you do. And I love to see creativity and experimentation inhabit all forms. All I’m doing here is offering basic guidelines to anyone uncertain how to take their reading to the next level, or who wants to find more to say about a book they’ve read. This extremely basic approach is equally just a start, and what readers do with the information that emerges from it is anyone’s guess. But I come across very few interpretative blog reviews myself, bland or otherwise. If you know of people posting them, I’d be interested to go and take a look. (Oh and not sure what happened to the end of the comment – let me know what it is and I’ll edit).

  2. Your point that people are uncertain what to write and so fall back on opinion makes sense. There are lots of times when opinion is all I want, or it is enough to satisfy me at least, especially when I know who the blogger/reviewer is and so know how to take the opinion. But it sounds great to me to give bloggers the tools for how to offer more if they want to. This is a very useful list! And even if bloggers still want to stick to a lot of opinion, the list gives some ways to analyze and write about that opinion. It’s fun to take one’s personal response to a book and then start digging into items on your list to see if they account for that response.

    • Yes, when you know the blogger in question, finding books that will suit you is SO much easier! I know I will always enjoy any non-fiction that you recommend, for instance. I think it’s a lot of fun to take a look at my personal response to a book and see what’s gone into it. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I know, but do think it can be both surprising and illuminating, which is how the best books act on us! :)

  3. I don’t know… I think your approach, and your pointers, all suggest your qualities as a teacher. That’s a large part of why I come here; clear-minded, perceptive, succinct criticism. A blog, especially one with active commenters, is the perfect place for this, of course – a virtual salon.
    I do think there’s space online, if nowhere else, for another type of review, which prioritizes the experience of reading over judgement of it. I understand why you distrust experience as a means of interpretation; my feeling is that it is the demands of interpretation that have left the review as a form feeling bland. To use your analogy, experience is not so much the springboard into a book as the pool itself. We’ve reached the point at which reviewers approach reading as a series of value judgements, rather than an event, something that happens. A book is not a piece of the world, a fragment to be analysed; it is an addition to the world, or an alteration.
    That’s putting it crudely, but if we’re reticent about talking about books in this way on the internet, a form which encodes immediacy, then I wonder how long the review will survive in the age of the earbud. I think it must be possible to approximate the experience of reading online in a way which makes use of the mutual versatility of the internet and language, which expresses the ‘happening’ of language and the interaction between language and the reader, without resorting to a critical framework that obscures the uniqueness of the thing itself.
    Perhaps… ;)

    • What a cockup, sorry. I wrote this on my phone while on the bus and it obviously went a bit wrong. And btw, I really didn’t mean to sound judgemental, was thinking aloud, really. :)

      • It came through fine in the end, and I hope everyone reads it, as it’s a very thoughful comment! You’re quite right that experience is the keyword of the artistic world at the moment. But I suppose I was writing about that back in 2005 and drawing on theorists who had written about it a decade or so earlier, seeing it coming. I think, for me, I’m about done with experience as the guiding principle, but then that’s just me and no reason why I should want to impose that on anyone else. (Although I cannot deny I’m interested in hauling thought back out of the closet!) But the real point here is for me to say to you: yes, now go and write more of what you write and put it out there for us to read! Very few people are as creative as you with the reading experience. Go and knock my socks off. :)

  4. Your anatomy of criticism is all perfectly good, but, really, what criticism boils down to is the willingness to pay attention, close attention, to the particulars of a text. Many readers seem unwilling or unable to do that. Perhaps “casual” readers don’t want to do it, fearing it will interfere with their enjoyment of the book, but if you are going to assert that your opinion is worth taking seriously then you have to accept that such close attention is what is required.

    • Well, Dan, I suppose I have to reluctantly agree with you. I always want to believe that anyone, absolutely anyone, can take their reading a step further and get even more enjoyment and enlightenment out of it, and it really needn’t be a chore. But I hear what you are saying, and it does seem true – even from the comments here – that many people actively don’t want to take reading any deeper. But I still assert that’s a shame and that they’re missing out. It’s really not hard or painful to do.

  5. Thanks. Just what I needed. I am primarily an historian with little experience writing about literature. You are indeed a fine teacher. Hopefully my own reviews will improve in the near future.

    • MD, you write skillful and beautiful reviews which I would warmly recommend to any blogger. If you get even more out of the book after this, then I’ll be one happy lady.

  6. I’m glad you’ve broached this subject, Litlove. For some time I’ve wanted to post my own thoughts about what makes a good review, but so far I have resisted. I fear that I would fall sadly short of my own prescription.

    I recognise your clear and sensible questions as the hallmark of a good academic essay. I have no objection to this approach, particularly for those, like yourself, who wear their learning lightly and don’t lecture their readers.

    Personally however, I’m tired of writing from an academic point of view. I value book blogs as an informal conversation, preferably conducted over virtual coffee and cake. I actually want to read a personal take on a book. I was going to say that if I wanted a fully reasoned interpretation I’d read a newspaper review, but then you don’t always find them there. I’m happy for a reviewer to say they loved or hated a book as long as they tell me why. If their argument mentions characterisation or point of view, then so much the better. If they say, for example, that they did not enjoy ‘Madame Bovary’ because they disliked Emma ‘as a person’ then I am less convinced.

    • Karen, you are in the majority, I think. It seems like most people really want the internet to be a place of relaxation where they can have the equivalent of a good chat. And each to her own, I say, nothing wrong with that. I find that way too many reviews for my own taste will tell me that they don’t like the book Madame Bovary because Emma doesn’t behave the way they want her to. This does make me die a little inside. Of course I don’t have to read those reviews or follow those blogs, and the people I do read regularly have wonderful reviewing voices and interesting things to say. I suppose my thoughts here are intended for another group, people who might like to read more deeply but have never had the time or opportunity to follow a class. And I know a lot of students find this blog through searches, and hopefully it might help them also. But I certainly don’t want to be prescriptive.

  7. Victoria, you have sent me off onto a fascinating stream of links which has now occupied half an hour! I think the most challenging thing I encountered was on Book Riot, about people telling others to read a review, rather than the book it’s about.

    I don’t have any answers, or even really any thoughts in determined directions on this whole question. I know that I often take the easy route on reviewing myself.

    All so interesting, and I’m sure many people will find this post an invaluable resource :)

    • Thank you, Simon! I found the links really fascinating; such an interesting discussion about reviews. I really love it when bloggers are trying to put their finger on what they like, what they think works, and what they’ve discovered and appreciated online. Hopefully we can see this as a time of great possibility, when anything can be done with the review, and it can be pushed in all sorts of directions. I’d find that very exciting!

    • Actually Simon, I think you are one of the people who does add the extra level of interpretation and criticism in your reviews, you give us a bit of meat as well as your personal responses. The extra layer of critique is why I find your reviews so excellent.

  8. I think this is an excellent list. For me, and I suspect for many bloggers, a big issue is one of time. We have a big stack of books read but unreviewed, a gaping hole where our blog used to be, and a sense of falling behind. So, in the half-hour between dinner and bed, we type out our impressions of the book and hit “Publish”.

    What I’ve always wanted to do, but never really done properly, is to write less often but take more time for each review. The whole point of blogging about books in the first place, for me, was to come to a better understanding of the books I read and what works and what doesn’t work and why. Opinions have always been no problem, but when pressed on why I liked a particular book I’d come up short. Blogging was supposed to be a remedy for that, but sometimes the lack of time means that I don’t really analyse the books properly, and just fall back on opinion.

    I agree with some of the other commenters that reasoned opinion is fine, and that not all reviews have to be academically rigorous, but I think the framework you set out in the post can be a good starting point for writing the review. It doesn’t have to end up as a long footnoted essay. I like the idea of just picking out one or two things and being playful and open-minded in the interpretation. Have bookmarked this post and plan to use it as the basis for a review in future. When I have time, that is ;-)

    • Oh the time thing! I know it’s difficult. But if you’re going to take half an hour anyway to write something, then you might as well get some satisfaction out of it, is how I think. It reminds me of all those hours I spend with students who feel so time poor that every essay is a dreadful battle against the clock. Yet the one thing they never want to make time for is the one thing that can really help them: thought. If they take just five minutes before the start of writing, and just mull over the topic, letting ideas rise and fall, thinking about what they want to say, what they find interesting, jotting down a few notes on that, then it makes the writing process a great deal swifter and more focussed. But they’d rather miss out those five minutes and spend two hours chewing their pens, grappling with disobedient sentences, searching for lost quotes, etc. I tell them to think about the essay while they’re doing the washing up, or shopping in the supermarket. That’s fabulous creative thinking time.

      But, ahem, this is a hobby horse of mine, and you will now hear the sound of the soapbox being pushed away…. Work smarter, not harder, that’s my absolute last word on the subject. Promise. :)

      • You’re absolutely right. I remember as a student writing history essays, I always took time to think and plan, even in an exam where there was real time pressure. Or I should say “especially” in an exam, because then you really need to use the time well, and five minutes of thinking at the beginning is a valuable investment. With my creative writing, too, I plan and think and let my mind wander before I start typing.

        Somehow with blogging, though, it’s become something I fit in between other things and don’t always give the proper attention to. So I rush in and start typing before putting my brain in gear, and hope it’ll get clearer as I go on. Must try harder!

  9. Such an interesting topic- I’m currently reading Umberto Eco’s On Literature and he has a lot to say about what makes a good review (basically it should be literary criticism), so I’ve been thinking a bit about this recently as well. So I really enjoyed this post!

    My thoughts are, like thedervish said above, that I think there is definitely a place for reviews that deal with the personal experience of reading a book as well as a literary criticism perspective. I think that while maybe it’s true that people avoid the critical perspective for the personal because they feel on solid ground with it, there are other considerations as well- such as feeling like everything has already been said about the work’s literary qualities or having such a strong personal reaction it colours your entire reading. And the informal conversation that Karen mentions is also quite appealing. But then I think that there are so many different approaches represented in the blogosphere- I love that you can find a blog for any reading mood almost.

    For myself, I want to try to make my reviews better- I still feel very green in writing them. I don’t think I’ve quite settled on the right approach, sometimes I find it hard to add a personal approach and sometimes I struggle to say more about the text itself, but I think this post has definitely given me some food for thought about ways to approach it in future. So thanks! :)

    • Catie, I am right with you. I do think that one of the great benefits of the blogosphere is that there is room for everything, and with some searching, you can find whatever you want. That is a big bonus. I also think that there is so much potential to change the way we write about books and to experiment in new and exciting ways with it. I’d love to see that happen. I sort of think that the basic layer of thought remains the same – there has to be some kind of inquiry into our response to the book if we want to do anything creative with it, in any way. But I hope people will do all sorts of creative things.

      I really understand about wanting to find the right approach. I’ve been writing about books for 20 years now and I still am not sure that I’ve found it! I think it’s in the nature of the task that we keep questioning ourselves, and that’s a really good thing as it keeps us fresh and avoids stagnation.

  10. Oh, to sit in on one of your classes…but here I am way over here. I think your students are quite lucky to have the benefit of your insight. As for me? At this point in my life I read for pure enjoyment. This post does much to get me there…and I saved a lot of money on tuition! Wonderful post…as usual.

  11. You’re post reminds me that i wanted to approach reviweing in a very different way but sort of got distracted or rather fell back on the “personal opinion – sumary ” mode although i find it horribly boring – especially the summary part when I read it on other blogs.
    I suppose it’s a bit of a time issue in my case. It’s much quicker.
    I really need to remind myself to explore new ways.

    • Well I’m exactly the same. I always want to find some marvellous ‘new’ way and then realise I’ve fallen back on the same old formula! For me it’s not so much a time issue as uncertainty about what I want to do. But the beauty of the blog is that any post I’m not sure about gets buried by others by the end of the week! I’d love to see what you could do if the creative mood took you. :)

  12. I think everyone has a slightly different take on what writing about books should be like–and that makes for a nice variety and different way to look at lots of books. For myself I think I am more firmly wedged in the writing about books from a personal experience perspective–mostly because (and I know this is not entirely true) I feel I don’t have the tools (not ever having studied literature formally) to write a more vigorous sort of post, but also from a lack of time to spend on a really proper post about books. Of course I think different books require different types of reading (some closer than others) and also a different sort of wriing about them, too. As always you give lots to think about–I love the check list (thank you!)–or the spring board if you will, and have printed it out as and will use it as a way to inspire me on different ways to think about my reading/writing. I am always happy to learn something new when it comes to books. Hopefully, though, there are many ways and lots of space for readers/bloggers to talk about books online! :)

    • Oh I completely agree – the blogworld is huge and there’s room for every sort of variation. The pointers here are just for people who are interested in taking their reading to the next level in a certain kind of way. I think you are already a very astute and sensitive reader so you don’t need this at all! But if you get anything out of it, then of course I’m absolutely delighted.

  13. Like Andrew I think a big issue is time. I know it is for me! Plus, gosh, you’ve given me hives as though I were back in my college lit survey class with the professor who was a former Marine. No, not that bad, but besides time I think lots of people don’t have the training on how to read/write about literature from a more critical pov. Your questions are helpful from that standpoint. And then there is the part where this whole blog thing is supposed to be fun and there are many layers of what constitutes fun for people when it comes to reading and writing. It is always good to talk about book reviewing and what it is and what it is not. And for those who want to up their reading and writing game it is always good to talk about this stuff too. I just wonder and worry with all the talk about blogs and book reviewing around the internet if some might get alienated because they don’t “count” as a “real” book blogger because they don’t write reviews up to a certain standard. I’m not saying you are doing this, you are too thoughtful for that, I am just worrying in general.

    • Yes, that’s an interesting point and I see it around a lot in the book blogging community, because it is such a nice, inclusive one. I suppose I am of the opinion that no one can truly ‘make’ us feel anything we don’t want to feel. That what we mean when we say that is that the other person has touched a nerve of insecurity and it is easier and far more satisfying to blame them than to haul that troublesome old insecurity into the light and deal with it. I would hate for any post of mine to make someone feel intimidated or unworthy or distressed in any way, but I’ll bet I’ve done that in the past, because the reader was already in the state of mind to feel those things. All this being said, I DO try to take care not to offend anyone’s feelings or sensibilities and if that happens, naturally I would feel dreadful about it and want to do my best to make the person concerned feel better!

      But also, if someone felt alienated and unworthy, I’d be tempted to say, C’mon! Get your act together! Insecurity sucks the joy out of everything, and no amount of kind words from others really makes a difference. There is so much in this life that we have no control over, which we just have to tolerate. But this one thing, writing about a book we’ve read, is absolutely completely within your control and you can do it the way that pleases you best and feel proud.

      However, I also feel bad about giving you hives. Really, this post was not aimed at people like you who’ve been there and done that, but at students or readers who would like to hear a bit more about critiquing who’ve never had the time or money to do a class. And then I could also add, C’mon Stef! Up to the front of the class with your detailed thoughts on the book in hand, if you please! ;)

      • Good point about the insecurity and the fact that writing about what we read is completely within our control. No one to blame for anything but oneself in this case. Darn! I was just putting the final touches on my conspiracy theory. ;) But if you call me up in front of the class I really will get hives. Ok maybe not hives but I will definitely blush a bright red for you.

      • Stefanie – LOL! You crack me up! And yet I bet you’d be pretty fabulous if I did call on you. After all, I’d really like to hear that theory. :)

  14. Dear blogging friends, thank you so much for all your wonderful comments to which I will reply individually and properly tomorrow. I just wanted to repeat the message of the post, as I fear that it is easy to get lost – entirely my own fault for burying it in the middle of a paragraph. I will go back and bold it.

    But no, I have no intention here of telling anyone how to write a review. And I would hate it if anyone read this post, missed that vital point, and left feeling insulted or belittled.

    My point here was only to offer the basics of literary criticism to anyone who might be interested in hearing about them. That’s it. No need for anyone to feel obliged or compelled to do anything at all. But thank you all for the excellent discussion – as always no one could possibly have smarter or kinder commenters than I do!

    • When I began reading your post, I admit I felt indignant- “But I like reading and writing personal reviews! What’s wrong with that?” When I got to your list of questions to think about though, my feelings changed. It’s a great guide to thinking about what a writer is doing in a book and I am sure I will be referring back to it.

      • I’m so glad you didn’t stick with your first thought! There’s absolutely nothing wrong with reading and writing personal reviews. This is just to beef up what might possibly be said in them and I’m really delighted if it was of some use to you. :)

  15. What a wonderful and well-written article.

    Book reviews are my favourite types of reviews, even if I don’t trust any. Apart from all the fake review nonsense that is spread like wildfire on the internet, my main problem with book reviews is that the reviewer will always have unique personal connections with books due to their environmental conditions and personal situation at the time of reading. If I read the same book, chances are my mood, reading habits and environment will be completely different creating a completely different connection, making the review, however amazingly well-written it may be, not relevant to me.

    • Thank you so much! You put your finger on my problem with some of the personal-response-based reviews that are out there. If they are very much about the personal response then they need to be really well written, I think, to amuse and entertain the reader. To me that sounds like a bigger ask than just saying a bit more about the book!

  16. Pingback: reviewing for dummies « Nooks & Crannies – 'cus they're perfect for a book lover (& her thoughts)

  17. Thanks for writing such a well thought out essay litlove! As someone who wants to become a better reviewer and a better writer your essay provides quite a few useful nuggets (in addition to the excellent framework you mentioned).

    Incidentally I had the good fortune to stumble on your blog recently and I am enjoying myself hugely!

    • Oh thank you, wordsamany, that is such a nice comment! I couldn’t be happier if anything I’ve said here is useful to you. I’ll come and drop by your blog too – I’ll bet you are a nifty reviewer already. :)

  18. This is a rich, informative, and thought-provoking post, one that has stirred up a lot of ripples I can tell. The reviewing criteria you’ve listed here will be bookmarked by me for future reference.

    If there’s anything the Internet has brought about, or this huge blogosphere has evolved into, it’s the blurring of boundaries, the ‘democratizing of opinions’ as they say. There are the ‘professional’ critics, of course, whose academic training qualifies them to specifically address literary elements and generate relevant thoughts. And then there are ‘reviewers’, who may not have the specific academic background, but transferred from other experiences and skills, academic or others, can and do offer equally insightful commentaries. As for the ‘lady on Goodreads’, that’s exactly the forum where one can freely express one’s opinion, and in this highly reader-oriented age, a ‘reader’s response’ may speak to still others. Arrays of choices are what we have, and to each her own.

    Having said that, I highly treasure the academic approach when it comes to criticism, and academic training in preparing one to do the job. That’s why I value your views and opinions. That’s why too, I lament mine had led me down the paths of sociology and education, and not literature and writing. Nevertheless, when I look at some prominent critics and writers, I don’t feel so bad. Why, Roger Ebert, who received a Pulitzer Prize in Criticism, does not have a Film degree (his academic background is journalism and English), and, Salman Rushdie majored in history at Cambridge. I’m saved from utter despair.

    Too long a comment. But I must leave you with this thought from a recent New Yorker article entitled A Critic’s Manifesto: Knowledge + Taste = Meaningful Judgment. That would be the mark I aim at.

  19. Excellent! I knew I could trust SIAB to send me somwhere worth my time. I’m still trying to read fiction the way I read sceintific papers and to attempt (on rare occasions anyway) to write a review which is rather more than “I liked this” or “I hated this” since those don’t help anyone. I would like to see more critical reviews although I understand completely the bias against them. One thing I have noticed is the number of people who seem to need to like, or at least empathise, with the characters in the books they read. Generally that doesn’t bother me in the least and there are some fantastic books in which most of us are never going to admire the protagonists. I think the idea that posting weblogs is supposed to be “fun” is an interesting one to discuss too.

    I’ll be back for more!

  20. Pingback: Tabucchi Week: Pereira Maintains | Andrew Blackman

  21. Dear Lit Love,

    Sent here by Simon T… thanks for a thoughtful and informative post. I am a reader rather than blogger, but appreciate your encouraging bloggers to pursue that extra dimension in reviewing. There is so much to be gained from reading with lit crit lenses on. Thanks for being bold and also for your really amiable, astute and equable responses to the comments.

  22. OK, I can’t be this opinionated and not weight in, so here goes:

    Write whatever you want, but make sure it’s honest. I am wicked at criticism, so let me do that on my own (I’ll probably decide you were totally wrong anyway). What I want, what I need, is for a reviewer to tell me one of two things:
    Is it shite, or is it not?

    I linger in your reviews because they are conscious of the impact of language, both in your reception and reaction, as well as in what you choose to convey. Is your account a bit monotone or flat? This tells me the book was a bit of a workout. Is your review bristling with action words and gleeful tones? Then I don’t care what the book is about, I’m gonna wanna read it!

    I follow you willingly, almost blindly, through the paperback jungle because I trust you. You always give two sides, you give me real, mental (and physical) reactions, and you do it all without ulterior motive or embarrassment; you do it for the love of the book.

    It is this truth, this purity, that makes your reviews so valuable. You show us respect by telling us what’s ahead without telling us where to go.

    Reviewers should just leave the criticism to the critics. We’re skeptical, angry, picky, little mal-contents; we were born to do it.

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