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:
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.