Monday Miscellany

Book Reviewing in the News

There’s been a lot of discussion surrounding the announcement that Adam Mars-Jones won the Hatchet Job prize for the “angriest, funniest, most trenchant” book review published in the last year.

Judge Sam Leith said: “The best hatchets, in criticism, are wielded with precision as much as they are with force.

In Should we celebrate scathing book reviews? the U. K. Guardian interviews  Anna Baddeley, who runs the review aggregating website Omnivore.com and who set up the prize, and novelist – and nominee – Geoff Dyer about whether such a prize is a good thing for literary reviewing. Baddeley explained why she created the Hatched Job prize:

The aim was to boost the profile of professional arts criticism and make it more accessible and entertaining. We thought Hatchet Job of the Year would get a lot of attention and be a fun way to highlight professional book reviewing. The role of the professional critic is vital and it’s at risk as book pages [in newspapers] are getting ever shorter.

Asked if this prize wouldn’t encourage nasty reviews, Baddeley replied:

I wouldn’t want this award to be seen as encouraging cruel reviewing. We’ve been careful not to include reviews we felt were personal attacks. But I also think there aren’t enough negative reviews – reviewers are too deferential a lot of the time, and it leads to a problem of trust, because the reader gets forgotten. It’s unclear who newspaper reviews are written for. I’m speaking as a reader. I’m not a novelist and I have felt let down by reading lots of good reviews of a book, each one saying “this is a masterpiece”, then reading it and not being impressed. It happens with famous writers who people are scared to criticise.

Many newspaper reviewers are also authors themselves. Asked if this situation leads to either over-adulation or jealous criticizing, Dyer replied that this would be too conspiritorial a description of what goes on in the world of professional literary criticism. Dyer also pointed out that many book reviews produced by book stores sound more like advertorials than true reviews.

The interview also touched on the fact that in our Internet age anyone can become a book reviewer on Amazon and lots of other web sites. Baddeley explained:

There’s a place for Amazon reviews, and some are well written, but the problem is if they, and reviews by book bloggers, are the only reviews we have. Newspaper reviews are very different – you have the gatekeeper function, and the variety, and going back to the writing issue, a lot of book blogs are not particularly well written. We talk about professional reviewers being compromised, but book bloggers can also be compromised – they are given free books and courted by publishers. One of the major roles of the professional critic is to provide an authoritative voice, even if you don’t agree with everything they say.

In The art of the book review, a short broadcast recording from the BBC, D. J. Taylor, author and Hatchet Job Award judge, and Joanna Biggs, assistant editor at the London Review of Books, discussed the evolution of book reviews. Asked if there is value in encouraging the type of review nominated for the Hatchet Job Award, Taylor replied that it is necessary to downplay the belligerence of such reviews in the interest of modulating the tendency of reviewers to be too deferential. As one who commissions professional reviews, Biggs pointed out that she looks for a reviewer who can discuss a book within the context of current literary culture. This ability to place a particular book in cultural context is what separates professional reviewers from people who comment about books on sites such as Amazon.

Having read all this from the point of view of professional writers, editors, and reviewers, I set off to find out what some non-professional book lovers think about book reviewing. One particularly good example of what I found is this recent entry from the blog Beauty is a Sleeping Cat. This blogger was not writing about the Hatchet Job Award but about a couple of other controversies involving reviewing:

I’m not the first nor the last who will mention the debate that was raging on Goodreads, Twitter, a few blogs and even in the newspapers last week. Some of the discussions, although heated, were interesting, while others were alienating or downright offensive. In any case they got me thinking about “reviews” in general and “negative reviews” in particular.

The first incident started on Goodreads where a reader posted a negative review of a YA novel (see here). For reasons I do not understand this triggered a massive response from YA novelists who slagged her off collectively. More and more people entered the debate and in the end it looked like some sort of author versus reader war. I have read her review and while it was easy to see that she didn’t like the book, I didn’t think she was offensive. A lot of these debates were going on on blogs and twitter and were picked up by mainstream media like the guardian here. The guardian article then triggered further responses, one from the YA novelist Maggie Stiefvater (here) which annoyed many bloggers but which I personally find very interesting and balanced.

The next incident happened on the page of the speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons where a reviewer posted a very negative review (you can find it here) of a Fantasy novel that many like. This has created a response and an intensity of response I found amazing in itself. I was so captivated I could hardly stop reading. At some point a lot was censored.

This blogger then described how she approaches reviews on sites like Goodreads or personal blogs:

When I visit a new blog I read a few posts here and there and I’m very glad if I see the writer has written about books he/she likes and about some he/she doesn’t like and I will pay extra attention when reading negative reviews. Not too long ago I was on a blog who reviewed a book that another blogger had recommended as being particularly great. Said blogger not only hated the book but found it to be insulting his/her intelligence. The blogger went on and on how weird it was that another person did recommend this. He/she took it apart in minute detail, making herself/himself look good and witty in the process and of course that person got a lot of applause. People loved the snark, couldn’t get enough of it. I wonder if anyone else felt as bad as I did. What about the person who did recommend the book (mercifully the name wasn’t given)? Funnily it is a book that I have read and think in its genre it is a very good book. If said blogger only reads romance or even only literary fiction he/she wouldn’t get it and shouldn’t even bother reading it. Reading it and then emphasizing that this isn’t what we would normally read because it is beyond us, is a bit shameful. Maybe the person did sound intelligent, she certainly didn’t sound kind.

I encourage you to read the whole blog entry, which is well reasoned and well written. Most of the comments are also informative.

I also found another blog entry that is not about the negative-review issue but does address the question of what a review should be or do. The entry Literary Blog Hop: On Criticism from Soy Chai Bookshelf considered a question inspired by a quotation by Chuck Klosterman in the epilogue for Fargo Rock City:

“It’s always been my theory that criticism is really just veiled autobiography; whenever someone writes about a piece of art, they’re really just writing about themselves.” Do you agree?

This blogger, whose name is apparently Jennifer, replied, “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!  I think that true objectivity is impossible.” Jennifer is not alone in this belief. She’s expressing the theory of reader-response criticism as defined by Louise Rosenblatt and several others in the book The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism.

But more to the point here is what Jennifer had to say about what she looks for in a book review:

There’s a reason that I don’t bother searching out book reviews in magazines and newspapers anymore – I want the reviews I read to be autobiographical.  I want to know who’s telling me what to read and build a relationship with the reviewer, because how else can I trust her?  I would never have read the entertaining The Eyre Affair if I hadn’t read a dozen other reviews by Alley at What Red Read that helped me understand what she liked and what she was like to know that I could trust her.  Likewise,  The Balkan Trilogy (which I have yet to read) would not be on my shelf if I didn’t know that Ellen at Fat Books and Thin Women was so similar to me both in literary and life choices.  The list goes on.  I think we’re all more likely to trust recommendations, literary or otherwise, that come from somebody we know and respect.

As a reviewer, I like to inject some personality into my reviews not only for this reason, but because I think it gives them more personality and readability.  Sure, I could go on and on about the style of discourse and technical “good” qualities, but without a little bit of me in there, would you still be reading?

Her preference for autobiographical reviews over those found in magazines and newspapers—the venue of professional reviewers—raises an important question: What kind of book reviews do you prefer?

Since I started Notes in the Margin as a review site aimed at other lovers of literature, especially book clubs, I try to keep readers in mind when I write my reviews. On the question of negative reviews, I usually don’t finish books that don’t hold my interest. And since I only review books that I’ve read in their entirety, you won’t find any completely negative reviews here. That doesn’t mean that I never point out what I see as flaws or shortcomings in a book. But if some aspect of the book kept me reading until the end, then that is a positive aspect of the book worth mentioning. I guess what I most interested in is the question of fairness, or a balance between what I found to be good and what not so good.

And I’d love to see some discussion in the comments here about the question: What kind of book reviews do you prefer?

Children’s Books Increasingly Ignore Natural World

A newly published study indicates an increasing estrangement from the natural world in children’s books:

A group of researchers led by University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociologist J. Allen Williams Jr. studied the winners of the American Library Association’s prestigious Caldecott Medal between 1938 (the year the prize was first awarded) through 2008. They looked at more than 8,000 images in the 296 volumes.

They noted whether each image depicted a natural environment (such as a forest), a built environment (such as a house), or a modified environment (such as a cornfield or manicured lawn). In addition, they observed whether the illustrations contained any animals, and if so, rated them as either domestic, wild or anthropomorphized (that is, taking on human qualities).

The results, published in the journal Sociological Inquiry, are sobering. “There have been significant declines in depictions of natural environments and animals, while built environments have become much more common,” the researchers report.

No wonder there exists the emerging discipline of nature therapy.

3 thoughts on “Monday Miscellany”

  1. I prefer autobiographical reviews, espeically ones that get into what about the book worked and didn’t work for the reader, because what may be a turn-off for one reader might hit my hotbuttons.

    For the most part, though, I rely on recommendations from family (hi, mom!) and friends and the back of the book summary to find new material. The folks I’m closest to know my buttons well enough to turn me on to something without writing me an actual review. I’m predictable enough that a “If you like dystopia stuff, try X!” will get a book in my TBR pile without me ever checking a review.

    When I do seek out for reviews, I’m usually iffy on something, so I’ll be looking at a large number of reviews and reading them to see how readers react to the things that make me a little gunshy about the book. Which brings me back to preferring the autobiographical reviews. They help me get a feel for both the content of the book and the tastes of the reviewer, and both help me figure out how I might react to the book and if it’s something I’d like to read.

    1. You, gunshy?

      Thanks for responding. What you’re describing has always been my own philosophy of reviewing. I figure that if people have gotten to know me, that will help them evaluate why I like or dislike something about a book, and that, in turn, will help them decide if they want to read the book.

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