Tag Archives: Reviews

in the context of the surrounding world

Electric Literature: What did you look for in the winning reviews that you picked?

Emily St. John Mandel: In a word, engagement. Too often I read reviews that are concerned with nothing but the book in question, and there’s a hermetically sealed quality to such reviews, a narrowness of scope. I’ve come to believe that good reviewing requires engaging with the world outside of the individual book. At the very least, the book should be placed in the context of other books, but ideally—and I recognize that this is an entirely subjective opinion—I prefer reviews that go beyond talking about literature, so that the book under review is considered in the context of the surrounding world.

Emily St. John Mandel at Electric Literature

I’ve written before about how I typically prefer to read reviews after I’ve read the book, not before—and I think this is part of the reason why (the other is spoilers, of course). A review that is just about the book requires reading the book first to really engage with it. But occasionally I’ll find myself reading a review all the way through without having read the book. In that case, the review has transcended its genre to become just a good piece of writing. About the book, but also about something more than the book.


This book has an owl in it

[Reviews that] don’t bother to provide the reader with an accurate description of the books’ formal or verbal properties [are untrustworthy]. To say that something is “boring” is not a statement about a book, although the speaker may think that it is; it’s a statement about the reader’s poverty of equipment. … The marks of a trustworthy review, therefore, have a kind of doubleness: the reviewer manages to assert somehow that the book under discussion is of some importance for one reason or another; and second, a good review provides a formal description of the book’s properties, so that you could reconstruct it from the reviewer’s sketch of it. This description is not the same as a plot summary, although a plot summary may figure into it. What a formal description does is to show what a book is about in relation to the form in which the subject matter has been shaped or located. In order to write such a review, let’s say of a novel, you have to have a basic idea of how novels are constructed; you have to have the technical knowledge that allows you to stand back from the book and to say how a book is put together. By these criteria, quite a few book reviews are worthless. They are made up of what I call Owl Criticism. With Owl Criticism, you have statements like, “This book has an owl in it, and I don’t like owls.”

Charles Baxter

We’re all being far too polite now

[F]or the first time, authors have been sitting in on the entire Canada Reads process, and I don’t think it’s done the program any good. … authors got so in on the action, that their personalities became inseparable from the books in question. Relationships through social media developed so that it was impossible for many to read these books without a conflict of interest. The books themselves ceased to be the point at all.

What’s more ridiculous though is that no one having this conversation. I’ve refrained from saying anything until now, because I don’t like to talk shit about books, but we’re all being far too polite now, and I fear that authors attending our book club is most of the reason why. It’s why book bloggers are celebrating these books without question, not a word of criticism, though there is plenty to criticize, but how can we  criticize when the author is our friend on Facebook, and our favourite Twitter pal?

Kerry Clare

This. I’ve mentioned I feel like a weirdo on Goodreads because I give ratings other than 4 and 5. At the same time, I’m not immune to what I’ll call the six degrees of politeness. If you like a writer, personally, even if you only know them via social media or reading their blog, it’s really, really hard to say that their book disappointed you or even that you just didn’t like it as much as you thought you would based on how much you like their thoughtful blog posts or hilarious tweets.

On Goodreads, if I realize I’m hedging, I find it helps to ignore the numbers and rate based on the descriptions: “didn’t like it”; “it was ok”; “liked it”; “really liked it”; “it was amazing.” At first, they sounded a little facile, but you know what? You can pretty much stick any book into one of those categories without hesitation. It works, I think, because it makes it subjective. You’re not making any great objective pronouncements about the quality of the book. One-star says: “I didn’t like this book.” Not “this book sucks” or “you will hate this book” but “I didn’t like it, ymmv.”

This, btw, is the same problem I came up against with my master’s thesis. The urge to be kind rather than critical is strong even when you’re “just” a reader, even when you’re doing your best to stand at arm’s length and not develop a conflict of interest. You get to know people through their writing, and if you like them, the urge to protect them is strong. What’s funny, though, even just sticking to reading, I developed favorites (as one does) and I worried that would show through. Obviously, I didn’t want that because the thesis wasn’t about who had I had the most in common with or who had the best friendship potential. Anyhow, I guess I needn’t have worried, because no one picked up on that at all.

(It still surprises me that it was read as a “negative review” so to speak, when my goal was a more positive reading of personal blogs than I’d come across in traditional media and academic writing. In fact, my big concern was providing a positive viewpoint without being uncritical about the aspects I did find problematic. In the reading, though, all the focus seemed to be on the criticisms. Then again, maybe the negative perception isn’t so surprising. We writers do have a tendency to glaze over compliments, regardless of how large, and obsess over criticisms, regardless of how minor.)