One of the courses I'm teaching this semester at George Mason University is titled "Crafting and Publishing Reviews," and we've been looking not only at the various types of reviews out there (a big difference between a lengthy essay in The New York Review of Books, for example, and a three-paragraph review in Entertainment Weekly) but also at the longer history of reviewing and the larger landscape of questions about how reviews are read and how they should be written. I've been fortunate to contribute reviews to a number of publications over the years, including the Washington Post, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and Mystery Scene, just as a sampling, and I've been grateful during this course to welcome the voices of even more experienced critics into the classroom via Google Hangouts, including Washington Post critic Ron Charles and freelance critic Mark Athitakis so far; next week, we'll host Kristopher Zgorski of BOLO Books to talk about book blogging and book advocacy, and more guests are on the syllabus ahead.
This past Wednesday's class was focused on the ethics of reviewing, and I'll share links to some of that reading here (click on the titles to reach the articles):
- “John Updike’s 6 Rules for Constructive Criticism,” reprinted in The Atlantic
- “The Book Review: Who Critiques Whom—And Why?” by Byron Calame, The New York Times, December 18, 2005
- “Fair is Square: The Case for Hiring Biased Book Reviewers,” by Jack Shafer, Slate, August 12, 2005
- A Case Study: Dale Peck, Rick Moody & More:
I'm not sure how the nuanced and troubling the students found the readings (the view from my side of the class discussion likely much different from their view), but I was struck by many of the conflicts and even contradictions in different viewpoints.
The column on John Updike's rules champions the "role social responsibility of the critic" by building on E.B. White's call for writers to "life people up, not lower them down." A couple of the columns stressed the need for fairness in reviewing—not only in terms of being fair to the book being reviewed by specifically by avoiding conflicts of interest in several directions: reviewers shouldn't be friends with the authors they're reviewing, nor should they be enemies, perhaps for obvious reasons.
And yet in contrast, there are concerns that too much politeness might lead, in Julavits' words, to "dreckish handholding" and a "trumpeting of mediocrity," and Shafer said more frankly, "The point of a book review isn't to review worthy books fairly, it's to publish good pieces"—and he pointed to the "British model" of assigning "lively-but-conflicted writers" to create greater tension (and perhaps draw more readers).
Perhaps most interesting to my mind was the idea of how to approach a book in the first place. An earlier reading from our syllabus—Lynne Sharon Schwartz's "The Making of a Reviewer" from the collection Book Reviewing, edited by Sylvia E. Kamerman—championed the idea of treating a new book as a "strange new geological treasure" to be judged for "its intrinsic, living qualities" (a contrast to what Schwartz called "negative criticism," the idea of appraising a book "on the basis of what it has failed to accomplish, with these failings usually derived from the critic's own notion of how he or she would have handled the subject"). In Julavits' essay, however, New Yorker critic James Wood is praised for his "idealism":
Wood is peevish, even occasionally mean, but never snarky. He is perpetually disappointed with “us,” (if you’re a writer, even one he’s never written about, you cannot help but feel you’ve let him down)—which is certainly better than being too jaded to be much more than dismissively irritated, too disdainful of fiction to do much more than toss clichéd disparagements around... and call it criticism. Wood makes people hopping mad, yes, but despite his grumbly excoriations there’s usually room for a dialogue with Woods, which indicates there’s something to wrangle over, i.e., his claims are based on a strongly-held (and felt) belief system, and he’s an intellectual, which means he likes to be forced to defend that belief system.
Approach a new book with some naivete or innocence? or with the full force of your belief system behind you?
I recognize that not all readers here are reviewers, but we are indeed readers—and I'm curious how you approach a new novel. Filled with expectations and armed with standards? Or willing to see where the author might take you? Or can there be overlap between those approaches?