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May 14, 2009
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What is the purpose of a review?

:iconlovetodeviate:
lovetodeviate Featured By Owner May 14, 2009   Writer
There have been several discussions on critique in this forum, what it should be, how it should be received, and so on, but what about reviews?

I've always maintained that reviews are distinct from workshop critique and literary criticism (i.e. what academics do), with some similarities in approach and technique. But recent debate about reviews of poetry books in particular has called into question the state of reviewing today, the motives of reviewers, the validity of the norms of certain reviewers, and some poets have offered their expectations of poetry reviews, which, to me, seem to blur the lines between reviewing and criticism.

What do you expect of a review of fiction or poetry? Where do you read reviews, if at all? Has the internet changed the review significantly, and if so, are the changes good or bad? I'm interested in anything you have to say on the subject of book reviews in particular, though comparisons to movie and other product reviews are welcome.

If anyone is interested in the debate I referred to above, I've offered a short description of it below. It's not necessary to read it to give your opinion, of course.

______

While there have always been articles on the state of contemporary reviews, one that got a lot of attention, and triggered much of the debate, was Jason Guriel's article in Poetry, 'Going Negative'. In brief, he argues that scepticism should be the natural stance of the reviewer when s/he first approaches a book. He also asks why poetry reviewers are shy of being negative, when people don't hesitate to pan movies and music. Then he proceeds to offer three negative reviews of poetry collections.

The comments on the article are numerous and most are fairly interesting, but the one that got everyone talking was the first by Kent Johnson. His explanation for why there is so much puffery in poetry reviews is simple and more or less acceptable to everyone: most reviewers of poetry are poets themselves and have something to lose if they say something negative about another poet's work. To counter this problem, he offers the solution of anonymous/psuedonymous reviews, which used to be the norm in the 19th century.

In their first issue, Mayday Magazine published a letter by Johnson, which is an extension of his comment at Guriel's article. He calls for the "negative" spirit of reviewing to continue, but "with a much more forceful satiric push". He feels that the unsigned review should coexist with more conventional reviews as a sort of "satellite economy" and adds that anonymous reviews would require a stronger editorial hand to keep out ad hominem attacks and other childishness.

Then there are 32 responses to the above letter from various poets (note the number of women). I'm not going to summarise all of them, even though I bothered to read every single one. Most of the poets agree with most of what Johnson suggests, but many feel that anonymous reviews are fraught with more problems than "a stronger editorial hand" can control. Significantly, poet-reviewers can benefit in two ways from reviewing other people's books: either they flatter a lot of people and push their own cause or they get paid. Now, since reviewers rarely get paid, and when they do, the pay is paltry, it stands to reason they should at least have their names published. Or, as Robert Archambeau puts it, "Reviewers are really paid by seeing their names in print, and by being allowed to feel (with some degree of justification) that they’re becoming part of a conversation, and getting recognition from a literary community."

There are also opinions that diverge quite a bit from Johnson's proposal. Of the 32, the ones I found most interesting to read were by V Joshua Adams, Robert Archambeau, Robert Baird, Bill Freind, Daisy Fried, Johannes Göransson, Ange Mlinko and Murat Nemet-Nejat. Of course, you may not agree with what I find "interesting", and if you're as invested in this as I am you'll probably read all the responses, or at least Guriel's article and Johnson's letter.

For shorter versions, there's stuff on my blog: 'Who can afford to write poetry reviews?', which I posted after Guriel's article and some blog discussion, but before the forum discussion at Mayday Magazine; and this has excerpts from various responses at Mayday (you'll have to scroll down a bit to read those).
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Devious Comments

:iconnonculture:
nonculture Featured By Owner May 26, 2009
To answer your frist 4 or 5 questions, I'd expect them to be on the Book Review Forum, or be banned from other forums.

Strangely, that isn't the case, how about that!
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:iconlovetodeviate:
lovetodeviate Featured By Owner May 26, 2009   Writer
What book review forum?
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:iconvglory:
vglory Featured By Owner May 25, 2009  Hobbyist General Artist
I expect a review to help me making a reading or purchasing decision.
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:iconlovetodeviate:
lovetodeviate Featured By Owner May 26, 2009   Writer
OK, but how?
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:iconvglory:
vglory Featured By Owner May 26, 2009  Hobbyist General Artist
No specific way. For example if a review is by someone "like me" and they liked it--that's all I need to know. Or it might describe the book as including something I like. Or it might explain how reading this book would teach me something etc etc
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:iconlovetodeviate:
lovetodeviate Featured By Owner May 26, 2009   Writer
Ah OK, nice and simple. I'm of a similar opinion, but it's interesting.
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:iconschemilix:
Schemilix Featured By Owner May 21, 2009  Hobbyist General Artist
To me a review is either a recommendation or the opposite to a reader. It should thus not nit pick unless to emphasise a point, and cocnentrate specifically on why a reader should or should not pick up this book and have a look. It should take into account differing opinions and include both objective and subjective points, the latter referring to precisely why the reviewer felt this way in accordance with their interests so that a reader of the review can compare this to themselves.

On the other hand, a critique should be personal, and deal point by point in order to help the author improve.
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:iconaladdin-sane:
Aladdin-Sane Featured By Owner May 17, 2009
Heh, I was thinking about an answer for this. Frankly it's a little bit 'Oh, come on' when you see the size of the preceding posts.

I've often thought reviewers ought have their licenses withheld until they've demonstrated good critiquing abilities. Anyone unable to prove they understand the valences of a poem etc. ought be precluding from passing judgement on it.

That said, writing a review is an excellent way of articulating one's own opinion to oneself as much as the reader. I've frequently come to change my mind about a novel etc. in the process of writing about it. If nothing else, it's an excellent means of ensuring I've actually thought about what I'm reading.

Jason Guriel's 'negative stance' argument is interesting. I'm pretty uncertain of what I think of it. What reading attitude ought one bring to a text prior to engagement? I worry that 'going negative' is going to adversely effect one's own experience of the text, regardless of the implications for the judgement.

This is probably because 'going negative' implies an inseparable hardening of oneself. The image of the enbittered, cynical critic is an omnipresent cliche in reviewing circles. Who wants to turn into that? Inviting the kind of venom one sees in movie reviews into poetry sounds ridiculous to me.

Contrary to ~ellierany, I believe that the most pleasurable reviews for the reader are those that demonstrate a genuine and well-developed involvement with the text. There's such a surplus of reviewers out there looking for the scathing one liner, it's actually becoming sort of boring. But a carefully considered argument with a lot of heart and soul thrown in? Downright rare, I'd say.

That said, I am myself possessed of unfeasibly high standards regarding what I'd consider worth rating highly. But then, hopefully that's not because I'm cynical but because I've an especially high appreciation of what is worthwhile when it finally comes around. Certainly I don't go in expecting to want to attack whatever is being presented to me.

I'd be wary of distinguishing too clearly between reviews and critiques. If deconstructing the text is the business of a critique and a critique alone, what exactly is left for a review? Ought not the reviewer to include in their writings the processes that have led them to form their judgements? I sort of think a review ought read like a 'lite' version of an academic essay. It's nothing without supporting arguments.

I think I'm done.
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:iconlovetodeviate:
lovetodeviate Featured By Owner May 21, 2009   Writer
That said, writing a review is an excellent way of articulating one's own opinion to oneself as much as the reader.

That's very true. One of my friends writes about every movie she watches (not on a blog) to rediscover it.

I too am suspicious of the "going negative" stance. It's impossible to be tabula rasa before reading something new. If nothing else, the reading of something new is informed by what has previously been engaged with. Maybe he's suggesting it as a sort of "true test" of what's good: if you're sceptical at first but the work is so good that you still fall in love with it, then it's a masterpiece. Or something.

I believe that the most pleasurable reviews for the reader are those that demonstrate a genuine and well-developed involvement with the text. There's such a surplus of reviewers out there looking for the scathing one liner, it's actually becoming sort of boring. But a carefully considered argument with a lot of heart and soul thrown in? Downright rare, I'd say.

Oh, I agree. Some of these nasty reviewers are very entertaining (I'll admit to having enjoyed some of Logan's reviews; it's pure schadenfreude) but then you feel disgusted with yourself for liking it when you realise he's not saying much of worth.

I'd be wary of distinguishing too clearly between reviews and critiques. If deconstructing the text is the business of a critique and a critique alone, what exactly is left for a review?

True, no distinction should be arrived at too early, but is deconstructing the text the purpose of a critique? I mean, a critique may certainly deconstruct, but it may also just offer a few short suggestions, right?

I sort of think a review ought read like a 'lite' version of an academic essay. It's nothing without supporting arguments.

:nod:
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:iconaladdin-sane:
Aladdin-Sane Featured By Owner May 17, 2009
precluded*

It's always fucking something.
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:iconellierany:
ellierany Featured By Owner May 14, 2009  Hobbyist General Artist
No one seems to have mentioned it (I didn't read through all the response letters) but a review has several simultaneous purposes to fulfil. Two the the main ones are (a) to inform the audience (as in, whether a book is worth reading or not) and (b) to be entertaining in themselves. The balance of these two purposes depends on the review's context. If you're writing a review of a London play for a national newspaper, for example, entertainment is the far more important of these two purposes, because most people who read the article won't be thinking of seeing the play. The fact of the matter is, that bad reviews tend to be more entertaining than good ones, so a reviewer, particularly of a play, or perhaps of a film which you know your audience is going to go to whatever you say, may well exaggerate a play's negative points in order to wangle an amusing review (and, by association, earn a name for themselves as a notorious, entertaining, even controversial, reviewer). This doesn't mean that you can't remain factual, just that the evaluation you give may not accord with your real opinion of a play/film/book's merit.

Poetry is a smaller world than film etc, and, just as the sort of people reviewing poetry are often poets, the sort of people reading poetry reviews probably also make an effort to read poetry. So in this case the balance between informing and entertaining should be more equal. Nonetheless entertainment is still a factor: I doubt it would have occurred to me to buy the books Guriel reviews. But I read the reviews anyway, because they were entertaining. Gushing reviews often just aren't.

Unlike reviews, neither critical analyses nor critiques are there to be entertaining, and they're written for different audiences as well. You don't distinguish between the two in your post, but I think it's important to do that as well. A critique is written for the writer themselves, not for a reader, and is written with the assumption that the work is in progress and may change; evaluative judgements are therefore made in comparative terms of alternative possibilities within the text. Literary criticism (these days; these distinctions are less well, or differently, defined in the past, and will only be complicated a consideration of that as well) doesn't necessarily set out to evaluate a piece of literature. Usually it sets out to show how that literature works (in terms of structure and/or content and/or relation to context, etc.), and any evaluation is done implicitly as a consequence of showing something the writer attempts but that fails to work. Again, this is for a different audience, and isn't designed to entertain; furthermore, it assumes the reader is familiar with the work, whereas a review generally assumes the reader is not. All may have the same sorts of content about what's going on, what does and doesn't work and why, but each is trying to achieve something different by relating that information, so the way it is related is also different. A bad review of a published book might have equated to an encouraging constructive critique of a work in progress - if the reviewer had seen the work at that stage, and wasn't writing with a public audience in mind.
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:iconlovetodeviate:
lovetodeviate Featured By Owner May 15, 2009   Writer
(b) to be entertaining in themselves.

Quite true. And it has been mentioned. For example, Robert Baird says "Is it too glib to say that what I look for in a good review is what I look for in a lover: that it be smart, witty, and pretty (and in that order)?" and he quotes Marin Amis as well (“The adversaries of good book-reviewing are many and various, but the chief one is seldom mentioned— perhaps because of its ubiquity…The crucial defect is really no different from that of any other kind of writing: it is dullness.” )

The problem that has arisen, however, is that (arguably) the most entertaining reviewer of poetry today, William Logan, is often "wrong", or rather, doesn't adequately justify why he says something is bad. So he's become something of a joke. I don't remember who, but one of those responders described him as one part Simon Cowell and one part Grandpa Simpson. Pretty entertaining, I thought. : P

In general, I agree that reviews need to be entertaining; review writing is a talent that needs to be honed just like any other kind of writing. What interested me about all of this debate is that several people stressed on the pedagogic value of reviews, or rather they wanted reviews to be pedagogical and in that sense closer to criticism. It's not something I'm against necessarily, but will it make reviews too academic?

You don't distinguish between the two in your post, but I think it's important to do that as well.

I didn't explain the distinction, no, but I didn't conflate the two either. I hope that's clear.

I like your explanation of the differences between critique and lit crit, but I wonder, about the not designed to entertain part. Criticism may not have as its purpose (or one of its purposes) to entertain, but the best criticism is usually pleasurable to the reader. In that sense, it is entertaining.
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:iconellierany:
ellierany Featured By Owner May 15, 2009  Hobbyist General Artist
but the best criticism is usually pleasurable to the reader. In that sense, it is entertaining.

I agree, but I couldn't be bothered to mention it : P. I'm definitely a fan of essay-embedded lit crit jokes. Not least because if a critic is making jokes it's (paradoxically) both a sign that they don't think too much of themselves, but also that they're secure enough in their powers as critic that they don't think a joke will undermine it (fortunately they tend to be right; or perhaps the technique is so effective that I am consistently fooled by it. Who knows?)
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