Owls, reviews, and thoughts about The End(s) of Criticism

I was sent a link to an interesting couple of articles about book reviewing, and where it can all go so horribly wrong. Start with Jeremiah Chamberlin’s preliminary post on the concept of The Good Review. Read it, then come back. I’ll wait. (Don’t I always?)

Then there’s Charles Baxter on that classic Amazon-style me-fest, the Owl Review. (Yes, go, go go.)

Having read it, I’m having to work very hard not to go back through the reviews I’ve written to see how often I’ve been guilty of owling. (Do NOT mention the book you’re planning to mention. In case you haven’t twigged to it yet, I do make a distinction between book reviews and book reports. In the former I attempt to be intelligent, dispassionate, considered and fair. In the latter I say what I’m really thinking, although I do try to support my arguments. Let. It. Go.)

Short digression: I’m quite active on LibraryThing, which is ostensibly a book cataloguing site, but really more of a Facebook for bibliophiles. One of the groups I took part in last year was the 75 Books Challenge for 2010 group – the idea being to try to read, and then comment on, at least 75 books over the course of 2010. It was a lot of fun, and gave me the chance to see the enormous variety of ways that people like to talk about books. For the most part mine were book reports, and stayed firmly fixed on my personal response. But a couple went further, and those I ended up cross-posting as reviews to the books. (If you’re desperate to read them, my LT handle is Joannasephine, and my 2010 75 Books Challenge thread (curtailed by the first earthquake and our subsequent move) can be viewed here.) What I loved about this was that people would quite often come and comment on your comments, and the discussions could go on for ages. And LibraryThing is primarily a readers’ site, so the right of a reader to express their opinion was always strongly championed. Although people who were stupid in the way that they expressed their opinions could be, and sometimes were, shot down in exquisitely phrased flames. Which may make the place sound frightening – it’s not, but it is somewhere that people who take books and reading very seriously indeed go to hang out, and so the adolescents who crash the more intellectual threads with rants about how cool Twilight was tended to be sent packing. (If it’s any consolation, there are plenty of places for them to hang out too, where things like punctuation and grammar are never mentioned …)

And back to the point. What I adored in the 75 Books group was the fact that we could all argue about the merits of a book without it every being considered rude to do so. The author was certainly not revered – a somewhat unnerving experience at times, especially when a couple of people got hold of The Summer King to read. But it meant that the readers were free to argue and rant and dis/agree long into the cyber-night. It was inspiring. You could argue that it was the semi-annonymity  of the internet that gave us that freedom, but I don’t think so. (Hell, it’s never saved me from pissed-off authors, or their friends.) I think it was (and is) because that particular intellectual freedom was (and still is) considered important, and was defended by ‘the people’ quite vigorously.

Which brings us to the third article: Stacey D’Erasmo talking about An Education in Book Reviews. I have to confess that I read the article whilst sighing gustily. Because I agree with her. Reviews and reviewing shouldn’t be something ‘out there’: they should be a passionate conversation about literature. Shouldn’t they? (Side thought: I realise I’m conflating reviewing with literary criticism here. Presumably it’s reasonable to think of reviewing as a subset of LitCrit? Or at least as something that, if done well, should be a facet of LitCrit?)

To round off this post-of-links, have a squizz at Keith Taylor’s essay on Reviewing Poetry, and then Anis Shivani’s collation of opinions on that subject in the Huffington Post. (FWIW, I think Jay Parini and Jane Ciabattari are dead on when they talk about the need for reviews to be longer – presumably that’s one of the good things that we can thank the internet for? Or maybe it’s my own inability to complete a review in under 500 words that makes me feel that way …) Don’t you agree with Taylor’s comments about reviewing as an extension of learning to think your way around your own, as well as someone else’s, poetry?

I’ve been meaning for a while now to post a series of … um, posts … on reviewing and how I think of it. Possibly time to grasp the nettle and end up with swollen hands address the question? It’s not as though there’s any point in pretending I don’t have strong opinions and a near-complete lack of any sense.

Sorry, that full stop came early. The sentence should have concluded with: “any sense of self-preservation”. And to prove it, I’ll end this post-of-thought with that favourite ominous cliché :

to be continued …

4 Replies to “Owls, reviews, and thoughts about The End(s) of Criticism”

  1. Joanna,
    Thanks for the insightful post and the great links. I read them all! I agree with most of the comments in them, and I see the issue with Owl reviewing. I personally have never bought a book on Amazon based on other’s reviews…yet I submit reviews to them regularly! A hypocrite, I know, but the majority of what I read is not reviewed at all on Amazon, and I want to help expose what is usually a small press title that I think is worthy (and I do hate the star system of ratings!).
    I think the bigger problem is that these critics miss the elephant in the room-who reads anymore? So few people are regular readers, so you end up with two “classes” of readers. One are mass-market loyalists who read all their favorite authors religiously, and seldom look beyond them. The other, smaller class is those of us who read weird stuff, translated works, experimental fiction, global poetry, whatever….and there aren’t many of us. Many of the bloggers that are mentioned somewhat disparagely by professionals are those that get the mass-market titles. Everyone is reviewing the same crap, I mean, books!
    So, why don’t all these experts band together and help drum up interest in reading?
    I read about a woman on LinkedIn who said she’d read more but it’s been years since she saw a good book. Can you imagine? Or another who said she didn’t want her Kindle because books are boring?
    I’d love to see the media do more to encourage reading than simply rehash what is wrong with it. BTW, love your blog!

    1. Thanks Amy, you’re too kind!
      Seriously though, you make a couple of good points. Amazon reviews do tend to be atrociously written, but that definitely doesn’t have to be the case. And I’ll be keeping an eye out for your reviews there – do you cross post from/to LibraryThing?

  2. Some enjoyable stuff here. I especially enjoyed the ‘owl reviews’ – I don’t like owls and that book had an owl in it (which I’m going to have to figure out how to work into one of my reviews) – but I’m afraid I’m with you, I have no clue how to review anything in under 500 words; I aim for 3500 myself. I’m not sure I have strong opinions about reviewing but I do have opinions. I think a review should do more than advertise that a new book is out and that is all that many tabloid reviews have space for, a brief plot summary and a star rating. What I find a shame is that that is all many online reviews do too. Some even just copy out the publisher’s blurb and add a little padding. I dobelieve that a reviewer should actually have read the book he’s talking about and preferably all of it. I’ve noticed a couple recently where it’s obvious that only the first chapter’s been read/skimmed and I find that sad. But you get what you pay for and what do you want for nothing? That’s the bad thing about the Internet, we expect everything for nothing and you can usually find it be it freeware, or file sharing or some guy on his blog telling you what he thought about the film he saw last night.

    1. Or some bird on her blog? 😉
      Jim, I’m immediately sent back to the Monty Python bookstore sketch, and the quest for the Expurgated Version of the Book of Birds … it was gannets there, if I recall correctly.

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