Second thing that always bugs me when I see it in a review—The Example.
Lest you be confused, let me give you two examples.
From a recent Publisher’s Weekly review of another author’s book: But to get there, readers will have to overlook . . . hackneyed lines like "She'd been a burr under his saddle from the day he first clapped eyes on her."
From the Publisher’s Weekly review of Eyes of Elisha: There’s . . . occasional overwriting ("the underbrush seemed taken aback at the sudden sound, rustling its disapproval").
As I mentioned yesterday, to give reviewers credit, I think they think they’re being fair. They’re mentioning a negative and feel they need to back it up with proof.
However, this “proof” is seen by the reader of the review totally out of context. If a reviewer says, “Listen to this hackneyed line,” then states one sentence from the book, it will always sound hackneyed after that kind of negative set-up. Or if the reviewer says, “This is overwritten,” then runs the line, the line will definitely seem overwritten.
Sure, sometimes a line, even in its context, will hits a reviewer as overwritten, or a piece of dialogue as hackneyed. But remember, a review is merely one person’s opinion. There are plenty other people who would read that same line, in its context, and never find it overwritten or hackneyed. When the reviewer pulls out a line like this and makes a value judgment, she is removing from the reader the freedom she herself enjoyed to see the line in context and judge it on that merit.
Now one line doesn’t mean much. But the reader of the review, after being shown a “proving” line of bad writing, can be led to believe the book will contain plenty more.
This “out of context proof” reminds me of the old hullabaloo that once surrounded veteran interviewer Barbara Walters. Someone heard an interview she did with Katharine Hepburn and thought one of her questions was stupid—even in its context. Next thing you know, everyone’s talking about how dumb the question was. It supposedly went something like this: “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” Walters got castigated up and down for that question. I clearly remember people laughing about it on talk shows. Well, out of its context, and with the negative set-up of “listen to this stupid question”—I had to agree. It sounded stupid.
Some time later I saw Walters interviewed. The interviewer asked her about all the criticism over the ‘tree” question. Walters explained the context. Hepburn had out of the blue made some statement to the effect, “Sometimes in my life I’ve felt like a tree.” Walters’ follow-up question was, “What kind of tree?” Hepburn decided she was like an old--a bit gnarled and weathered, but still mighty and strong.
Suddenly, in context, Walter's query didn’t seem so stupid. I saw it instead through the POV of the interviewee—Hepburn. Walters was just following Hepburn’s strange line of thought. And in the end, we got a glimpse into Hepburn's character that we may not have gotten if Walters hadn't followed up with her question.
When I see a negative example given in a review—I think of Walters. No matter how “hackneyed” or “overwritten” the quoted line seems, I shouldn’t judge it out of context.
The “overwritten” line from the Eyes of Elisha review is a personal example. Now, I can’t really complain about that review, because it was a very good one. Still, as PW is wont to do, a few negatives were buried in all the positives. I get that. But this negative example of an “overwritten” line completely baffled me. As I remembered, the line was from a scene in the protagonist’s point of view. She’s in a forest by herself, knowing a dead body is somewhere nearby, and scared to death the killer’s still around. In her panicked state, she starts to see the forest itself as animated, like the forest in Disney's Snow White. Rocks trying to trip her, roots reaching out to grab her. Of course her thoughts are all over the top—she’s panicked and losing her ability to think clearly. In that context comes the line about the rustling underbrush.
I read that review example of “overwriting” and felt like Barbara Walters.
I haven’t read the book about which the first review example is talking. But I read that so-called “hackneyed” line and saw clearly that it’s written in a close third person POV, as I write. Maybe that character is a real over-the-top cowboy. Maybe this is some comic relief. Maybe he always thinks and talks like this. Who knows? But we have to remember—we’re in that character’s POV. That is the way he talks and thinks. This isn’t the way the author writes. There’s a big difference. When you write in close third person POV, you choose the words the character would use, not the words you would use.
Sometimes I don’t think reviewers get this at all.
I urge you, as a reader of reviews, not to let yourself blindly agree with negative examples. Seeing the sentence in its context, you may not agree with the reviewer at all. And I urge you reviewers to think twice before you do this. Is it really fair to pull a sentence out of context and place your value judgment on it? I think the fairer thing, if you think there’s some overwriting in the book, or “hackneyed” lines, or stilted dialogue, or whatever, is to say so, but give no specifics. And going even beyond that, I urge you to rethink your opinion on the lines in the first place. Are they written in a context that is true to the character? That is germane to the character's perception of the world? If so, maybe they're not so hackneyed or overwritten after all.
Reviewers out there—whadya think? Any dissenting opinions? Who brought the tomatoes?
Read Part 6