Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Review--Part 4

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


C.J. Darlington said...

Hmmm... well, I see your point with this, Brandilyn. I'm sure there are times when pulling a sentence out of a book would indeed give a reader the wrong impression. But then again, I do believe examples have their place. If an author is writing crazy lines that make no sense, giving an example would "show" rather than "tell" the reader what a reviewer means. In a way it could also be construed as the reviewer giving the author a chance to defend his/herself. The reviewer states why they don't like a particular line, and the reader of the review (by reading the line themselves) can decide whether they agree.

But I guess this would only apply if it wasn't taken completely out of context, like you said.

I suppose it all comes down to what you already covered: a review is just one person's opinion.

I love seeing reviews from an author's perspective. These are some great posts.

Tina said...

Good thoughts. I've read plenty of reviews with The Example. And while it turns me off of the book, in the back of my mind I've always thought, "That poor author. To have a line drug out like that for everyone to see."

I don't like that tactic. It's like pulling someone on stage in their underwear. Next time I won't be so quick to agree with the reviewer who feels the need to do this.

R. K. Mortenson said...

An overreaction to a quote taken out of context? Hmmm...reminds me of the backlash to a comment a certain religious leader made the other day.

J. Mark Bertrand said...

As a reader, I'd prefer reviewers to back up their observations with examples from the text, and I understand that a representative quote in passing may be a necessary evil when an entire book has be reviewed in a paragraph or two. So that's not a pet peeve of mine. But I do have one: buyer's guides that masquerade as reviews. I'd argue that a lot of what passes for reviewing doesn't rise to that level. There's not enough contextualization, not enough interaction with the text, not enough of anything. Instead it's just a rush to the thumb's up (or down) at the end. Too many soundbites, not enough analysis. One of the reasons I don't review books is that doing it right is hard. A lot of "reviews," especially the self-published ones online, seem to be the result of a quick skim and a collection of random observations. They may provide fodder for the marketing department, but they aren't much help to a reader who wants to be truly informed.

Tina said...

Different Tina here. I agree with j.mark. Observations need to be backed up and they often are not. So we go from reviews that are "too nice" to reviews that have an unsubstantiated line or paragraph stating something negative about the book. Such practice does not suddenly make the review a critical (meaning "careful study of") piece of writing about a book.

Kristy Dykes said...

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."

K: If this author used "sore as a rising" and "thick as mud" and "as big as a barn" and "dead as a doornail" and "stubborn as a mule" and "clear as a bell" then I guess the reviewer was right. But you'd have to read the book to know for sure.

I agree with you, Brandilyn. A review is one person's opinion.

And a rejection is one person's opinion, too (an editor's).


John Robinson said...

Thankfully the reviews for my Joe Box stuff have been positive (so far). More important, those reviews have left out the Big Reveal (again, so far). I'm still awaiting the first review for my latest one. May my good fortune hold...

Domino said...

If I see a "poor writing example" in a review, I don't generally pay much attention to it. If I see details about which major issues are in the book, I pay attention.

People who put examples in reviews remind me of people who repeat dialogue from a movie they've just seen. If you haven't seen the movie, it might not make as much sense to you.

Katie Hart said...

I rarely use quotes in my reviews. Mostly it stems from the first magazine I reviewed for - if you quoted the text, you had to fax a copy of the page the quote was located on to double-check for accuracy. WAY too much trouble for quoting a line or two, especially since I didn't have a fax machine.

Quoting seems more appropriate for nonfiction and music. Even then, I only use quotes positively.

I agree that the reviewer's statement before the quote changes my opinion of it. And that's unfortunate.

Instead of direct quotes, a reviewer should try to capture the author's tone for the novel.

Nicole said...

Staying in character is essential so when a writer gives that character a silly or corny personality or dialogue, of course it's going to be, well, silly or corny. A good reviewer, it seems, would simply state they didn't care for the personality or dialogue because it was too silly or corny for them.
Examples would matter to me only in non-fiction reviews, and to tell you the truth, if I can't figure out if I want to read the book from the back cover, chances are I won't read it--fiction and non-fiction alike.
Knowing the subjectivity of it all, I don't take the time to allow someone else to decide for me whether or not I'll like the book. One of the main reasons I read, other than appreciating the craft and absorbing what I like for my own skills, is to enjoy the story and to be surprised. I don't want someone's opinion ruining it for me.

TL Hines said...

Great blog topic, Brandilyn. Having just gone through the review gauntlet for the first time, I can tell you I have one big pet peeve: book reports masquerading as reviews. I've seen a fair number of reviews (maybe even a large number) offer a synopsis of the story, sans analysis or commentary. Come on, it's a review. Tell me whether you loved it or hated it, and why.

Chris said...

As much as I'd hate to see a passage of mine singled out for harsh criticism (but, oh, how I love hearing nice stuff), The Example gives the reader the means by which to evaluate not only the subject of the review, but the reviewer him/herself.

Had the Eyes reviewer just said "includes some overwritten passages" you/I'd be left wondering "what! where?" By showing The Example we both know he/she needs to take a LitCrit class or two at the local junior college.

Is the other example too cowboy'd-up? Maybe, maybe not (the review is not only an opinion, but the opinion regarding The Example is only an opinion, too). Maybe it is stale, but maybe there are a dozen plot holes that should take precedence in the review, instead. Or maybe it's intentionally bad and the reviewer has no sense of irony.

Taking any part of a review as more than an opinion is a mistake, whether big picture (this book is good/bad) or little (this sentence doesn't "flow"). A "qualified" opinion at least gives you a tool to gauge whether the reviewer's skills equal their task or not.

The reviews I hate are the ones where the book the author didn't write are evaluated (This book would have been so much better if it had been set in the Mid-Nineteenth Century Maritimes instead of on and around Ceti Alpha V in the Twenty=Third). Pointing out things the author got wrong (nobody talks like that) is one thing; suggesting "improvements" (although he was a Belgian he should have adopted a French accent) is quite another.

J. Mark Bertrand said...

I can't stay away. Brandilyn, you've made me blog about this and I still can't get it out of my system. :) Chris, you crazy man, it's true that reviews are just opinions, but then so are diagnoses -- which is why, when you get another one it's called a "second opinion." But doctors don't usually give random, uninformed diagnoses and I think the same is true of professional reviewers, the folks whose opinions make it into print. Reviews of the same book can be polar opposites (the example I give is two reviews of Robert Harris's new Imperium that are almost exactly opposite) but as long as they're thoughtful, reasoned and represent a valid reading of the work, I'd say they're "good." The clash of reviews is one of the contours of "book talk" that makes this so much fun. (Also, Chris, just because I'm reply to your comment doesn't give you permission to Photoshop me on your blog. Not that you need it.)

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Really enjoying all your comments, y'all. Fun discussion.

And I thought everybody was busy packing for the conference.

D. Gudger said...

It seems rather unfair to judge a book by one sentence. What I'm curious to know about is the comparisons to other authors. As a newbie to writing reviews, I find that exceptionally difficult. I've read literally thousands of books and after a while many blend together. It's hard to remember them all. Are such comparisions always accurate or fair? What are some guidelines from an author's perspecitve pertaining to comparisons.

I think each author has a unique voice.

Chris said...

Dang, Mark, I was hoping for a "That's crazy talk!"

If you took me to mean that “one should disregard reviews and arrive at one’s own opinion on one’s own,” then shame on you – that’s far too formal a way to conduct your interior monologue. Plus, I didn’t mean that.

I'm with you on the fact that professional reviewers, like doctors, are going to use their best analytical skills in writing a review/diagnosis. Opinions may be right, but they’re also going to be based on biases and blind spots. The selection and analysis of The Example (or The Symptoms) will (or won’t) give you a feeling of confidence in their recommendation.

If Reviewer A says “this book has weak character development” and Reviewer B says “non-stop action,” they may both be right. Which best matches up with what you’re looking for?

Maybe The Example is prefaced with “as Bunny might say ‘ewww, grody dialect issues much’,” but your friend, who you suspect of not being an idiot, says the dialogue made the characters come alive. Do you want to spend time with such characters? Can you ditch your friend? Decisions, decisions.

Not all reviewers (or doctors) are equal (which is not to say that none are good). It comes down to finding sources that seem trustworthy -- credentials, reputation, etc. -- and trying their advice. Read the book; do you come to the same conclusions? Or don't read the book; are the people reading it having more fun than you? (Trial and error works better with finding reliable review sources than medical help; following a doctor's advice (or not) may result in you not being able to give them a second chance...)

Now, where's my Photoshop launcher?