Sunday, January 18, 2009

Random thoughts, further to reviews and book sections

So what are we looking for in reviews? Perhaps I am one of the few who believes that reviews are an opportunity to entice readers. Maybe pedagogical concerns don't have a place in reviews? Perhaps people do want things torn apart in public. Perhaps reviews are only written from one writer to another writer. If the latter is true then our world is even smaller and more circular than I feared. Some of the emails and comments that arose from Jonathan Ball's critique of reviewing reveal a conflict in terms of what people expect. Some people think there is too little critical analysis, some people think reviewers are too easy, too positive. Some people bemoan reviewers who simply describe. Then there is that annoying reviewer who doesn't bother reviewing at all and if you cut away all of the quotes used from the original text, and the lines taken from the catalog copy there is probably one line of "original" reviewer text.

I wonder. And as I've said before, I do think it would be interesting to do a study of the language of reviewing. I'm sure it would be illuminating, and useful. There was a young woman, I think at Princeton, who did a study of the poems included in the New Yorker over a long stretch of time and she found they had startling similarities in form as well as tone, and content. It was a very useful paper, but not something I am interested in spending the time doing--reading through reviews for example, and studying the rhetorical strategies of them.

But perhaps my question is not the right one for the moment. Perhaps the actual language of reviewing isn't pressing, perhaps it is the publication of them, for I am still reeling from the loss of the Globe and Mail book section. I think it's a terrible sign, and an error. No matter what we get online, a country without a national paper that acknowledges the fundamental act of reading as essential and worthy of investment, worries me. And fair or not, for one who has for so long mourned the lack of Canadian presence online, even if they replicated the books section fully online, I would still think it's a mistake. Why? Because we can't just let everything get sucked up into the rather tenuous world of the internet. We need to make use of the net, yes, but it can't replace everything. I think that right up there with rebuilding infrastructure as a means of moving us through and out of this global economic slump, we need to embrace the idea that the internet should be a tool for our use, not a means of further decimating our already shaky bit of social and cultural infrastructures.


Chris said...

"I do think it would be interesting to do a study of the language of reviewing."

I believe Donato Mancini just wrote a thesis about an aspect of the language of reviewing...

I want a review to be an engaging piece of writing that provides an entryway for me to understand why someone who gets something out of a book appreciates it -- a foot in the door, as they say. Or, if I already know the book, to provide a new avenue for appreciation, or to connect it to things I don't know about.

My locus classicus for this is Orwell's essay on Dickens, an essay that I love, and whenever I read it, I want to rush up and read some Dickens, to experience everything Orwell does... and if I try that, I am reminded of how much I can't stand Dickens, can't even get a few sentences into his writing. Which doesn't then make me think Orwell's reading is wrong, but rather makes me appreciate that Orwell can explain to me what there is to be enjoyed in DIckens, which I am too broken to be able to appreciate myself.

The trick, of course, is that a reviewer doesn't know what I've read. This was my real problem with the letter to Geist -- it was resolutely impersonal about a very personal matter. Geist was failing Jonathan Ball, but he made it sound as though Geist was failing all its readers, without any evidence other than his own dissatisfaction. Even if I agree with his dissatisfaction (which I probably do!) that rhetorical move gets under my skin. (And one of the reasons why I let the conversation go was that you provided some metric, some initial proof, that "all readers" weren't as engaged -- because they didn't seem to be sending in as many letters. So, OK, fair enough, and it's not as if Ball really came off as a crazy person by suggesting that most readers would be bored by such a review -- but something, anything to indicate that that is the situation, and that it isn't just ego-projection.)

So, I probably was harsher than I needed to be. Sorry.

Lemon Hound said...

Ah, I keep hearing of Donato's work, and then forgetting to follow up...

Well, I am sorry for my snappish response, it wasn't my intention to shut down the conversation but I realize I didn't do much to foster it either. And your observations are always of interest, Chris.

Your example of Orwell on Dickens is a great one. How we come to work is so interesting...and mysterious in some way. Hence the common held assumption by so many writers, Gluck, Lilburn, for example, that the work finds its readers. That's a bit too passive for me as a primary tactic, but I think it's true in part.

As for the impersonal/personal, fair enough, but I might let Jonathan speak to that.