Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Pass in Review

Another cart-before-the-horse topic.
Book Reviews.
The plague of Locus.
Minor wars have been fought over book reviews. No prisoners. No quarter. Scorched earth. Burn, baby, burn.

Some writers swear they never read reviews of their books, preferring to push a mouse than push pins into small, ugly dolls.
Others confess they pursue them as slavishly as they check Amazon rankings, in hopes of bannering their websites with 3 smouldering hearts, 4 dancing leprechauns or 5 flashing stars.
Good/bad reviews may/may not affect the sales of various books - on account of the obverse/perverse factor in the public psyche.
So take heart.
When I gave up collecting men, I continued to collect items equally demanding - books.
Yesterday, while frousting around this pyromaniac's delight I call an office, I pulled out a foxy old tome.
The Book of Authors by W. Clark Russell.
Described frontis as A Collection of CRITICISMS, ANA, MOTS, PERSONAL DESCRIPTIONS, Etc. Etc. Etc. wholly referring to English Men Of Letters In Every Age Of English Literature.
You may perceive that blurbs are not a new thing.
He begins with Roger Bacon and ends with John Ruskin.
I said it was an old book - but some thing never change.
The volume includes extracts from reviewers of the day.

Comment on Charles Dickens:
"We are inclined to predict of works of this style (ie. the works of Dickens)...that an ephemeral popularity will be followed by early oblivion." - Quarterly Review.

Charlotte Bronte:
"A person who, with great mental powers, combines a total ignorance of the habits of society, a great coarsness of taste, and a heathenish doctrine of religion." - Quarterly Review, 1849.

John Keats:
"Calm, settled, imperturbable, drivelling idiotcy." - Quarterly Review.

The critics of the Quarterly Review were obviously a tough sell.
Then we have this gushing eulogy.

Charles Mackay:
"Charles Mackay is the first poet, so far as my knowledge extends, of the new epoch; the day-star of a brighter day of poetry than the world has yet seen. At the same time I fear that only the initiated -that is, the individuals with high moral organs, more or less cultivated - will understand and feel the divine harmony of his poetry. But his fame will rise and last." - George Combe.

Charlie Who?
Alas, my organs remain as uncultivated as some of the critics remain confounded.
Ne'er, ne'er.


kmfrontain said...

Oh, how I laughed over the Dickens one. Good post, Bernita. A much needed reality check on what counts in writing. Who are we really trying to impress? Certainly not critics.

Bernita said...

I gurgled over it too, KM.
My rule of thumb is if the "official critics" pan a book or movie, I'll probably like it.

kmfrontain said...

So true. That's our rule of thumb as well. Die Hard is one of our memorable examples of pooping on good fun.

Carla said...

Someone famous said, "Remember, nobody ever raised a statue to a critic."

Ric said...

Fun stuff.
Sometimes I think the critics main goal is to make everyone else feel stupid. Too many times, I've read a glowing review - good enough to make me buy the book - and then slogging my way through turgid prose, trying to find the wonderful word play, and left wondering if I was too dim to see the genius so obviously there.

Carla said...

I've more or less given up reading official critics - newspapers etc. Half the time they're simply plugging the PR department's marketing spiel dressed up in arty language and the other half they seem solely concerned with puffing the critic's self-proclaimed brilliance by, as Ric said, making everyone else feel stupid. (Until you realise that the reason you can't understand it is because it doesn't actually mean anything). May I recommend the Guardian's Digested Read as a weekly antidote?

Bernita said...

Oh, oh, Carla!
Summed it up perfectly.
These assertions of superiority, as Ric said.
That makes two of us, Ric.
Underlines how subjective and/or agenda-driven the business is.

Anonymous said...

If nothing else, a good review from a recognized source is perfect for slapping on the book cover. It would be nice to get a few for that purpose alone.

I suppose reviewers get reviewed too. The one for Dickens gives himself away. Anything popular is substandard. Obviously, the reading public was not apt to follow his advice. They were inversely proportional to each other.

Flood said...

While the cart may be before the horse, it's important to decide what credence you will give these things, and how you will react should negativity float your way.
I don't know that I would be able keep my head out from under the covers during advanced readings.
This could explain why some of the greats had problems with alcohol.

S. W. Vaughn said...

Ah, reviews. I happen to have right here a book called Bad Press, which is a collection of reviews (literary, film, music, and restaurants). Here are a few of the gems:

"The triumph of sugar over diabetes." --George Nathan Lane on J.M. Barrie

"One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing." --Oscar Wilde on Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop

"Of all the writers we have perused, Walt Whitman is the most silly, the most blasphemous, and the most disgusting." --Literary Gazette

"A hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tried out a few of the old proven "sure-fire" literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy." --William Faulkner on Mark Twain

And so it goes...

My personal thoughts on reviews? I never buy a book based on the reviews; I never watch a movie based on what the critics think about it (same rule of thumb here: if "they" hate it, I'll probably like it, and vice versa) -- yet I pursue reviews and blurbs relentlessly. I can't help myself.

And Bernita, it's funny you should mention voodoo dolls. :-)

Dennie McDonald said...

I feel better about the crappy review I got - Although extremely well-written with hot, explosive sex, Her Passion drove me batty (that's only the beginning of what she didn't like - though she gave it a favorable rank - what gives...

well gee, tell me more... on second thought - let's not and say you like it! - LOL!

Bernita said...

Good reviews and endorsements do have their uses, Jason, no question.
Sometimes I think I would like to see a quote "pure, unmitigated drivel," by a Big Name and the sly rejoinder "You'll love it."

Thank you, Flood, an important point.Girding oneself for the inevitable criticism, and at the same time, taking praise with salt.

Bernita said...

Dennie, I'd gloat over the "extremely well-written" and "hot sex" parts and the rank.
The very best buttons.
Other readers would perk up about that and ignore the rest.

Thank you, SW.
Much better examples than my lame efforts at illustration.
The other form of critic is the author on author critical condemnation.
Witticisms at the expense of other writers is expected and sometimes demanded.
One enjoys them without necessarily taking them all that seriously.

Robyn said...

In the theatre we used to have a saying: Critics are like eunuchs in a harem. Marginally necessary, but not as important as they think they are.

I do reviews on my site, but more for the laughs over things common to the genre than explorations of a particular book. And I certainly hold no impressive credentials; it's the web equivalent of friends sharing over coffee what they've read that week.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

This is a very timely subject since i have a review up to about Kathryn Mackel's new book...and I'll have a chapter dump about another book up on Friday.

So far, I've been lucky with reviews. they've all turned out to be books that I liked...whew...*wiping her treadmil sweating brow*.

When I look at a review I usually take into account what kind of books the reviewer normally does. People tend to stick with the genre that they themselves read.

Luckily no one asks me to review poetry or actual literature....I don't think I'd be as enthusiastic as I am about thriller/action/adventure!

Bernita... me and my DH feel the same way as you do about movies...when the critics hate them, we usually love them.

Kim...I love Bruce Willis in anything he does!

Dakota Knight said...

Good Post, Bernita. I like reviews, good and bad. Some, like most of those on Amazon, I don't take too seriously, but I do like a publication such as RT Book Club Magazine to let me know what's out there. I never use a review to make a decision as to whether or not I'll buy a book, but I do think it's interesting to see what others are saying.

H.S. Kinn said...

William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson were contemporaries, and in their day many critics considered Jonson to be the superior writer.

Today, if you mention Jonson's name, you generally get, "Ben who?"

Melly said...

Oh, funny stuff here and yet I'm probably right there with the some of the critics, ignoring the popularity of Dan Brown and crying out - 'but this isn't good!'

Rick said...

The rule of reviews is the same as the old rule of Hollywood publicity: "Just so long as they spell my name right."

Our main concern is going to be getting our books noticed, so any attention helps. After all, endless scathing reviews really stopped The da Vinci Code dead in its tracks, didn't they?

Carla said...

Don't quote me on this, but didn't DVC get panned by the critics only after it became a bestseller, by which time reviews are pretty much irrelevant?

It is a problem finding out that new books by new authors even exist. The Historical Novel Society reviews pretty much everything published in HF and I've already found a few books that way that I'd never normally have heard of. Are there similar specialist publications for other genres?

Rick said...

Carla - Bernita made a punning reference to one, Locus, that reviews SF/F. I don't know how many general SF/F readers get it, or the other review zine, the Chronicle. But bookstore owners likely do, and bloggers, etc., so it might have some impact. I don't know about other genres.

You're probably right about reviews and DVC. The "big" reviewers generally ignore potboilers until/unless they become bestsellers. Mostly, in fact, the big reviewers whore after respectability by concentrating on works marketed as literary.

Gabriele C. said...

To quote good ol' Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, "schlagt ihn tot, den Hund, es ist ein Rezensent." (kill him, the dog, he's a critic).

But I have to admit there is one German critic, doing mostly modern literary (including translations from other languages, and the occasional tip for older books worth reading) with whom I agree a lot. If Marcel Reich-Ranicki says about a book, "das interessiert mich ├╝berhaupt nicht," (that doesn't interest me at all) I won't go near the boring sucker with a fire poker. His wars with G├╝nter Grass are legendary, and Grass' books (except Tin Drummer and Crabwalk) are way too long and overwritten, Nobel Prize or not.

Bernita said...

Oh, Robyn, we were thinking of the big, big name writers who huff over their compatriots by name. No slight was intended to the style of your blog - which I love.

A very well-done review, Bonnie. Made one eager to read it. The solution is to never review a book you don't like.

The ideal critic is one whose tastes run parallel with one's own, Gabriele.One can trust his opinion often.

Thank you, Rick, Carla. Have the vague idea that there's one for Romance, but the name escapes me at the moment.

Thank you, Dakota. I'll admit the same curiosity, though like you, I make up my own mind.

Some of his contemporaries were turned off Johnson by his "self-commendations," HS.Perhaps his loss of reputation over the centuries has to do with his being seem as more of a translator, and as a genius in comedy rather than tragedy.

There's no critic tougher than another writer, Melly.

For The Trees said...

I figured the stink about several published authors telling unpublished authors to "just write a review and put my name on it" was enough to gag a maggot.

So when I went with a print-on-demand outfit (with all my own nit-picking book setups) I wrote my own reviews: housewives, school teachers, convenience store owners, you know - REAL people. They're not hoity-toity critics, but they're not all congratulatory, either. I just felt like, if I'm gonna make up the story, I may as well make up the reviews, too.

No, I'm gonna leave those off when I send the books out to troll for rejection slips. Let's just trust I get a big bite quick!

Lisa Hunter said...

Well, that certainly puts that in perspective. Thanks!

Bernita said...

I must have missed that particular stink, Forrest.
I do know, in business, some managers do tell their staff to write their performance reviews. Of course, the managers have to approve and do amend the basic review, so I wonder if this is so different?

It's certainly entertaining, Lisa!

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