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by Bill Ward on October 16, 2009

in Black Gate,Book Reviews

douglas_macarthurA Discount Toradol, fter a month or so of slacking on my Blog Gate responsibilities, I have returned like MacArthur to the Philippines, sans corncob pipe, with a post all about book reviewing: Writing Book Reviews -- How and Why. Since a great deal of my time lately has been going into reviews for the next issue of BG, 100mg Toradol, 250mg Toradol, and since I can't think of hardly anything to blog about lately, an indepth look at reviewing seemed like a good idea:

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Pete Mitchell October 17, 2009 at 2:14 am

Enjoyed the (full) article at Black Gate. I do wonder if there can be any truly ‘neutral’ sentiments expressed in a book review. Whether a particular piece of writing is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is a wildly subjective assessment; one person’s “thrilling, visceral, chaos of war battle scene” is someone else’s “tedious, incoherent smash-’em-up”.

It seems to me the best a reviewer can do is make their own prejudices clear in describing what did or didn’t work for them in a book, and avoid unfounded generalisations, e.g. “I didn’t like this because …” rather than “This is utter garbage, penned by a completed idiot.”

My pet hate are reviewers who try to couch their personal like or dislike of a book in purportedly “objective criticism”. This sort of attitude leads to specious (and laughable) claims like: “Look! Look! I hated this and it used the passive voice, so It Must Be Bad!”

Everyone has their opinion, but trying to aggrandise that opinion as the unassailable standard to which all other opinions must conform (i.e. “One review to rule them all!”) or otherwise assert that the reviewer’s opinion is “more important” or “more valid” than anyone else’s strikes me as sheer hubris.

I was also interested by the point you made about good reviews needing to be ‘entertaining’. An unremittingly snarky (and in no way ‘fair’ or ‘balanced’) review about something the reviewer hated enough to ridicule at every possible turn can be highly-entertaining, but I’m not sure how good a ‘review’ it is.

I guess the key, when reviewing, is not to let the cheap shots–or the arrogance–get out of control.

P.S. I spotted a minor typo in the article: “… Whenever evaluating failures and success in a book it is important to keep foremost in mind the totality of the book itself — if it is successful despite it’s flaws …” It should be “its flaws” (no apostrophe), of course. Just FYI, in case you still can (or want) to fix this.

Bill Ward October 17, 2009 at 9:42 am

You know, the whole ‘snark and cheap-shots’ thing never occurred to me, I should have covered it. It is so alien to the way I review that I don’t even think about it (especially as, for this site, I don’t even bother reviewing books I don’t recommend), and I really haven’t encountered it all that much from genre reviewers. Needless to say, I agree with you, and bile and abuse is not at all what I had in mind when I urged reviewers to be entertaining.

I share your dislike with reviewers that insist that their pet hates or current humors translate into objective criticism — however, I don’t feel this invalidates the notion of objective criticism (or objectivity in general, a larger issue). This is why I mention in my post that the line between objectivity and subjectivity is something it almost requires a honed instinct to navigate — and perhaps it’s also a question of personality and mindset. I believe there are such things as objective standards — certainly ‘failures of logic’ are among the most cut-and-dried examples of this. Beyond that, many books have their own inherent criteria based on genre expectations or the goals the author creates for himself.

I agree the days when the gatekeepers of high culture passed sentence from on high under the guise of objective standards has past — but I’d argue that some of their criticism was, of course, another kind of subjectivity. But narrative structure and the demands of storytelling have their own kind of logic, and I do believe it is possible to offer some sort of objective analysis of them that goes beyond gut feelings or pet hates. I don’t necessarily think it is the most important part of criticism, however.

And thanks for spotting the typo — I always fix them when brought to my attention.

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