Sunday, February 16, 2014

Negative Reviews

When Francine Prose writes a book or a critical review or essay, you are more often than not prompt to read the result.  Among the many reasons this is so are these:  She is an insightful viewer of dramatic events, a shrewd judge of written expositions, and a passionate practitioner of thoughtful expression.  Even when you are not completely taken by her presentation of ideas, you are nevertheless impressed by them.

Her brief piece in today's New York Times Book Review, dealing with the arguments for and against negative reviews of books is impressive.In your experience as a book reviewer, you've experienced many of the situations she describes, including, when you were assigned a book to review that you found yourself not liking, the return of the book to the editor with a note explaining why you did not wish to review it.

By your account, you've reviewed books for the Los Angeles Times, the Examiner, the Los Angeles Free Press, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Fort Worth Post-Telegram, The National Catholic Reporter, the Santa Barbara News-Press, the Santa Barbara Independent, and since 2005, The Montecito Journal, in addition to six or seven literary journals.  Your total is in the neighborhood of a thousand books reviewed.

Most of these reviews have been positive, your goal being to present as intriguing a portrait of the book under review as possible in hopes of motivating the reader of the review to seek out the book.

To the best of your memory, a scant fifty or sixty of these reviews have been neutral or negative, the most recent example of which is a case of why you believe the task of the reviewer is to provide an honest, straightforward discussion of the book under review.

Your last negative review was not negative until the past paragraph, in which you expressed concerns that the book in effect attempted--with some success--to bully the reader into thinking as much of it as the author did.  There was no way the author was going to agree with you or in any way take to creative heart the last paragraph of the review.  You were aware of this attitude from the author, which in most cases would have been sufficient for you to return the work, unreviewed by you.

In this case, you went ahead with the review, aware of the possible consequences awaiting you in the matter of a freelance job you'd had since 1980, which you no longer have.

The principle in effect here relates more to your own sense of selfhood and subjective sense of critical vision than any effects that might rub off on the author of the book in question or the readers of the review.  In effect, you made a public statement that received ratification from a number of sources, even though these sources held their views before your review.

In the long run, such differences of opinion have little effect in what projects find their way to publication or how they are seen by a readership, either at the time of publication or well after the fact.  But without these differences of opinion, publishing and critical responses can be tweaked to suggest the big tent of literature and critical thinking, which does not in any way mirror reality.

Your major reasons for negative reviews have to do with your belief that the work in question could have profited from editorial attention in any of a number of ways related to the motivation of characters (if the work were fiction) or the logic used in preventing ideas, were the work nonfiction.  Sometimes, the negativity of your review related to the author's use or misuse of language, including the tendency to over use attributions or withhold necessary information.

From reviews you've received from time to time on work of your own, in which you were taken to task in effect for having written the book you chose to write rather than the book the reviewer wished you to write, you've been careful not to take on the critic's role with that misstep prominent in your heart or mind.

The majority of your book reviews are positive because you so often manage to find something of quality to overwhelm the thing or things of deficit quality.  You in fact become impatient, then angry in the company of narratives with poor or faulty development.  Your reviews of these are attempts to warn potential readers to perhaps skip these parts for the opportunity to focus on the places where the information is of such value that the means of portraying it supplants the style or lack thereof that conveys it.

Sometimes the information, factual or dramatic, is of such importance that you can stomach a turgid narrative for a while.  But don't expect a glowing review.

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