February 9, 2012

“I’ve been fortunate that all the bad reviews I’ve had have been written by idiots.” – Geoff Dyer on bad reviews


Geoff Dyer, a nominee for the first ever “Hatchet Job of the Year” prize for his negative review of Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending (Adam Mars-Jones won the award yesterday for his review of Michael Cunningham‘s By Nightfall, as reported on MobyLives ), was interviewed last week at The Guardian and said some typically funny and smart things about the nature of criticism. He warns against the allure (perhaps heightened by this prize) to write “witty and damning phrases” at the cost of “accuracy of… judgment.” He calls it “naive” to think that critics won’t write about their friends or enemies. And he brings up one of my personal pet complaints about book reviewing: “One of the problems with reviewing is that newspapers are obsessed with their review appearing first – being up to date rather than having the time to form more of a considered view.”

As a publicist, I find it frustrating that book editors will not or can not assign reviews of books only a few months (or weeks) outside the window of “timeliness.”

Dyer also critiques one of the most common types of negative reviews (a bad review of a bad review!):

I hate it when a reviewer summarises the plot and adds a few things on the end about style. You are emphasising the quality of the writing, but in a way you are in danger of overlooking the quality of the judgment.

Which brings to mind another of my critical peeves: that reviewers often fail to clearly present their own aesthetic criteria before launching into attacks or praise. In the example above, Dyer describes the commonplace reviewer who assumes that a few poorly formed sentences equals a bad book. Dyer implies a different critical criteria: he is not overly concerned with writing quality—there are larger issues to consider. Many seeming arguments about the quality of a book (“A brilliant idea!” vs. “Horribly written!”) are not truly in disagreement about the book itself. Rather, these reviews merely express underlying, but often unarticulated, conflicts of criteria for “good” art.

Wouldn’t it be easier if reviewers were more upfront about what they want? Why, I wonder, should we be forced to infer a reviewers fundamental systeem of evaluation?  (Answering my own question: I suspect many critics have not properly analyzed their own underlying doctrine.) It seems evident to me that every professional critic should have floating around somewhere on the web a formal statement of their literary criteria. Such a list need not (should not) be comprehensive, but it could provide a basis for understanding how to respond to a given critic’s writing. Without this criteria, reading book reviews can feel a bit like being a witness at a sentencing without any clue about the nature of the law.

Some of the best reviews (ahem, my criteria) are less interested in evaluating a book than discovering or revealing a useful criterion. For example, in Mars-Jones “Hatchet Job” of Cunningham’s By Nightfall he begins with the statement: “Nothing makes a novel seem more vulnerable, more naked, than an armour-plating of literary references.” Now we know one yardstick by which Mars-Jones measures fiction. He’s had the decency to be dogmatic. Right out the gate, he’s defining his rule: Referentially, particularly if it seeks to make a piece of writing seem more significant and powerful, has the reverse effect of making a book (or writer) seem unsure of him or herself.” Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with this claim, you can now read the rest of the review knowing what the reviewer stands for and believes—which allows you to judge the way he judges.