Tuesday, September 15, 2009

... and a bad bad review ...

There are four kinds of book review. There's the good good review, which is both favourable about its subject and skilfully, knowledgeably written on the basis of a careful, thorough reading of the book in question. There's the good bad review, which is well executed in all respects but unfavourable. There's the bad good review, which is favourable but a bad example of the book review genre.

(There are many ways of badly writing a review: not reading the book properly, making opinionated and magisterial assertions instead of properly arguing your case, getting your facts wrong because you haven't actually read the book, pushing your own pet writers and ideas at the expense of the book you're supposed to be reviewing, blowing your own trumpet about your own achievements, not distinguishing between your personal opinions and the actual facts, making wildly offensive statements, and so on and so forth.)

And finally there's the bad bad review, which is ... Well, you know.

A few years ago I was invited to participate in a forum at the University of Sydney on the subject of book reviewing. Allotted a generous amount of time for my talk, I needed to come up with an infinitely expandable structure for it, something with a strong backbone that I could sketch out and then amplify here and there, both at the keyboard and then again, if called for, on my feet.

In the end, I came up with a way of doing it that meant I had a single central line of argument and organising principle: the text of the talk was a heavily annotated list of the people and entities to whom/which I believe a book reviewer has a responsibility. It was a list whose length surprised even me (for over the decades I have given these matters a great deal of thought), as I thought about just how many people and things I have at the back of my mind, or even halfway to the front, whenever I review a book. The list looked something like this:

1) To the readers of the review, to

(i) describe the book accurately,
(ii) tell the truth as you see it, and
(iii) provide entertainment and useful information.

2) To the potential readers of the book (some overlap there, obvs),

(i) not to mislead them about its contents, and
(ii) to save them $30+ if that's what you think.

3) To the writer(s) and/or editor(s) of the book,

(i) to read the book carefully and comment on it thoughtfully,
(ii) not to misrepresent it, and
(iii) not to say anything that will actually make them want to slash their wrists.

4) To the literary editor who saw fit to commission the review from you, to

(i) justify her or his faith in your (suit)ability and expertise,
(ii) write to the word length you were given,
(iii) provide clean copy in the requested format (e.g. not phone it in, say) and
(iv) provide said copy on or before the deadline you were given.

5) To the publication for which you are writing,

(i) to pay attention to its house style,
(ii) to fit in with its general editorial approach and standard of writing,
(iii) not to write anything that will either require extensive and expensive legalling, or, in the absence of said legalling, get the publication sued, and
(iv) not to compromise, or indeed trash, its reputation.

6) To the people who are paying you to do a decent job of work, to be worthy of your hire.

7) To the literary culture in particular and indeed to the culture in general, to make a worthy contribution to it and not demean or devalue it by adding junk rather than good useful stuff.

8) To yourself,

(i) to maintain your standards, not just professional but also moral (say, turning down editorial requests to review books by friends, rivals, enemies or old lovers),
(ii) to refuse to say anything you don't mean, and
(iii) not to make yourself look like either a wanker or a dickhead, or both. 'Both' is possible but not attractive.


cristy said...

I was there and impressed by your presentation. Though I must admit that I was still a little confused by the focus of the seminar. I had not applied to attend that particular one and thought that the title 'reviewing the reviewers' was about peer-review academic journals and how to submit to them...

Should have read the description!

Anonymous said...

My rule of thumb is: don't review books by friends, enemies, sensitive little plants, and people with whom you have some professional/editorial relationship. Rivals is a good distinction, though in one particular case I beg off with "Her style gives me the irrits" (it does). And for heaven's sake, if you feel you should have written or edited the book concern, either say so or leave well enough alone. Lucy Sussex

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Cristy, yes, I remember you telling me that at the time. You must have felt like Alice in Wonderland.

Lucy, yes, that last does have the ring of familiarity -- as I'm sure my list of the attributes of a bad review also will for some.

The Paradoxical Cat said...

In a small pond like NZ reviewing is pretty tricky. It's sometimes hard for editors to find a competent reviewer who isn't either a friend or an enemy, or an ex-lover, of somebody associated with the book! And an over-frank review can have long term ramifications for social life and even career.

Anonymous said...

the melbourne reviewing pool is pathetically small. everyone knows everyone and no one takes a bit of notice of the 'rules' defined by Lucy S. if only!! it's a sad little industry....

Anonymous said...

Jenny Pausacker's rule was that a reviewing "friend" was someone you'd broken bread with domestically (dinner at their place or yours). It's a good one to keep in mind. I do try to stick to my rules... Lucy S

tigtog said...

This is a great list to keep in mind/adapt to other situations. Having dipped my toe into reviewing comedy shows last year I very much appreciate the reminder to remember my stakeholders.