Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Bad(ass) Review: MOBY DICK (LAUNCH!)

Today, I was doing some exhaustive and exhausting research for my WIP -- i.e., "How many pages is Moby Dick?" (Answer: Anywhere from 400-800 paperback, further investigation pending . . .).

This is the only picture I have. You love it.
No, I haven't read it, although I did direct a production of Moby Dick: The Musical, which I'm sure qualifies me as a world-class Dick scholar (the harpooners wear bikinis, right?  And something about cannibals?). Anyway, I do know that this Melville classic is pretty universally considered one of the greats of American literature.

It was therefore suitably awe-inspiring for me to come across Brendan Duffy's Amazon.com review, which gave Moby Dick one out of a possible five stars:

"Herman Melville started writing a great novel but it seems he forgot that he was writing a fiction story about 200 pages in and proceeded to bore the hell out of me with wale biology . . . The last 100 or so pages were really good. I would recommend getting the abridged version if you want to read this."

This . . . this thing of beauty transcends traditional ideas of positive and negative, of criticism and vengeance, of scholar and Philistine. It is not just a Bad Review. It flies in the face of society and humanity and goes for the throat, convention and consequence be damned. It is, ladies and gentlemen, a Bad(ass) Review.

I feel compelled to make a space for these lovely, terrifying enigmas here on the blog. Have you seen any lurking in cyberspace? Have you been on the receiving end? (I once got a rejection that called into question my grasp of the English language.) If so, would you share?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Book Reviews, Part Two

Probably most of you reading this blog are writers. But let's look at reviews from a reviewer standpoint. If we liked a book, we want to give the author little print huggies and smoochies. And our words might encourage people to buy the book, or give it awards, or publish the author's next book. Yay!
This picture is adorable.
But what if we didn't like the book? That happens. So we write a negative review, anything from condescending to scathing. This book deserves what it gets, right? For having the audacity to have been published, sold, and read?

Well . . .

Unless writing a book review is purely a self-indulgent, self-serving act, it must serve a purpose. It must serve the community somehow. So how does it do this?

Here are some purposes of a negative review, based on my minutes years of playing Angry Birds research.

The Emperor's New Clothes

Sometimes, we feel a book may be receiving awards or raking in dough that it just doesn't deserve. In this case, a negative review serves to call it out, to be a voice of reason. We may even be giving voice to lots of other people who feel like they're shouting into the ether.

However, we need to be very careful that we're not just spewing negativity to be different. You didn't like The Da Vinci Code or Twilight? Fine. But make sure it's not simply because everyone else liked them.

"Completely implausible."

The Big Brain

We're smart. We're so smart we can write book reviews; we can tell other people with smaller, mushier brains what to think. Sometimes we are smarter than the author of the book we're reviewing! It's in the public's best interest to appreciate how un-smart everyone else is compared to us.

"My cat's turds have more literary value than this. "
Sure, maybe a negative review will get you noticed. It's an opportunity for you to dust off that academic lingo, substitute synonyms with lots of letters for common words, and refer to all the smarty-pants writers from history you're so familiar with. But if it's more about you than the book you're reviewing, the world really doesn't need it.

The Vendetta

We hate this author. We hate his stupid books and his stupid life and his stupid face.

Variant: We hate this genre/POV/setting/etc. There is no book in existence or potentially in existence that falls into this category that we would enjoy. 

There is no point to our reading this book, never mind reviewing it.

The Public Service Announcement

We simply may not like a book. It was poorly written, the story was as cohesive as a dictionary that's been torn apart by wild boars, whatever. It may be our duty to warn the rest of the world before more starving orphans spend their last $16.99 on a book they won't enjoy. 

"I told you The Notebook was boring. Here, you want half of this rat loaf?" 
But here's where things get a leeeetle subjective for me. Here's where I think we need a healthy serving of perspective. Sure, if the mediocre book in question is enjoying some success, particularly when there are other options out there, it might be helpful to some people if you steer them in a better direction.

But what if the book you're reviewing is some obscure vanity press/self-published/un-marketed pet project? If the purpose of your review is to tell people not to buy the book, what is the point of reviewing a book that no one is buying?

I'll tell you. The point is you're an a**hole.

So Should You Write This Review?

Follow this easy-to-use flow chart to find out!

Am I saying that honest, positive reviews with no hidden agenda are always justifiable?
Yes. Yes, I am.

Some images courtesy of ETC.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Book Reviews, Part One

"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment . . . But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so." --Anton Ego, Ratatouille

I can be critical of other people's creative work. Sure I can. Heck, I was criticized by one critic for being too critical in my critical thesis. And you are just as critical as me. Maybe more so. Probably more so.

"It lacks gravitas." -- You

But that's okay. Thoughtful criticism can help artists grow and understand what isn't working about their creations. And how many wonderful, under-appreciated writers and visual artists and composers have gotten bathed in limelight because someone of influence took notice?

This actually happened.
But recently, I've been thinking about the Negative Review, particularly when it comes to books. You know the type.

Hey, little girl. Your book sucks and so do you.
It's not that negative reviews are never justifiable. There are certainly some crappy books out there, and boring books, and poorly-edited books, and half-assed books. There are writers who deserve air quotes around the word "writer" when you're talking about them. And I'm sure there are books so trite and clumsy, they make you want to put anthrax in the water supply because surely it's the end of civilization and we may as well get it over with.

On an unrelated note, isn't this a cute picture?
But maybe -- maybe -- we should talk about perspective.

". . . You know what I'm craving? A little perspective. That's it. I'd like some fresh, clear, well seasoned perspective. Can you suggest a good wine to go with that? . . . Fresh out, I take it? . . . Very well. Since you're all out of perspective and no one else seems to have it in this bloody town, I'll make you a deal. You provide the food, I'll provide the perspective, which would go nicely with a bottle of Cheval Blanc 1947." -- Anton Ego, Ratatouille

Seriously. See Ratatouille.

I won't lie to you, cyberfriends. This two-part mega-post is the result of two recent book reviews in my local newspaper, the Concord Monitor. Reviews that annoyed me.

Take, for instance, Megan De Vorsey's review of Crosscurrents of Change, a collection of essays by several different people about the history of Concord, NH, published by the Concord Historical Society.

She writes:  "Some chapters, such as 'The Land & The River' or 'Repeating the Course' (on education), are particularly well written. Others, like 'Lure of the Land' (farming) and 'Insurance,' are overly long and full of less interesting detail."

Really? This is a collection of essays written by E. B. White Henry David Thoreau LOCAL HISTORY ENTHUSIASTS. This may be the only opportunity some of them ever have to see their passion for the history of Concord's quarry owners or whatever in print, and the only mention they get is that their little piece of this book was too long and boring for you? It's the history of Concord, not the Siege of Troy.

In fact, the original name of our beloved capital was Concord-Less-Interesting-Details, NH,
but it was recently shortened due to budget cuts.
De Vorsey goes on: "Some topics, like the railroads and the airport, get close attention. Other topics, like the women's movement, the arts, and crime, get strangely short shrift." 

Right. So the next time the Historical Society decides to use their vast resources to try and get a book together about the entire history of a city, they should be sure to give all imaginable topics equal and thorough coverage.


The second review annoyed me on a more personal, rather than philosophical, level. In it, critic Mike Pride takes on Down from Cascom Mountain, the debut novel from Ann Joslin Williams.

He begins: "Some artists and writers who follow in a parent's footsteps tread lightly. They can do nothing to avoid the comparisons critics will inevitably make, but they at least try to cut a distinct path.

Ann Joslin Williams instead resurrected the milieu of her father, the late Thomas Williams, as the setting for Down from Cascom Mountain."

The plot thickens, we see. If Thomas Williams' name sounds familiar, it might be because he was a freaking awesome famous writer. So let's start there. Pride says, "But while one of her father's novels, The Hair of Harold Roux, won the National Book Award in 1975, this book turns out to be, unfortunately, more of a beach read than a literary gem."

Translation: Ann Joslin Williams has the gall to write about the same milieu -- "place," mind you, meaning the area in which they both lived -- as her dad, and her novel is not as good as his NBA-winner. Pride qualifies this by saying, "Williams does show skill in this first novel," but if I were an NEA grant recipient, former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, award-winning university English professor, I might find it a tad condescending.

I'm not saying this reviewer doesn't have the right to dislike Williams' book and write about it. Not at all. But let's keep it relevant, and let's keep a little perspective.

Helpful tips on how to do this coming in Part Two.