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Read This and Tell Me What It Says
Once again illness has kept me away from blogging for a bit. I had surgery on Friday on the tumors on my liver, which the surgeon believes he has gotten (yay!), but I had to go the emergency room on Saturday in intense pain that turned out to be caused by pneumonia in my right lung. As Frank Sinatra sang, everything happens to me. Yeesh.
I’m sure that every writer remembers his or her first review. I’m even more sure that every writer remembers his or her first bad review. To be honest, I don’t remember the first review of my first book, where it appeared or who wrote it, what it said or where I was when I first read it. But I remember exactly where I was when I saw my first bad review, of my second book, Angel, Interrupted. I was at Borders in Chicago, in my old hipster/gayboy/yuppie neighborhood of Lakeview. I haven’t been to that Borders in many years, but ten years ago they had an excellent selection of literary journals. I picked up a copy of Chelsea, in which my work had appeared several times, and there it was.
Upset as I was at first, even angry (there was a slightly condescending tone to the review), I came to decide that the review, though negative, wasn’t all that bad. The author had written at length, he had quoted extensively, and he did seem to understand what was going on in the book, at least in the poems he discussed: he just didn’t like it. But it seemed to me that someone could read the review and, irrespective of the reviewer’s opinion, get an accurate enough sense of the book that he or she could decide, “Well, this fellow doesn’t like this book, but from the description and the excerpts, it seems like something I might like.” I have that experience quite often. Though obviously I would prefer to have been praised, the review did give a good sense of the book. I even got a nice phrase that I later used in a poem from it.
That is what I look for in reviews: an accurate description or presentation of what is happening in a book, of how the book works. I am thoroughly uninterested in a reviewer’s opinion of a book, whether he or she likes it or not. I almost never agree with reviewers’ opinions, and very few reviewers make considered arguments for their views, so they tend to remain just that: personal opinions, of as much interest as the reviewer’s preferences in food. What I want from a review is to find out about the book, not about the reviewer, though too many reviews focus on just that. One learns a lot (usually too much) about the reviewer and not enough about the book.
Positive reviews tend to be as much or more about the reviewer’s fondness for the book’s subject matter, attitude or point, or author as they are about the book’s merits as a piece of literature. As for negative reviews, they tend to be occasions for the reviewer to demonstrate that she or he is better than, smarter than, perhaps even more virtuous than, the book under discussion. (Whether this is true or not is quite beside the point.) As W. H Auden points out in his wonderful essay “Reading” (included in his equally wonderful collection The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays):
“Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for the character. If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off.”
I would add that much such reviewing is less of bad books than of books which the reviewer simply didn’t like. But a reviewer’s likes and dislikes are irrelevant and unhelpful to me as a reader. In either case of evaluative reviewing, the book itself, what it is doing and trying to do, tends to fall by the wayside. Thus, I prefer descriptive reviews to evaluative reviews. I want a review to give me an accurate sense of the book, what it is doing and what it is trying to do. (These are two different things from what the author was doing and what the author was trying to do, insofar as that can be ascertained or, more commonly, guessed at. As I’ve written here, as a reader I’m not interested in the author’s intentions, but in the text itself. For a reader, whatever the author “meant” is there or it is nowhere.)
I want a review to give me a sense of the context in which to read the book, a way of entering the literary world the book inhabits and seeks to contribute to. I seek a spirit of intellectual inquiry and a degree of formal insight; neither is common, and the combination is vanishingly rare.
I close by reiterating W.H. Auden’s criteria for a good critic, also from his essay “Reading”:
“What is the function of a critic? So far as I am concerned, he can do me one or more of the following services:
(1) Introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware.
(2) Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough.
(3) Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.
(4) Give a ‘reading’ of a work which increases my understanding of it.
(5 ) Throw light upon the process of artistic ‘Making’. [RS: I’m not quite sure how a review or a critical article can do this, as the “Making” is prior to and exterior to the text.]
(6) Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.”
Note that “Share his opinions, attitudes, preferences, prejudices, and witticisms” is not on Auden’s list.