Anatomy of a Review

Just thinking about what I said in that last post, about how I don’t do reviews because I’m pretty sure I’d set my standards impossibly high, just so I could shoot down every book in my path. That may be a little too broad a statement, though — I don’t mean to suggest that all reviews that burn a book are similarly motivated. Granted, some reviewers just have bad attitudes (Tobias Wolff, of course, in “Bullet to the Brain,” shoots one of them in the head, while John Updike, in “Bech Noir,” chooses to just push them in front of trains, serial fashion), but, too, it is the critics’ job to take those literary bullets meant for us, yeah? Kakutani and them, they’re the bodyguards, I mean. Maybe overzealous sometimes, sure, but always articulate anyway. And, I mean, if you’re Anne Rice, you can always just log in, fight the reviews.

Seriously though, if the whole fiction process works like I think it does, then there’s two bottlenecks, pretty much: at one end you’ve got the editors, selecting the top one or two percent, discarding the rest, and at the other end — no alimentary canal stuff suggested here, as I don’t like what that would turn books into — you’ve got the critics, badtalking all but the very best, thus saving us the slog through eight thousand titles just to get to that one good book. It’s an imperfect process, of course, with lots of brilliant books going unpublished for reasons not related to the quality of the work at all, lots of strong work getting getting chewed up on what would seem to be a whim, but all in all, it works. To say it cleaner, I guess, it’s developed the way it has for a reason: because it allows more good books to get to the people than not.

And of course the real trick as a consumer is like with movie reviews: find a critic you think you trust, or who seems to share your tastes, then stray from his or her recommendations every chance you get, until you get burned enough to know better. But always keep that secret little seed of disloyalty; I don’t think the critics want to be solely responsible for your reading experiences any more than you want to be dependent on them for those experiences. I mean, you need balance, else you become that critic’s mouthpiece, just parroting his or her reviews, not engaging the work yourself, but through their filter, etc. None of which is that helpful for fiction, I don’t think.

But this is starting to sound like some bastard version of “Chicken Soup for the Clueless Reader” or something, I know. “How to State the Obvious in Five Paragraphs or Less.”


All I really meant to do was say, man, did Charles Frazier get burned in this review, or what? I mean quartered, drawn, and split into pieces. The funny thing is, too, a review that scathing, sometimes it’ll kind of have the opposite effect on me: I wasn’t much interested in THIRTEEN MOONS before this review, despite the fact that COLD MOUNTAIN was pretty decent, but now, man — I can see an 8.25 million dollar train wreck of literature? Kind of hard not to rubberneck, really.

At the same time too, though, as a writer, I tend to prefer a review (of my own stuff) that either reads the book just as I would read it for the first time, if I could, or just absolutely piths the book. I mean, that way at least you’ve earned a polarized reaction. Loved or hated but never ignored, all that.

I don’t mean to suggest that I haven’t got chewed just as bad if not worse than Frazier, though. And, not that I’m pretending we’re at the same level or anything, but it’s only fair, if I’m linking his skeletons, to paste one of mine in as well, that manages to trash pretty much everything I’ve written and everything I might:

And, before I get skewered for copyright stuff, the citation:

TITLE: [The Bird Is Gone]
SOURCE: American Indian Culture and Research Journal 28 no2 142-4 2004

Though, I mean, getting nailed for reproducing your own bad press, I don’t know. That’s not even irony, I don’t think. Just mean. (and yes, if you know how to make that html disappear from that textarea up there, please, let me know)

Anyway, no, I’m not just posting that to pick it apart, and I won’t pretend that it doesn’t cut right to the heart of me and make me sad that there’s maybe all these people out there who’ll now never know LP Deal and Back Iron and Cat Stand like I do. But I don’t think that guy was just trashing BIRD for no reason, either. I mean, his reasons are pretty much listed, right?

And, granted, while you can’t write to satisfy every reviewer, you can, I think, use the whole review pool as sort of a workshop, if you want. I mean, in workshop, you may not like that guy or girl who spits on your story each class, but you listen to them, yeah? And secretly want to win them over? That’s how the bad reviews tend to work for me. I mean after all the heartbreak and talking to suicide hotline operators and looking through the help wanted ads for another job. What I do, or try to do, is listen to the points they make, take away what’s valid, what can work as critique rather than criticism, then do better next time.

To end on a high note here, a link to one final review, of Stephen King’s LISEY’S STORY, which, judging by this review, yes, I’m very, very excited about. And, while I could dissect his review, I suspect, break it down rhetorically, into the parts where he earns my trust, the parts where he asks me to identify with him, the parts where he mixes proper parts skepticism and hopefulness, all that, but, really, I mean, as much as I like the review, I’d really rather take this reviewer’s recommendation, and spend my time in LISEY’S STORY.

©Stephen Graham Jones, 2006

Author: SGJ