Posts Tagged ‘review’

The formula behind book reviews

After reading Dwight Garner's book review of Edmund White's City Boy, I thought: Finally! After reading several author profiles and book previews, here is an honest-to-goodness review. Actually, at first I thought it was a combination review and interview, as the critic quotes the book author regularly. Then I realized he was simply excerpting from the book he was reviewing. It's possible, even likely, that the critic and the author never met. Though this might seem like bad journalism, citing a secondary instead of primary source, I disagree. First, the book being quoted is autobiographical, so it is a primary source. And second, it can be difficult to write an unbiased review when one knows the author personally. "Gee," the critic might think, "He was such a nice guy and so open to talking to me, taking time out of his busy schedule to do so. I'd hate to give his book a bad review…" Avoiding such personal interaction and potential conflict can produce a more honest review.

In the third-to-last paragraph, the reviewer writes, "Some of this material feels like filler… This is a book with a low-grade personality disorder." By saving such criticism nearly for last, the reviewer follows a format that journalist Aaron McKenna once prescribed to "video game journalism":

Most reviews follow a simple formula of going through the game, taking apart all the bad points if it is a bad game and sticking a line or two in about its redeeming qualities, if in fact there are any, at the end, or else (if it is a good game) going through all the really good points about the game, and then sticking down the negatives into a paragraph at the end, usually beginning something like "Despite all this, Game X does have one or two minor problems…"

The format of this literary review is quite similar, which makes me wonder if McKenna did not cast his net far enough when describing this pattern.

I suppose that's more a response to the composition, not the publishing, aspects of this article. Still, it's what caught my interest.

Reviewing A Bright Shining Lie's author

The New York Times today ran a review of Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie, though I don't see it as a review of the pending book as much as a review of the author and his methodology. I found that approach interesting, as it was a new one to me. I read plenty of books but don't often read about books. I know when a new movie is announced or about to be released, the director's filmography is often analyzed as a method of predicting his style and success with the new film; it never occurred to me the same sort of articles could be written about authors.

I couldn't tell if the reporter meant to cast Mr. Sheehan in any particular light. The constant referrals to his nocturnal ways seemed intended to enforce the stereotype of writers as those who work when the inspiration strikes, keeping ungodly hours. I half-expected the photo of Mr. Sheehan to have him either hidden in cigarette smoke or sitting at a typewriter. I walked away with more of an impression of the author than the book, though I would've liked more of the latter; instead I was thinking about watching Fail-Safe again.

Perhaps the NYT thought they made up for that lack with the sidebar referencing the online excerpt. Rather than the exclusive sale of serial rights from the publisher to the newspaper, the online version of the story simply links to Is this the typical sort of pre- release coverage for a book? Or are advance copies/galleys supplied to critics?

[Update: On October 4, the "excerpt" link was changed to within the domain, suggesting Random House's online excerpt was a limited-time exclusive.]