Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The difference between critics and regular people

We've been working on our "What Makes a Good Book" special issue (out in September) and I'm giggling at a quote Deborah Stevenson (editor of BCCB) is using in her article "Finding Literary Goodness in a Pluralistic World":

. . . delightful as such a spontaneous first response can be, it's not the only reaction we bring to books; considered opinion, after all, is the hallmark of the professional (playwright Jean Kerr jokes that a drama critic looks at a bad play and says, "This is a very bad play; why is that?" while the regular audience looks at a bad play and says, "This is a very bad play; why was I born?").


Of course, often we critics like to have it both ways and only give you the considered opinion after delivering the unconsidered and frequently blasphemous first reaction to the privacy of our offices. We always make the interns check their recording devices at the door.

8 comments:

GraceAnne said...

I love the sound of a really bad galley being thrown across the room.

Shahairyzad said...

"considered opinion, after all, is the hallmark of the professional"

Change that to "should be the hallmark of the professional?" Because my impression is that most of the critics who call themselves professionals read far too many books in too short a time to give them any kind of "considered opinion." And the frequency of factual errors, misinterpretations, and confusions about the plot and characters in the critics' articles supports my theory.

I'm sure most critics, reviewers, and librarians would LIKE to believe they are doing a "professional" job. But I think the reality is that most of them are barely getting through the books, much less putting in the time and effort it would take to come up with a truly considered opinion.

And let us not forget that the "professional" are like everyone else. When they get stuck reading a book they don't want to read, their opinion is more likely to be resentful than considered.

Jane said...

I remember George Woods at the NY Times sending me a book even after I tiold him I was NOT a fan of that writer. "Good," he said. "Because bad reviews make news. And we are a newspaper after all."

Arrrrrgh.

I bent over backwards to say what was good about the book, though in the end admitted that I didn't like it.

These days I would refuse to do the review.

Jane

Jane said...

I remember George Woods at the NY Times sending me a book even after I tiold him I was NOT a fan of that writer. "Good," he said. "Because bad reviews make news. And we are a newspaper after all."

Arrrrrgh.

I bent over backwards to say what was good about the book, though in the end admitted that I didn't like it.

These days I would refuse to do the review.

Jane

Roger Sutton said...

Shahairyzad--you're painting with a very broad brush. "Most critics"? How frequently? I won't argue that critics don't make mistakes, either through carelessness, stupidity or ennui, but your claim that this is the rule rather than the exception begs for proof. Plus, I've met too many writers who seem to think that anything less than a starred review--of their books--constitutes inaccuracy.

Jane--George was right that negative reviews are generally juicier and cause more talk, although that seems a pretty low standard for deciding what to review. But there's still a place for negative reviews, and I'm curious about why you wouldn't want to write one. It's one thing if you have a personal grudge against an author, or contempt for a particular genre, or just don't want to get yourself in hot water, but frank, thumbs-down reviewing has a place. There's a little too much bending-over-backwards to be nice in children's book reviewing, at least partially because there's so little space to review it.

GraceAnne: Careful, now. Them suckers are getting big. Mind your aim.

Monica said...

Perhaps the expectations and responses these days regarding reviews are not unlike those regarding grades. That is, a B+ or positive-but-no-star review must mean your life is over --- especially if that B+ was from Boston University which, a recent New York Times article indicated, still insists on a curve. There's a thought; Roger, does Horn Book review on a curve?

Jane said...

I have no problem writing killer reviews, Roger. (Ask me about LOVE YOU FOREVER or THE RAINBOW FISH or THE GIVING TREE some time.) But in this instance I said I was NOT a fan of that particular writer and he insisted I write it anyway. Which made me feel sorry for the author.

And, as I said, I was very young at the time and the idea of reviewing in the Times was very enticing. (It wasn't my first review there, however.) So I did what I needed to for my own emotional well-being.

Today--today I would either tell them I couldn't do it. Or I would write the killer review.

Jane

rindambyers said...

It used to be that I depended pretty heavily on reviews so that I wouldn't waste time tryign to skurf out good books all on my ignorant lonesome...now, I'm not so sure...having lately gotten enticed to reading one too many "good" reads that turned out to taste just awful....Irritates me no end when that happens! Wastes my time. Doesn't matter what the reviewer feels, positive, negative, I need to know WHY! A bit. Just a teensy bit.....intrigue me, infect me, challenge me, INTEREST ME! I'll be brave; I'll try it out...