Friday, October 06, 2006

Make it New?

On Project Runway this week, judge Michael Kors was asked about what he looks for when evaluating the contestants' designs. He said that each week he tried to judge just what was in front of him, not the designer behind it and not his or her previous work. I call bullshit. All the judges whine about Uli's drapey halter things, and applaud when a designer tries something new--like when Uli won a challenge by designing a dress that didn't go to the floor.

Book reviewers confront this dilemma all the time: how do you fairly evaluate something that seems like something you've seen before? It's a greater burden for children's book reviewers, too, because the target audience for any given book is far less likely to have read any of the books the reviewer is referencing. I got into this many years ago with editor Melanie Kroupa, who was miffed that I wrote of a Ron Koertge novel that it was too much like the one he had published the previous year. If the book succeeded on its own terms--which we agreed it did--was it then fair to fault it for not being different enough from the author's other work?

No and yes. No, because if a book succeeds in its own right, it deserves praise. But yes, it is also fair to criticize an author for not stretching. A book review has responsibilities to the book (to represent it fairly), to the reader (ditto), but also to literature as a whole: the reviewer needs to ask "what does this book add to the books that are already out there?" PR judge Nina Garcia would call this the "editorial judgment."

Next, maybe I'll examine Heidi Klum's ultimate words of praise: "It looks expensive!"

13 comments:

asdffdsa said...
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Jenny Han said...

Oh, please examine Heidi's ultimate words of praise! Who could forget when she cast aside poor Jay because the dress didn't look "expensive"? I have to say, the worst of the lot is that Nina Garcia. She is so condescending and pinched, even when she gives a compliment.

Tim Gunn, however, I could love forever. Anderson Cooper, step aside, there's a new silver fox in town!

grrlpup said...

I have struggled with this in the work of Daniel Pinkwater. He was one of my very very favorites up through the early nineties, but then I started to notice him recycling the very same anecdotes and episodes from book to book. It gives me the sad feeling of having come to the end of what he has to offer, even though technically his rehash books may be as good or better than the older ones.

Yet friends meeting him for the first time in his new books seem happy enough. And the slip from sensibility to shtick often seems to happen just when an author is gaining popularity. (David Sedaris comes to mind.) I guess reading an author's career is just qualitatively different from reading individual books.

Jill said...

As a kid, if I liked one book, I tended to try to read every single other book the author had written in hopes of sustaining the magic, much more than I do as an adult.

So when it comes to reviewing a book for kids, I think it's perfectly valid to consider how it stands up or relates to previous works by the same author.

Natasha Wing said...

As an author, you are judged on what works have been published - no one knows about the stories that haven't been published. An author could be known for fantasy, for instance, but in his or her files, have manuscripts for non-fiction, poetry, or concept picture books. Many of those manuscripts might be daring and experimental - a break away from what the author typically writes. But if an editor just buys one type of story from an author, he or she is pigeonholed. That might be why some use pen names, or take on other identies such as a... feline authoress. (Hmm. Not a bad idea)

Jane said...

Some of us use one name and STILL write in dozens of genres--Eve Bunting, Ann Turner, Marilyn Singer, Paul Fleischman, Avi, Phillip Pullman and me, to name a few.

I think Michael Kors said what he hoped he did, not what he does. Remember him making a joke about Uli's dresses in a mock German accent?

All of us who have written reviews or edited books (hands up! Me, too!) like to think that we are simply evaluating what is in front of us, without input from biases. But as readers, we read with our own baggage hanging from heavy straps on our backs, whether that baggage is what we know about the author, the genre, the marketplace, the publisher, and/or ultimately ourselves and our taste.

Jane

JAne

Vivian Francis said...

Several times I've read comments by visual artists in which they talk about how important limits are in their work. Limitations make the artist come up with new solutions.
One type of limit is to create a work pretty different from the previous one, but another type is to create variations within a given set of conditions.
Generally speaking, the second type seems to be appreciated less in liturature than in the visual arts. However, writing the second type of book is in many ways harder. Imagining interesting variations on a theme can be tougher than coming up with a new theme. Also, the writing itself has to be really good, since the readers are already familiar with the aspects that are repeated.
Maybe this is related to the difference between people who like to travel far and wide, and people who spend their lives discovering the secrets of one place.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with the premise that book reviews should evaluate the author's career, each time. A reader may just want to know about the book in question, not about an entire career. Besides, someone once said that each author really only has one story to tell. He or she spends his/her entire career trying to tell that story accurately and artfully. Writers should not be condemned for a new attempt, if that attempt is effective and excellent in its own right.

Andy Laties said...

I once had a jazz class where the professor analyzed transcriptions of Charlie Parker's many recorded performances of the tune KOKO. This was probably the most difficult tune Bird ever wrote -- it used the chords for the old standard, CHEROKEE, but the tempo was ferociously fast. The professor had transcribed perhaps eight different recorded solos, from the period 1946 to 1954. Of course, Bird played this piece probably hundreds of times in nightclubs during these years -- maybe thousands of times. The eight recordings, transcribed onto music paper, revealed themselves as, of course, entirely different from one another. Bird simply did not repeat himself. Every solo was entirely original. But the fact that he was working with an identical chord structure meant naturally that he was constrained. His task, obviously, was to make every solo different from the previous time he'd played the same tune.

This is understood by jazz musicians to be de rigeur. You do not lapse into cliche. Every time you play a tune that you may be playing EVERY NIGHT -- you create an entirely new solo. Within the same chord structure.

The professor however showed us what elements Bird was in fact recycling. Some licks, some turnarounds, some patterns, some phrases showed up in each of the eight recorded solos. But -- they were deployed in different places in the solo, and to different effects, and juxtoposed in different manners.

He also showed us deeper patterns buried in the welter of phrases and notes. Again, these changed, from solo to solo.

Most people agree that Bird was one of the most brilliant artists of the 20th century. I think he's a good model. It's quite a common thing for great artists to find some bone and just gnaw and gnaw and gnaw and gnaw. Sure, Picasso (and Jane Yolen) are allowed to have a zillion and one styles. More power to them. Most of us though do have to work our salvation our by trying repeatedly to get that one thing right.

Andy

rindambyers said...

I was watching "Nanny 911" last night...my FAV place to be on Friday nights...When the 8-year-old little, ghastly, truly awful BRAT spit in one Nanny's face, Nanny said pleasantly, "Oh, that's nice...." Thus reducing the shock value to nothing...needless to say Nanny won the game with that particular eight-year-old brat..amazing.

I rather tend to a Nanny philosphy myself when my words get riticized..."oh, that's nice...sincerely glad you had a chance to express yourself..." Want to rip my words apart with your words on paper or the screen or in a speech? Fine. Just don't paint or carve up my yard or my house with your words, okay? Keep it on paper. Keep it on the screen. Keep it in the air. Keep it words. That's all I ask! I mean what else does freedom of speech mean if others can't critique my words? I don't want to be a hypocrite and whine and fuss when others take freedoms I take for myself....

Anonymous said...

New Tim T-Shirts:
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Sara Z. said...

As someone working on her second book (the first one isn't out yet, but getting good early buzz that is already stressing me out), I'm beginning to sense the extreme difficulty of balancing stretching and doing something new vs. the terror of putting out a disappointing follow-up. There will always be people who want you to write the same book over and over, trying to recapture the experience of the first. On the other hand, on a recent Studio 360 (a PRI radio show), artists were interviewed about failure. It sounded like, all in all, taking a risk and experiencing failure was the most creatively freeing thing that could have happened to them. (But can you then get another contract??)

little bro said...

"Chromalume Number 7, George??"

I'm fine with a writer staying within a genre and cranking out the books. Beverly Cleary did it well and I read almost all of the Hardy Boys books (that my brothers didn't hide on me), each with a new enjoyment. BUt then there are the times that it is just the same book crankedout over and over - Robert Jordan's 147 volume Wheel of Fortune (sorry: Wheel of Time) trilogy comes to mind. At the end of the 5th book, I hurled it across the room and against the wall. Authors should never underestimate their reader's ability to grow bored.