Thursday, December 07, 2006

Second Thoughts

Over at Booklist's Likely Stories, Keir Graff has some worthy thoughts about reviewers' changes of mind or heart. We grapple with that in a mild way when we construct our Fanfare list every December--some book someone was crazy about doesn't seem so great anymore, and another star bites the dust; a book that was not starred in the first place is giving off more of a glow.

While the Horn Book (and I'm guessing the other journals) will only "take back" a review if it is shown to be factually inaccurate, any reviewer will frequently, over time, change his or her mind about a book. This can partly be ascribed to mood, but mostly I think it is because the reviewer has gone on to read more books and thus acquire a larger and different context to place the reviewed book in. Every book you read changes the way you read the one before it as well as the one you read after.

9 comments:

LMB said...

Agreed. But on a personal, less critical level, how does nostalgia figure into this? For example, there are books from my childhood which I read repeatedly and incessantly. (A favorite was The Girl with the Silver Eyes by Willo David Roberts). I've read Silver Eyes as an adult, and I still love it--presumably because I'm wrapped up in the memories of reading it, not because it's a five-star book. (Maybe also because Silver Eyes appeals to the childlike dream of having unusual powers, and when I reread it, I'm young again.) I've certainly acquired a larger and different context, and, if I'm being rational, I'm sure I can point to dozens of kids' books that give off more of a glow. But I'm quite stubbornly attached to some of these old favorites--context and change be damned!

web said...

This is one of the benefits of online reviewing; we can always rewrite and repost our reviews. Ah, limitless space!

As for nostalgia, when I review a childhood favorite (which I used to do frequently, less so now) I try to get beyond it and really delve for what it was in a particular book that made it so special. Having to look so closely at a book you already know well can be enlightening and make a really strong review.

rindawriter said...

To me, a reviewer who has the courage and guts to honestly change an opinion about a book in public someone to admire. It means, to me, that such a person is that rare breed--a grownup learner who is still growing, still learning--and humble enough and creative enough and earnest enough to continue growing--in public no less!

Melinda said...

Amen, sister!

Roger Sutton said...

The problem with a reviewer changing his or her mind in print is that it invalidates the premise of the initial review, which is meant to give a first impression of a book. Virginia Woolf argues this eloquently in "Reviewing"; perhaps someone has that essay in hand and can share the passage.

Melinda said...

But ain't that what "The Great Conversation" in books is all about? Good Lord, it would be awfully boring if your perception of anything never changed -- or, for that matter, if an author never changed or grew in the course of her publishing career.

I'm afraid I don't have that particular Woolf essay. Maybe I could scare it up at the library this afternoon. I have to drop off about 50 overdue books anyway.

Roger Sutton said...

It's not that you don't change your mind; it's that you accept that your initial review was your judgment at the time and still valid as such.

web said...

"The problem with a reviewer changing his or her mind in print is that it invalidates the premise of the initial review, which is meant to give a first impression of a book."

Do you think it's important to those reading/using reviews that they convey the first impression? I'm not seeing why that's considered important. Whether you are looking for a book to read or looking for a book to purchase for others to read, surely a more seasoned response is the most useful? (I wasn't advocating changes without notation earlier, btw; I would always note something like, "when I initially reviewed this, I thought blah blah blah, but since then, blah blah blah.")

Keir said...

Roger makes an interesting point. I haven't thought of reviewing as necessarily offering a "first impression," but it's true that a reviewer's first read will be more in line with a general reader's first read than will the opinion they offer much later, after mulling it over and perhaps revisiting the text.

Which is more valuable? I'm not sure. I write for a journal where speed is of the essence, and I often wish I had more time to mull before I click "save." On the other hand, I never read those long, essay-ish reviews--the ones that tease out every buried symbol--before I read a book, because I don't want someone smarter than I am to do all my thinking for me.

(I'll let them solve the puzzlers I can't handle, but later.)

I don't think a change of heart invalidates a review unless it's an about-face, and remember it took Dave Eggers ten years to do an about-face on Infinite Jest. Even if the reviewer doesn't agree with his original review, probably a lot of other people still will. And a good review provides evidence for more than one opinion, anyway.

Likely Stories