Tuesday, May 22, 2007

He says . . she says

A student seeking resources for a paper dragged Sylvia E. Kamerman's Book Reviewing: A Guide to Writing Book Reviews--by leading Book Editors, Critics, and Reviewers (The Writer, 1978) from my dusty shelves to my desk the other day, and it's quite an interesting volume viewed in the light of the current drama about the slow death of book reviewing in newspapers. I mean, this book would lead you to think that venues and opportunities abound for the would-be critic, with most of the essays written by newspaper book editors and critics including Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and George A. Woods of the New York Times, William McPherson of the Washington Post and P. Albert Duhamel (whose wife was my high school librarian) of the Boston Herald. Lots of good advice from all.

There are four chapters on reviewing children's books (including one from our own Ethel Heins, and another from my friend Barbara Elleman) but I was most intrigued to find out from George Woods's piece that he once ran dueling reviews on the same page of the New York Times Book Review. The book was Wild in the World (Harper, 1971) by the late John Donovan, longtime director of the Children's Book Council. Donovan is most remembered for I'll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip, generally credited as the first children's book to allow the love that dare not speak its name to, well, not speak its name exactly, but at least roll around on the floor. But Wild in the World, a folklorically spare story about a boy who sees his entire family die one or two at a time, then befriends a wild wolf (or dog), only to die himself in the end. Barbara Wersba's review topped the Times's page, headlined "One of the most moving books ever written for children . . ." and below followed June Jordan's: " . . . . or just another horror story told in monotone?"

Woods explained this gambit in his essay "Reviewing Books for Children":

There is no objective yardstick that one can place against a book and say, "The good stick says this does not measure up." Good or bad, success or failure is measured largely in the reviewer's responses and mind. I think of John Donovan's Wild in the World, which was reviewed intentionally in The Times by two eminent critics in two separate reviews running on the same page on the same Sunday. One said it was the worst book ever written for young people; the other said it was the finest book ever written for young people. Who was right? Who was wrong?

While granting Woods's point about informed subjectivity, I would in fact turn the question over to him: was it right or wrong for the Times to refuse to take an editorial stance on a book? It's true that the Times's daily book critics are often at odds with the Sunday reviews, but that's a long-standing distinction, and no one thinks of Maslin's or Kakutani's weekday reviews as being "what the Times thinks" the way the Sunday reviews stand alone, apart from their reviewers. If anything, Woods's experiment demonstrates the need for dueling publications, and an audience that knows it can't find everything in one place.

We regularly battle within the office about which books are going to get reviewed and how. But one side always wins, if with a victory tempered and informed by the debate. We work out the stars, and the annual Fanfare list the same way. Certainly, a book that doesn't do a thing for me can still get starred, because its proponents had the better argument than my "if I have to read one more intricately chess-game-like fantasy novel I'm going to scream" point of view. I'm less concerned with readers knowing what I think than I am with them having a grip on “what the Horn Book thinks." I definitely don’t want them to feel like we couldn't make up our mind.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

when I started reading the Hornbook it was understood (note the passive voice) that the magazine only reviewed books which were "worthy" for boys and girls (as the audience was described in those days) Has that policy changed? It should, if the magazine is to be of any use to readers and writers.

Roger Sutton said...

Hmmm, I'm not sure what the question is. Do we review unworthy books? Sure, sometimes--since sometime during Paul Heins' tenure as editor in the 1960s, the Magazine has stated in its review masthead that a review is not necessarily an unqualified recommendation--before that only recommended books were reviewed. Or are you asking if the Magazine only reviews books of topnotch literary quality? While we do pass on a lot of perfectly acceptable kid-pleasing fiction and useful nonfiction, the Magazine still reviews a mix of books that are great but not crowd-pleasers and books that we think lots of kids will like. But a book that the editors find only "pretty good" or "not bad" (what IS the difference between those idioms?) will likely be reviewed only in the Horn Book Guide (which reviews almost all new children's hardcovers). The exception would be if we found a book mediocre BUT also felt compelled to give more comment than the short reviews in the Guide would allow--I remember reviewing what I thought was the distinctly second-rate Small Steps because we had been so crazy about its predecessor Holes.

rindawriter said...

Delighted to hear about all the discussion that goes on for the reviews behind the scenes. I thought Holes was a lot better, also than Small Steps.

janeyolen said...

I used to write fairly regularly for the Times Book Review and Woods called to say he had a new book for me. It was by an author whose work I didn't enjoy in a genre I didn't enjoy. I told him so. "Good," he said, "then I'll send it right out to you." I thought that entirely wrongheaded and told him so. He carefully explained that the Book Review was part of the News Department, and if we could get a good literary fight going. . .

I felt honorbound to bend over backwards to find things I liked about the book after that.

Jane

Anonymous said...

Roger,

Speaking of the good stick. There's something I'd like you to measure -- heavy handed instruction -- when an author sticks something into the text that clearly doesn't fit in order to model some lesson-- girls are just as smart as boys, or racism = bad, or it's okay to be yourself. Heavy handed moralizing is the best reason to return a book to the library unfinished, I think. What I really like is insidious invisible moralizing that is going to creep unreflected into the reader's head and take root!

Wait. No! Bad moralizing! Down you insidious lesson, you!

When you review a book, how do you judge the didacticism? Subtle is okay? Heavy handed, not? Or is the divide between didacticism that is currently accepted vs. didacticism you think is misguided?

Is subtle didacticism better or worse than the heavy handed? is insidious didacticism okay if it's on the side of the angels?

I mean the deliberate kind. I don't mean the unreflected reinforcement of cultural norms like Enid Blyton -- those things that stick out like sore thumbs when the culture changes.

`h

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