the reviewer’s universe

update: reviews and accountability

***[this post was corrected and revised after jmc pointed out a misconception on my part; also, links have yet to be updated]***

Last week I wrote a couple posts about the nature of book reviews, specifically on the internet, and my take on the matter of a reviewer’s responsibilities. My reasons for doing this stem from other discussions over a number of different weblogs, in particular an exchange with Jane of Dear Author. That particular discussion took place some months ago on Smart Bitches. To summarize my part of the original debate as neatly as possible, a short bit from my comment:

What really pisses me off about this is that the reviewer has no accountability.

And an excerpt from Jane’s response:

…The reviewer owes the author nothing. NOTHING. Is the author paying for the review? Is the reviewer somehow indebted to the author? How does the reviewer owe anything to the author? WHy the sense of outraged entitlement?

As you can see, I waited until the dust had settled before I posted my thoughts here. Jane commented on that post, and I responded to her comment with a clarification and a question for her. Jane didn’t respond here to my question, which of course is her right.

Right now there’s an interesting back and forth between Jane and many of her readers regarding a book she reviewed and gave a flunking grade, and a summary post about her approach to reviewing. On some aspects of this debate I agree with Jane, and on others, with her detractors. I suggest you go over there to read the whole thing if you’re interested in this greater discussion of the nature and tone of reviews. Jane ends with the observation that nobody is obliged to read her weblog or her reviews, which she writes for her personal satisfaction. Reviewing is a hobby for her and not a profession.

I stand by my position that anybody, hobbyist or professional, who makes a review public does have some responsibilities. There is an unspoken contract between the reviewer and the public. But I am also mindful of this particular definition of responsibility from Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary:

RESPONSIBILITY, n. A detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one’s neighbor. In the days of astrology it was customary to unload it upon a star.

I find that the nature and tone of reviews and author-reviewer interaction on the internet is evolving in a troubling direction. Part of the confusion that abounds has to do with the fact that the people discussing it (me included) have not always distinguished between matters of content and tone. My two cents: every reviewer is entitled to an opinion, which may be well or poorly argued. Every reviewer has his or her own style. I sometimes find Jane’s style and tone hostile toward the author. The only thing I can do about this personally is to first, express my opinion (which I’ve now done, ad nauseum). And of course I can vote with my feet, something that Jane suggests as well, and I will take her up on.

smugly crowing roosters, and the lit-criterati

Normally I would not bother with yet another literary award, by the literati, for the literati. As this one is sufficiently self-mocking, I point you to The First Annual TMN Tournament of Books, an award thought up by the literati/criterati minded at The Morning News. The award is The Rooster. Or a rooster:

We have looked into shipping a live rooster to the winner. We are still looking.

All this started on February 7 and is still going on. It’s worth looking at if you first take this proviso seriously:Which brings us to our next point: Arbitrariness is inherent in book awards. The way books are nominated, the judges who consider them, the division of labor as the books are assessed—arbitrary, arbitrary, arbitrary, bordering on meaningless. Our plan for the tournament is to make the proceedings no less arbitrary but far more transparent. We’ve already explained how the books were nominated, and as the tournament proceeds you will know which of our judges selected which books to advance and why. You’ll also know something about each of these judges’ preferences and biases and so forth, so when your favorite novel is eliminated by a work you judge to be lighter than chick lit, you’ll know why. Results from each bracket will be released sequentially on weekdays from February 7th to February 28th, when we will award The Rooster to the winner.

And I have to admit that some of the battles are quite amusing. Although I will state first, and for the record, that I still strenuously object to this idea:We limited the selections to novels, and also to the ‘you-know-it-when-you-see-it’ genre known as literary fiction.

One of the judges is Mark Sarvas of the Elegant Variation. I had a short, interesting debate with him some time ago on the matter of (his term) ‘serious’ fiction. You can read the whole exchange here.  Mark abandoned the conversation after I made this point:

My point is, the distinction between “a yarn, a page-turner, a good time” and “serious literature” is an artifical one that has more to do with dogma than a real examination of what makes fiction work. I would call most of Austen and Dickens page-turners, and certainly I have a good time when I’m reading them. They are also thematically rich, highly plotted and full of interesting characters. The no-pain-no-gain approach to reading strikes me as perverse, and truly unnecessary.

Maybe he had nothing to say. Maybe he had to pick up his dry cleaning and forgot about it; maybe he found better things to do. All possible. However, given this basic very big difference in philosophy and approach, I mostly don’t read the weblogs written by the self-anointed guardians of so-called serious literature. I made an exception for The Rooster. Because it made me laugh.

[title size=”2″]Comments[/title]

I can understand your frustration, Rosina, at the distinction which is constantly made between literary fiction and other fiction. But the distinction between high and low art has been in place for a long time, I’m not sure that its likely to change soon. On the more positive side, I’m not sure how much stock the general reading public put on book awards anyway.

Posted by: Jacqui at February 14, 2005 03:02 AM

Jacqui — I wouldn’t really call it frustration. Annoyance, maybe, on those days I don’t just screen it all out to start with.

Posted by: rosina at February 14, 2005 07:02 AM

Why Joshua Heartily Disliked Mona Lisa Smile

You might remember Joshua is a former student of mine, whose weblog is one of the few I read every day. Or at least I did until his server went all crazy recently. So I thought I’d give Joshua a voice over here for a while. Obviously it’s my interpretation of his voice, cause I’m reproducing parts of an email correspondence. It started like this:
Joshua: I just noticed you gave _Mona Lisa Smile_ the same number of stars as _28 Days Later_? Are you serious?

Me: … about 28 Days Later. I was mean to it because I seriously disliked the ending. Don’t sell me a dark movie and then give it a hopeful happy ending. ALL of Europe had to be reeling with violent zombies, not just England. That’s just status quo.

And I was overly nice to Mona Lisa because I hate the way critics automatically slam movies about female teachers.

So both reviews were biased, I admit it. Just in opposite directions.

Joshua: On 28 Days and Mona Lisa Smile— I’m not sure the rest of Europe *did* need to be overrun with zombies, just because Britain’s an island and the onset of the zombie virus happened so quickly that it would be hard to transmit over water. So it’s not like someone could have a latent infection and make the journey over the channel. All the continent would have to do once they realized there was a problem in the UK would be to seal off the tunnel (the only route from the UK to Europe that a zombie could travel on foot) and the problem would be effectively confined to the island.

The thing about Mona Lisa Smile is that it was just so… fantastically irrelevant. I mean, it’s a movie about the expectations placed on rich young women 40 years ago. Most young women today face a completely different set of expectations and there are about five times as many young women growing up under the poverty line (then and now) than there are going to private schools. Yet it never seems to occur to anyone to make a movie about a teacher in a public high school who teaches poor girls to overcome the (infinitely more repressive and violent) sexism that exists in the poorer parts of American society—to use birth control and go to college and dump guys who won’t drop. So, to my experience, the insult of Mona Lisa Smile’s self-congratulatory preachiness was compounded by its glaring failure to interrogate its own appallingly class-based assumptions about who’s going to qualify to be “tomorrow’s leaders, not their wives”.

(1) There are many stories that should be told but are not.
(2) There are other stories that may be over told from some perspectives.
(3) There’s really no such thing as an overtold story. There’s a badly told story, sure. But that’s as far as I’ll go.

Women of my generation, women like me — definitely did not grow up middle class or above, but have got there by hook or crook — need stories like Mona Lisa. It reminded me that I’m fortunate, and why, and about the women who paved the way. Corny, maybe, but nonetheless: true.

January 14, 2005 11:41 AM
[title size=”2″]Comments[/title] Hey, look at that. I’m a guest star. Cool.

“It reminded me that I’m fortunate, and why, and about the women who paved the way. Corny, maybe, but nonetheless: true.”

This isn’t really a direct contradiction, but it is something that occurs to me from time to time when I’m thinking about identity politics:

Really, we’re all fortunate in a lot of important ways. But identity politics divides our accomplishments up into movements to create a false impression of division where there’s really unity. I mean, take parenting for example: until 20 years ago, single men were effectively barred from parenting their own children if there was any female family member available to fill the role instead. There was (generally) no law on the subject, but it was certainly the practical end of judicial rulings on the matter. Or labor: 8 hour days and all that. Those are wins for everybody, and they’re part of a larger process of the steady democratization of the United States. The advances in the lives of women of your generation are part of a glacial liberation movement that has improved my life and the lives of everybody in the country.

All of which is to say that my gripe with Mona Lisa isn’t so much that the story is overtold as that the presentation of the film is much too pleased with itself. The scoring, the direction, the action — all cop this Big Important Movie attitude, when what they’re really talking about is, in its specifics, an very narrowly defined critique of an extremely rarified group of American elites.

So I guess to some extent Mona Lisa’s failure as a story (the badly told story critique) is that it didn’t manage to distract me from its irrelevance. Dead Poet’s Society is pretty much the same kind of movie — filthy rich people struggling with the terrible pressure of being filthy rich and privileged in the wealthiest country in the history of the world  –but the presentation made me not care. The scoring, acting, and directing convinced me that the events of the film mattered. They made it possible for me to forget that the events of the film were contemporary with Jim Crow. Mona Lisa didn’t manage it and I don’t think it’s just because I have genitals in common with the people in Dead Poet’s.

Posted by: Joshua at January 14, 2005 02:03 PM

Hey, look at that: typos.


Posted by: Joshua at January 14, 2005 02:05 PM

See, I think MLS is relevant now because we’re having such a strong cultural push back to the 1950’s, woman-in-the-kitchen, woman-can’t-do-it-all period of time. A lot of this movie gave me (20something liberal girl who loathes cooking and cleaning) the shivers, thinking, “That was normal back then?!” It’s almost over-the-top parody to me, but I wasn’t there then when it was real. But some of those messages are still out there today.

Partially, it’s a “see how much better things are now?” movie, and partially, it’s a “see how things could go again?” movie to me.

Posted by: Jennifer at January 14, 2005 04:22 PM

You know, things were that bad and worse. My mother in law got an MD in 1955; the stories she tells about going to get a job are hair raising. In my own generation, my own school history: the girls were encouraged to go to secretarial school, or nursing school, or (and here was the pinnacle): to teachers’ college. This was partially a class thing, as I grew up in a very conservative working class neighborhood, but it was also gendered.

So MLS is about a very small, very elite section of the population, one to which I have never belonged — but it didn’t feel like that to me. MLS didn’t feel irrelevant *to me* the way Dead Poet’s Society felt irrelevant and staged and — this is the word that comes to mind — hokey. Maybe this difference in reaction isn’t completely gendered, but I think there’s at least some of that there. I also know that part of my bad reaction to Dead Poet’s Society has to do with being a teacher of creative writing. I hate the way they romanticized teaching, what teachers do or should do or can do, and most of all the way they used literature and poetry as a kind of — prop, I guess you’d have to call it.

There was something about MLS that struck a chord for me, it had to do with the fact that the struggle between the teacher and the students was in fact mostly about class, and only secondarily about world view and women’s roles.

But I will agree that it could have been better done, sure. I also think some elements of 28 Days Later were poorly handled. For example: all those men slobbering at the bit over a woman an a girl, and the emphasis on them as sexual pawns. Please. That was insulting to men and women both.


Posted by: rosina at January 14, 2005 05:37 PM

It’s about flippin’ time I heard from Joshua!!!!

Thank you, Sara for giving Joshua a guest starring role.

Josh – get the server fixed!

Posted by: Jenniferanne at January 14, 2005 08:51 PM

truth in advertising

last night I saw a commercial that made me mad, and so it’s stuck in my head. Is that a successful marketing ploy? Not in this case, because I’m not going to mention the company that produces this product. Which is, in a word: false hope.

Imagine a classroom filled with a crowd of twenty-something students. The professor, about fifty, in stereotypical Ivy-league tweed, careworn, is lecturing them on why most of them will never be published. Close up on disappointed, disbelieving faces as he tells them the reason: money. Publishers have to invest too much money and hence they are more likely to reject a new writer.

Now a young man jumps in with an interruption. That’s not true! He tells the class. It’s not a matter of money anymore! Not with on-demand publishing, no siree. One book at a time, if need be — no big storage problems for the publishers. It’s all digital these days, sez he. It’s all changed. The professor looks slightly dazed, and offers no counterargument.

Got snake oil? How about real estate in Florida? Haven’t found a publisher interested in that novel? You’ve invested two years of your life, now invest your money– publish it yourself.

There’s so much more to the business than the printing end of it: editing, book design, distribution, advertising, marketing, the review process, all of those awful details. Forking over a thousand bucks to have a hundred copies of your novel printed is akin to renting studio time to record your own sitcom premiere — unless you do your homework ahead of time and you’re willing to take on all those jobs the publisher would have done for you.

I’d like to say also, very clearly, that hundreds of books that deserve publication, really good novels, never make it and the authors of those novels have every right to be put out about it. A few of them will decide to self-publish, and if the fates are kind and their timing is good, they might have some success with it. Unfortunately, the odds are against them.

Now in the spirit of disclosure, I’ll point out that I actually wrote a blurb for a self-published book. I hate writing blurbs and almost never do it, but in this case, I made an exception. Because I liked the novel a lot and thought it deserved to be read. This is what I wrote in my blurb about David Karraker’s Running in Place (1stBooks Library; April 2003 ISBN: 1410716880):

“As a nation addicted to nostalgia, we like to think we remember and understand the sixties… Karraker…gives us a multilayered story set at the dawning of those times. It is the tale of a young married couple on a middle American college campus, told with a clear eye and beautiful but deceptively accessible prose…This is a compelling and deeply felt story, and one that deserves a wide readership.”