Properly evaluating book reviews is not easy, as reviewers come in three categories: the academician who reviews work for scholarly purposes or pursuits, the professional critic who writes for a newspaper, magazine, or some other established media, and the lay reader who offers abundant opinions on the Internet and elsewhere.
I chose this order for reviewers because I imagine most folks have had to write book reviews in junior high, high school, and college. And in doing so were influenced by reviews that were considered exemplary by whoever instructed the respective class. The further education advanced, the more elaborate the reviews, until it was impossible to differentiate these often cryptic theses from academic papers submitted to a professional organization for publication. Words such as diurnal, antediluvian, valetudinarian, abiogenesis, consanguinity, circumbendibus, entropy, and concatenate abound, forcing all mere mortals to run for their Funk & Wagnalls–and rue the day Samuel Johnson was born.
I spent considerable time in my healthcare career sourcing material that was submitted to medical journals for publication. The goal was to determine the scope and validity of a particular study as it applied to the field in which I worked, which was a discipline in cardiology called Phase 2 Cardiac Rehabilitation. Everyone has heard the “publish or perish” maxim as it applies to academia, and anyone doing my work would quickly learn that some scholars must have felt that if they could overwhelm their peers with recondite syntax, this would automatically establish the study as a good one.
My favorite paper was written by an educated bozo who titled it something such as, “The Nescient Irresolution of Ambient Diurnal Inotrope Titration When Applied to the Epicardia as Indicated by Regression Equations Utilizing Correlation Coefficients in an Ambit-Sensitive Quotidian Cohort.” In real words, this says something like there’s no evidence to support that a diagnostic test of heart muscle function would produce the same results from one day to the next. I’m exercising a great deal of latitude with what I wrote, as I’ve been away from this for many years, but I distinctly remember this clinician using “diurnal” and “quotidian” in the title, and both words mean “daily.”
The point is that many quite bright people write to impress while having no real idea of the utility of some of the words they use, which brings me to the professional media reviewer. I wrote about this topic a while back because reviewers employed by newspapers seem to love certain words. “Kafkaesque” was so common in the ’90s that for a while I assumed every book had to present a character who awoke one morning to look in the mirror and witness a grotesque physical change in appearance.
It seemed that every reviewer read from the same playbook, as they couldn’t get enough of using words such as meme, one-dimensional, involuted, linear, spatial, sobriquet, tenuous, nexus, limbic, anathema, corpulent, patina, absolution, contrarian, egregious, coruscation, machination, cabal, tortuous, and cobble. Then the reader was assailed with phrases such as nom de plume, rare avis, roman a clef, deus ex machina, mare’s nest, fait accompli, nota bene, idee fixe, and anything else these folks remembered from college and always wanted to use.
I bring this up because I once had lunch with a well-known and highly regarded book critic whom I complimented on a review of his I’d read just that morning so I could have something topical to discuss to break the ice. I mentioned a word that escapes me now but which I’d never seen before and asked him what it meant. He told me he didn’t know. Stunned by his reply, from then on I wondered if he gave common words to a staffer to pump up via a thesaurus to make him appear more erudite to his audience. So, subscribers who see reviews with words such as apagogic and anxiferous, don’t fret, since the reviewer who wrote these words likely doesn’t know what they mean either, or found out their definitions just two minutes before putting the finishing touches on the column.
Then there are the two-billion souls who now write reviews on the Internet. Some use big words as well and like to copy the template used by newspaper reviewers, and I often chuckle when I see the patterns employed by these folks in an attempt to demonstrate adroitness. Regardless, each and every person who reads a book is absolutely entitled to an opinion. But that’s all it is, no different from the academician who’s wired for sound or the modern-day Dorothy Parker wannabe. However, we all want our material to be loved, and nothing hurts more than a negative review. So to put this in perspective, here are a few things to consider.
GONE WITH THE WIND has received one-star reviews. So have THE GREAT GATSBY, THE CONFESSIONS OF NAT TURNER, BREATHING LESSONS, and HARRY POTTER. So have THE DA VINCI CODE, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, TWILIGHT, and FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. And I know of no books more vilified than THE SOUND AND THE FURY and ULYSSES. I’m certain many subscribers would give either or both of these books one star, such as I would BREATHING LESSONS, yet Anne Tyler’s story won a Pulitzer.
People hate and continue to revile THE SOUND AND THE FURY and ULYSSES because of not understanding stream-of-consciousness writing, which also plagues many Virginia Woolf readers. But learn what the style is all about and these writers then become recognized for the genius they possessed. Let’s also consider William Styron and the abuse he took for NAT TURNER. No one disputed his brilliance as a writer, and crafting a novel solely in backstory–that was readable–a monumental achievement. Yet he got one star from many folks because they felt he should not have been allowed to write African-American dialect since he was Caucasian. Thus, the one star in this instance was based solely on race.
Margaret Mitchell received one star from Civil War buffs who believed her battlefield depictions couldn’t be correct since she wasn’t there. Wasn’t the rest of the book pretty good, though, even if Ms. Mitchell might have stumbled on the composition of a wound dressing or the size of a cannon ball? Stephen Crane wasn’t born until 1871, so what could he possibly know about the Civil War when he took it upon himself to write THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE, which is why his book has received one star from some reviewers? To take the review process one step further, I did some research and found an article that listed the greatest American novels of all time based on the opinions of nine contemporary “experts.”
I found a variance so wide it could best described as a dichotomy. The book list included HUCK FINN, which has been canonized to the extent that some colleges offer Huck Finn Fellowships. Why is this book revered, so much so that Hemingway offered it the ultimate encomium, essentially saying that the model for the great American novel ended with this book? Based on material I’ve read over the years, for most academicians the primary thrust behind HUCK FINN is that it showed the way America thought of the Negro at that time in our country’s history, and no other work up to that point had been anywhere near as accurate. I’ve always wondered if Samuel Clemens wrote the book with that in mind. Regardless, it’s the negative Negro stereotype above all else that carries this book in the minds of scholars.
One “expert” chose MOBY-DICK, the book I hated the most of all I had to read as a youth and later as an adult. Still think it’s the most boring, overrated tripe I’ve ever encountered. E.L. Doctorow, whom I consider to be a fabulous writer, as RAGTIME and BILLY BATHGATE both hold space in my library, loves Herman Melville so much that he was the keynote speaker at a Melville Society annual meeting. I listened to him offer an hour-long panegyric to MOBY that bored me as much as the book, hoping he’d move on to something else. E.L. Doctorow disagrees with my assessment of MOBY and gives the book a five-star review to my one-minus. Who’s to be believed?
I mentioned a dichotomy, and who could be more divergent than Mario Puzo and Edith Wharton? Yet both THE GODFATHER and THE HOUSE OF MIRTH made the list of greatest American works. THE GODFATHER was indeed a terrific book and an even better movie in my opinion, but one of the greatest American novels of all time? And I’d certainly pick THE AGE OF INNOCENCE over THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, as the structuring of the former is truly a stroke of genius. Again, this is my opinion, as all of this is, and someone else’s is no more absolute than mine, although in the case of Mr. Doctorow certainly his is more revered, as it should be.
LOLITA was on the list, I guess because Henry Miller ordained it the ultimate love story, as apparently pedophile lust was the quintessential variety in his mind and for this reason should be considered “great.” But what I found to be the oddest choice for greatest American novel was CORREGIDORA by Gayl Jones, which was published when she was 26. Long story on this one, and I’d like to know how many who are reading the article have heard of that work, let alone read it. The book has been given fabulous reviews and dead-bang horrible ones, with what seems like little in the middle. Again, race was a prime motivator with respect to those who supported the story via sterling remarks.
I don’t want anyone to think I’ve singled out several of these stories because of race. It just happens to be the rationale behind why some reviewers immensely like or dislike the material I discussed. The real point is, doesn’t this clearly demonstrate that every reader possesses a personal agenda influenced by individual bias? We all promote our tendencies, and this is as normal and natural as one bloke liking cereal for breakfast while another prefers eggs.
Now let’s take a look at another aspect of why a book can get great reviews but then come up with a dud here and there. One reason is the genre in which the book is placed and what readers of that category expect. If, for example, someone is a Civil War buff, this person will likely know the types of buttons on the officers’ uniforms on both sides as well as the exact distances between battle sites. This careful reader is not going to be happy with any author who is not a documented Civil War authority, even if the writer’s name is Mitchell or Crane. And this type of student of the War Between the States doesn’t likely read much fiction, period. So a book listed as Historical Fiction is expected to be accurate down to names of the horses the characters rode, and fiction only with regard to the weather on a given afternoon that has nothing to do with a battle scene.
The issue of nonfiction versus fiction is an element that cannot be sidestepped. And as I stated, nonfiction readers as a class do not like fiction, and for this reason are quick to dis anything they think is out of line, even if it isn’t. So pity the poor novelist who places Evanston west of Chicago and not correctly north of the city, or President Obama’s Illinois residence in Oak Park and not in Hyde Park. The hard fact is that some writers of excellent fiction are given low marks solely because the reader wouldn’t accept that “novel” denotes a work of fiction.
I mention this because I’ll read reviews that castigate a novelist for fouling up minor geography much less egregious than where Evanston is located or President Obama’s house. Really, who cares? Did you like the story other than that in a single day the protagonist couldn’t have walked the 50 miles from Indianapolis to Kokomo? I don’t know how many times I’ve analyzed fiction reviews and found the negative material coming from those who predominately read nonfiction.
It also must be understood that some people have no life, and the joy they receive is by doing whatever they can to hurt other folks in retaliation for the cards they believe God dealt them. This sort of person can’t get enough of criticizing someone and seeing the vitriol in print or on a computer screen. There are even people out there who purposely antagonize writers for the sole purpose of getting a rise out of them. Some know exactly what buttons to push, and they “sit” around chat rooms bragging about what grief they have caused someone.
If you are getting the impression that I’m suggesting ignoring the reviews, to some degree you’re right. Today, writers with enough 10-dollar bills can buy all the five-star reviews they want. A clown I discussed in my Newsletter made huge money gang-mailing five-star reviews until he was finally shut down. But he’ll surface again, and if not him there will be others.
Heck, there’s a firm in Southern California that buys a writer’s books and in turn guarantees a place on The New York Times bestseller list. It costs around 70 grand, and the books are later returned to the bookstores. The returns aren’t tracked, hence all TNYT sees is the volume and velocity of sales. Remember, with the algorithm this paper uses, velocity trumps volume. TNYT might have taken steps to remedy being scammed as I’ve described, but I’ve not heard this to be the case. The book-buying “service” I alluded to is especially popular with someone who wants to claim guru status on the self-help seminar circuit, as this “authority” can point to his or her TNYT bestseller to establish instant credibility.
I’m going to close this long exegesis by asking everyone to understand that I’m not saying reviews aren’t important. They are, and I continue to strongly encourage writers to do everything ethical to have people comment on their material. Just be certain to put the entire review process in perspective. Everyone gets bad reviews, and they are often horribly unfair. But as I’ve illustrated in this expansive explanation, a great many factors influence what is written about a book, and some of the reasons have very little to do with the actual story.