The First Rule of Book-Reviewing: Do Not Talk About Rules.

July 24, 2011 § 4 Comments

Not to toot my own tooter but I have a magnificent propensity for anxiety, it’s quite a thing to experience. Lately I am preoccupied with the question of Book Reviewing. It all began when Bejugo commented on my review of The House of Paper for The Rumpus.

Interesting book review. I feel that I know so little about The House of Paper while simultaneously feeling that I know its core essence. How did you do that?

I think it was the words so little. “Oh God, I didn’t do enough. I’m small and slight of skill and I’m a rubbish book reviewer.” Thoughts like this and whatnot.

But it wasn’t really then that it started. I thought that later on. I was pleased with Bejugo’s opinion. It’s what I aim for. It’s what I enjoy to read. Scant on plot, liberal on feeling. Above all, an emphasis on what the book meant to me, in this moment and the various going-ons in my life.

Then I read Slate’s Three Golden Rules for Writing Book Reviews and I reconsidered every review I’ve ever written, thinking: “Oh Jesus, there are rules! I didn’t know the rules and I’ve been doing it all wrong, I’m so embarrassed. Who cares about my life? (I’m never going to make it.) Who gives a monkey about my moment with Jane Eyre and Midnight’s Children? (I should just give up).” And such and such.

Slate’s Rules for Writing Book Reviews:

1. The review must tell what the book is about.
2. The review must tell what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.
3. The review must tell what the reviewer thinks about what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.

Notwithstanding that I have read the third rule a dozen times and still can’t follow it without my temples throbbing, rules are rules and I’m pretty sure I haven’t been obeying them. This makes me anxious. The not-following of rules makes anxious people anxious.

However, this post could also have begun: Not to toot my own tooter but I have a magnificent propensity for indignation… Therefore:

Three Deborah Thoughts on Three Golden Rules:

1. What is meant precisely by the word aboutFor Whom the Bell Tolls tells the story of an American man named Robert Jordan, fighting on The Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, who is sent to blow up a bridge at a Fascist stronghold. If you begin a review with this sentence, I will continue to read but if you follow with: along the way he falls in love with Maria or Pablo steals the detonator, I will cut you. Out of my reading life.

I don’t think For Whom the Bell Tolls is about these things, though these things do happen in the novel. It is about Love and it is about Sabotage and Treachery and you can tell me these things in a book review. Though, when I read it I may think that it’s about Jordan’s self-sabotage and Pablo’s theft may appear to me a reasonable thing. I may think that it is not at all about Love but more about Illusion. I decide this, not you. Tell me what a book is about to you and if these things intrigue me, I will read it and decide what it’s about for me.

2. We can aim for the second rule but we may miss. Again, subjectivity may muddy things. Is the author really saying what I think they’re saying? If they are a very good writer, they are unlikely to say it as simply as: This is what I think about Treachery. If they are a very good writer, they will likely leave the matter ambiguous and open to interpretation. They will hopefully leave a small space in between their sentences for me to burrow and explore. How, then, can I know what it is they meant to say? How can I escape my own eyes and mind and history: that is, all the things I bring to bear upon the book?

And what if I don’t know? When the last line is read and I don’t know what the author was trying to say about that indefinite, infinitely interpretable thing the book is about, is that my inadequacy or theirs? This rule is not a golden rule. It is shadowy and nebulous.

3. This is my take on the very long and very windy third rule: If a rule is not a rule but, in fact, a tongue-twister then you should not feel anxious or guilty about not following it. To the best of your ability, express what the book means to you. If you can’t say for certain what the author intended to mean, then ask yourself: could I tell them they meant this, this or this to their face? Could I defend my position and look them in the eye?

And then, preferably, please tell me where you were when you read the book you are reviewing? In a bedsit in London or on a divan in Dubai following a long and painful end to a brief and inadequate relationship. Did you read it drinking wine or coffee? Did you spill tears on the pages and, if so, were they of joy when you realised that everything was going to be okay? Was the book a gift or did you find it in the street or on a shelf in a backpacker hostel? Tell me who you are and how the book belongs inside the chapters of your life. Show me who you are through the books that mean the most to you. If you share with me these things then I will be kind to you and forgive you for breaking the rules.

And I will hope that you will spare me some anxiety and do the same unto me.

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§ 4 Responses to The First Rule of Book-Reviewing: Do Not Talk About Rules.

  • Darlene says:

    “If a rule is not a rule but, in fact, a tongue-twister then you should not feel anxious or guilty about not following it.” Amen. I follow the general rule that rules are meant to be broken. *smirk* Does this make me a good writer? Probably not, but who am I to say?

    I think its actually disastrous to try and guess what the writer thinks their work is about and base your review on whether you think they achieved that goal. That can be an interesting angle to take occasionally, but makes for a pretty flimsy review. That’s only one aspect of what makes a book work or not work. Far better to express what you got out of a book honestly, and let your reader decide whether or not to take up the challenge themselves.

    • I think it’s disastrous too. Unless you read books as though they’re potential PhD material and can make such truly authoritative claims.

      John Updike has five rules for book reviewing and the first one is in the same vein. He says:

      “Try to understand what the author wishes to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.”

      Like I said, I don’t know if you can really know an author’s intention but I also think that we equally over-criticise writers for not achieving something that was never their intention in the first place. If I was going to follow anyone’s rules, they’d be Updike’s.

      1.Try to understand what the author wishes to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
      2.Give enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
      3.Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.
      4.Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending….
      5.If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s oeuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

  • Emily O says:

    “Tell me what a book is about to you and if these things intrigue me, I will read it and decide what it’s about for me.”
    “Tell me who you are and how the book belongs inside the chapters of your life.”
    Those are basically my rules for reviewing. I want to know how the book impacted you personally and what you got out of it. If it didn’t leave an impression on you, then why bother reading it?

    Also, “Was the writing good?” I really need reviews to address the quality of the writing. That might just be me.

  • […] characteristic of this native Biddy). I won’t go on about it anymore but I’ve been an anxious blogger and it took me a while to get to the point where I “Doubt, and do it anyway.” This wee […]

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