Thursday, February 25, 2010

The communion of reviewer and reader

I have started reading the latest Rose Tremain to review it for The NZ Listener . It's called Trespass and it's nabbed me in chapter one with evocative language, a compelling character, tension that builds and then screams at you.... But of course, the jury's still out. Terrific beginnings do not a novel make. Nor terrific middles. In my experience of reading novels and manuscripts for review over a decade or so, where most novels fail is the end. They either build to nothing, or fall away rapidly to nothing, or drift like a rudderless boat....

... I doubt Rose Tremain will drift. I have great faith in her. I reviewed her novel, The Colour, for Radio NZ some years back. Set in NZ, after she'd visited here for three weeks for a writers' festival, the novel is an astonishing read about a couple of early settlers attracted to the gold in the rivers. Much was made by some reviewers of the vole that popped up in the protagonist's garden, but it didn't bother me much (we don't have voles in NZ). What was more important to me, was the magic this visiting author had created on my own turf - the marvellous detail that grounded it, the language that allowed it to fly. Here's one image I cannot forget: the settlers' house on the Canterbury Plains with white cotton sheets hung to create rooms.  Billowing cotton rooms. So beautiful but so flimsy, not the stuff of a settled life.

I have developed some of my own rules of reviewing over the years, not least that a reviewer shouldn't approach a book on a personal mission (or a mission from God for that matter) - whether I like it or not is not really the issue. Will readers like it - not all readers (that's impossible) but are there readers who will like this book? Why? And in putting up a hand to review it, is the reviewer likely to be one of those readers? Ideally, yes.

Sometimes on radio, I'll blurt out, 'I loved this book'. But I try not to, I really do.

It's also good practice, I think, to throw in at least one solid quote from the book in any review. This way readers can hear the voice of the writer directly and judge the book for themselves. For radio reviews, I like to try and read aloud an extract, if possible given time constraints. I also believe it's important to research the author and the book - where does it stand in the writer's oeuvre, what is s/he trying to do in this latest outing?

Oh there's more, but it's late, and Melodie's screams are drawing me back to Trespass. One thing occurs to me, though, I realise I am talking here about the reviews and manuscript reports I do for money. My blog reviews are clearly more an act of love with a distant tang of 'personal mission' about them. For a start, I tend only to put up positive reviews on here. Right or wrong? Hmmm, food for thought.

Anyway, here - quoted in the New Yorker - are John Updike's tips on reviewing. It's good to see we are 'on the same page'. Not that it's necessarily the only way to go ... but it seems to me reviewers, in this country anyway, too often swim around in their own fish bowls, catching glimpses of themselves in the glass - and this kind of statement, accept it or reject it, can at least provoke discussion and hopefully improve the job we do.
Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never...try to put the author “in his place,” making of him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys of reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end. 
[from Updike's “Picked-Up Pieces” 1975)


Simon said...

I love Rose Tremain - "Music & Silence" is possibly my all-time favourite novel - but I was disappointed in "The Colour". Rather than being impressed by Tremain's ability to capture the atmosphere of the period during a three week visit, I was frustrated by the rather shallow illustration of the geography and the participants in the landscape.

However ...

I'm interested in the role of the reviewer. I grew up reading The Listener - whatever Gordon Campbell said was gospel. Rolling Stone? Hail Marcus Greil. Across the Atlantic, NME was presenting Tony Parsons. These guys wrote what they thought and to hell with the audience. I've got a sneaking suspicion that that's what the punters want of a reviewer - tell it like you think it. The last one was brilliant, this one's crap. The last one was hard to penetrate, this one's a pot boiler. Whatever. People value your judgement and opinion, let them have both.

Elisabeth said...

I too have a high regard for rose Tremain's writing and I'm also grateful for your wonderful thoughts about the art of reviewing, especially your emphasis on the joy of the process, the sharing rather than the shaming. Thank you.

Hannah Stoneham said...

This sounds great... I read "How I found her" when I was about 16 and it left a really strong impression on me. I think that her language is always so powerful and that is what hooks readers in. Lovely blog, Thanks, Hannah

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m with you on the quotes. I always include them in my reviews. It’s good, too, when publishers have extracts available online that you can link to.

There will be two kinds of people who’ll read my reviews, those who’ve read me for a while and those who have not. There are things I could do with the former that I couldn’t with the latter because no relationship has been established. For people who know me and have a benchmark it would be enough for me to say, “I loved this book,” and they would go, “Well, if Jim recommends it it must be good,” and there are reviewers I’ve enough experience of that I would go with a one line review, the film reviewer Barry Norman was one. At the end of the day a review is only ever going to be an opinion and I recognise that which is why I’ve never panned anything and never will. I’ll simply not post a bad review. Besides too many great works have been slaughtered by the critics and succeeded in spite of what they wrote. I guess that comes from my mother: “If you’ve got nothing good to say then don’t say anything at all.”

I don’t review for money but I do get sent free books and so do feel a sense of responsibility to do a good job. The fact is that very few truly bad books get published (at least not by the companies who’ve got a hold of my address) and so there’s always something positive you can say even if you have to qualify it with a, “But it’s not for me.”

Agree completely with Updike.