author, book review, Bruce Mazlish, critical review, Ex Libris, Jonathan Marshall. Marylaine Block, Kim Falconer, librarian, Margaret Atwood, Mercury, Mercury retrograde, Michael Parkes, reading, review, Scorpio, thinking, writing
In honor of Mercury (thoughts, learning, thinking, reading, teaching, communicating) in Scorpio (research, analyse, occult mystery tour) I am running a series of posts on writing.
Some of them appeared on the original Voyager Blog, which is no longer active. I thought I would pull them out of hibernation for all of you who love to read and write! And, with Mercury soon to go retrograde (rethink, revise, rewind) what better place to start than with ‘review’?
The word review comes from the Latin revidere, meaning to see again. In the literary world, a review examines with the purpose of critique. It’s a judgment, usually including two parts—summation and evaluation. It’s also a relationship.
Margaret Atwood uses biblical imagery to describe this relationship between the writer and reviewer. She places the author in the role of divine creator, drawing a blank page from the maw of Chaos and turning it, one day at a time, into a detailed narrative. On the 7th day (or perhaps 700th) it is handed over to the critic who spends considerably less time analysing it.
The critic looks ‘after the fact’ to discern if the novel has value, meaning, authenticity and plausibility, situating it in the context they believe it was written and finally giving it a result. The crucial point that Atwood makes is the novelist is distanced from the process of critical analysis. They are concerned with the act of creation, asking what will happen next and what is the right word. The critic has a different question. They ask, what does this mean. When the reader gets a hold of it, it’s something else again. They are asking what does this mean to me. In this way, the critic, reader and novelist can be at odds, each seeing the work from a different angle.
Marylaine Block, a librarian for over 22 years, pictures a more romantic relationship between author and critic. She likens reviewers to matchmakers, saying their primary function is to bring readers together with their perfect mates, books that they can appreciate and enjoy. Jonathan Marshall, a Research Fellow at Western Australian’s Edith Cowan University, takes it a step further. He sees the review as an invitation to discussion, a gift offered to those who might want it, rather than a bludgeon to instruct the insensitive masses.
Whether searching for meaning, matchmaking or creating an open forum, literary critics seldom miss the opportunity to exercise their authority. Not many reviews are free of criticisms and some can be brutal. Bruce Mazlish, a professor of history at MIT, highlights the reviewers’ power over the author. Reviews can affect careers, reputations, positions, salaries and self-esteem. He points out that a publisher’s ‘reader review’ can impact the decision to offer a contract. That’s significant power. Yet with all this weight given to the reviewer, very little training is required to become one. Mazlish sums it up neat. ‘Reviewing is regarded as a democratic practice: anybody can do it.’
What do you think? How important are reviews to you? Do you write them? Read them? Do they sway your opinion of an author or alter your reading choices? What stock do you put in Amazon.com reviews, of which can be bought now, I hear? Share your experiences here! Part II will follow tomorrow: 10 Tips for writing reviews.