The review says “thumbs up!” It’s positive. Someone I’ve never even met – who isn’t family! - likes my new book. I should be thrilled. And yet…
Yes, I am a persnickety author. I always want more. But I’m also a critic – a professional reviewer – and as silly as that seems, I have standards. Maybe I’m one of a dying breed, but I think a review should act as more than a buyer’s guide. A good review should continue the conversation the author has started.
Maybe it’s a punk thing. Long before I started writing books, I wrote about music – particularly the vibrant DIY scene in the rock clubs of New York and Boston in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It was a crazy, fun time, full of experimentation, energy, and joy. Poets were picking up guitars. Bassists were painting. Gigs started in basement clubs and ended in artists’ lofts, usually just in time for most of us to shuffle off to our day jobs. And critics were part of the scene – writing for new music publications, often enough self-produced newsletters or “zines” run off on office copiers on the sly (or mimeographed, remember mimeograph?). Unlike the common conception of critics, we weren’t aloof judges. We were part of the scene – throwing our ideas into the general creative stew, and it was great.
Well, okay, there were drawbacks. Like the time I criticized a band’s second album, only saying I preferred their first, and the band threatened me on air – egged on by an overly enthusiastic DJ. Or the on-again off-again sexism that led some deluded gentlemen to believe that my critical capacity, or, specifically, my opinion of their bands, could be improved by their sexual prowess. But, you know, it was also a time of great openness – more of my women friends were starting bands, booking clubs, managing both bands and clubs than ever before. And writing, always writing.
Reading, too, which has led me to discover the rich history of criticism. Daily paper reviewers, like Virgil Thompson, whose cutting wit enlivened his knowledgable write ups of fellow composers. Prose stylists like Greil Marcus, whose so-called reviews are an art in themselves. Even Aristotle talked about criticism, I discovered, calling it one of the great arts – and a necessity for civilized society. Somewhere along the line, I realized that a review has got to be more than the critic’s opinion. No matter how informed we are, how much we know about the history of what we’re reviewing or the art itself (yes, I used to play bass in bands, and, yes, I write), our opinion alone isn’t worth the reader’s time.
When we undertake a review, even when we’re tackling the latest big bestseller, we owe the reader context and history. Where does this work stand in comparison to its peers and predecessors? We owe a little background. Is the author’s research sound? Are there other takes on this historical event or that famous person? We have to take each work on its own merits and explain the merits or restrictions of a particular genre or author or style. We have to lead the reader to alternatives – better or worse – and point out the differences that a first-timer may not notice. We have to educate. We have to translate one art form, genre, or style into another. And, above all, we have to do it in an entertaining manner.
Back in the days when I would rush into the paper’s newsroom at 10:30, desperate to bang out my 600 words before third edition’s 11:15 deadline, I had a very wise editor. “Clea,” he’d say to me, “keep in mind that maybe 100 people were in that club. Maybe another dozen or so will buy the album. Most of the folks who pick up the paper tomorrow will not know or care about that band. They’re reading in the smallest room in their house, and they just want to be entertained for as long as they have to be in there.”
So I’m grateful for that thumb’s up. Really I am. But somewhere between the bathroom and Aristotle, I like to think there might be a little more.
Clea Simon is the author of three nonfiction books and five mysteries, the most recent being Shades of Grey (Severn House). She can be reached at http://www.cleasimon.com and blogs regularly at http://cleasimon.blogspot.com