Monday, November 06, 2006

Critics Just Wanna Have Fun

It's fun to completely slam a book. It's like when you're in Junior High, and you come up with a really creative and dregrading nickname for a hated classmate, and your friends all give you high fives. It's fun to think up snarky and clever jabs that articulately describe why a particular character, or scene, or subplot, or spot of dialog totally blows. Some reviews are so scathing that you can literally see the reviewer body slamming the book - in a witty and detached way, of course. Body slam reviews have two goals: they warn readers about a bad book, and (perhaps more importantly), they make the reviewer look smart.

Take, for example, a New York Times Book Review of A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever, by Josh Karp, which appeared a couple of Sundays ago. The reviewer, Virginia Heffernan, a television critic, body slammed this book. Not only does she hate the book, but from the review it appears that she also hates National Lampoon's brand of slap-stick comedy. The majority of her review addressed her low opinion of the kind of comedy National Lampoon spawned, which she credits for spreading the ubiquity of panty raids, toga parties, and date-rape culture. I could get really worked up about these ridiculous statements - but I won't. I'll just ask why Virginia Heffernan, who obviously has no love or appreciation for this type of comedy, reveiwed this book!* Hmm, NYTBR? And why, NYTBR, did you chose to print this horrible review, when you could have printed a different, less ridiculous, and better informed review by a reviewer who actually liked the book they read?

I don't particularly like romance novels. But because I spent nearly two years reading them, (shout out, Diana Palmer!) I have a working knowledge of what makes a good one and what makes a bad one. This makes me the perfect person to writes a clever and scathing review of a romance novel. But why would I do that? (Other than for the opportunity to use big, impressive, degrading vocabulary words?) Do you see where I'm going with this?

Sometimes, I just really don't understand the point of bad reviews.

No, wait, I take that back. I understand a lot of the bad reviews on Amazon, because that's a site where people go to think about directly and immediately purchasing a book. And reveiws on Amazon may affect whether or not one buys a book. I read those customer reveiws. And if there are a lot of bad reviews, I won't buy the book. Because, whether this is accurate or not, I think of Amazon reviewers as people like me: people who love books and love to read and don't want to spend their hard earned cash on a bad book, and when they do, they want to make sure others don't make the same mistake.

For the most part, I sincerely appreciate Amazon's customer reviews. For example, I remember seeing Marie right after she finished Pure by Rebbecca Ray (which, for some reason, has now been retitled as A Certain Age, can anyone explain this?), and she was shaking with anger. She had just spent a couple of days reading this book in public, (on the subway, held in clear view (she was pretty much advertising the book, as we all do when we read on public transportation)), and had this to say - Marie on Pure. Her review is short and to the point. The point is, don't waste your money or your time on this book.

I appreciate bad reviews like that. No showing off. Just an honest warning, from one reader to another.

An Amazon reviewer that I've come to trust is Someone's Mom from Virginia. She warned me about Anne Kingston's The Meaning of Wife, and did I listen? No. I bought that book two weeks ago. And after only thirty pages, I was sorry.

But the NYTBR is a different story. I would love to know what the correllation is between people who read a glowing review in the NYTBR and people who buy that book. Or people who plan to buy a certain book, see it slammed in the NYTBR, and then don't buy it. In other words, how much does the NYTBR matter? Every author dreams of having their book reviewed in it - but why? Do reviews lead to higher sales? Do bookstores order more copies after a favorable review, or will they showcase the book or recommend it to customers? Or does an NYTBR review serve primarily as a status symbol? In the same vein as the idea that All Publicity Is Good Publicity, it is commonly believed that being body slammed by the NYTBR is better than being ignored.

Then there are the occassional NYTBR reviews that I just don't know what to make of. Troy Patterson (another television critic) reveiwed Mark Danielewski's new book, Only Revolutions, in yesterday's review. It should be said that Danielewski is not your average American novelist. He has been compared to Thomas Pynchon and Jacques Derrida - his novels are considered "modernist" or "postermodernist". While I would think he's trying to do more than tell a story, I don't think his inventive structure is designed as "a trap to catch reviewers," as Patterson figures. Right. Danielewski spent six years writing this novel to "catch reviewers." Only a paragraph above Patterson mentions that Only Revolutions has been nominated for the National Book Award.

You wouldn't call Patterson's review positive, but it's not really a body slam either. He didn't seem to really get the book. The review reads like work - Patterson is just doing his job. Which is sometimes the problem with reviews - they just aren't always inspiring.** I want to read reviews that make me run out and buy those great books that made the cut. Otherwise, I mean, for the most part, life is too short to talk about bad books.

*PS - This guy hated Virginia Heffernan's review more than I did, and for better reasons.

**When it comes to holding my attention on a hangover Sunday, I'm going to need a lot more passion and excitement, NYTBR.


riese said...

I'm surprised they didn't recruit Ariel Levy to review the National Lampoon book. It seems to be the habit lately to recruit her to review books that she will probably hate.

Oh wait...she was too busy...reviewing Courtney Love's new book for New York Magazine. The review seems pretty spot-on, and I'm sure it is every bit as bad as she says it is, but then again, I would have enjoyed reading a review of a book written by a woman by someone other than Ariel goddamn Levy. Where is Francine Prose when you need her?

Steph knows Mark Danieldowski and was astounded I hadn't heard of him. I need him to be brought up one more time and then the fates will be at my door with his book to read.

As I was reading this blog entry, for the first 3 "grafs" (as you say) I was thinking "oh man, but what about when i bitchd about pure?!!" and was glad to see you approved.

Isn't Tama Janowitz the author of a book named "A Certain Age"? Speaking of Tama

Wanna know how I feel about Empire Falls?

p.s. I think that book reviews in the NYTB should be almost always positive. Which is why I think writers and other people in publishing should usually write them(not TV writers), because they understand that the publishing business is tough, and if no-one buys the book they panned, the publisher will have less money left over to publish the reviewer's book, or that karma will bite them in the ass. Which means that a book has to be so absurdly disgustingly awful (e.g. Pure, possibly even TDWP, but not, say, Less than Zero, which is subjectively unpleasurable but not definetly unpleaseurable) for a writer (like me) to say how much it sucks.

This is exactly why I haven't finished chapter one yet. stop typing marie, Stoppppp

BookCannibal9 said...

Ha! I'm with you on Ariel Levy. I was surprised the NYTBR didn't have her review some of the many plastic surgery books they've been writing up (Alex Kuczynski's Beauty Junkies, ect).

(Though I actually liked Female Chauvinist Pigs, - am I the only one?)

Tama Janowitz.... what was it exactly that kept me from finishing Slaves of New York? I can't quite remember now. I think it was her characters and their lack of passion for anything. I hate it when authors try to make a point by giving their characters little inner-life or no personality, or making them dead on the inside. I hate it when stuff happens and characters just don't react or aren't affected. But this is a rant for another day.

For the most part, bad reviews aren't justified. Unless you think you've found your dream book, and it disappoints you. Like The Immortal Class. Damn you, Travis Hugh Culley!

But, I DO want to know how you feel about Empire Falls! Bring it on!