Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Reviewing the Reviewers

Raman writes about book reviewing and links to a very interesting article on DailyIndia.com.

Now, I'm not sure whether he was just summarising the Indian article or talking about the Malaysian situation or both together when he writes:
Everyone is a critic. There is no formal training school for writing literary reviews. No formal standards. But we know all about that. We can clearly see from some of the reviews in our newspapers, that often the writer has not even read the book, or else what goes for a review is merely a synopsis of the story. The prerequisite of reading a book before doing a review is also probably one reason for the lack of local book reviews in our local papers, it being easier to source a review of a foreign book using Google.
A bigger question has to be ... where are the reviews in the first place? Of the daily English newspapers only the Star seem to have reviews at all. There's an overview of a whole miscellany of books on Fridays and then a page or two of reviews in Starmag on a Sunday. (Fei wrote to tell me that there is quite a lot more in the Chinese language dailies, which is interesting!)

One of the biggest problems is that there simply aren't enough reviewers. I'm drowing in a kind of guilt here - I need to get some reviews finished and sent out and I'm being much too slow about it (though one of my reviews appears this Sunday, so that's something at least). The first challenge is to increase the size of the reviewing pool. (Not so long ago Starmag put out a plea for reviewers, but i don't think they got an enormous response.)

The lack of space for reviews, the lack of reviewers, means that most books the public would be interested in reading about, just don't get publicised. Not good when we are trying to create a reading public, hey?

The greatest casualties though, are of course local writers. How often does a book by a local writer get properly and critically reviewed? How can a writing community grow where there isn't proper feedback on a writer's work? (Again I feel guilty here ... must make more of an effort! But should that effort be mine alone?)

Can anyone be a critic? Do reviewers need specific training? As Raman says, there is no formal training for reviewing. Not even for those whose reviews appear in the New York Times or The Guardian. Reviewers tend have come in as journalists from other sections of the newspaper. The best reviewers, though, tend to be other writers.

Whatever the reviewers' backgrounds, they need to know what they are talking about, which means that they do need to be enthiastic readers and have sufficient understanding of what the writer is trying to do, as well as be able to place the book in its wider context.

Reviewing, of course, has to be something of a labour of love. I poke my bookloving friends to have a go and they always reply "No time, lah." It takes far longer to write a good review than an article of equivalent length, because real thought has to be poured into it. (And of course, the book has to be read first! It's a busman's holiday if you love the book, but a total drag if you don't!)

Raman does local reviewers a disservice by hiding behind vague generalities when he takes a pot-shot at all of them without pointing to specific pages and specific reviews. I enjoy the fiction reviews in Starmag (when they appear!) and find them well-written ... And in honesty I try to do the best job that I can when I write a review, even if I feel I fall way short of the standard set by the best book pages overseas.

What I'm trying to say in this post is that reviewing is important, particularly of local books, and that perhaps we have a collective responsibility towards making sure books are reviewed.

Raman puts up short reviews on his website, but I wonder if he would ever consider putting his words out for a much larger audience by writing for the papers? His reviews would be ones I'd like to read! ("No time," he'll say. And it's true that one person shouldn't be expected to wear too many hats. All the same ... )

Meanwhile, on the subject of reviewing, New York Times book review editor Sam Tanenhaus answers readers questions about his work.

His mission statement?:
... to publish lively, informed, provocative criticism on the widest-possible range of books and also to provide a kind of snapshot of the literary culture as it exists in our particular moment through profiles, essays and reported articles. There are many, many books published each year - hundreds stream into my office in the course of a week. Our job is to tell you which ones we think matter most, and why, and to direct your attention to authors and critics who have interesting things to say, particularly if they have original ways of saying them. At a time when the printed word is being stampeded by the rush of competing "media," we're here to remind you that books matter too - that reading, as John Updike's invented novelist Henry Bech says, can be the best part of a person's life. There's no plaque on the wall. But there is a framed photo of Kurt Cobain.

Really enjoyed Alex Tang's post about reviewing ... which incorporates a review about a reviewer!

Also worth a read is this horror story on the Guardian blog about a reviewer who reviewed a non-existent book!


The Visitor said...

i think Raman is talking about local reviewers, and i agree with him. most reviews here, either on books or film, are complete and utter rubbish. a bulk of the so-called "review" is taken by a synopsis. and some even tell the entirestory, before ending the review with an inane line like "this book is a good read if you like thrillers," or "if action films are for you, then this film is a good watch."

if i want a good watch, i'd go to a watch shop, thank you very much.

a review should give an overall view on the book or film, and the reviewer should have a point to make about it, not just say whether the book or film is good. it's not enough to just talk about the book or film, but a good reviewer will have the necessary knowledge to talk about the product based on philosophy, history, etc.

a critic is different. she or he should have some experience in the discipline, or at least have some technical knowledge of it.

bibliobibuli said...

but why blanketly condemn, visitor. there ARE good reviews (of books and film and theatre) too. it is pretty disheartening for reviewers who do their best to then be rubbished.

the question is - how do we (or rather how do the newspapers bring up the standard?)

The Visitor said...

but it's true. like i said, MOST reviewers are rubbish. which means, yes, there are some really good ones.

how to bring up the standards?


get better writers. vet them thoroughly. make sure they know what they're doing or saying.

at this moment, newspapers are taking in just about anybody who has a decent command of English. and that's the problem.

i can speak more from the film perspective, and i can safely say that about 80% of "reviewers" in this country have little knowledge of film and have not seen anything beyond the standard Hollywood fare. and the biggest problem is, they don't read extensively.

to be a good reviewer, you have to read absolutely everything, not just the books you're to review, or books pertaining to only films.

for example, i just read a review of Curse Of The Golden Flower, and this reviewer obviously has deep interest in history and sociology, and could relate the film to the significance of flowers in world cultures, how flowers always represent the fragility of humanity in cultural symbols. and that adds a whole new dimension to what we can perceive from the film, how the director used the symbolism, how it relates to the entire story.

i can bet you now, 80% of reviews on that film coming out this week here in Malaysia will be completely banal, nothing like the review i just mentioned. but there will be two or three reviewers who will be completely spot-on.

the percentage of bad reviews is staggering.

Ted Mahsun said...

There are some really bad reviews out there, but the ones in The Star are getting better (and I'm not saying this 'cos I'm a review contributor too!). In fact, there are some really damn good ones, which when I read them, I wish I could write reviews as eloquently as they can.

How newspapers can bring up the standard is that the editors must know what makes a good review. They shouldn't just print any old review that comes in with their sentences grammatically correct... I wonder sometimes too why they would want to print a review, like the Visitor says, that synopsises the story, then concludes with "if you like thrillers, then read this". It's very sloppy reviewing and it shows how lazy the writer is.

As for Raman... well, it wouldn't be him if he didn't take potshots at local writers or reviewers, would it? After all, we're all just frustrated hacks, and we can't write like any of his foreign idols. Or Amir Muhammad. Or Farish Noor.

btw, the Malay lit-scene's quite vibrant, even if they themselves think it's dying. It's certainly more exciting than the local English lit-scene. I don't read it as much as I should nowadays but Utusan has a literary page every week with reviews and (mostly) local litnews. And I enjoy reading the reviews in Dewan Sastera and Tunas Cipta (a mag for new writing) if I can find them. They're very well-written. Well, most of the time anyway... it kinda sucks when a review is written with a "nationalistic" bent.

Ted Mahsun said...

Whoops. I was writing my comment when the visitor already posted his. We've made some same points so apologies if anyone reading this feels my comment is being repetitious.

The Visitor said...

wow, Ted agreeing with Richard!

as Bogart says in Casablanca, i think this may be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Ted Mahsun said...

I always thought ducks made good companions ^_^

lil ms d said...

now i'm worried. i have to write my first book review soon. any tips?

bibliobibuli said...

good points both of you.

glad to know the malay lit scene is so alive and being reviewed so well, ted

i feel the book reviews in the star have improved overall ... i really enjoy andrew ng's for example ... and often the contributors are chosen because they know their subject ...

visitor - i don't even read film reviews most of the time in the newspapers ... because yes, they are banal ... but there was such a beautifully written one in the star for "the red kebaya" - i thought, hey, that's the standard reviews should be at.

i hope i don't come across as being defensive though in all this ... i care about what i do (even if i'm not world's best) and i do it mainly out of a sense that this is something that needs to be done. ('cos one is never going to get rich from reviewing!)

and i guess i'm tired of the negative tack when it's much easier to criticise than to act to change things.

oh ... but i enjoy raman's sound offs (provided they don't feel personal)

bibliobibuli said...

ms d - i know you will write your reviews really nicely. you could write a bus timetable and it would still be fun!

irene said...

I will never forget writing my first book review and having Kee Thuan Chye tell me it wasn't up to snuff. Fortunately he also told me how to get it up to snuff -- then promptly sent me off to rewrite it! I'll always be grateful to him for that.

bibliobibuli said...

it's good that you had that support, irene. maybe it would be a good idea to be up some sample reviews on this blog for discussion? the problem for many reviewers is that they never receive feedback, good or bad!

would it be a good topic for a workshop, d'you think?

Burhan said...

coming from academia (and i think a lot would agree with me), i think this is a problem that is endemic to academic research in malaysia, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. good research papers are simply not being written and published in good peer-reviewed journals. there is not a strong research culture in many malaysian universities, and it would take at least one generation (the one after mine) to change that.

btw, i'd do a film or literary critic gig in a heartbeat. but a ghostwriting gig would be so much fun!

animah said...

Yes let's put up sample reviews for discussion.

Anonymous said...

"No time lah" roughtly translates to "I'll not get paid enough for this" :) Oh yes, we justify our failure in many ways, some blame gvernment, some blame parents, some blame "our generation". It's all due to the fact that some people don't want to accept persnal responsibility -- you're a failure because of the decisions you made in your life, not because of anything else. If I'm not publishing any good research papers, it's because "my generation" doesn't do that, my university doesn't encourage that, anything but because I'm a bloody lazy bugger who can't be bothered to get off his lazy arse and do something about it.

Go ahead and pass the resonsibility to the next generation. The next generation should then feel free to pass it on.

The Visitor said...

there is another species of reviewer, one who doesn't know much about anything, but is able to make up for it with lots of humour to make the review very entertaining. i like those too.

Anonymous said...

They may be rubbish not because of the inability of the reviewers, but because they are expected to produce work at that level of readership.

Burhan said...

anonymous is reading too much in what i said. but it's okay.

visitor said: "lots of humour to make the review very entertaining"

who are these reviewers? i mean the entertaining and funny ones (not the ones who don't know anything). sounds like something fun to read.

Anna Akhmatova said...

Visitor, are you saying that the local reviewers are more or less incompetent? If so, I agree with you.

Maybe some are lazy buggers and others aren't savvy enough to write eloquent reviews.

Fei said...

hmm...this discussion really keeps me thinking.

I write book review for chinese daily, I knew I'm not a good reviewer, but wish to improve through the course of 'reviewing'. But again, is it ok for a reviewer to learn to write a review or they only write it when they are capable of doing so?

Greenbottle said...

as a reader i love reviews in say the guardian and The Times (london)or the economist or harpers or the new yorker etc.... If you put the reviews from these papers/ mags side by side with the ones we have here we probably can agree that ours aren't up to their standard by far.

I go to Brit council just to read book sections on saturdays/ sundays from these papers. i'd be damned to buy local papers for their book reviews.

the problem with reviews in our papers is that they are (apart from what the visitor says)are simply colourless and boring...

a book review should make you want to read even a bad book whilst a bad review make you hate even a good book.

Alex Tang said...

I do agree with most of you that local reviewers are rather banal and often boring. They do not interact with the book they are reviewing enough.

I agree with Burhan we need to train up a generation of readers who are critical and reflective in what they are reading and also have a wide background knowledge to interact with the book. Then they need to be able to write it up logically and clearly with the target audience in mind. A tall order? Hopefully not

bibliobibuli said...

actually i think anon has a point ... in a sense, visitor ... you write the brilliantest review in the world and it will got way over the heads of the majority of newspaper readers ... one criteria for a review in our local papers is that it should be well written enough to entertain and shouldn't make readers feel talked down to or be couched in literary language that's beyond them.

anna - i am a reviewer and i work hard at what i do ... as do many others. it simply isn't fair to criticise all reviewers in a blanket way. some reviews are bad, some better, maybe some very good ... but none of us perhaps are brilliant

i would love to challenge you to get a review published. and don't you dare say "no time lah"!!!!

fei - yeah, this thread has taken off and i'm surprised it's getting so lively.

actually all reviewers everywhere learn on the job. there is no training for reviewers.for book reviewers a love of books helps, so does some training in literature. (it was my major and i've taught it up to undergrad level so that helps in analysing a text). so does being as widely read as possible and loving books. but i think it is essential to read as many well-written reviews as possible from as many different sources as possible. i try not to read reviews until i finish a book and then i check out what reviewers in the new york times and guardian and other papers have said about it, and really think about how each review is presented.

you know, it might be fun to get a "real life" forum going on this topic ... am thinking ...

agree v. largely with you greenbottle. am entertained by the reviews and the lovely language they are written in. - but i also find some reviews in those papers overpraising mediocre books and i do wonder if there is some bias ... (can furnish examples but won't online)

reviewing here is such a hit and miss affair. with so little space to start with, whether a book gets reviewed in the first place is a real lottery.

and, musing further on what you say greenbottle, just look at how reviewing operates for the nyt. there is space for 30-40 reviews a week. books are received months ahead of publication. (here they are received if at all after publication and i have often reviewed books i've bought myself because i think they are great.) and look at the pool of talkent the newspapers have to pick from ... and often the most famous authors review books. and reviewers are paid a decent fee for a review. (i assume anyway - wonder if anyone can tell us how much?)

bibliobibuli said...

alex - i issue the same challenge to you as to anna! no point saying the reviewers suck and then not acting to put the problem right. shine the torch!

and burhan - do please have a go at reviewing and if you fancy ghostwriting or freelance editing eric forbes at MPH might like to hear from you ...

anna akhmatova said...

Sharon: Me so sorry ma'am :-)

I wasn't referring to you when I posted that! I think you're one of the best reviewers in this country and many would attest to that.

Your reviews are eloquent yet lucid and you deserve an avalanche of accolades for your work.

Just as you ha opined above, some reviewers have the propensity to wax MORE than lyrical of mediocre books or works(especially reviews in the papers) and those are the ones that I was attributing my discontentment to.

So what do we do? Keep tolerating the banality and practice some magnanimity or just skip the pages altogether?

Perhaps you could teach them a zing or two? ;-D

The Visitor said...

ah, i dont think that challenge is very valid, becos it's like saying, if you've never written a review, then don't criticise cos u dont know how difficult it is.

then, George Bush could say "you can't criticise me if you've never been president. you dont know how much work goes into being a president"

if we write reviews only for reviewers, then yes, it would be valid. but we're writing for the public, therefore they are free to criticise our work even if they've never written a single review in their lives.

qaminante said...

Some time ago I came across someone trying to publicise a book on her blog, prior to publication, by giving access to a couple of chapters, and I thought it was awful - though I would hate to have to try to sum up why (basically it was fine apart from the plot, the characters and the writing..!). Later she got it published, and was devastated by a bad review in a local paper: as it happens I thought the review was equally awful, being concerned largely with whether events in the book had or hadn't happened to the author. However, while I'm not sure the author would agree with me, I think it must still be better for there to be bad reviews than none at all. The only real qualification needed is that of being able to express what (some) other readers might feel when they read the work under review. But, what a pleasure to read a really knowledgeable review by someone who can also write, like the ones in The Economist - and, I have no doubt, by bibliobibuli!

Eliza said...

Sharon - I always have great difficulty writing reviews, even if a million opinions are floating in my head on the book/film. I get stuck because chiefly, the I ask myself, who am I to say this and this and this about someone else's work?

Some pointers on reviewing would help reivew-challenged people like myself. I have just completed Teacher Man (finally! another book finished!) and thought of writing a mini review of it, but after reading this...:-)

I do read our local reviews - more of hte movies than of the books - and some are good, intelligent and eloquent.

Greenbottle said...

dear eliza;

as a reader,

i'd like to read what the reviewer honestly feels about the book, the author and you also must add any relevant or even irrelevant but interesting anecdotes related to the book reviewed or even about any other related books you're reviewing.I hate reviewers that just vomit synopsis and a few careless statements and recommendation.

just be original, say what exactly you feel, never rehash any reviews that you've read from other famous publications...we'll soon catch you in no time at all...anyone's honest opinion is always interesting.

then of course there is that thing about style. i don't expect a nabokov or martin amis or a p j o'rourke but as a reader i always look for a 'writing voice' of your own...i hate generic school magazine-ish straight forward writing...it's bloody boring. have your own voice and even eccentricities in your writing.

bibliobibuli said...

anna - it's okay ... wan't taking it personally ... or was i? i guess i feel a kinship for others who write reviews esp. in the same space in the same paper

visitor - damn! i was hoping no-one would see the logical flaw in my argument. you're way too sharp! all the same i like to put out this challenge (and at least one reader emialed me to say he's taking it up!) secretly i'm just trying to prod a few more people into having a go so that with luck there will be a bigger pool in future ...

qaminante - yes, surely any review is better than being ignored. and i think i read somewhere that a really bad review will lead to quite good sales! and some good fiction does get slammed from time to time e.g. ian mcewan's "saturday" got a pasting in the nyt by john banville.

good reviews give me a lot of pleasure too

eliza - i think you would be an excellent reviewer and you should give it a go.

a review is an opinion - it is not the definitive summing up of a book. and the reader may not share your taste. i know that books i've loved and reviewed very favourably "never let me go" and "the inheritance of loss" were very vociferously not liked at all by members of my reading group. above all you have to be honest and reach inside for that gut feeling.

when i read a book for review i keep a notebook to jot down points and notes on the plot and gut reactions which then find their way - a bit more cleverly worded - into the final review.

give the "teacher man" review a whirl and then invite us over!

bibliobibuli said...

good advice greenbottle - i think we posted almost at the same moment as we underline each other's point about writing honestly.

and yes, never lift from other reviews. i avoid them completely until i've written my piece. i don't read the comments from other reviewers at the beginning of the book. i don't even read the blurb!! i have to make sense of the book first by myself.

The Visitor said...


anyway, to Eliza, you should also ask of bad authors: "who are they to charge us money to read their awful work?"

then you would feel better about evaluating someone else's work. hehe.

anna akhmatova said...

Visitor: You Bad! You very Bad!!! LOL!!

Eliza said...

Sharon, greenbottle, thanks for the words of advice. I still find reviews toughgoing but will give teacher man a try.

Visitor - good point.

Anyway, got this through my inbox and thought to post it. Don't think we can trust the five-star reviews on amazon now! (No, I don't know who the publisher is; and emphasis is mine):

Write Online Book Reviews

We need 5 reviewers for 3 of our newly released titles. We ask that you write a 1-3 Paragraph review with a 5
star rating (5 being best)
of each of the 3 books. We will then ask that you forward the reviews over to us so
that we can look over them before you post them on Amazon.com and Barns and Noble.com. Most of our reviewers
are paid from $5- to $10 per review or $15.00 to $30.00 per 3 review book set.

I suppose this is okay if you feel the books deserve a five-star rating.

Chet said...

I don't think they're asking for a 5-star rating for the books, but to give a rating based on the 5-star system with 5 as the best.

However, their request for the reviews to be sent to them for "review" sounds dodgy.

eyeris said...

I do believe most fiction reviews come out in Friday's StarTwo, while StarMag's is mostly non-fiction...

anyway, I really don't think there is a right or wrong way to review a book. it all depends on each individual, as each individual would take different things from the books they read. so reviews will reflect their own personal opinions more than anything.

That said, I also try as much as possible to stick to reviewing things I know slightly more about, which is why I tend to stick to reviewing fantasy books most of the time.

Hmmm. interesting. I think I'll post something on this later. :D:D

bibliobibuli said...

eliza - that is a dodgy practise ... mind you a lot of people persuade friends to write reviews.

eyeris - agree with you totally about sticking to what you enjoy.

Anonymous said...

The act of reading and choosing what to read are very personal. I am a voracious reader, and time permitting, would read whatever I can lay my hands on ( and if my wallet allows it too). I am not influenced by book reviews and read them sometimes only if to see what others make of the books I HAVE read. So it does not really botherme if reviews are badly done or well done or over done, those are just opinions, anyone can express what they really think of a book the way they know how. We should not be judging reviews, let us judge the writers of the books ourselves because that is where the true value of a book is to a reader, not on what was said by others on the book. We do not want to get too commercial over something as simple and pleasurable as reading, do we. If we do, then the publishers of the books should pay reviewers to sing praises about the books they print or create some controversies over the books just to boost up sales.

bibliobibuli said...

anon - good for you! applaud your attitude. i also use reviews to check my thoughts against the thoughts of others rather than as recommendations as to what to read. but i enjoy well-written ones which add in some way to the experience of the book, throw points to ponder in my direction.

i think reviews should 1) let readers know whether they would enjoy a book or not 2) provide writers with useful feedback 3) be relevant to a wider discussion about books.