Sunday, June 03, 2007

Bashing the Reviewer

I'm probably opening up a bag of worms with this post but still ...

The most interesting thing in the Sunday papers is the letter from Tunku Halim in the Star because I think it throws up interesting questions about how local books are reviewed and what we expect from reviewers, and I hope I'm not sticking my neck out by bringing the topic up. (Both author and reviewer are my friends, and I hope they both still are after this!)

Michael Cheang's review of Tunku Halim's latest book 44, Cemetery Road appeared last Sunday. It is a compilation of previous stories from his previous collections with three new ones. I haven't read the book yet (drowning in books I have to read for review) although hope to do so soon, so this personal jury is out, for now, on the merits and demerits of the book. My argument then is a general one.

The review was largely a very positive one, but a couple of the criticisms were leveled by Cheang against the writing. He also had issues with the writing style in one story:
... words leaped out at me like a vengeful spirit. Elaborate descriptions, overdone superlatives and textbook-style plotting abound ...
But it was the charge that he had used “very similar plot devices” (similar to each other presumably) and some of his earlier stories were “predictable” that got up the author's nose.
This is a serious allegation indeed against any writer and I wish to state my case. Here it is and right to the point: the stories are NOT predictable, nor are they similar in terms of plotting.

If Cheang thinks otherwise, he should have elaborated, pointing out the offending stories and also to explain why. Such a flippant comment can easily be thrown in, particularly by a reviewer who readily admits from the start that he regards horror stories as often “cheesy”. Yet what he claims is “predictable” is extremely difficult to justify unless we do a test. After reading say 25% of the story, Cheang should then tell us what exactly is going to happen. I doubt he can. This also leads me to the question of predictability or, its opposite, the unexpected ending. It is the journey rather than the destination that matters. If you watch any Hollywood movie you more or less know the good guys are going to win. Yes, predictable. But how? The journey that gets them there is what counts. That’s what you enjoy. It’s the detail of the story, the suspense, the action, even if you know the outcome, is what makes for good entertainment. So predictability should not be an issue. Having said that, my stories are not predictable.
As a reviewer myself, I have to say that the author is not the one to make a judgment about whether his work is predictable or not (no matter how concerned he was about avoiding predictability when he was writing it). It is a judgment entirely for the reader. And in this case for the reviewer. Now a review is a personal opinion. Reviewers differ greatly on how they perceive a book. One loves it. One shreds it. But none of them has the final word.

Just look at how different the reviews of On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (I take this example since I've just finished reading it) are in the New York Times "a small sullen, unsatisfying book" and in The Washington Post
where Jonathan Yardly enthuses that it "reaffirms (his) conviction that no one now writing in English surpasses or even matches McEwan's accomplishment".

Who is right? Both.

And neither.

These are personal reactions to the novella, and the fact that readers can react so differently to a text is large part of our engagement with literature.

Cheang should have elaborated? Could he have included more specific examples? Perhaps so. But actually he was already 167 words over the limit (according to recent guidelines for Star reviews in which the word limit was cut from 800 words to just 500).

It's unfortunate in a sense that Cheang and Halim opened up such a bag of worms because no local publication gives space for the in-depth discussion of literature that it deserves. There is no forum for in-depth discussion or analysis of texts outside academia. And writers do need to know what they are getting right and what they aren't so that they can move forward.

It's good that an effort is being made in the Star to review local books, and I hope to see other titles on the book pages.

The reviewer doesn't like the genre? That there are so few competent people willing to review books is undoubtedly part of the issue here. Besides, does not liking a genre actually diminish the value of the review?

But the reviews cannot, and should not, always be positive ones. They should be fair and authors should understand this.

Tunku Halim to his credit says that he does, and writes some further thoughts about the review on his blog. He adds that he feels:
... that local reviewers have a pre-conceived idea of local writers which is “it’s local, so it can’t be much good”. The reviewer looks through blinkers, searching for negatives, not the positives. This means the local author necessarily has an uphill battle from the start. He or she has to convince the reviewer that despite being local the work is great. But take heart, this attitude will change with time.
This is certainly something we should examine our reviewerly consciences for.

30 comments:

Amir said...

Well, Tunku Halim to his credit didn't resort to that tired old "If you think you so clever, you write your own books lah! Jeles!"

Julian Barnes once told me (oh OK, there were over a hundred other people in the hall at the same time!): "The trouble with most critics is not that they are failed novelists. The trouble with most critics is that they are failed critics."

bibliobibuli said...

so what does it take to be a successful critic?? (amir - you horrid name dropper!)

SecretHistory said...

Is "similar plots" a bad comment? I mean people said almost all Haruki Murakami's short stories and some novels have similar plots.

Always a lonely sad man interacting with a weird girl and ended with the man being the same or even sadder.

And people still applaud his work.

Chet said...

Perhaps this is a discussion the MPH Writers' Circle can take up at some point?

Anonymous said...

jeez, more critic-bashing.

who says critics are failed this and that? i drop you a couple of names: Martin Amis, Jean-Luc Godard.

there are more, but i can't be arsed. (more like Sunday morning laziness.)

OK, here we go:

criticism. yes it's an opinion, but it has to be an INFORMED opinion. a good critic doesnt just say something is good or bad, but also backs it up solidly. word count should not be a hindrance, unless you're doing a thumbnail review.

writers. relax, Tunku Halim! if you know your work is not predictable, then that's all that matters. why write a letter to fight back? (a practice which i do not agree with, cos i'd prefer to let the people debate it themselves, which is far more interesting, and is the primary function of all creative works, to inspire, to connect, to evoke, to provoke thought and discussion)

Viz

bibliobibuli said...

chet - perhaps you could suggest it to renee, eric or janet

viz - you skipped a beat. he DID write a letter and the star published it. agree with you that it is the people who should debate it. once a book is published it belongs to the readers!!!

Anonymous said...

yeah i know he already wrote a letter. sorry if i gave the impression that i thought otherwise.



Viz

Tunku Halim said...

Sharon, I agree with you the book is now out in the public domain and it belongs to all readers (and critics!) But surely, to push the Disraeli analogy, a father is entitled to defend his child?

If I didn't write the letter, we wouldn't have the benefit of this discussion, this debate. You've already pointed out a flaw in the review process which is the lack of number of words for reviewers to do proper reviews.

I agree that it was a positive review and, if you see Michael Cheang, please pass him my thanks. But the lack of explanation bothered me. Perhaps the word count limitation explains it.

Again I agree that it's only one man's opinion. So is mine. It does not hold any more weight, just because I'm the author. The stories take on a life of their own. They have to make their own way in the world.

bibliobibuli said...

hi halim, agree with you that it is a very useful, a very fruitful debate. i hope that it also sparks more debate when more people read your book!

i think that we all as reviewers have to guard against vague assertions in what we write. it isn't easy to give examples in such a cramped space though. i find myself in a dilemma sometimes wondering just what bits (which i think are very good)i should chop ruthlessly out. i've noticed that the length of reviews is creeping up a bit again though, so that's good. but just compare the space with that available to reviewers in the leading UK and US papers.

defend your child, by all means!

animah said...

I am writing this comment wondering if my words will come back to haunt me. I would think that once you write a book, or anything that is published for that matter, you have opened yourself to criticism (or praise). You have to take it, and not go attacking those who don't like your work. In fact I thought Michael Cheang's review was quite kind.
I thought some of the stories were predictable too, but that didn't take away the thrill in reading them. There were some ways in which I felt they could be strengthened, and I'd be happy to share them with TH if he was interested.
I guess this is the exercise I am going through right now with my draft and the very scary but constructive criticism.

Anonymous said...

Animah,

just imagine ur book being reviewed by Martin Amis. i guarantee u will shit bricks.


ur darling Viz

Amir said...

Ah, but did Amis shit bricks when he read this splendidly sulphurous take take on his memoirs?

Alas, my favourite La Burchill book review isn't online: her attack on Jeanette Winterson, titled "My enemy has written a bad book."

bibliobibuli said...

and what about banville's savage review of mcewan's "saturday" in the nyt that many feel lead to him not being shortlisted for the booker (which i believe he should have been)

we don't have a bitchy book reviewing environment here which is perhaps a good thing

animah - if you feel inspired to blog a review, you can post it here y'know

Jenn said...

I hope I become a writer who can withstand bad reviews (anticipating that my first book - if it ever materialises - will be very flawed) with grace and dignity. It seems, from my very naive POV now, that to ignore them, good or bad, is perhaps the easiest way to deal with them. As it is I can't even ignore negative comments on my blog (but I don't delete them - I just might be a sucker for criticism!).

With all due respect to book reviewers, I tend not to read book reviews if I can help it, and instead read book blogs (wink wink) that recommend good reads. As it is I don't have enough reading time!

animah said...

Viz,
What an honour to be reviewed by Martin Amis at all.
Have problems with his book though, can never get past the first chapter.
Sharon,
Dovegreyreader has just read Inheritance of Loss and feeling guilty about not liking it. I feel vindicated.
A book review never put me off a book. A positive book review might make me read the book, especially if it's Daphne's. [have I got apostrophe in right place? You're putting your commentators under pressure now]
Sharon, I've barely time to read let alone write reviews. And Wednesday looms closer. Have had headache ALL weekend. I live in the subterrean world of my characters. Is this what being a writer is like?

bibliobibuli said...

aiyoh animah - am feeling guilty myself having produced only some dead on the page stuff. but i also have 2 articles to get in by friday.

no-one needs to like or dislike a book on someone else's say so. i can quite understand why others didn't like "the inheritance of loss" though i did esp. the new york chapters

are you talking about amis' "money"? not an easy book to read. i really love it but found i had to concentrate extremely hard ... haven't quite had the energy to finish it though - left it three-quarters of the way through, but i don't think that matters as there isn't exactly much plot

Eliza said...

Hi, I read the review, Sharon, and did find it to be more negative than positive. As you say, it is the reviewer's personal opinion. On whether reviewers are biased against local authors, I like to think not, but I believe that it does help to have a reviewer who is well-versed in a particular genre to review books from that genre.

Alex Tang said...

Hi Sharon,

I must say I was shocked when I read Tungku Halim's letter in the Star yesterday. I believe this is a first in which an author critique his reviewer's review of his book. And what amazed me more is that I believe Michael Cheang's review was generally favourable to his book.

I do believe that there should be space for discussion of books. However, a book review is what the reviewer thinks of the work being reviewed. It is still an individual's opinion whether positive or negative.

If authors start responding to their book reviews by writing to the press, will it not open a pandora's box? Will we be expecting Michael Cheang to respond to Tungku Halim's letter then? This is a new development which I am not too sure is healthy.

animah said...

Sharon, at least you know that you have produced "dead on the page stuff" (I'm just taking your word for it). Sometimes I'd write something which I am very proud of, then to be told it's dead dialogue. But I'd rather be critiqued upfront than to have people laughing behind my back.

As for the Star Review, perhaps they (and anyone else) would think twice about reviewing any future TH books. So who is the real loser?

Argus Lou said...

It's not a matter of whether a review is generally favourable or not. It's a matter of whether it comes across as being fair, how its criticisms are justified or explained.

I did feel the reviewer MC was giving words and phrases expected of a reviewer - a bit. Perhaps he felt he needed to temper the praise with negatives. It didn't help that he had pre-conceived ideas about local (and S'porean) horror writers and doesn't like the genre much.

Dear critics, reserve criticism if there's a lack of space to explain it. Justify and explain praise too, if any.

The tone of TH's letter is a bit 'salah' (or 'off') although I agree he has a right to defend his baby (even though most authors just grin or grind their teeth and bear it).

Chet said...

I'm not sure if reviewers are critics, too. Sharon?

bibliobibuli said...

i would say they are chet. though maybe the difference is in the degree of professionalism - i'd say that a reviewer is anyone who writes a review, a critic is someone who has a larger reputation and writes a lot of reviews and other critical pieces perhaps e.g. essays

Chet said...

Thanks for the clarification.

Amir said...

Alex,

It is not unprecedented. The NST's literary page in the 90s published a few letters by authors who felt shortchanged by reviewers. A movie producer went one further - she managed to get a freelance reviewer suspended from The Star for writing a negative review. (But you didn't hear it from me!)

Alex Tang said...

hi amir,

Thanks for the correction. Does it happen elsewhere? Do a reviewer for New York Times or Guardian get a respones in writing from the author reviewed? I am curious to know :)

Amir said...

Yes it happens elsewhere.

But as for the movie producer wielding so much clout... it probably rarely happens elsewhere.

priya said...

Everyone's got valid points, but Amir's story about the movie reviewer getting sacked is reflective of the kind of attitude we don't want to cultivate right?

Though, that might explain why a lot of movie reviews in the dailies seem to have a strained, lukewarm feeling to them.

Anonymous said...

"no local publication gives space for the in-depth discussion of literature that it deserves."

That's because there's not a whole lot of demand for it.

"There is no forum for in-depth discussion or analysis of texts outside academia."

One could be set up easily, but who'd have the time or the money ?

"And writers do need to know what they are getting right and what they aren't so that they can move forward."

There's really no such thing as "getting it right." This can mean a lot of different things depending on which benchmark you use. Getting it right could mean writing a bestseller. That's one universal benchmark of at least one type of success.

I don't think there's a universal sense of right and wrong. If there was everyone would like the same books. So before we talk about getting it right, we should perhaps talk about what "getting it right" means.

eyeris said...

Oh geez, can't believe I completely missed this discussion. oh well...

Anyway, I have it on very good authority (heh) that the reviewer did not respond (much) to the letter by TH because:

1) He stands by the review, as it was genuinely what he thought of the book
2) If he had to explain himself EVERY TIME there was a negative response to anything he wrote, he'd have no time to write anything else.
3) It wasn't even a NEGATIVE review fer gods sake!

Yang menurut perintah,
eyeris

bibliobibuli said...

serves you right for not reading my blog more often. i have my finger on the bookpulse.