Trip to AWP LA 2016, Part VI
April 13, 2018
In these final two restoration posts from AWP LA ’16, my graduate school self listed answers to questions at a book review panel. Some of the answers are keenly interesting.
I hope you enjoy it! Visit tomorrow for the second half of my AWP LA ’16 notes from the book review panel.
Listing 💙 Reviews & Specialization
Should book reviewers specialize in a field?
- When a book reviewer specializes in a field, or rather, when they fall in love with a field, they’re able to take an angle on the book that’s unique to that love, completely and organically, within the process of book review writing. To put it another way, in their specialty, they will write the book review with love.
- For instance, if a book reviewer loves literary fiction, and knows all there is to know about literary fiction, they are more equipped to talk about metaphors, human behavior, and so on, as part of their passion, so when they place their lens over the book review, their voice will be bent into this beautiful shape;
- but if a book reviewer loves memoir, they may also be more versed in history, or at least have accumulated a significant amount of reading in personal histories, so they might write a book review within their unique historical lens, bringing the author’s life into the review, the pre-memoir, (or the post-memoir,) and this will give that book reviewer’s work more substance—that signature of their specialization, their background, their character—their beautiful bending;
- But when a book reviewer is a generalist, they’re able to fill the needs of the review publisher, regardless of the book the publisher wants to review next, so even though the author might not have a lens capable of the level of critical thinking, or theory, or niche entertaining when it comes to discussing the book vs. the specialist, the generalist is still comfortable enough with various topics to provide a meaningful contribution to the ongoing discussion of literature, and since the discussion of literature is really the point, the merits of specialization vs. generalization is obviously an endless debate;
Then as the conversation of the panel shifts in another direction, I notice this bald guy in the audience, hair wrapping in a halo at ear level, who keeps rubbing and rubbing his head, in deep thought or deep nervousness, (I like to project the idea of deep nervousness)—or maybe he is just experiencing irritation at the continual balding of his head—and I’m not giving him the space to quietly move through that experience, not without all my annoying introspection.
Listing 🖤 Reviews & Mood
Should book reviewers write shiny and happy?
- It’s no good to write book reviews for works written by friends or enemies, as well as works from a publisher you’re associated under, because beyond obvious ethical concerns, the mixed feelings lead to a form of pressure that will definitely impact your craft within the book review form;
- With that caveat in mind, if you avoid books you don’t like, you aren’t “only writing good book reviews,” so much as being selective about the time you spend on book reviewing—the same way you’re selective about books you’re reading, when you decide to read book reviews written by other similarly thoughtful authors—so this process of I-only-write-about-what-I-like usually liberates book reviewing on individuals, and on the society of book review readers and writers as a whole;
- Miner explained this form of avoidance as, “You say no to editors, return books when you don’t share wavelengths with the author;”
- But sometimes, even avoiding awkward situations, you will still write criticism, at least if you believe in capturing the beauty and flaw of the work, (and it’s okay if, instead, you only focus on beauty,) (and there are also some famous assholes who only focus on flaw,) so when you write criticism, if you frame it as suggestive rather than authoritative—”For example,” Lord said, “I wrote in a critical review once, ‘Readers may find this book is a long journey'”—if you use this suggestive voice, rather than blatantly calling the book “bad,” you’re instead implying, This book’s not for me, and this gentle approach may work well for you;
- Yet you may decide this softer form of criticism isn’t for you; you may decide gentleness gets in the way of honesty;
- Except, Miner warns, you could, in your brazenness for honesty, instead miss the author’s intention; for example, she told us a story about how she dismissed a short story collection in a book review, attacking it as not a work of literary genius—but if the author’s intention was to write a fun book, a lighthearted collection, and not short stories of literary genius—then the book she dismissed was a book she never had to begin with;
- So, if you decide this softer form of criticism isn’t for you, you could, in your brazenness, sound like an asshole;
- But McMurtrie warns, if we continue to move in the direction of positive-only reviews, instead of reviewing a book fully, with its blemishes and successes, then reviews are no longer authentic; we walk a fine line as artists of words, as writers and as readers, between holding each other up and also writing honestly, (all the while, avoiding the fear of being an asshole;)
- So you have to figure out where you land on this spectrum;
- Yet, no matter where you land, don’t write negative reviews for debut books, or for collections of poetry; as Hoffman says, “Those books receive so few purchases to begin with, one negative review can really kill them,” and you have to ask yourself if you want your opinion, (which could vary considerably from the few opinions that a new book is going to get out of a limited readership,) to have that kind of negative impact.
- If you decide you want to have that kind of negative impact, you’re probably an authentic asshole—and please don’t tell me your stomping ground is Orange County.
The woman in the audience who feels the need to outburst—”What!?”—”Hah!”—”Yep,”—is sitting directly in front of me, with the carcass of her Gorgonzola cheese salad on the chair next to her.
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