During my life I’ve been a critic and/or a reviewer of books, movies, theatre, live events, and art. I’ve written a weekly book review column as well as a weekly art critic column.
Everywhere I’ve worked and for everyone who edited my writing, what a critic or reviewer is and should do has been a bit different.
In the early ‘70s, my editors saw the job as that of critic, the point being to give an honest critique of art pieces I saw in local galleries. Critique, in this case, meant being harsh. I tended to write my columns only about pieces I liked and avoided technical art language in favor of the language used by everyday people. I tried to describe the art in terms of how the piece made me feel, not how the various art elements worked in the piece. Oddly (to me), my columns produced positive letters to the editor, which, of course, made my editors happy.
When I switched newspapers, I became a critic at large, being assigned various entertainment events to cover. This included people like Tony Orlando and Dawn or Liberace, family events like the Ringling Brothers Circus, and generally any event other critics couldn’t cover.
I once ended up critiquing the Ice Capades. The show was a disaster, skaters falling all over themselves, dropping props, and often running into each other. It was more like watching a hockey game than an extravaganza on ice – all of which I said in the critique. Angry letters followed. My favorite published one was that the newspaper should send a woman to review family events next time because the man they sent (me, a woman!) didn’t understand family entertainment.
For both newspapers, I critiqued books and finally made that my life’s pastime. I can’t call it work because I love doing it, nor does it pay well at all.
Interestingly, my newspaper book editors wanted almost an academic critique from me, analyzing plot, character, tone, theme, and other standard literary evaluation criteria even though the books I was assigned were popular biographies like the life of Norman Rockwell, general women’s fiction, and other works academia would never consider the least bit literary.
When I began writing for national review magazines, the job changed from critiquing to reviewing. One of my favorite editors told me early on in the job that she wanted her reviewers not to say a book was bad, but to find the right reader for the book and write the review for that reader. In my opinion she was half right: There are badly written books.
But she changed the way I thought of book reviews. Suddenly, instead of being expected to find the negative, I was supposed to find the positive and highlight it. This publication was asking what another book review magazine editor called haiku reviews, reviews under 200 words.
Writing haiku reviews is difficult at best. The reviewer must give a hasty who, what, and why (three of the standard reporter questions). Who wrote the book includes whether the writer is new, has a new pseudonym, or is renowned for a certain genre. The what is more complicated because it needs to tell readers if the book is part of a series (and where in the series this book falls), if it’s a departure for the author, or if it’s a first publication for the author. (Reviewers and their editors tend to avoid republished books, self-published books, and up until very recently eBooks.) The what also includes a truncated plot synopsis. Forget the subplots; there’s no room. The why is the reviewer’s overall opinion of the book and as short as possible why the reviewer feels that way. All of this in under 200 words, remember.
While I still review for one of the book review magazines (and have the reviews available on their subscription Web site and on Amazon), haiku reviews are still difficult to write. Do you read the haiku reviews (Publishers Weekly and Booklist, usually) on sites like Amazon and other booksellers? If so, do they help you decide which books to buy? I’m wondering if the legitimacy that these review venues makes a difference compared to the reader comments.
Finally, I’ve started writing for AAR. I like writing longer reviews and find the ability to write less structured pieces refreshing after over twenty years (and counting) of haiku. Delving into character, relationships, plot, and any other consideration that will help readers decide whether the book is for them or not expands my thinking and makes reviewing a refreshing new experience.
So as I said before, what do you like – a review or a critique? Why? What would you like to see reviewers do that they don’t do now? What would you like to see reviewers stop doing?
– Pat AAR