My books have often been reviewed savagely. I was determined not to do the same when, recently, I saw an ad and signed on to review for PW. But I soon learned that it's surprisingly difficult to do a decent job of reviewing a book if you don't want to completely trash it—which is pointless since writing a book, even a bad book, is an achievement.
My first book, American Dad, published in 1981, was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review by David Quamman, who wrote, “[Her] inventiveness is consistently undermined by the lack of grace—and, even more so, precision—in her language, the lack of subordination of emphasis among climaxes and interludes, the lack of narrative elision....” And so on.
Now I had a chance to write about books in a way that might be objective, unlike the fury heaped on me all these years. (My reviews never did get any better.) I would never do that to someone else. I didn't have to be effusive if I didn't like it; but surely it was unnecessary to try to crush the author like some kind of bug.
I was given a galley, and an outline of what is required by PW. I thought it would be an easy matter. I was excited. I love books. I love to read. Now I would be getting paid to do it (okay, not much, but still).
It took me ages to read the book. At first I was angry with the book's editor, since so much of it could have been cut to the book's benefit. And I'm not talking about typos in the galley or minor mistakes. I'm talking about entire pages that said the same thing 20 times over. Or sidetracks that had nothing to do with anything else. But I wasn't miffed at the author—I know the sense of accomplishment and pride of filling up a page with words. If someone else doesn't point out to you that there are too many, you won't know they're there. Even Tolstoy and Nabokov had wives who did this—and more.
But I digress. As did the book I was assigned to review. Suffice it to say that while the book was in need of pruning, I did not blame the tree for having too many branches. It was the editor's fault. And so, in 250 words, I wasn't about to go out on—or on about—extraneous limbs; rather, the book had an interesting subject, and one which had not been much written about—and there were people who would be interested in the subject and perhaps had the intelligence to simply skip the paragraphs that went on too long, unlike me.
The PW guidelines also stated I had to back up every reference with the page number and paragraph. But then I realized, how could I know what page and paragraph would be important or I might want to cite until I had finished reading the book and knew what I wanted to say about it? Once I had finished reading, then I had ideas—but of course I couldn't find the references without having Post-Its on the pages, which I did not.
Then, too, trying to write just 250 words is also very difficult. It is so hard to discuss an entire book in such a short space.
And generally writing something negative is far easier—and more fun. Anyone can see the holes in a sweater which nevertheless may still keep someone warm, or is a lovely color, or intricately knit from the fur of a musk ox.
Writing the review was kind of fun, a bit like doing a crossword puzzle, trying to find just the right word. I had reviewed books before, but it was some time ago. I never had to operate under such strict guidelines. And never have I been more conscious of the fact that even an inferior author is not the same as a serial killer.
|Tama Janowitz is the author of Slaves of New York and other books.|