Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘reviewing’ Category

Something I have learned to experience as a reviewer of books and movies is that the more you have to convince someone the less likely what you’re trying to get across is true.

I have learned, for example, that when a publicist sends me a synopsis of a book they’d like me to consider, and they tell me the plot is “wacky” or “outrageous” or “zany,” I know they are lying.  I know from way too much experience that if you have to convince me something is funny, it isn’t. If you can show me that something is funny, really show me, then the humor will be obvious and I won’t need so much convincing to check it out.

In my day job I make a presentation once a week of the new book titles that are released. Obviously I cannot (nor do I have the desire to) read upwards of a dozen books a week just to keep up with the publishing industry’s pulp factory. Sometimes I might do a little research about an author or a title, but more often I read and summarize the jacket copy.

Turgid, dull, and unoriginal don’t even begin to crack the surface of what I find there.

The problem is that they tell more than they show, they do the one thing authors are so painstakingly told to avoid in their own writing. How am I supposed to trust that the author can deliver what the jacket copy promises, especially if the jacket copy isn’t up to the job?  Am I supposed to believe that something is truly side-splittingly funny just because you say it is?

I can count on one hand the number of books that made me laugh out loud. They did not have to “sell” me on the humor, it was inherent in their title and plot. Captain Underpants, Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder, Beat the Band to name three in the kidlit camp. Granted, mostly pre-pubescent boy humor, but none of these books had to sell me on the funny, they told me all I needed to know from the title and their premise. If you have to tell me these books are wacky, zany, or outrageous then I know they aren’t. Telling is like the canned laughter of sitcoms, there to convince you of an emotion you aren’t feeling.

But the world isn’t full of truly funny books. There are more than enough mildly amusing premises, boatloads of unoriginal slapstick, plenty of sarcastic stories out there, from picture books up through young adult, but these descriptions don’t make for good sales because, frankly, they’re too honest.

By telling a prospective reader what to think and feel about a book before they have read it is the laziest and most insulting form of salesmanship. It presumes a reader cannot come to these conclusions on their own in its weak attempt to shore up what is an inferior product. It is insulting to the intelligence of the readers, and readers aren’t stupid, especially the young ones. They know its adults out there lying to them and they’re extra wary of the anonymous book cover that is trying to win them over like a creeper offering candy in a van.

So all you publishing interns, book publicists, and junior editors out there writing jacket copy and press releases, take note: if you really want your books read and purchased and reviewed, show us its worth our time, don’t tell us why.

And authors, if your query letters read like bad jacket copy, and you’ve sold your book, please share the secret of your success.

Read Full Post »

Someone recently criticized a review of a book I wrote because it contained spoilers, particularly about the ending. I won’t mention the book because, frankly, it doesn’t deserve any more of my attention, but I wondered whether I had been wrong about posting information within the review that might have “spoiled” the ending for others.

Then I thought, No, I wasn’t wrong.

What was “wrong” was that the person didn’t want to read a review they weren’t prepared to agree with, or at the very least consider my arguments.

Of course, I wouldn’t have wanted people, say, telling me what the big “twist” in “The Sixth Sense” was about, but when I went to see it (after many friends gushed about what a huge surprise it was) I was disappointed more to have guessed the twist in the first ten minutes of the film. Had I been warned that the entire film was based on a premise that the audience wouldn’t be smart enough to guess the twist in those first ten minutes I would have been more entertained, because, honestly, I felt the fuss over that film had more to do with how easily people could be fooled by a simple lack of visual literacy than it did some great narrative surprise. You want a real spoiler? Go into a deep philosophical discussion about the meaning of the ending in “Inception.”

Here’s where I find many people wrong about the notion of spoilers: What they want is to be reassured the book/play/movie is going to meet their expectations without being told how. By this very reasoning, it is impossible to write a critical (i.e. negative) review of any narrative form because a reviewer would need to discuss specifics in order to explain and justify their point. What is spoiler to some is a critical examination to others, and thus we come to the great truth about media reviews:

You should be reading them AFTER you’ve seen/read/experienced the thing in question if you don’t want spoilers, because who knows exactly WHAT is going to be a spoiler for any given individual?

People use reviews online to help them make decisions, and with a service like Amazon, reviews and their subsequent ratings (another topic, a question of pure evil) can determine the success of a product.

For example, earlier this summer I bought a car-top carrier for our family vacation and of all the warnings I read, all the positive and negative reviews, NO ONE mentioned this top-rated item had a zipper that was not properly stress rated for this design. It isn’t really a “spoiler” to say “There are design problems” or “I had problems with the zipper” but if someone had said “I have pants with stronger zippers than on this item” I would not have bought it, I would have been “spoiled” from making a purchase that in the end upset me.

So if I’m reading a book with an ending that is full of problems, and I simply say it was “weak” and “didn’t meet my expectations” you would not get as full a sense of my criticism as if I’d said “There are serious errors in human behavior that, in the real world, would have made this happy ending implausible, if not impossible” followed by a brief outline of the issues at hand. Does it reveal too much to be thorough? For some people, perhaps, but there’s still a larger issue here, one i came to many years ago when i began reviewing movies for radio.

See and read everything that interests you, and judge for yourself.

Don’t let a reviewer or a critic ruin anything, simply go out into the world and read the reviews AFTERWARD. If you felt cheated by the story, angered by the implausible, or otherwise burned by the experience, you have performed a very valuable service for yourself: You have gained insight into what does or does not appeal to you, and you have gained the insight without the aid of being told what to think by others.

And in light of recent concerns over reviewers accepting pay for positive reviews, perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing.

Read Full Post »

There’s a new biography about Kurt Vonnegut out. I’ve caught the fact of it out of the corner of my eye here and there but the subhead on this Guardian review of the book pretty much underscores why I’m not interested in the book.

Kurt Vonnegut, the author of Slaughterhouse-Five, does not come out well as a person in a new biography by Charles J Shields.

See, I don’t really want to read that. Not because I regard Vonnegut so highly that I don’t want to know the truth about him (or at least some biographer’s truth), it’s because there isn’t any point. I don’t want to get into the quibbles about an author’s moral stance, or how his or her personal life squares against their public persona. I’m sure there are a great many writers who are nothing like we imagine them to be, which is why there is a caution often given about meetings one’s heroes.

But here’s the thing, Vonnegut was pretty good about talking about his own life. Sure, any autobiographic information given by any author is going to be somewhat unreliable, it’s an occupational hazard. I wish I could find the quote, but Stephen King was once asked about his story “The Body” which became the film Stand By Me, specifically how much of it was based on his life. He mused about how when writing a writer starts from something true and then gets to a fork where they know what happened next but “wouldn’t if be great if this happened instead?” I think writers might have a predisposition toward revising the truth of their own lives a bit.

But Vonnegut didn’t exactly shy away from the darker stuff. He made his opinions known in essays and lectures and if there was a fiction to them it doesn’t negate the message, just as his real life doesn’t negate the narrative of his fiction simply because they may be contradictory. From reading Vonnegut’s own words I know that he served in World War II, that he survived the fire bombing of Dresden, that his mother committed suicide, that his son had his own bout of mental health issues, that when his sister and her husband died that he adopted their children as well as raising his own, that in his youth he worked writing propaganda for GE, that he didn’t hold much love for George W. Bush, that he tried to commit suicide himself, that he later decided that death by cigarettes was a “classier way to die,” and that in the end what killed him was a fall down the stairs in his home where the trauma to his brain let him slip into the big sleep. A tragi-comic observer of humanity’s foibles, Vonnegut’s own death was as common and unexpected as one of his characters, he couldn’t have written a more fitting ending.

So it goes.

I know all that and more because Vonnegut told his readers as much as he wanted them to know. As a public figure he decided how much of his private life he wanted to share, and that’s good enough for me. And it should be good enough for any of us that what we know of public figures is what they want us to know. This endless fascination with celebrity, this outgrown sense of entitlement that public figures somehow owe us unfettered access to their lives, is bushwah of the highest order. I don’t want to know everything about all these celebrity, but we’ve become so accustomed to this constant stream of access that now we get updates instantaneously via Twitter when someone in the public eye dies, gets arrested, or if we’re getting it directly from them as a source, utters some inane comment that gets them in a heap of trouble.

With the advent of our constantly internet-available culture there has been some question as to what the future holds for historians and biographers. Will some famous person’s tweets one day be compiled from the Library of Congress in a single bound volume, grouped by subject and annotated with parallel and supporting links? Will there one day be an online depository of web pages of celebrities collected by discipline or topic, a thematic archive grouped by decade or influence? Or will we come simply to accept the ever-annotated entries on Wikipedia as our primary source of information?

It doesn’t matter. And it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t matter.

We’ve come to that point where we need to know less, not more. We need to curb our diet for knowing everything about everything, to not give in to this false expectation that we are entitled to something from people just because their lives have become public. The argument that celebrities put themselves in the public eye, as a justification for such constant scrutiny, is no different and no better than blaming a rape victim for dressing provocatively. And the level of information we get, especially from tabloids, suggests the only good celebrity is a dead or, or near-dead one, or at the very least, one whose physical failings deserve to be highlighted as some sort of proof that they aren’t as perfect as they might seem. News flash: none of us “regular” people would come off any better under the microscope.

But if we are to judge a man by his words or his deeds, in the case of authors like Vonnegut, I’ll take their words over an account of their deeds from a third party.

Read Full Post »

I review books. I get books sent to me. Sometimes people ask if they can send me books, and sometimes they don’t, and sometimes I ask for them.

I review books for two reasons: one, because I am on an endless quest to discover and understand the process of storytelling and enjoy the possibilities of a public platform (blogging) for discussion; and two, because I like discovering things and sharing those discoveries. After five years or so of doing this I probably could (or should) turn this reviewing into a revenue-generating enterprise. Unfortunately I have those artistic genes that don’t seem to understand commerce.

But in the end, for all my reviewing, I someday want to publish my own books. I want, like many other authors, to see my name on the cover of a book. Not because I’m egotistical but because there’s a certain sense of acknowledgement involved. When you can point to a book with your name on the cover there’s a certain level of validation of all the unseen hard work that’s gone into getting it there. I’ve talked to many authors, published and aspiring, and I know how long that journey can be, and how satisfying the end of that journey can feel when it shows up in a bookstore.

Today my name appeared on the cover of a book. The back cover of a book, but it’s still there!

I was blurbed. A quote from one of my reviews appeared among the four blurbs on the back of the book. Along with Maurice Sendak.

I’m published! Sort of!

It’s a small thing, a little goofy to be giddy about, but it came at just the right time for me. Some days it feels like everything is in a great holding pattern, that wheels are spinning but the vehicle isn’t moving, and then you get a little nudge that says “Look at that! You aren’t just talking to yourself!” (Although, technically, if the voice inside your head says that you are talking to yourself, but you get the idea.)

Alright, so another item checked off the list – see my name on the cover of a published book. Now I need to add a new one: See my name on the front cover of a published book.

Specificity, that’s the ticket.

Read Full Post »

I am, again, a Cybils judge in the graphic novel category this year. As I write this my fellow judges and I are just finishing up with our reading and will shortly begin the process of choosing a winning title from among the finalists. In my experience reviewing graphic novels I have come across a number of people – smart people who are very good at analyzing literature, mind you – who wonder how I can tell a good graphic novel from a bad one. What makes a good graphic novel different, they might ask, than a comic? The assumption that comics are automatically of a lower quality I get, because it’s similar to the artificial classification between literature and what some call junk fiction (i.e. genre fiction).

I’m not looking to pick at the worry-wound that is the divide between high and low art, but I have been thinking about the choices I am about to make as a “judge” and feel like exploring this a bit.

I used to teach Art and English to middle school kids a few lifetimes ago. One of things people always asked (and sometimes still do) is “How can you grade Art? It’s such a subjective thing.” The fallacy of this line of thinking is that people confuse the mechanics of creating something with the arbitrary notion of “art.” In publishing this sometimes shows up as a question of whether or not something has “literary merit” as opposed to just being a good story. But these labels and qualifications have nothing to do with the creation and execution of these works. I don’t have to like every great work of art or literature, but I can still respect the quality of the effort that was put into them.

So getting back to grading middle school art students (and how this fits in with judging graphic novels) what I used to tell my students was that every blank sheet of paper, or canvas, or pile of ingredients had the potential to be anything, to be great. Because of this, every project had the potential to be an A, and that’s where every project grade began. From there each project had a set of criteria it had to meet, concrete deadlines or specific instructions to be followed, and how well those were addressed would whittle away or support that A grade. And because my students were often resistant to projects before they began them, I found it easier to make my criterium deceptively simple.

  • Was the work completed on time?
  • Did you use class time well?
  • Did you follow the directions I provided?
  • Is this honestly your best effort?
  • Did you sign your final project?

Removing the stress of whether or not I would think their work was “good” from the grading equation allowed them to focus on the more important aspect of the project: paying attention to the details and putting forth a best effort to come to a creative solution to the problem. Remove good and bad and that internal voice of judgment gave them the confidence to be creative without worrying what anyone else thought. And when the projects were finished and we held in-class critiques the kids would call each other out on the criteria and not based on whether or not they liked the finished project. When you hear one student tell another “Oh, no, you did not put your best effort into this, because I saw you goofing off!” even the issue of grading becomes secondary.

This applies to any creative endeavor, writing certainly can be appreciated for its quality even when the subject or style bores or distracts, and with graphic novels it comes in handy when deciding between two different titles with different styles and subjects. Story quality counts, certainly, but with sequential storytelling the visual elements also have to be taken into account. Like a picture book the word and images need to work together, and by working together I don’t mean that the style of the art must reflect the nature of the story, though this can’t hurt. In the end it might seem like my criteria is arbitrary, but all judgments are personal so these criteria exist as a way of establishing a set of groundings beyond the old “gut feeling.”  These are some of the things I look for in a graphic novel

  • Is there a satisfying narrative arc from beginning to end?
  • Does the art contribute meaning to the story that is not otherwise expressed in the words?
  • Is there imagery or symbolism  incorporated, and if so, is it unique or relevant?
  • Could this story have only been told in this format?
  • Would this story be as interesting if it were told as a traditional fiction narrative?

With the idea that every unread book has the potential to be great, after reading a graphic novel I find that I can better understand what did or didn’t “work” for me by using the criteria above. It isn’t an absolute guide, but in cases where I am having a difficult time articulating whether I liked a graphic novel, or why I liked it, these can be helpful.

The quality of the art isn’t mentioned above but that’s because it’s a secondary or parallel issue for me. I don’t care how beautiful the artwork for a graphic novel is, if the story is boring or weak or reprehensibly clichéd, then the book is a failure for me. Gild a turd any way you want, it’s still a turd. Tell me a story I’ve read a thousand before, but give me a unique visual or some clever symbolism to hold onto, and you’ve got my attention. I’ve read mini comix that employed stick figures with more humor and insight than all the Hollywood comedies put out last year. The rudimentary art didn’t bring down the quality of the comic any more than a huge Hollywood budget is a guarantee of art.

If past is prologue, I predict that somewhere in the midst of Cybils judging I’m going to have to compromise. It never fails, my first choice picks almost never get chosen by the group as a winner. That’s okay because the process is a little more like the Supreme Court laying down a ruling rather than a jury delivering a unanimous decision. There will always be splits and divides, and that’s okay because in the end, no matter what committee confers whatever award, or what one critic or reviewer says about any particular books, one simple rule should take precedent over all others for readers:

Read everything and judge for yourself.

Read Full Post »

A New Year’s Eve cold and a truckload of graphic novel reading has kept me quiet lately. Well, it’s kept me from blogging and talking with a normal voice around the house at least.

A good deal of the things I’ve been reading have been as a Cybils Graphic Novel finalist judge and I really cannot talk about those books because them’s the rules. I have been keeping a sort of “diary of a judge” post running as I go so that on the 15th of February I can let the world know what was going on during the process. Not me giving away secrets about the other judges or gossip like that (like I’m clued in enough for gossip) but the process of how I came to the decisions I made. Or am making at the time. It’s weird to talk about the future in the past tense when it’s happening in the moment.

But to be fair, I have been reading a lot of other things as well, I just haven’t had a chance to write or review them. Which means that down the road there’s going to be a flood of catching up I’m going to have to do. That said, there are still some general things I can say about all the reading I’ve been doing lately. Hopefully it won’t sound too vague.

One thing I’d like to see less of are graphic novels about characters with powers or who fight crime. If there’s one thing that makes the graphic novel novel is how it differentiates itself from comic books. It’s just too easy to use the inherent action of superhero comics to give a story a false sense of plot and character development. Far too often the main character’s growth is patently shallow, and if you removed the action sequences (which more often than not have little to do with any inner character growth at all) what you have left is a laughable pamphlet that reads like a 1950s sitcom plot synopsis. “When the Beaver attempts to tackle a problem on his own he quickly discovers there is strength in numbers.”

What are monsters? What do they stand for? Aside from scaring us, or our hero, there has to be a reason they are there. Either they represent a surrogate for a tangible fear or they express a larger concept or idea. If they are merely obstacles to drive a plot or provide a character something to defeat, if they aren’t organic to the story, what’s the point? And if they are symbolic of the main character’s struggle, is it perhaps too much to ask that they be incorporated into the story in a way that they aren’t so heavy-handed, leaden, or obvious?

Fight scenes. They make for good action scenes, especially in a visual medium like graphic novels, but can’t we do something more creative in conveying struggles? A battle of wits, a battle of logic, I’d even take a bake-off as a climax provided it was chemistry that ruled the day. Honestly, sometimes when I’m reading a graphic novel and a fight scene is ramping up I feel as if I’m watching a Chuck Norris movie… which is fine if I’m reading a Chuck Norris graphic novel. Sadly, I haven’t come across a Chuck Norris graphic novel yet.

Finally, I understand – honestly, I do – that a writer or artist can only tell the stories that drive them. But there’s a line between the universal story told personally and what is so personal that reads like therapy. I acknowledge that there can be some great literature and art from pain and grief, that deep emotions can be mined to stunning effect, but no one wants to feel as if they’re going through grief counseling and psychoanalysis as a bystander. Maybe that’s just me.

So aside from my weekly Poetry Friday posts and the occasional check-in I hope to be back to the Grimmoire and delve into some new territory here in the coming weeks.

For you regulars, I thank you for your patience, and or you occasionals, for your kind attentions.

Read Full Post »

Think back five years ago to 2006. What was your favorite book of 2006?

Is that a difficult question? Do you have to mine journals and blogs and run a Google search just to remember what was published five years ago? Now let me stop you for a moment so I can throw a number out there.

29,248

That’s how many juvenile titles were published in 2006 according to Bowker’s Books in Print database for the year. That number includes fiction and nonfiction, picture books and middle grade books, board books and young adult and everything in between. I cannot imagine any one person even reading a fraction of that number of books in a single year, but of that number what are the chances that a number of them of a lesser quality? What do you suppose the ratio is between a high-quality title and a book that is just plain boring?

And where do you think your favorite book of 2006 falls in the spectrum?

2006 was the year I began to take my writing for children seriously and when I started a review blog called the excelsior file to keep a record of the books that moved me to comment. I started the blog late in the year so I only have a few months worth of reviews, and I was still getting by blogging feet, so I can’t say it was a thorough accounting. But looking over the books I did review two of them stood out as books I still can recall and recommend to people today. One is the Barbara McClintock picture book Adele and Simon and the other is a middle grade books by Gary Paulsen called The Amazing Life of Birds. There were dozen’s of others, some older ones among the new, and many of those other books were easily forgettable and forgotten. No doubt there were 2006 books I eventually read and enjoyed (Gutman’s The Homework Machine, Portis’s Not a Box, Green’s An Abundance of Katherines, among others) but even of this shallow pool of titles how many of them were truly great, exciting books that turned me into a you-must-read-this evangelist? Compared with the total number of books printed that year, the percentage is pretty dang low.

Like 0.0002%.

But this isn’t a science, and with creative arts there is always room for varied opinion. Day after day I try to immerse myself in this world of books aimed at children and young adults and wonder why such a large portion of them are quite simply boring beyond all reason. Teen romances with cardboard stereotypes and predictable endings. Picture books lacking subtlety, some of them even ugly to look at, seemingly aimed at filling in short attention span bedtime reading with quantity and not quality. Rambling middle grade books that confuse bulging words counts with quality and spend more time aimed at providing readers hope rather than delivering believability a reader can identify with. And over all, books and books and books where heroics are more important than ideas.

Cue Tina Turner singing the theme for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

Perched as we appear to be on the cusp of a digital revolution that will provide more content than ever before I think it’s imperative that those of us in the reading and writing game consider raising the bar. We should seek out and produce the difficult books, the ones that challenge a reader’s perceptions and cause a cultural stir. And perhaps we can consider talking less about good books and talking more about exceptional ones.

Five years from now when someone asks “What was your favorite book of 2012” there shouldn’t be a question or a hesitation, we should all be able to recall those titles that demanded our attentions and challenged readers to move beyond the comfort of the “good” books.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »