The other day I was reading a book review of A.O. Scott’s Better Living through Criticism, which was interesting in itself, since a magazine book critic was critiquing a movie critic’s book, when I realized something basic about almost all reviews, either by professionals, semi-pros, or even readers. Such reviews report what the general story line is and what the obvious strengths and weaknesses of a book are, at least from the reviewer’s perspective, and while that is valuable to many readers, that is as far as most reviews go.
What most reviews don’t mention is what is not obvious in a book or movie. And from what I can tell from the review of Better Living through Criticism and from what little I’ve quickly read of the book, Scott apparently thinks that critics should go beyond the obvious. I honestly don’t know if he does in his own reviews, because I seldom read movie reviews, but whether he does or not, it’s a valid point, and one I’d recommend to all reviewers.
I’ve had lots of books reviewed over the years by professionals or semi-pros, and most of those reviews, at least the ones I’ve read, fall in the category of finding what I write either acceptable or moderately good, which is certainly better than many possible alternatives. A few reviews have castigated a given book, and a few more have offered fulsome praise. Several times, I’ve had both a castigating review and one of high praise about the same book.
Seldom, however, do reviewers actually mention what is truly different, or even unique, about a book. Now, from an author’s point of view, uniqueness is very much a double-edged blade, as the reviews (and comparative sales) of my more unique books – such as Archform:Beauty, Empress of Eternity, Haze, The One-Eyed Man, Solar Express, or the “Ghost” trilogy – seem to indicate. Yet the majority of reviews of those books never mention the unique aspects of the books, let alone note why they’re different. Instead, most concentrate on the strengths and especially the perceived weaknesses of the conventional aspects of the books. That’s understandable, and in itself, should be expected, but the failure to dwell upon what else lies within the pages and the story shortchanges the reader of the review.
Now… having said that, I could be far better off that the reviewers didn’t mention the different or unique aspects of any of those books, because a great many readers are looking for comfortable escapism and predictable entertainment.
Perhaps, just perhaps, I’m better off that readers don’t know in advance, because some readers will find that difference entrancing (as various emails and letters have told me) when they might not have even picked the book up had they read a review that highlighted the differences.
Which reinforces the thought that more insightful reviews are indeed a double-edged blade.