on spoilers

I’m not so interested in the question of how Wikipedia reveals the ending of The Mousetrap, but I am interested in how Ruth Franklin, in her eviscerating but largely accurate review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom in this week’s New Republic, reveals pretty much everything that happens in the book, even quoting its powerful final sentence, which is possibly the best thing about it. (Here’s the link, though I think the full text is available only to subscribers.)

After all, Wikipedia is known for giving complete plot summaries of books and movies, so why not The Mousetrap? But when I write book reviews of novels, I try to reveal no more of the actual plot than is necessary to explain and justify the view I take of the book as a whole. This is what most reviewers do, and sometimes it can be tricky: see Aimee Bender’s recent review of Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, in which Bender sweats a bit over this question but decides that she can’t talk intelligibly about the book without revealing one key element of the story that the book itself reveals fairly early on.

Why do we reviewers try to avoid spoilers? Because we understand that other readers may not share our verdicts, and insofar as possible we want those readers to be able to read in such a way as to form their own judgments. There’s something tyrannical about Franklin’s blunt revelations of what happens in Freedom, a forestalling and preventing of other readings: it would be very difficult for anyone who had read Franklin’s review to have their own strong experience of Franzen’s novel and therefore to come to a more positive conclusion about the story than Franklin comes to (or for that matter than I came to).

For a book like Infinite Jest, which lacks a conventional plot and therefore a conventional ending, this might not matter so much. It also might not matter so much if Freedom had been out for a year or two. But Franzen was clearly writing a more traditional kind of novel, and while I don’t think the book is very successful, I think his effort deserves more respect than Franklin gives it. Franklin is one of our best reviewers of fiction, I think, but in this case I don’t like what she has done.

I imagine she would defend this practice by saying that everything about everything is already revealed on the internet, and that people could have found spoilers and lengthy quotations from the last pages of Freedom on hundreds of websites. And all that is true. But many book-readers and movie-watchers still try to preserve a certain innocence in relation to works of art they anticipate encountering, and that desire deserves more respect than Franklin gives it. The amour-propre of The New Republic presumably would not allow it to insert the phrase “SPOILER ALERT,” but I think that would have been a good idea in this case.
UPDATE: Check out these letters to the Times, especially the second one. (Hat tip to my friend Garnette Cadogan.)

The Death and Life of the Book Review

The Death and Life of the Book Review:

In 1999 Steve Wasserman was three years into his tenure as the editor of The Los Angeles Times Book Review, and that July he published a review of Richard Howard’s new translation of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma. The reason was simple: Howard is among the best translators of French literature. As Wasserman explained several years ago in a memoir of his days at the Los Angeles Times published in the Columbia Journalism Review, the review of the book, written by Edmund White, was stylish and laudatory. The Monday after the piece ran, the paper’s editor summoned Wasserman to his office and admonished him for running an article about “another dead, white, European male.” But the paper’s readers in Los Angeles thought otherwise. Soon after the review appeared, local sales of the book took off; national sales did too when other publications reviewed the book. The New Yorker ended up printing a “Talk of the Town” item that traced the book’s unexpected success to The Los Angeles Times Book Review. In his memoir, Wasserman relates a similar story about Carlin Romano, then the books critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer, who was scolded by an editor for running as the cover story of his section a review of a new translation of Tirant Lo Blanc, a Catalan epic beloved by Cervantes. “Have you gone crazy?” the editor asked. “Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of America’s newspapers in the 1990s,” Romano reflected, “is their hostility to reading in all forms.”
I may have to comment later on this fascinating article.

okay, let’s review

Jason Kottke seems to like it when Amazon reviewers give a book, or some other item, a low rating because of availability issues: “the early reviews for Michael Lewis’ The Big Short are dominated by one-star reviews from Kindle owners who are angry because the book is not available for the device.”

Compare this with traditional reviewers who focus almost exclusively on the content/plot, an approach that ignores much about how people make buying decisions about media today. . . .Newspaper and magazine reviewers pretty much ignore this stuff. There’s little mention of whether a book would be good to read on a Kindle, if you should buy the audiobook version instead of the hardcover because John Hodgman has a delightful voice, if a magazine is good for reading on the toilet, if a movie is watchable on an iPhone or if you need to see it in 1080p on a big TV, if a hardcover is too heavy to read in the bath, whether the trailer is an accurate depiction of what the movie is about, or if the hardcover price is too expensive and you should get the Kindle version or wait for the paperback. Or, as the above reviewers hammer home, if the book is available to read on the Kindle/iPad/Nook or if it’s better to wait until the director’s cut comes out. In the end, people don’t buy content or plots, they buy physical or digital pieces of media for use on specific devices and within certain contexts. That citizen reviewers have keyed into this more quickly than traditional media reviewers is not a surprise.

Interesting that Kottke thinks that “reviewing” and “giving buying advice” are the same thing; or, in other words, there’s no difference between the “review” that appears in a newspaper or magazine and the “review” that appears on Amazon.com. This is a classic case of false synonymity.When I review a book I don’t even think about whether the reader of my review is going to purchase the book — it never crosses my mind. I am trying to engage, intellectually, with what I am reviewing, to respond fairly and charitably to it, but also with proper critical acuity (which I think charity demands). I am trying to be a good reader, but to be one in public, as it were.This approach to reviewing is, first of all incompatible with handing out stars, which is an intrinsically stupid system anyway. But if we have to hand out stars, shouldn’t we make a distinction between what we think about the movie or book or game and what we think about its delivery system? Isn’t it possible that The Big Short is a terrific book that just doesn’t happen to be available on the Kindle at the moment? And if that is possible, does the one-star review capture that distinction? Maybe Amazon needs a new system to take such matters into account.

words reviewers like

The 20 most annoying book review clichés:

1. Gripping
2. Poignant: if anything at all sad happens in the book, it will be described as poignant

3. Compelling

4. Nuanced: in reviewerspeak, this means, “The writing in the book is really great. I just can’t come up with the specific words to explain why.”

5. Lyrical: see definition of nuanced, above.

6. Tour de force

7. Readable

8. Haunting

9. Deceptively simple: as in, “deceptively simple prose”

10. Rollicking: a favorite for reviewers when writing about comedy/adventure books

11. Fully realized

12. At once: as in, “Michael Connelly’s The Brass Verdict is at once a compelling mystery and a gripping thriller.” See, I just used three of the most annoying clichés without any visible effort. Piece of cake.

13. Timely

14. ” X meets X meets X”: as in, “Stephen King meets Charles Dickens meets Agatha Christie in this haunting yet rollicking mystery.”

15. Page-turner

16. Sweeping: almost exclusively reserved for books with more than 300 pages

17. That said: as in, “Stephenie Meyer couldn’t identify quality writing with a compass and a trained guide; that said, Twilight is a harmless read.”

18. Riveting

19. Unflinching: used to describe books that have any number of unpleasant occurences — rape, war, infidelity, death of a child, etc.

20. Powerful

Okay, I’ll admit to using . . . some of these. Fewer than half. Maybe fewer than a third. But I’ve published more than a hundred book reviews in my day, so, you know, there are only so many words available. . . .

a new online review

The New Republic is launching its online book review, “The Book”, today. Looks very good indeed — I’m especially pleased by the inclusion of articles and reviews from the magazine’s illustrious archives. Isaac Chotiner is very concerned that we understand that this is not a dumbed-down or short-attention-span version of the magazine’s reviews:

The first thing to know about The Book is that it is a supplement to our print content–an attempt to apply the new technology to the old and untarnished purposes. While our online book review will certainly be lively, it will not be significantly more relaxed than our magazine itself. We are not slumming here, or surrendering to the carnival of the web. Quite the contrary. We are hoping to offer an example of resistance to it. Many of the writers you will read in The Book are the same writers you will read in the magazine. Their subjects, too, will be the same. Here you will find criticism, not blogging; pieces, not posts. Four or five times a week we will publish a new review of a new book. The length of these reviews will vary, and we will count on our readers sometimes to sustain an attention-span that is not generally required for reading online. Our main review of the day, which is the central feature of the site, will range widely over the genres. Fiction, history, art, poetry, scholarship, philosophy, children’s books, food books – all the books that, at least in our judgment, a thoughtful American should know about.

Here’s hoping it goes well. It’s hard not to think that the whole magazine (which has recently suffered significant budget cuts and layoffs) will be heading in this direction.

"I will hate you till the day I die"

We interrupt this hiatus for this message from your host. The other day I had an email exchange that went something like this: Anon. Why did you say those terrible things about me a few years ago? Me. I didn't. I explained to you at the time that I didn't. [expressions of extreme irritation redacted here and elsewhere] Anon. That doesn't change the fact that you said terrible things about me. Me. Wait . . . Yes, it does. I wasn’t talking about you, I was talking about someone else. Anon. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. You need to take responsibility for your words. Me. [pastes in quotations proving that I was talking about someone else] Anon. [silence] Sigh. Well, at least I’m not Caleb Crain, whose review of Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work got this response, on Caleb’s blog, from de Botton himself:

Caleb, you make it sound on your blog that your review is somehow a sane and fair assessment. In my eyes, and all those who have read it with anything like impartiality, it is a review driven by an almost manic desire to bad-mouth and perversely depreciate anything of value. The accusations you level at me are simply extraordinary. I genuinely hope that you will find yourself on the receiving end of such a daft review some time very soon – so that you can grow up and start to take some responsibility for your work as a reviewer. You have now killed my book in the United States, nothing short of that. So that's two years of work down the drain in one miserable 900 word review. You present yourself as 'nice' in this blog (so much talk about your boyfriend, the dog etc). It's only fair for your readers . . . to get a whiff that the truth may be more complex. I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.

Well now. That’s something. And then this follow-up:

The reason I was led to respond to this review – and I have never done something like this before – is the sheer vindictive lunacy of the accusations levelled against me. My response may seem deranged, but only if you hold in mind two things: the book I've written and what the reviewer said about it. The gap is so large that this goes way beyond a casual and quite understandable case of a reviewer not liking a book. Everyone is allowed their own taste and I'd be the last person to force a consensus. However, there's a point at which a review becomes so angry, cruel and mean-spirited that perspective just disappears and one is into new and uncharted terrain. I'm responding to this review as a way of proposing that forgiveness is perhaps not always the only option when the provocation has been enormous.

Goodness. I didn't even think it was that harsh a review. De Botton also made his displeasure known through Twitter — though apparently he removed those tweets — and he isn't the only one:

Novelist Alice Hoffman was so enraged last weekend by a lacklustre review in the Boston Globe – her new novel, The Story Sisters, apparently "lacks the spark of [her] earlier work" – that she tweeted furiously: "Roberta Silman in the Boston Globe is a moron. How do some people get to review books? Now any idiot can be a critic." She completed a comprehensive act of revenge by tweeting Silman's phone number and email address so her followers could "tell her what u think of snarky critics".

Instant communication means, among other things, the ability to instantly say things that you may well regret for the rest of your life. I don't think Hoffman and de Botton exactly shine in these exchanges. My own view, as someone who has written negative reviews and been on the receiving end of them, is that if you want to put your thoughts before the public and be paid for it, you simply have to accept, as part of the deal, that some people won't like your writing. When your response to a negative review is to shout for all the world to hear that the reviewer is an “idiot,” or, worse yet, you tell the reviewer directly that “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make” — well, you simply give the impression that you are full to overflowing with preening self-regard. Of course it hurts to have a book you’ve slaved over slammed or dismissed. And in those cases there’s nothing wrong with letting off steam with your family or friends. I think “dismissed” is probably worse than “slammed”: among the responses to my books, the one that most bothered me was Adam Gopnik’s cursory kiss-off in The New Yorker of my biography of C. S. Lewis, and I may have made the odd unkind comment about Gopnik over pints with my buddies. However, I can honestly say that I do not hate Adam Gopnik and do not want to see his career destroyed. And more important, I didn't share my every uncharitable thought with the whole world. Some websites may be disappearing, but this much is for sure: if you’ve said anything online that really, really embarrasses you, it’ll be available forever.