Aspiring to Art
The question of reviewing fiction is a complicated one, in part because of the complexity of the task, and in part because the task is often supplanted by the blood sport of judging merit as opposed to execution. In my own life as a writer and storyteller I wrestled with these issues at a relatively young age (in college), while coming to terms with how I might be able to judge my own work in-process and upon completion. This need was precipitated by the realization that it was frighteningly easy (here you should see white knuckles crushing the armrests of a wildly-buffeting airliner) to lose one’s way while working on a story.
An obvious and eternal reference point for any storyteller is the beacon of art. To write for art, to aspire to art, and someday to become art is a road rutted with famous followers. Like many (if not most) storytellers, I would like my work — at least my non-commercial work, but maybe even that as well — to be accepted and seen as art.
But therein lies the flaw. To write for art is to grant others the right to determine the merit of your work at a moment in time, which exposes you to the fads of that moment. Even the most delinquent student of history quickly learns that artistic movements come and go like fashion lines, and that the arbiters of such movements often have more interest in their own personal, social and business agendas than in the value, merit or accomplishment of the works on display.
There are a thousand examples of this, and here is mine: if Van Gogh could be underestimated (if not ignored) in his time, then the people who make such judgments are inherently not to be trusted. Art is a label, and it is affixed by others for their own purposes. Like history, art tends to be most clearly seen not in the now, but at some later time — and often long after an artist is dead. Even then, however, revisions and reappraisals take place as new information comes to light, movements advance and recede, and the rarity of a talent becomes clearer.
Since I can only write in the now, to say nothing of only writing while I’m alive, aspiring to art is a bit of a problem. Which is why, ultimately, I decided that appealing to art or aspiring to art or writing for art or talking about my work as art would not help me become a better writer. Whatever it was that I needed to know, I needed to know it now.
The Now of Craft
Instead of treating my work as the gift of a muse, I began treating it as the byproduct of hammer and forge. Instead of speaking about my writing relative to the works of other authors, or social movements, or best sellers, I spoke about it like a machine designed to produce emotions and feelings. Instead of asking, “Is it good?”, I asked, “Does it work?” Instead of art, I embraced craft.
This decision, it seems to me, is no less important for a reviewer, and no different. Whether talking about my own work or the work of others, my point of view is still the same: does a story work? If not, why not? What are the craft issues that are causing the story to falter? How might those issues be addressed? Are there specific weakness of craft that are at fault, or more general authorial weaknesses that need addressing?
Over time I have come to the conclusion that this is both a more useful perspective to have and a rarer point of view to encounter. Most reviewers and critics can point to basic failings of grammar, spelling and syntax; many reviewers can wax authoritatively, dismissively, presumptuously and entertainingly about merit and meaning; but very few can explain that the revelation in Chapter 22 fails because the preparation in Chapters 2, 5 and 16 is insufficient.
When I give feedback on a work I am effectively reviewing that work. There is no difference to me, because I do not write reviews from any perspective but craft. That is always my focus whether I’m responding to an author or to someone who’s asking what I think of a given author’s work. My attitude — formed during years of writing workshops — is that I am one voice, that I have no authority beyond my own voice, and that I should have no arrows in my quiver other than those whittled by craft.
In those instances where I am asked to explain my views — so that others might read them — I do not change this perspective. A readership of one or one hundred does not change my craft-centric point of view or distract me from the question at hand: does the story work? This, again, is not the norm.
The Audience Distraction
It is more common for reviewers to not only actively speak to their readers beyond the scope of craft, but to ask (or rationalize) what their readers want to hear. This may be couched in noble terms, such as, “What readers need to know,” or, “What readers care about,” but the result is the same: the audience dictates part of the result, which in turn threatens the integrity and honesty of the review. In effect, the review becomes a tool of marketing, not truth.
It may come as a shock to some, but the New York Times Sunday Book Review and the New York Review of Books are neither public trusts, non-profit organizations, or objective standards. They are private, for-profit, subjective publishing platforms which use other writers’ works as grist for their own writing mills. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, just as there’s nothing wrong with political talk radio, or sitting on a bar stool, getting drunk, and grousing about the local football franchise.
Everybody’s got an opinion, but it takes a special talent to sell those opinions to others. And there are legitimate reasons for doing so: as a kind of quality check on behalf of consumers; as a filtering process for eager or curious readers; as an aspect of culture in trying to identify trends. That much of this has little or nothing to do with craft and everything to do with fads should not be surprising: reviewers who are writing to be read by an audience tend to favor the cultural moment the audience is in, if only because their editors and publishers want to increase circulation, subscriptions, advertising rates, mentions in other publications, attention at cocktail parties and whatever else serves the purpose of the overarching bureaucracy. (Barrett’s Law of Bureaucracies states that all bureaucracies serve themselves first, constituencies second.)
Abuses of Power
Provide reviewers with enough readers and you also provide them with power. Their words move sales or kill them. Their words enable careers or destroy them. And they know it. The best of them ignore these seductions. The majority of them succumb by degrees large and small, doing a favor here, paying back a perceived slight there. In time, each review becomes currency in an economy driven by vanity, ego and spite.
To see how reviewing and reviewers can go wrong in this way, you need only look at the ritualistic abuse of John Steinbeck by East Coast intellectuals. It has become axiomatic in such circles that Steinbeck did not deserve his Nobel Prize for Literature — although President Obama’s Nobel Prize for (a future) Peace may cause some to revisit this argument. In any event, the case against Steinbeck often devolves, as it does here, to Steinbeck’s own words when he was asked whether he deserved the Prize:
Nor is dismissal of [Steinbeck’s] work by the literary establishment anything new. When to everyone’s surprise, including his own, he won the 1962 Nobel Prize, the reaction was startlingly hostile. “Without detracting in the least from Mr. Steinbeck’s accomplishments,” ran a New York Times editorial, “we think it interesting that the laurel was not awarded to a writer …whose significance, influence and sheer body of work had already made a more profound impression on the literature of our age.” And on the eve of the award ceremony in Stockholm, Arthur Mizener, again in the Times, questioned why the Nobel committee would reward a writer whose “limited talent is, in his best books, watered down by tenth-rate philosophizing.” It’s a question difficult to answer. (Steinbeck himself had doubts. When asked by a reporter whether he believed he deserved the prize, he responded, “Frankly, no.”)
Notice here the absolute certainty with which this critic concludes that Steinbeck’s answer was an honest self-admission that he was unworthy of the prize. Never for a moment does the critic stop to think about the bind a question like that put Steinbeck in, or the reasons Steinbeck might have had for saying what he said — beyond a desperate confession of his failings to the furious New York gods of Art.
Should Steinbeck have said, “Yes — I deserve it!”? How would that have gone over in the history books? Or at the time? Is it impossible to imagine that he was being humble in the face of such an honor? Could he not have been thinking of other writers that year who were equally deserving? Is there a chance that Steinbeck was aware of the people trying to cut him to pieces, and as such felt constrained by the literary politics of the moment to an answer that even he didn’t like? Not to this reviewer, critic, assassin. (Were the quote not supportive of the critic’s views, he would have summarily dismissed it.)
(A footnote here, from more than 20 years before the above critic decided to write and cherry-pick proofs for his own version of history. When your crystal ball is infallible you don’t need to do your homework.)
The Star-Struck Reviewer
As the above critic ably demonstrates, one of the most common failings of reviewers who write for an audience is confusing the writer with the writer’s work. No other writer elicits this kind of misplaced attention more so than Ernest Hemingway, and it’s probably fair to say that no other writer so richly deserves it. In the end, however, discussions of Papa and his macho attitudes, his Key West lifestyle, and his suicide avoid the concrete writing style that elevated him to a level of storytelling clarity and force that few writers have equaled.
In fact, most people who love talking about Hemingway rarely reference his techniques or his craft choices. It’s the Hemingway persona that dominates the stage, not Hemingway’s craft. Which means it’s time to stop because we have now wandered away from art and craft and into the gossipy world of celebrity. Instead of talking about the craft techniques which define the fiction machines which power the emotional receptors in our heads, we’re talking about rumor and innuendo and all the things people tend to talk about when they don’t really know the subject at hand.
So let’s go back to square one. What is there to say about fiction as a machine, as opposed to fiction as an objet d’art? Plenty.
Two Tests of Fiction
There are two basic tests you can apply to any work of fiction, and they are both fairly easy to judge. The first is whether a story creates and sustains suspension of disbelief; the second is whether a story creates emotional involvement. The first test is a minimal bar of competence: if you cannot create suspension of disbelief you cannot tell a story. The second is a measure of craft skill: if you create suspension of disbelief but your story is flat, that’s a problem. If you create suspension of disbelief and your story takes readers on an emotional rollercoaster, that’s generally a good thing.
All fiction can be gauged by these two tests, and reasonably so by people with only minimal experience in analyzing stories. In this way any reader can provide useful feedback to any writer, as well as to other readers. Note also that here the emphasis is focused not on the author or the literary climate or the latest sales figures, but on the work itself. Paraphrasing an adage of the theater: if it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the page.
Now that you have some idea what to look for — or at least how to tell if a piece of fiction is working or not — let’s take a look at how you can write a useful and informative review for others to read.
Reviews Are Reactions
First, read the entire work. I’ve read plenty of fiction that set sail listing but managed to right itself.
Second, make notes along the way without trying to prove anything. Simply document what you’re experiencing:
* Page 9; the heroine: don’t believe her motivation here.
* Page 26; the dead dog: something feels off here; don’t buy the reactions.
* Page 45; Wilson’s apology: this really got me — surprised me.
The point is to simply respond to the work. Don’t judge it, don’t try to figure it out, don’t try to reach any conclusions. Take snapshots. Be in the moment. Listen to your storytelling gut.
Third, write out a comprehensive reaction when you’re finished. Don’t make it tidy — this is just for you. Get your thoughts down about what you felt or didn’t feel, before you forget. Because you are going to forget. (That’s the difference between emotions and thoughts: your emotions are designed to come and go as you feel them; your thoughts are designed to stick around so you can remember them. The last thing the world needs is another fiction reviewer who talks about what they think while ignoring what they feel.)
Finally, when you’ve contemplated the work as long as you need to (and consulted your notes repeatedly), or when you’re just about to blow your deadline, write your review. Write what you read, what you felt, and when you felt it. Write what worked for you and what didn’t work. Write about things that blew you out of the story, write about things that drew you into the story. Cite examples.
Write in first person. “I felt x.” “I didn’t like y.” Anything else is a slippery slope leading to broad pronouncements that you can’t prove. Admit your subjectivity. Stick to your own voice.
Don’t write as if you are the custodian of a sacred order. Don’t write as if the writer owes you something for your time. Don’t write as if what you read is beneath you. Don’t worry about being smart. Don’t try to be sophisticated. All of that is for people who are selling themselves, not for people who are trying to give an honest appraisal of a work of fiction. Tell the truth about your experience traveling with the writer’s story. That’s what the writer wants to know and what other readers want to know. Did the story work?
It takes guts to get into the ring and give anything a try, and that goes for reviewing fiction as well as writing fiction. I know there are plenty of authors who are complete jerks. I know some of them will never accept your opinion. I know other readers will disagree with you as well. At the end of the day what you should want is not approval, or to look back on a melodrama in which you gave as good as you got, but the simple knowledge that you were as honest as you could be.
The best way to do that is to talk about craft.
— Mark Barrett
You are a treasure. Thank you.
Sean Burke says