What do critics know, anyway?

I love Flavorwire, where Emily Temple, their brilliant but hard-to-find literary editor, is on the lookout for different ways of looking at books. Last month she published a list of 15 scathing reviews given to literary classics when they first came out; The Great Gatsby, Wuthering Heights, Catch 22 – all reviled. Here are some samples:

On Madame Bovary: “Monsieur Flaubert is not a writer.” — Le Figaro, 1857.

On Brave New World: “Mr. Huxley has been born too late. Seventy years ago, the great powers of his mind would have been anchored to some mighty certitude, or to some equally mighty scientific denial of a certitude. Today he searches heaven and earth for a Commandment, but searches in vain: and the lack of it reduces him, metaphorically speaking, to a man standing beside a midden, shuddering and holding his nose.” — L.A.G. Strong, 1932

On The Catcher in the Rye: “This Salinger, he’s a short story guy. And he knows how to write about kids. This book though, it’s too long. Gets kind of monotonous. And he should’ve cut out a lot about these jerks and all that crumby school. They depress me.” — James Stern, The New York Times, 1951

Read the whole article here

Re-post: The Seven Deadly Words of Book Reviewing, by Bob Harris (NYT)

Bob Harris, if I have the right one, used to be the deputy editor of the New York Times Book Review, and subsequently contributed to their Arts Beat blog. I ran across this post of his from 2009, and since I try to review books I’ve read, but generally feel my reviews could be better written, I found it very helpful. Below you’ll find the beginning of the article, with a link to the rest of it. When you write a review of Tangerine Tango (to which yours truly has contributed several pieces) you’ll know how to do it really well.

Like all professions book reviewing has a lingo. Out of laziness, haste or a misguided effort to sound “literary,” reviewers use some words with startling predictability. Each of these seven entries is a perfectly good word (well, maybe not eschew), but they crop up in book reviews with wearying regularity. To little avail, admonitions abound. “The best critics,” Follett writes, “are those who use the plainest words and who make their taste rational by describing actions rather than by reporting or imputing feelings.” Now, the list:

poignant: Something you read may affect you, or move you. That doesn’t mean it’s poignant. Something is poignant when it’s keenly, even painfully, affecting. When Bambi’s mom dies an adult may think it poignant. A child probably finds it terrifying.

compelling: Many things in life, and in books, are compelling. The problem is that too often in book reviews far too many things are found to be such. A book may be a page turner, but…read more