Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost how it feels about dogs. Christopher Hampton
It has oft been said that if a person has the talent, then they will become a writer, and if not, then they become a critic. The work of a reviewer or critic is rarely appreciated: it will win no awards, rarely make the critic famous and the subjects of such criticism either vent their anger, pour scorn or claim to ignore all commentary on their work. And yet, criticism, good criticism, is actually difficult to write, and there are many pitfalls along the path to an excellent review.
It is important to define the aims for any piece of criticism and here, criticism can be divided into two distinct categories: review and commentary. The former is the one we are most familiar with, and will deal with here: it is the review of the new novel; the Siskel and Ebert report on a new film; the judgement on a new piece of work with the aim of informing others of its potential worth or otherwise. It is very important not to confuse it with the latter: the commentary and indepth discussion of established works. The former must assume unfamiliarity of the reader with the work; the latter the opposite.
Someone writing a commentary or criticism of an established work, Shakespeare or Austen for example, may reasonably assume that those who are to read his commentary are familiar with the plot, characters and outcome of the original, and can refer to them without fear. If someone is reviewing a new work, however, the easiest, and by far the worst, problem often occurs when a reviewer gives away too much: character secrets, plot twists and, in some dreadful examples, the denouement, which can spoil the work they are reviewing. When you are writing a review, be careful: you can comment on the fact that there are numerous surprises in a novel without giving the surprises away. Read through your review and imagine you have never read the novel: if there is solid information that cannot be gleaned from reading the blurb on the back, or within a few chapters then take a deep breath and think again. I still remember a particular review I read some time ago which merrily told how good a particular ending twist was while describing in detail said ending: everyone who read that review could not possibly read the novel in the same light.
We all probably started writing criticism in the same way. I doubt anyone who went through the education system managed to do so without writing a book report of some kind, and some reviewers seem perpetually mired in the belief that a book report is equal to a review. It is not. When we were ten, a description of the book's plot was considered sufficient, but in a true review, it is only part -- and a minor one at that -- of the true picture. A novel should be far more than a plot (though too often it is not): it should be characterisation, structure, prose, atmosphere. A review that ignores these things suffers the same problem as a novel that ignores them: it becomes a shallow transitory piece, saying little.
Yet, when we begin to comment on more than the plot, we begin to enter dangerous waters as the academic 'truths' of literary criticism rear their ugly heads. For years, the Victorian structuralist movement declared that a book, any book could be assessed using rigorous methods, irrespective of the reviewer, and defined with certainty as good or bad. They would look at the plot, the character, the language, and especially the structure of a work, and fit it into their narrowly defined criteria. For many years, structuralism was the only accepted way of judging literature, and it did not, would not take into account either the reviewer or the reader.
In the last few decades, however, criticism has undergone a revolution. Although there are some who still adhere to the rigidity of structuralism, most have taken only parts of its philosophy, or even rejected it outright. Deconstruction, and other liberal literary theories, have come into vogue, and they offer interesting new concepts for a potential reviewer. An important feature of these theories is that there is less emphasis on extremes of 'good' or 'bad': in literature there is no black or white, but, as with everything, shades of grey in between. The value of a novel is not a fixed constant for every reader -- an important cornerstone of structuralism -- but each individual reader can judge individual books differently based on their personal experiences and mindset, and the interaction of the novel with such. A middle-aged professor of english at an ancient university in England may declare a particular novel as 'good' but to a young black female (for example) in inner-city America, that same novel might mean nothing to her, being completely disengaged from her background. Should we think less of her because of it? Of course not. Each person has a unique set of experiences and thoughts and, whether consciously or subconsciously, we use these experiences when we are reading a novel, or watching a film.
Another feature of modern literary theory is the move away from emphasis on the author above all. Many years have been spent examining works of the 'greats' in incredible detail to chew over every last sentence for meaning, and to ponder what the author was trying to say. Indeed, many authors do wish to say more than the story, to use the story and the novel to illustrate the human condition, as allegory or to make a particular point. But also, many readers can read more into a story than the author intended. Traditionally, these interpretations would have been dismissed as 'incorrect' but if they are valid to the reader, provoke thought and bring enjoyment, then should they be so easily dismissed? A well-known example of this is the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, in particular The Lord of the Rings. Many read the novel as an allegory on second world war, and the destruction of rural england, though Tolkien utterly denied an attempt to write it as such. Should we accept that there is, and can only be one possible interpretation of the novel, or perhaps there are possibilities for the reader that Tolkien did not envisage when he originally wrote the novel? The author is not longer master of his own novel in this brave new literary world.
Of course, this all begs the question of what point there is in actually writing a review when a reviewer cannot second guess the author's intentions and cannot declare a book good or bad: is it not futile? As the novel has become mutable, so must the review. We should accept when writing, or reading, a review that the reviewer is only one person, with their own experiences, biases and interests. When we read a review in isolation without any clues as to the reviewer, then we are missing part of the puzzle, and the review loses meaning. If you wish to say you think that the book is 'good', you must define your criteria: do you love plot over characterisation; are you addicted to the beauty of language or do inconsistencies drive you nuts? What to you may destroy a novel, might be unimportant to another. A review is the opinion of the reviewer, and only that.
Some novels and films, of course, are utterly awful by any criteria, and try as you might it is impossible to think of anyone who might consider the turkey in question to be a gem, and an important part of reviewing is being able to say so. Many start by reviewing work that they like, and never really reach into the realms of the ghastly, but it is worth it. True, you actually have to manage to finish the work in question -- not so bad for a 2 hour film, but rather more difficult for a 600 page novel -- but then the reward at the end is the chance to write a scorchingly rude review. Writing a review of a work you really dislike is easier and more fun: try it and see!
Even better is a work that you loathe but know that others will love, as this courts controversy. Of course, you should still say why you dislike it, explain your criteria, and suggest who may like it, but then you can go for the jugular: taking the work in question to pieces bit by bit exposing it to the rotten core. Reviewing should be fun, and this certainly can be, but the reaction to your review from doting fans of the work can be even better. A friend and fellow-reviewer once wrote a scathing review of a vampire novel by Freda Warrington, tearing it to pieces while freely admitting it would be loved by soft-headed vampire fans. After publication, he, and the publication in which it was published, were inundated by irate letters from her fans, and finally from the author herself, who accused him of jealousy and viciousness. This did not make his review any the less valid -- in fact he was careful to make it balanced and explain his personal loathing of the novel -- and inspired much thought and comment: the best we can ever hope to achieve with a review. But, like authors, reviewers must develop a thick skin if they are going to criticise not just review. They should not be afraid of causing offence (unless it is gratuitous offence). Reviewers must be fearless.
So, from this we can gain a few simple pointers to writing an effective review: remember that it is only your opinion and reveal the criteria you are using in reviewing a work; avoid revealing plot twists and other features that should properly emerge from the novel itself; look not only at plot, but at character, structure, language and atmosphere for they can be equally or more important; be fearless. And have fun.
(c) 1998 Helen Steele