Saturday, December 29, 2007

Postmodern Model for Book Reviews

Most book reviewers use two traditional approaches. Either they take the bland way of simply being descriptive, or they present a vigorous—and often negative—critical angle.

Here is the traditional reviewer’s approach:
1. Immediately mentions the full name of the author and the title of the book.
2. Isolates the theme of the book. A theme is the main topic which could possibly be reduced to a brief sentence; for example: “Billy Budd deals with good and evil,” or “Anna Karenina is about rebellious love and social conventions.”
3. Mentions the genre (essay, novel, short story, romance, science fiction). Readers are by now conditioned to expect a genre.
4. The reviewer is expected to put forth personal opinions as to his likes and dislikes.
5. Describe the setting (in both time and space)
6. Identify the specific tone (irreverent, playful, serious, and solemn).
7. Main traits of the characters and what makes them act in certain ways and not others, paying special attention to the protagonists.
8. Briefly outline the plot without giving away the climax, reversal, and denouement.
9. Quote bits and pieces from the work to highlight certain points, or to buttress the reviewer’s opinion.

My book reviews take a non-traditional approach:

I call this the ‘the eccentric approach’ because I try to present ‘out of the box’ thinking.

Although the traditional presentations have merit and are useful, today’s readers deserve something else; namely, they deserve freshness, something unexpected, something exciting, and yet something that contains a self-evident truths that can challenge the reader’s intelligence.

Therefore in my Book Reviews I place high value in language because not only do we use language to represent the real world, but also the fictional world. Thus, only through well crafted sentences and a skillful use of rhetorical figures can art—literary art—be created.

Here is my formula:
1. Examine the figures of speech, tropes, nominative absolutes, and rhetorical figures that the author utilizes with success or not.

2. Check the sentence openers. If I see the pattern Subject-Verb-Complement (S-V-C) repeated throughout the first few pages, then I can be reasonably sure that the author lacks the required skills to write with sufficient sentence variation to make the narrative exciting.

3. In reviewing a work of fiction I try to avoid biographical data about the author. A book review is about the book, not the author. If I review The Great Gatsby, I scrutinize what the narrator says, and I don’t attribute the narrator’s remarks to the author Scott Fitzgerald.

4. I look for the appropriate use of regular and correlative conjunctions (e.g. either/or). Should these conjunctions be absent from the narrative, I will consider the writing substandard.

5. As I work through the above points (1 through 4), I include—as needed, but not all—the information that traditional reviewers include.

In the market place of ideas, one shouldn’t be shy of criticizing what is substandard. I love writing book reviews because it pleases me to share my point of view with as many readers as possible. And in a modest way I add to the merits of good works, and also help identify works that do not deserve our time.

The writing techniques I employ in this article are all explained in Mary Duffy's bestseller and indispensable writing manual:


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