“Pluralism is a pretty strong signifier of quality”
Neighbouring blog Lemon Hound has quietly been putting together the thoughts of a dozen-and-counting professional reviewers on the state of contemporary book reviewing. I was surprised when Sina Queyras asked me for my opinions on the matter, me being just a lowly book blogger and her past interviewees being a collection of serious, well-respected folks with reviewing credits in places like here and here and here.
Not wanting to embarrass myself, I took the whole thing as seriously as possible, and possibly over-wrote it. A selection follows, but you can just skip it and read the whole thing here.
On Reviewing: Jacob McArthur Mooney
LH: What do you think makes for a successful review? Is there an aspect, a stylistic choice, or perspective that necessarily produces a more significant document?
JMM: If the subtext of this question is that a review’s success if chiefly predicated upon the appropriateness of the choices made by its author, then I reject the assumption. The great obstacles to that success are things like column inches, word limits, and editorial interference. I read a short-form review last month (in the Quill & Quire) for a first collection that I enjoyed, but the reviewer did not. It was well-written and everything, but also 300 words long. Now, the title of the book being reviewed was like eight words long, and the author’s name was two more. I imagine it’s hard to put together a review of any length that doesn’t refer to the work by name at least three times. If so, that’s 30 words, or one tenth of the entire review’s length, just given up to naming the product. What possible room is there for a “stylistic choice” of any variety after that?
Of course, that’s the short-form review. If you’re blessed with a little more space to walk around in, then my expectations as a reader are different. I’d like to see someone be willing to at least locate the path down which an opposite conclusion to their own might be found. Pluralism is a pretty good signifier of a quality critic. You don’t have to make opposing arguments, exactly, but some gesture to another point of view lets me know, as a reader, that you haven’t just latched onto the first available reaction and ran with it through to the fulfillment of your minimum word count.