I STILL DON’T BLAME THEM
As mentioned last week, I don’t blame authors for blowing up at reviewers who spoil the ending or otherwise ruin the experience for the very readers they’re supposed to serve.
This is a time when newspapers are trying to win back readers by saying, “Don’t bother with those slovenly customer reviews on Amazon! We have professional reviewers for you. We pay them for their skills. You can trust what they say.”
Uh huh. That would be fine if these same critics weren’t violating every rule in the criticism handbook (not that there is one) about, you know, blabbing key details that happen midway or stepping in front of the material to point at themselves or digressing endlessly until the subject of review (could be a movie or play, too) dies on the vine of TMI (too much information).
Giving Away the Ending
Here’s the kind of language I hate: After a long and thoughtful review of a certain movie (I’m not going to mention titles), the otherwise fastidious Andrew Sarris of the New York Observer gives the whole thing away by writing: “In the end, Maggie is reconciled with Tom as he and Sarah take their child away for further treatment.” That’s great Mr. Sarris: In one swoop of betrayal, you’ve just told us the battling couple gets back together, there’s hope for the child and there’s no reason for readers to stick around for the ending.
Or this: “When it ends, in shocking carnage, the teenage mind briefly and improbably makes perfect sense.” This from another writer yet, Chandra Prasad, giving thumbnail reviews of her favorite books to The Week magazine. Don’t you think in a 45-word review you could talk about something else you liked about this book?
This one kills me: “Mr. Hely doesn’t know how to end this book. In the final chapters he torpedoes Pete’s cynicism in ways that will disappoint anyone who was enjoying the jaundiced humor.” First of all, NYT reviewer Janet Maslin who should be ashamed, it’s not the business of critics to guess what the author does or does not know how to do.Second, there’s nothing more deflating for the reader than to learn that all the humor leading up to the end is going to fall flat.
Even a hint at the way a story ends wrecks the entire experience. Readers find themselves anticipating what’s coming rather than enjoy what’s unfolding. As much as I admire the usually disciplined Michiko Kakutani in the daily New York times, I could not believe her comment that a first novel is “flawed by a predictable and unsatisfying ending.” Oh, how ruinously hath the seed been planted! It’s hard to get hooked on a novel knowing it’s going to be “unsatisfying” in the end!
Here’s Rule #1 of the (nonexistent) Critical Writing Handbook: If you want to say something about an ending, or really anything that happens after the first chapter, don’t even allude to the part in the story where it occurs. Make your point but stay away from the timing. In the Prasad case, the critic might say, “the author is capable of shocking carnage, and ….” or in the Kakutani review, “the narrative can be predictable and sometimes unsatisfying, but overall…”
Ruining the Story
And what a let-down to say the least is Maria Russo‘s Sunday NYTBR review of a collection of related stories about a couple’s relationship: “When, in the collection’s last story … the lovers appear to have drifted back together, even the most hardened cynic might grant them a smile.” Why, you rat, thinks the reader. You want to see a “hardened cynic?” Keep writing.
And I don’t care if it’s a trade magazine like Publishers Weekly reviewing a passing romance by Danielle Steel. There’s something criminal about a review that says the author “offers a satisfying twist at book’s end that most readers won’t see coming.” Yeah, well, they will now.
Then there are reviewers like Rex Reed (such a veteran! what a pity!) who announce that they won’t give away the ending but proceed to do just that. “No spoilers,” says Reed in the Observer, “but things take some tragic left turn and two lives are needlessly lost … ” Oh, Rex, honey, two people die in the end? Granted, it may happen that the story forecasts the two deaths early on, so it won’t be a surprise to the viewer. But Rex, you have to deal with the reader now. Even the appearance of spoiling the ending (two people dead, Rex!) spoils the review now.
Here’s another I-promise-not-to-give-the-ending-away-until-I-decide-to-ruin-it review, this one from Ruthe Stein of the San Francisco Chronicle: “All that can be said about their sojourn without giving away too much is that Carlos brings out the recklessness in Jessie and that she is the only one who boards the next Trans-Siberian train ….” That’s a classic example of “giving away too much.” Continue reading