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.”
The One-Eye-Closed Reading
Critics have become so irresponsible that I find myself looking at reviews with one eye closed. As soon as I see “When it ends,” or “Eventually,” or “The downturn begins,” or “In the end,” or even “Over the course of the book,” or “Midway through,” down goes the eyelid and skim goes the remaining eye skimming through the review while I find myself thinking, these guys should be shot.
For example, if you didn’t cover that eyeball, you’d have inadvertently zeroed in on a key detail that would poison the whole experience when Christopher Isherwood of all people (usually so meticulous!) wrote this paragraph in the New York Times: “The play’s unconvincing conclusion, which finds the president agreeing to take the noble step of presiding over the marriage of his speechwriter …” And ploink, the knife was in! It doesn’t matter if the play was lousy! What matters is the readers’ experience, sitting in the theater waiting for the president to make that decision from the rise of the curtain until the play’s “unconvincing” end.
You can’t even trust the venerable standard bearers of good critical writing, as for instance staff writers at the New Yorker. On a welcome-back sidebar to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” Richard Brody tells us that the James Stewart character meets a lookalike of the woman he thinks is dead, “dresses her up as the late object of his obsession, and then discovers that she’s the same woman.” No, man, NO. Don’t tell ’em it’s not that Kim Novak can’t act! (Excuse me.) What a huge disservice to readers! I shouldn’t have to point out Rule #632(c), but there’s the chance that even one person out there hasn’t seen the movie, so you can’t give anything away!
I wonder too sometimes if some critics think the work under review is so dense that nothing spilled about key scenes will be remembered. Wrong, wrong wrong. Here is (again I’m sorry to say) a Michiko Kakutani piece that I call a “runaway review,” meaning she can’t help herself! She wants to show you how dense the writing can be so she just pours out the guts of the story:
“A boy and a girl…run away from home and for six years find refuge with a mannish pig rustler and her notorious husband. That boy’s granddaughter develops a wild crush on the local troublemaker, who will one day steal her great uncle’s magical fiddle, which appeared to him in a dream. A man assembles a world class stamp collection while living in the little town of Pluto, only to find that his obsession leads to his undoing. For years a judge carries on a passionate affair with an older woman, who ends up marrying a local developer, who buys the judge’s beloved house with the intention of stripping it bare. A charismatic boy becomes a dangerous cult leader, enslaving his wife, a snake handler, who plots to liberate herself and their children from his thrall.”
Gad, that’s unfair. This is the reviewer showing off. The eye glazes over and we think the book’s going to be a snore, despite the fact that MK is writing an extremely favorable review. However if we do stay awake and we do follow the paragraph, important aspects of the story will be revealed that are going to drain the spirit and the enjoyment and the importance right out of the book.
The Me, Me, Me Review
Rule #326(p): Reviewing books is a service to the reader. We don’t write reviews for the publisher or author (god knows) or bookseller. We don’t write for posterity and we absolutely do not write to parade ourselves around in a diary or a confessional or a personal tell-all. The charge for daily and Sunday critics is to remember that we are on the front lines of the whole process of literary criticism. After our reviews have been published, these works are given lengthier and more considered treatment in literary journals and academic publications, and if they stand the test of time, in books and in classrooms, in discussion groups and at dinner tables right into eternity.
So what we must not do is waste the reader’s time by inserting ourselves into the process, as that in-print narcissist Ben Brantley repeatedly does with theater reviews for the New York Times. For example, in his “review” of a play with Julia Roberts in a starring role, Brantley wastes much of the space being distracted by Julia Roberts’ fame and how “deeply, disturbingly beautiful” she is in person. Right there, you’re wasting (and ruining) our time, Ben: Not everyone feels how “deeply disturbingly beautiful” she is and, in fact, most people want to give her credit for taking this role in a live play and are trying not to be distracted by her fame. So we depend on you to stick to stay the critical course.
But no. That’s just the start of the reviewer’s need to step in the spotlight. He continues:
“I feel a strong need to confess something: My name is Ben, and I am a Juliaholic. Ms. Roberts, after all, is one of the few real movie stars — and I mean Movie Stars, like the kind MGM used to mint in the 1930s — to have come out of Hollywood in the last several decades. Lord knows, she isn’t a versatile film actress….” and he goes on about her “feral beauty,” her “Everywoman” character and her similarity to “a down-home Garbo.”
Even there I’d like to brain the guy (a “down-home Garbo,” ick. Save it for “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”) But lo, there is more. “While I blush to admit it, she is one of the few celebrities who occasionally show up (to my great annoyance) in cameo roles in my dreams.”
Your great annoyance? Honey, you should be sitting here.
Brantley’s point, as it turns out, is that Julia Roberts isn’t very good, in fact is terrible, in the role, but it kills Brantley to let us in on the essential critical details. So he keeps trying to digress during the nuts and bolts of reviewing by dropping in asides like “Fellow Juliaholics can skip this part if they like.” (I’ll say.) Brantley works so hard amidst his adoration (“ah, those cheekbones!”) to find the “few seconds” in Roberts’ acting that he can legitimately call “absolutely charming” that all we ever learn is how infuriating a reviewer can be when he makes himself the star of his review.
Generally, professional critics loathe the kind of customer reviews you find on Amazon and other Internet outlets because after all, these are amateurs; they don’t know the principles of critical writing, and they leave out important stuff. But the irony (aside from the fact that customer reviews are bubbling with the energy of critical writing that most professionals have turned into pedantry) is that people write customer reviews as though they’re talking to a dear friend. Most of them would never give away the ending or the salient parts of a book or movie because that would spoil the friend’s enjoyment of the story.
If reviewing is that simple (and it is), why do the so-called professionals ruin the experience for the rest of us?