Monday, June 28, 2010 reviews, Or They let the loonies in for half price

When you want to explain something you run into an essential dichotomy: what the writer wants and what the reader wants. The essence of great technical writing is crawling inside the reader's head to find what kind of explanation will work for the reader; poor technical writing occurs when writers concentrate on describing what they know and are interested in, using an explanation which works for the writer (while ineffective, this approach is considerably easier). reviewers--especially those writing negative reviews--often reveal people who struggle with this dichotomy. The reviewer has just read some book that they just hated--so much so that the reviewer feels obliged to post a review on The reviewer arrives at the book's page on the site and discovers any number of positive reviews--perhaps many of the reviews giving the book the full five stars. How can the reviewer reconcile the dichotomy between his or her opinion and that of all of these other readers?

Some reviewers have the courage of their convictions: They state their opinions. Really good reviewers describe what they want/look for in a book and go on to describe how this book failed to deliver on those requirements. I think these reviewers implicitly recognize that the other reviewers have valid opinions--that those other reviewers were looking for (and found) different things.These reviewers are also useful because these kind of reviews help readers who share the same requirements decide if they would enjoy the book.

I don't always agree with those requirements. For instance, I felt that a reviewer for Ruth Padel's "52 Ways of Looking at a Poem" on wanted something from contemporary poetry that the reviewer wasn't going to get (a level of explicitness more common to prose than contemporary poetry, for instance). Since Ruth Padel's book is all about those things, the reviewer didn't enjoy the book. More importantly: A potential reader who had the same requirements as this reviewer could read the review and decide if they would enjoy the book.

Other reviewers lack that conviction in their opinion. It is inconceivable to these readers that their opinion of a work is not shared by all other readers: The only view of the world is theirs. So what is this reader to do about all the positive reviews? The response is almost always some combination of assuming (a) that the other readers were deluded/tricked and (b) that the other readers are lying (i.e. they didn't really like the book, they're just saying they did). This requires the reviewer to accuse the other readers of either being stupid or morally reprehensible, depending on the balance that the reviewer strikes between duplicity and lying.

My favourite example is a reviewer who gave "The Collected Fictions" of Jorge Luis Borges a two-star review. This reviewer comes down heavily on the "lying" side so much of the review is a diatribe against the moral reprehensibility of the reviewers who did like the book. I fully agree that not everyone is going to like Borges. While Borges certainly doesn't mind telling stories, he's at least as interested in playing games with story-telling. But developing characters, for instance, is not what Borges is interested in. I'm a big fan; my wife would hate him.

Because it's inconceivable to this reviewer that anyone could not share his opinion of Borges he's obliged to point out how unworthy those other reviewers are. He says that the book was recommended to him by "innumerable over-educated sycophants" (what does "over-educated" mean? That the other reviewer has more knowledge than the reviewer?). The word elitist appears in the review's title (interestingly enough, we still like the term "elite" when used with the military--we still say an 'elite fighting force' meaning a good thing--but it's now become a sneer when referring to anyone who might be smarter/more accomplished than the speaker). "Elite" also appears in the second sentence also as one of the descriptions of the people who do like Borges (the other word is "troglodytes"). He asserts that "no one reads Borges critically" which suggests that--while he reads Borges 'critically'--the other readers just swallow Borges 'uncritically.' Borges is only read by "the kind of people who never step foot out of Manhattan or Cambridge," who is a "pompous fellow," and "who think themselves intellectual elite."

Of course, the other benefit in describing what terrible people the other reviewers are, is that it lets you implicitly say what a wonderful person you are in comparison.

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