Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Is this book any good? Some thoughts about reviewing by Tony Bradman

I was saddened to read in last week's Observer that the paper's esteemed film critic Philip French has announced his retirement. I've been reading his film reviews since I was in the VIth form, which means he's been a part of my intellectual life for over 40 years. In fact, if I'm to be really honest about my ambitions, reading Philip French's reviews made me want to be a reviewer, and one like him if I could possibly manage it.

There was always something about Philip French's reviews that made them stand out. He didn't just tell you what happened in a particular film, he set it in context - artistically, culturally, commercially. He always seemed to have seen every other film the director  had made or the actors had appeared in, so could make comparisons and assess whole careers. He wrote about the screenwriters and the editing, the the film's music, and all in a spirit that boiled down to one question - is this film any good? And last but not least, he always wrote brilliantly, with a fine turn of phrase and a dash of properly grown-up humour.

Years went past, and I eventually found myself working as a journalist, and lo, my wish was granted I began to review children's books, and it's been a part of my working life ever since. I've reviewed books of all kinds - picture books, short fiction, junior novels, books for teens. Through all that time my model, my gold standard for reviewing, has been the work of Philip French. So when I'm asked to review a novel, I feel it incumbent upon me to find out about the author's other work. I too like to set a book in its context and explore the particular challenges of the genre the writer has chosen to work in. Ultimately I ask the same question - is this book any good? Has the writer achieved what he or she set out to? A good critic should engage objectively and fairly with a book, and that also means not giving in to any special pleading. I've often heard the argument that as children's books get so little coverage, it's somehow 'wrong' to give 'bad' reviews. I don't buy that, and I'm sure Philip French wouldn't either. People sometimes forget that a professional reviewer is being paid by a newspaper or broadcaster to provide a service to readers or listeners - and to be anything other than objective and honest is taking money under false pretences.

Of course in recent years we've seen an explosion of amateur reviewing on the internet. I think it's fine for anyone to express their opinions, but - and maybe I'm old-fashioned in this - I would always rather read the reviews of someone who has enormous experience of a particular art form, and who can write well about it. Great professional critics in any field are vital. They draw our attention to works we might otherwise miss, they puncture the great balloons of hype that often obscure our view of what is really worth noticing, and they help creative artists to think about what they're doing and whether they're doing it well. A good review is in itself like a small work of art - or it should be if you're doing it right.  Philip French himself has said: 'No critic should ever say they are bored. It is not enough just to understand a film; you must try to say something of interest or value.' 

That's certainly a credo worth following. I'm going to miss Philip French's reviews - although I might be able to console myself by reading the first volume of his collected writings on film and culture - I Found It At The Movies. And I'll always feel that if the reviews I write can be a tenth as good as his, then I'll be doing a very good job indeed.

Tony Bradman's most recent review can be found here :http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/may/04/sun-catcher-sheila-rance-review/

Philip French's I Found It At The Movies can be found here: http://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9781847771292


Stroppy Author said...

Oh, has he retired? I read and enjoyed Philip French as a teenager, too. He has made me very fussy about reviews.

This is a great piece, Tony - thank you. And it answers the irritating question so many readers ask of 'what makes your/his/her opinion more valuable than mine?' Background; knowledge; practice; skill; expertise - so that it's not just an opinion but an informed critique. Of course, some online reviewers are excellent and do give informed views - but far from all of them. It's always good to know where to go for quality reviews and the loss of Philip will leave a gap.

Emma Barnes said...

Excellent piece, Tony - and brave of you to say that children's books shouldn't just be reviewed positively. I agree with that - I know many don't - because I think if children's books are important, which I believe they are, then they merit a proper, detailed, critical response, not just a pat on the head "good read for the summer holidays" or "recommended Christmas present for under 7s" type of review.

And you're right, the readers of reviews deserve that too.

(Of course, I will find it harder to be so objective I daresay when I come across a real stinker of a review for one of my own books! )

Dennis Hamley said...

Tony, this about the best account of the philosophy of reviewing that I have ever read. It should be required reading for anyone engaging in the perilous art. The problem of giving bad reviews is a knotty one. In years of reviewing (since 1972) I've only given two really, really stinking reviews, one to an author very high in the contemporary pantheon, the other to a book which should never surely have been published by a very reputable publisher regularly responsible for award winners. Significantly, neither review was published, which says something. Nowadays, if I think it's really bad I won't review it because I don't think it's fair on the author. I know what getting bad reviews feels like. However, like you, if I don't think it's very good but still review it, I look for something positive to say because every book has a strength somewhere - and besides, I know what the author was going through when writing it.

I too will miss the great Philip French.

Sue Purkiss said...

Absolutely agree with what Dennis says - and thanks, Tony, for a thought-provoking piece,

Nick Green said...

Amazon has really been a double-edged sword with regard to reviews. It's created a false world in which all opinions are equally valid, and that just isn't the case. That might sound like a totalitarian thing to claim, but it's not... even a professional critic might churn out an inept review if he went on Amazon drunk at 2am... But professionals are paid to take more care than that. You have a stamp of quality with a 'real' reviewer that just isn't there with an amateur. Before you listen to someone's opinions you need a rough idea of how valid they might be.

Leslie Wilson said...

I do agree about the need to review properly critically. Having reviewed adult novels, I was seriously fazed by the idea that one shouldn't publish bad reviews. I know the idea is that it's better to find a good book and review it in the limited reviewing space that's available for kids' books.However, if there's a book that's been really hyped, perhaps someone does need to point out that it has serious flaws..I was so glad to see Meg Rosoff criticising The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, in the Guardian, for example.

Ann Turnbull said...

Thanks, Tony. There is a lot to think about here, and I wish children's books were taken more seriously and reviewed in more depth. As an amateur reviewer myself (both here and in magazines, as well as on Amazon) there are two things that really help me. One is to wait until I can read the book fairly fast without too much interruption. The other is, if possible, to read it twice. I'm surprised by how often I like a book better the second time, when I can see more clearly what the author was doing.

Ann Turnbull said...

Re Nick's comments about Amazon reviews: I think it's unfair to compare them with, say, reviews in the Guardian. It's good that people read books and want to talk about them and/or recommend them. Those of us who read Amazon reviews usually do so because we want to get some idea of whether we might like a particular book, and they work quite well for this purpose. Of course some of them are daft or malicious, but some literary reviews may be too.

adele said...

Coming late to this and agree with Dennis. I NEVER even finish books I don't like, so can't ever review them! I feel a bit that recommendation rather than reviewing is what I'm doing: saying "Have a look at this! Do yourself a favour..." rather than offering a critique of any kind. And I am not ashamed to review my friends, though I always say when someone is known to me. I can't help knowing a lot of good writers, can I? That's my excuse!!