Monday, October 30, 2006

Consider The Source

When I was learning to read, one of my teachers was Sidney J. Harris, a columnist for the Chicago Daily News. (His “Strictly Personal Prejudices” became “Strictly Personal” when the benign meaning of prejudice was forgotten.) Mr. Harris is the one who taught me “the purpose of a liberal education is to make your head a pleasant place in which to spend your leisure.”

Before discrimination became a dirty word it meant “to recognize a distinction or difference.” Discrimination implied that you knew enough about things to perceive differences. These days, it doesn’t seem to matter that you speak five languages or know the functions of the hippocampus, amygdala and nucleus acumbens. If you can’t summarize the latest episode of Survivor, discuss the most recent antics of Paris Hilton, or recite the win/loss average of leading sports teams you must be living in a cave. Too few distinguish between information that was derived from research and stuff heard on the “news” or read on the internet (or between information from the CDC site and “facts” gathered from their favorite list).

Many writers distrust Kirkus Reviews because the reviewers—however erudite—don’t put names to their opinions. Based on Kirkus reviews of my own work, the anonymous critics have quite different tastes. You have to read the book itself to know whether you will like it because until you read the book, you don’t know anything about the prejudice of the reviewer. (And all reviewers—all humans—have prejudices.)

Ebert and Roeper are trusted because--in their respective areas--they are masters, both are liberally educated in areas other than film, and they sign thier work. Even if you don’t agree with one of them, you can judge whether you will personally like a film based on what he says about it. (For instance, I don’t agree with Mr. Ebert that Apocalypse Now is one of the all-time greatest films, but I know his opinion wasn’t based on which side of the bed he got up on the day he screened it.) Mystery fans and writers don’t just prize a good review by Dick Adler or David Montgomery because they put their names to their opinions. Those of us who read them regularly know we can trust them to be informed and honest.

And good reviewers make you think even when they don’t convince you to agree.


The Home Office said...

I agree with Michael's assessment on the importance of knowing the critic's name. Some critics like the same kinds of things I do; some don't. Once I know who tends to agree with me, I can place more credence in his/her reviews.

I also agree that a good reviewer makes you think, whether you agree or disagree. He's not a reviewer, but George F. Will is as conservative as I am liberal, yet I read his column every chance I get. Whether I agree or disagree, he always makes me think, and often makes me think that, while we may disagree, I may not be right. Doesn't mean I'll change my mind, but it's always good to justify your judgment, especially to your self.

Sandra Ruttan said...

This goes to one of my concerns about amazon reviews and reviews on forums. There are some that post openly and put their identity out there. Others hide behind the veil of anonymity and use it to give themselves the luxury of saying what they would otherwise not say, because they know it's rude, unfair or a personal attack.

We hope we can trust in the readers of such reviews to separate the wheat from the chaff. Still, in a system where the 'average reader rating' of the book is at the top, if it is very low a person might not be inclined to read on and move to the next title. You never know.

As much as I hate writing a negative or less than enthusiastic review, I understand it's my job first to assess the book on its own merits and identify who would like it and be fair. If reviewers only put out praise, then it becomes meaningless. But if a reviewer if fair and provides reasoning and honesty with their assessment of a work, the author can learn a lot.

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