by Steven Steinbock
Clayton Rawson – author, magician, and one time managing editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine – once quipped, “Can’t a critic be allowed to give his opinion about an omelet without being asked to create an egg?”
By virtue of a Y chromosome, I can’t create an egg. I can’t even lay one. In fact, as I sat down to write this column, I realized that I couldn’t even spell omelet. (I kept wanting to do it the French way, omelette, but my spell checker dissuaded me). But I can give an opinion on an omelet.
I don’t want it overcooked, but neither do I want the eggs runny. When I see raw egg oozing out the side, my appetite is gone and the meal is over.
Omelets can be filled with a variety of stuffing. These I leave up to the eater’s choice. Most people enjoy mushrooms. For some reason, I don’t. Peppers of any variety are good, but I prefer the spicy variety over simple bell peppers. I like olives in my omelet, anything from the simplest black olives to the salty, brine saturated kalamata (as long as the pits are removed). For me, cheese is a necessity. I love cheese and I have the cholesterol to prove it. But in an omelet, it needs to either be a sharp Cheddar or an authentic Feta. Cheesy is good as long as the cheese is good.
Can you see where I’m going with this?
Good. You’re a step ahead of me. I’m up to my elbows in eggshells.
But I’d rather be up to my elbows in them than forced to walk on them.
Last week I wrote about book reviewing. To some extent, I felt like I was wallowing in self-pity. (But Hitchcock, Bogdonovich, or Eco might read more into it. See Rob’s column). Among other things, I gave a couple of examples of what reviewers shouldn’t do. So quite appropriately, fellow blogger Rob Lopresti asked what a reviewer should do.
The job of the reviewer is to help readers decide whether a book merits their time and money.
A reviewer has a number of secondary roles. Reviewers indirectly serve authors and publishers by promoting the book, giving it press attention and providing fodder for promotional blurbs. A reviewer can also entertain readers by writing well and writing cleverly. But like a chef flourishing a skillet, flipping the omelet by tossing it in the air, a little goes a long way. Flourishes can provide a moment of cheap entertainment, but if done poorly, or too much, the reviewer winds up with egg on his face.
When I read a book review, I want to know enough about the book to decide for myself whether to fork out the money and the time to read the book.
Like the stuffing in an omelet, I want to know just so much about the plot. Devoting half or less of the review to plot summary is fine. A book review isn’t a book report. Too many details and I’ll feel I don’t need to read the book; I already know the whole story. If a review lists more than a few characters by name, then the reviewer is being sloppy. I’ve read reviews that have named as many as nine characters, at which point I’m so confused by the review that I’ll never want to read the book.
One of the worst things a reviewer can do – especially when reviewing mysteries – is to give away surprises. This is like biting into an omelet made with spoiled eggs.
One of the hardest jobs of a reviewer is to balance his or her own wit, wisdom, and personality with the primary job of helping the reader (see above). Reviewers have a tendency to show off their own cleverness. I’ve read reviews in which the reviewer spends more word-count writing about herself than about the book being reviewed. I’ve read reviews in which the reviewer devotes too much space to the history of a particular subgenre or in which he compares the object of the review to other books or authors that the reader doesn’t care about.
People often ask me about negative reviews. I don’t like writing them. Nor do publishers, by and large, want to print them. But more important than whether a review is positive or negative is whether or not it’s honest. But when being negative, it’s important to remember that tastes differ. Just because I don’t like mushrooms in my omelet doesn’t mean I have to ruin the omelet for everyone who does. It’s not fair to criticize a noir story for not being a cosy or to put down a soft-boiled mystery for being soft.
All of the above is a fancy way of saying the following:
1. The job of the reviewer is to help readers decide whether a book merits their time and money.
2. A book review should be about the book, not the reviewer.
3. A reviewer who shows off wit and wisdom has little of either.
4. Too much plot detail spoils a review.
4a. More than three characters named in the review are too much.
4b. Any reviewer who gives away the denouement or spoils any surprise better hire a bodyguard.
5. A review must be both honest and fair.
After all that, I’ve worked up an appetite. I think I’ll have an omelet.