Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Smartypants Writes a Book

A while back I heard two journalists on CBC radio talking about book reviews. They said a book review should inform the reader whether the book is worth its purchase price. From the perspective of the reader, this is totally the wrong approach. When I crack the Saturday paper and open the sections full of non-news articles, I am interested in information second, writing first. I'm not reading Consumer Reports looking for appliance suggestions. I'm sprawled on the couch in a pool of sunshine goofing off.

I read the New York Review of Books to learn things. A typical NYR article will take three books on the same topic and talk about the topic with reference to the perspectives of the three authors. They may mention strengths and weaknesses of the books in passing. They may not.

One of the best Saturday book reviews I ever read was a few months ago in the Globe & Mail books section. Some hapless NYU psychology prof had written a book about the evolution of the human brain, and the Globe reviewer didn't like it. I mean, he really didn't like it. And apparently the headline writer agreed. The review was called "Smartypants writes a book." It ripped the book to shreds, but it wasn't that I enjoyed so much as the fact that the review was outrageous, free, original - and really good writing. (Even had the review been favorable, chances are slim that I would ever have read the book.)

That was the glory of the old Joanne Kates restaurant reviews. She evoked the esthetic experience, and whether the food was good or bad, reading her was always delicious.

Writing is delightful when it's honest. That's the secret of David Sedaris, I think. He once wrote that his favorite place to eat in his adopted home town of Paris, France is a tourist food court - which is wonderful not because it's an outrageous statement, but because it's honest and courageous and suggests something meaningful... about living in a foreign culture, and feeling alone and in need of comfort, and about having secret preferences.

Back in her heyday, before she became nasty and bitter, Maureen Dowd could turn a phrase like nobody else. Her most famous line is, of course, "the triumph of feminism would last a nanosecond while the backlash lasted 40 years." But my favorite, from 2002, is "I've downed enough Pringles to shingle Versailles." That's journalism as poetry.

Too much investigative journalism is full of meaningless detail. You know the style - every page has a couple of digressions like, "The meeting was to be held in Williamsboro. Williamsboro, a picturesque town of 40,000, was established in 1788 by Methodist refugees from the west coast of Scotland. Its main industry is rhutabaga waxing." And then Williamsboro is never mentioned again. Every inconsequential character is introduced with a paragraph or two describing their parents, their spouse, their education and their job. This endless irrelevant detail seems designed to prove that the writer investigated everything thoroughly, as well as to pad out the piece. It ends up boring the reader.

I write opera reviews on this blog with a lot of trepidation. I don't have any musical training so I'm not equipped to write a real review. But I'm interested in how the experience of an opera affects the audience and what the opera means, so I write about that. I like to think that as I soldier away at my opera reviews, I'm getting better, but the process has given me a lot of respect for the art and skill of literary journalism.


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