The Problematization of Plot
Posted by: Keir Graff
While I was writing (that is, “blogging”) about Robert Ward’s Four Kinds of Rain yesterday, I was trying to make sure I didn’t say too much about what actually happens in the story, which is also a key consideration when writing a review. One of the frustrating things about being a book reviewer is that, if I don’t want to be the jerk who spoils it for everyone – I might sometimes want to be another kind of jerk, but definitely not that kind – I can’t get too specific about things. Using specific examples is essential to good expository writing, but book reviews must balance the sometimes competing imperatives of making an argument and piquing readers’ interest. And if readers know what’s going to happen, they’re less likely to pick up the book.
As a rule, I try not to discuss plot developments that happen after the first 100 pages. (That’s not set in stone – if a big twist happens on page 30, I might leave that out as well.) I read novels to the end, of course, because the quality of the ending has a lot to do with my recommendation, but I can only discuss endings in a general way, e.g.: “…John Doe’s book is a speeding locomotive that catches fire, runs over the reader, jumps the tracks, spills its freight, crashes through a barn, and still manages to get to the station on time.”
Or words to that effect.
But not being able to discuss a book’s plot too specifically does limit what I can say about the book. That’s why I call myself a reviewer, not a critic. To me, a reviewer provides equal parts plot summary, clues to setting and theme, larger context for the book, and a summary judgment – shake well with ice and serve with an olive (or a cocktail onion, if you prefer). In short, it’s a recommendation that helps you decide if the book is your sort of thing or not, and if it is your sort of thing, whether you’re likely to like it.
A critic writes well after publication, usually in small literary journals, teasing out themes and metaphors for people who aren’t worried about finding out what happens so much as they’re worried that they’re missing something. Critics also use the word “trope” a lot.
(Wait, I use the word “trope” a lot. Let’s say that critics use the word “problematize” a lot.)
One of the other frustrating things is that I’m always reading books before everyone else, and by the time I find myself in conversation about them, months later, I’ve forgotten many of the salient details. And, because my reading is assigned to me, I often don’t get to the big books that everyone else is talking about. Just ask me about The Plot against America, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Everything Is Illuminated, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius…even The Da Vinci Code. Or rather, don’t. I haven’t read them and, short of sabatical or a pink slip, have little hope of getting to them, because publishers, darn it, keep publishing new books.
When, on the extremely rare occasion that I am at a party and people are actually talking about books, and they’re talking about one of these books-of-the-moment, on the even rarer occasion that someone present recalls that I am in some way affiliated with the book-reviewing business and asks me what I think of said book (assuming that, not only must I have read the book, there would be no way I could keep my job if I hadn’t read it), my method of saving face is always the same: I blame my editors.
Yes, I am an editor, but I don’t assign books for review. Bill Ott, editor and publisher of Booklist, and Brad Hooper, adult books editor, select books for me to review. And, given that they obviously know in advance which books will dominate the New York Times bestseller list, how dare they assign me anything else? Don’t they know how ineffectual I feel at cocktail parties?
Seriously, the joys of book reviewing outweigh the sorrows. I’ve come to love many books that I never would have found on my own. But before I came to work here I plodded along happily, reading books in my interest areas, wishing I could get to more of them but not having nightmares about it. Working at Booklist is a bit like being an accountant in the king’s treasure room. Every day you’re surrounded by riches that aren’t yours to take home with you. Every day I see reviews by colleagues, entire lists of the books worth reading, and think, “One of these days….”
Meanwhile, new books land on my desk, and I’m glad I get to read those, too.