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Likely Stories

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Keir Graff and editors from Booklist's adult and youth departments write candidly about books, book reviewing, and the publishing industry

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007 2:07 pm
Another Day, Another Book-Reviewing Conundrum
Posted by: Keir Graff

I’ve been deep in the data lately, having a hard time feeling creative enough to do much writing. Which is an inadvertent but completely appropriate lead-in to what I logged on to write about. I recently finished reading Robert Walser’s The Assistant, in what may or may not be the first English translation. And while I enjoyed it, I had that curious feeling of not enjoying it as much as I felt I should have. That may seem esoteric, but I think most people should be able to relate. I was thinking, “This is good, but it seems like the kind of thing I’d love — why don’t I love it?”

I think it has something to do with the language. While I’m certain this is a very fine translation — my German isn’t good enough to make my opinion on that matter worth rendering — and I know that this prose was modern for its time (1908), it still displays both the rhythms of its time and a degree of ornamentation that most writers wouldn’t use today.

I cut my teeth on Victorian writers, so filigree doesn’t faze me. I think the problem may be that I read so frantically now — always at pace, almost always contemporary fiction — that I’ve forgotten how to adapt to the rhythms of older literature. Booklist rarely reviews reprints, so I rarely have the opportunity.

And this raises a book-reviewing conundrum: how do you review a book that you think you would enjoy more if you were in a different state of mind?

Anyone?

I know this doesn’t say much about the book itself, but I need to get back to writing the review. I’ll be curious to know if anyone else thinks that Colson Whitehead is a good read-alike for Walser.

4 Responses to “Another Day, Another Book-Reviewing Conundrum”
  1. Bill Ott Says:

    Your conundrum hits at one of the key differences between what a reviewer does and what a readers’ advisor does. Reviewers need to evaluate a book on its terms, apart from mood, yet readers’ advisors strive to find the right book for whatever mood a reader happens to be in at a particular moment. One way to bridge the gap is to address in a review the appropriate mood for one attempting to get the most of the book at hand. That’s not always an easy thing to do in a limited number of words, but it can make a review more useful more the advisor than straight analysis. Still, it remains a conundrum, no doubt about it.

  2. Keir Says:

    Reviewing is inherently subjective, so we can’t remove ourselves from the equation, but we can try to separate “I’m having a case of the Mondays” from “this is a fascinating example of early literary modernism” — it’s a good thing I have a mind like a Teutonic computer chip.

  3. Cindy Dobrez Says:

    In a future blog, perhaps you could address the effect of reviewing certain books on the mood of the reviewer. I’ve now reviewed three or four grim YA fiction books in a row and have had my fill of drive by shootings, drug deals gone wrong, baby deaths, and mother’s AIDS deaths, and teens with addict mothers or fathers. It’s extremely fortunate that Michigan has had a sunny spring. I don’t usually review picture books, but I find myself longing for a fuzzy bunny…as long as it’s one that doens’t get eaten by a fox.

  4. Keir Says:

    Given the amount of time we spend reading, an editor’s assignments really color the world we live in, don’t they?


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