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Home > Publications > Quill > Words & Language: Book critics could use some critiquing


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Friday, August 1, 2008
Words & Language: Book critics could use some critiquing

By Paula Larocque

If certain types of media writing consistently yielded excellence, we’d expect book reviews to be among them. Yet, book reviews are sometimes muddy and unclear.

Book reviewers often have literary credentials and might be authors themselves. So you’d think they’d know how to craft clear, readable sentences and the importance of crafting such sentences.

Further, book review readers are people who care about books and writing. They want to know about a book’s contents and whether they should read it. So shouldn’t book review editors insist either upon clear writing and reasoning from the contributors or editing the reviews themselves?

Finally, book reviews often critique an author’s logic, structure and organization, so reviewers must take special care with their own writing mechanics to avoid being a pot calling the kettle black. Readers shouldn’t have to struggle through the incomprehensible structure seen in this review:

“Pollock, who grew up in the actual Knockemstiff, Ohio (which may or may not resemble the town he depicts), and who worked in a paper mill for more than 30 years before enrolling in Ohio State University’s M.F.A. program, conveys all this in steely, serrated prose that along with his crippled, disfigured or otherwise damaged characters, as well as his jolting sparks of humor calls to mind Harry Crews.”

The chief intent of that ungainly 69-word sentence is to say that Pollock’s prose recalls Harry Crews. But form gets in the way of content. Yet it takes only seconds to clarify the reviewer’s intent:

Pollock grew up in the actual Knockemstiff, Ohio which may or may not resemble the town he depicts and worked in a paper mill for more than 30 years before enrolling in Ohio State University’s M.F.A. program. His steely, serrated prose, damaged characters and jolting sparks of humor call to mind Harry Crews.

The reviewer below not only begins his review with an ungrammatical quotation, but also makes a mechanical error of his own. Readers must plow through four mistakes in the lead graph alone:

“Andrew O’Hagan observes in this collection of his own essays on Britain and America that ‘These are tough times for elitists.’ He goes on: ‘Display will always win out over privacy, as if seriousness was boring, as if contemplation was excluding, as if understatement was underhanded, and as if difficulty represented a kind of dishonesty.’”

First, the reviewer mishandles the mechanic of quoting (O’Hagan observes ... that “These are tough times for elitists.”) Better to choose one of the following options:

1) Omit the capital T on “these” and lowercase it instead.

2) Retain the capital T on “these,” but drop the preceding “that” and place a colon or comma after “observes.”

Second, the “as if” statements in the quoted passage demand the subjunctive “were,” not “was” (as if seriousness were boring, etc.) It’s best not to quote ungrammatical passages; they cheapen the work, lose credibility and get in the reader’s way. Writers can always paraphrase when quoting:

Andrew O’Hagan observes in his collection of essays on Britain and America: “These are tough times for elitists.” Adding that “display will always win out over privacy,” O’Hagan lets a series of “as ifs” make his point for him: as if seriousness, he writes, were boring, contemplation were excluding, understatement were underhanded, and difficulty represented a kind of dishonesty.

Below is a readable sentence made unwieldy by tacking on a long list that includes the weight of dashes, quotation marks and semicolons:

“Unfortunately, they’re ideas that properly honed and focused to an appropriate scale probably would have made a fascinating play. In a sense that’s not surprising, since Rabe, 68, is an important American playwright and sometime screenwriter, best known for the powerful dramatic trilogy inspired by his service in Vietnam ‘Sticks and Bones,’ which won the 1972 Tony for best play; ‘The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel,’ which earned the Obie for distinguished playwriting; and ‘Streamers,’ which picked up the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for best American play of 1976.”

A period helps:

Unfortunately, they’re ideas that properly honed and focused could have made a fascinating play. That’s not surprising, since Rabe, 68, is also an important American playwright and sometime screenwriter. Among his dramatic work is the powerful trilogy inspired by his service in Vietnam: ‘Sticks and Bones,’ which won the 1972 Tony for best play; ‘The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel,’ which earned the Obie for distinguished playwriting; and ‘Streamers,’ which won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for best American play of 1976.

Editing dense and awkward passages takes only moments, and if the reviewer can’t or won’t do it, then the editor should. Literate readers will be grateful.

Paula LaRocque is author of “On Words,” a new collection of columns, as well as “The Book on Writing, and Championship Writing.” E-mail her at plarocque@sbcglobal.net.

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