The Reader's Perspective

The Singer Not the Song?

by Joseph Arellano

On First Glance

Novelist Amy Hatvany (Outside the Lines, Best Kept Secret) introduced an interesting discussion on Facebook by asking, “Do you think most book reviews are about the book or about the reviewer?”  Interestingly, most of the respondents – a majority of whom seemed to be writers – selected the latter option.  I would like to respectfully disagree with this perspective.

It’s sometimes asked about a great song, “Is it the singer (the artist) or the song (the product)?”  When it comes to a review of a new book, I think the reviews are mostly about the product, before touching upon the author and/or the reviewer.  Why do I say this?  Because I’ve had multiple instances in which I love a book (often a debut or second novel) by an author, only to be disappointed by a later work.  So I know that my judgment is not about the writer as a person – or as a writer in general – but about the latest book he or she has completed.

This does not mean, as I’ve said before, that mine – or another reviewer’s – is the correct view.  It’s simply the one arrived at by a particular reader-reviewer.  I have no problem with considering other views as likely to have merit because each of us comes from a different time in life with different experiences… Let’s say we were considering two memoirs by women writers.  Would we expect the one written by the 55-year-old cancer survivor to be the same as the one written by the 25-year-old right out of college?  Of course not – yet each would be a valid view on life as she knows it.

It’s All Personal

Someone wrote that music mix tapes/CDs are as much about the person putting them together as the person they were intended for.  I certainly concur with this.  We each demonstrate something of ourselves in the things we love – whether it’s a book, painting or music selection.  Sometimes people can learn more about us, inadvertently or not, by studying our favorite things.  And this begins to explain why book reviews are, yes, also about the reviewer.  The fact that a reviewer likes or does not like a particular book tells us something about him/her, and we hope the connection is revealed in the review and not kept hidden.

One of the highest recommendations for a book is that a friend has read it and loved it.  I recently lost a good friend who sought to convince me, since last September, that I must read the novel Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.  Since the paperback version’s over 600 pages, I declined the invitation.  But now I will likely do so.  Why?  Because I will not have the chance to communicate with my friend again; and I suspect that in reading Franzen’s novel I will find something of her in it that will help me to see why she loved it, and what it had to do with her time on earth.

Very Personal

Some innovative new research appears to indicate that our personal views about books and films are even more individual than we suspected.  There are automated programs based on mathematical algorithms that attempt to predict what we might buy.  At Amazon, for example, you might be told that “If you liked this book by author Joe Blow, you may also like the new novel by Sally Snow.”  But guess what?  These programs don’t seem to work in practice.

As noted in an article in the U.C. Berkeley alumni magazine, California (“Taste By Numbers”) – quoting Professor Ken Goldberg: “When you’re rating or evaluating something like a book or a movie… you’re doing something that’s a matter of taste.  I think it’s not easily pigeonholed into a series of boxes.  Matters of taste are almost physiological.  It’s literally taste – part of your digestive system.  Or we talk about a gut reaction…”

So the next time you read a review of a book that you don’t concur with, you may want to chalk it up to simple differences in life experiences – or the reviewer’s Irritable Bowel Syndrome attack!

Joseph Arellano, a Column Coordinator for Portland Book Review, has written book reviews for San Francisco Book Review, Sacramento Book Review and the New York Journal of Books.  This article is dedicated to the memory of Barbara Weiss of Sacramento, California.