by Michael Coren
AS SOMEONE who has woken up in the middleof the night in a hot - never cold -sweat contemplating how he will begin,structure, compose, and conclude yet another book review the following morning,I welcome the recent epistolary advice of Judy Stoffman, books editor of theToronto Star. Ms Stoffman has sent all of her reviewers a two-page,single-spaced letter propounding her views on the art of criticism, explainingthe rules and regulations of the craft and expatiating on the finer points ofreviewing a book for a masscirculation newspaper. Some people have reactedrather negatively to the exercise: the always candid editor of this periodicaltold me that "if Star reviewers really need such a guide, the Star shouldbe using better reviewers."
But:there were more than 50,000 books published in this country last year, and thebooks pages of a serious newspaper may hope to give substantial reviews tobetween five and a dozen volumes every week. The mathematics are simple, theresult horrifying. Hence Stoffman`s intelligent and sinewy piece can only dogood. More than this, book reviewing in the masscirculation press is of themost profound importance and at the sharpest of sharp ends of the culturalbattle. It is not in academic journals or obscure literary quarterlies that thestruggle for national identity will be won, not even, unfortunately, in thepugnacious pages of Books in Canada, but innewspapers with hundreds of thousands, often millions of readers. The disseminationrather than the deconstruction of ideas is the essence of intellectual growth.journalists have always mattered more than professors. J`accuse! Remind me, wasit a "serious academic" or a "journalist hack" who saidthat?
Alas,popular reviewing is in a parlous state. All of the major newspapers are underpressure to reduce the size and quantity of their reviews. This is not merelythe stuff of ugly canard but of genuine threat and consequent fear. Adverts forcheap cars and cheaper telephone sex make more money for newspaper owners thando thoughtful critiques of books - if anybody is going to lose space in a paperunder economic siege it will be the eternally suffering books or arts editorlong before the suzerain of the wheels or business section.
JUDY STOFFMAN has divided hermissive into 13 separate points, some of them brief, some of them moreelaborate. "Read the book, she emphasizes, "all of it. Cribbing fromjacket copy and publisher`s bumph is unforgivable." It may be argued thatStoffman should not be employing anyone she suspects of reviewing an unreadbook, but her point is well worth making. As someone who reviews at least abook a week and is himself frequently reviewed, I know, repeat know, whensomeone calling him/herself a critic has not read my book but still commentsupon it; know when the critic of another book has committed an act of fraud.Such subterfuge stinks to literary heaven. Yet it happens on a regular basis.Stoffman`s caveat is timely and trenchant.
"Donot treat books by Canadian writers with any special tenderness but judge themfairly by the same criteria as other books," she writes. A resounding yes.Incest should not only be illegal within the sexual context. A nationalliterature can only progress, evolve, advance if it is exposed to thenourishing light of valid and constructive criticism.
"Whenreviewing fiction, avoid the long blow-by-blow description, which is usuallyvery boring to read second-hand. Yes, give a plot summary, then move on todiscussing the themes in the novel, how it develops characters."Stoffman`s advice also applies to non-fiction and certainly to the genre ofbiography. Flaccid reviewers confuse the joy of criticism with the dullness ofsynopsis, and fill their word count with gratuitous reiterations of what theyhave just read. Many biography reviews fail to mention the specific book underdiscussion and instead provide a quite meaningless biographical sketch of the chronicledindividual. This is not book reviewing.
Letpraise or condemnation be implicit in your work, says Stoffman. "Opinionscome cheap and are often wrong, as the history of literature shows. AnnaKarenina was pronounced sentimental garbage."
And"Your primary task is not judgement but discovery and reportage. AsCocteau said, `Astonish me!"` Times are grand, or at least extremelyencouraging, when the books editor of the Toronto Star urges her stable ofwriters to be like Cocteau.