how to write a book review… how NOT to

 

 

“A writer should be a writer first. An authority second.”

 

— Roger W. Smith

 

 

***************************************************

 

 

I recently read two reviews of Schumann: The Faces and the Masks by Judith Chernaik, a recently published biography of Robert Schumann.

 

 

‘Schumann: The Faces and the Masks’ Review: A Dreamer at the Piano

by Michael O’Donnell

The Wall Street Journal

September 14, 2018

https://www.wsj.com/articles/schumann-the-faces-and-the-masks-review-a-dreamer-at-the-piano-1536957468?mod=mhp

 

 

Robert Schumann: A Hopeless, Brilliant Romantic

by Jeremy Denk

The New York Times

November 19, 2018

 

*****************************************************

 

 

The Wall Street Journal review by Michael O’Donnell is excellent. Mr. O’Donnell is not a music critic. He is a lawyer whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Atlantic and the Nation.

Jeremy Denk’s review in The New York Times is not well done. Mr. Denk is a concert pianist. In a Wikipedia entry, he is categorized as “one of America’s foremost pianists.”
*****************************************************

 

 

What went wrong with the Times review by Mr. Denk?

Well, consider how it opens:

It won’t cure your problems, or the world’s, but it can’t hurt to immerse yourself in the music of Robert Schumann, a man who knew how to love. No less an authority than Sting agrees. I know this because Sting once put his hand supportively on my back while I practiced the postlude of Schumann’s song cycle “Dichterliebe,” and I haven’t washed that shirt since.

Robert’s life story comes to a harrowing end — I won’t spoil all the grim details, even more tragic than the median Romantic artist’s. Nonetheless, if you take the time to read Judith Chernaik’s new biography, “Schumann: The Faces and the Masks,” your life outlook may improve. Without hitting you over the head, Chernaik allows you to feel the core of Schumann’s story: his love for his wife, Clara, a great concert pianist and formidable muse. Between this and the battle against his own demons to compose truthful music, Schumann’s spirit comes across as an antidote to all the hate and perverse self-love we are forced to swallow in public affairs, day after day.

This takes the reader too far astray. A good lead can be clever, and even get into the topic sideways, so to speak. See for example, my post

“J-school students, give heed!”

https://rogers-rhetoric.com/2019/01/13/j-school-students-give-heed/

Sting is a musician who performed with the rock band The Police. In case you don’t know it, Robert Schumann was a composer, of classical music. I shouldn’t need to explain, but this review, the lead paragraph of same, makes one wonder, just what is it about? As I just said, a lead can be clever, and kind of “sneak up” to the main topic, but a writer should never lose sight, or let his readers get confused, even momentarily, of what the piece is about. I learned this from my high school English teacher. Don’t violate the principle of unity. What’s going on here is that Mr. Denk wants to impress us with how cool he is. Readers of a book about Schumann are not likely to care about Sting, or perhaps to know who he is, and he has nothing to do with Schumann. It’s a bad brew of anecdotal material, or details that don’t cohere. If I am writing a piece about my struggles to overcome a drinking problem, I probably don’t want to talk about what my favorite books are. And, it’s fine to make clever parallels or connections between two seemingly, ordinarily disparate facts, occurrences, events, time periods, etc., but this is too much of a stretch. Schumann’s music as an antidote to hate? Music to settle our nerves in today’s vitriolic political climate.

“Between this and the battle against his own demons to compose truthful music, Schumann’s spirit comes across as an antidote to all the hate and perverse self-love we are forced to swallow in public affairs, day after day.” This is an ill-advised sentence. It’s totally off topic. It’s a gratuitous interpolation presumably intended to make Mr. Denk look like he’s in the forefront of enlightened current opinion. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but it has absolutely nothing to do with Schumann, with music, or with the review. So, we are to presume that one listens to Schumann to help oneself cope with feelings of angst arising from Trump? That seems to be what Mr. Denk is alluding to. Such an allision is out of place here, is off topic, and is likely to leave the reader puzzling over what was intended. Such fuzziness or lack of clarity — being too cryptic — is a sign of bad writing.

Denk’s review contains pregnant, provocative insights about Schuman’s music. There are also a lot of banal generalities having nothing to do with the book or Schumann.

This review tires and frustrates the reader because the reviewer, Mr. Denk, seems to have lost sight of the book under review, and, at times, it almost seems, of Schumann, so anxious is he to impress with a brilliant aperçu.

This is a specimen of overwriting. And, of neglecting the commandment: First, be clear. There are seemingly brilliant observations here about Schumann’s music, but they get buried in a mass of opaque verbiage.

As an example of what I term overwriting, consider the following sentence;

One of Schumann’s great discoveries was the power of an underexploited area of the harmonic universe. Imagine a chord Y that “wants” to resolve to another chord, Z. Because music is cleverly recursive, you can always find a third chord (let’s say X) that wants to go to the first: a chord that wants to go to a chord that wants to go to a chord, or — if you will — a desire for a desire. Schumann placed a spotlight on this nook of musical language, back a couple of levels from the thing ultimately craved, deep into the interior of the way harmonies pull at our hearts.

Provocative points, indeed brilliant ones, but they could have been stated much more clearly and the point(s) thereby made more effectively. The sentence “Schumann placed a spotlight on this nook of musical language, back a couple of levels from the thing ultimately craved, deep into the interior of the way harmonies pull at our hearts” is a prime example of such opacity, of god awful prose.

The book under review has all but been forgotten.
*****************************************************

 

Based on my own experience, I believe:

that a book review should in and of itself be readable and hold the reader’s interest;

that the review should elicit reader interest in the book’s subject;

that the reviewer should mainly discuss what the book is about and what can be learned from it, including new findings, while, at the same time, conveying, directly or indirectly, his judgment of the book.

The best reviewer is not necessarily an academic or a specialist or authority in the subject area. What is wanted most of all is an enthusiastic reader. And, needless to say, a good writer.
— Roger W. Smith

   February 2019

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s