Category Archives: writing tips

how to write a book review… how NOT to

 

 

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

 

— Roger W. Smith

 

 

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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

 

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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.”
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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.
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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

show, don’t tell

 

 

 

The following is an exchange of emails between a friend and myself from last night and this morning. (April 14-15, 2016)

 

 

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Scott,

I am rereading my own stuff, namely, my “autobiography.”

I think it illustrates an important aspect of writing one is supposed to learn, be taught: SHOW, don’t tell.

Roger

 

 

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Roger,

Do you mean, the reader should see it, feel it; you shouldn’t have to try to explain it through words?

Scott

 

 

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Scott,

What I mean it is:

One sees awful GENERIC writing all the time.

You get a communiqué from a relative or friend: “Having a great time in Paris … wonderful! … beautiful city … fascinating … we love it.”

Tell me WHAT makes Paris so wonderful in your experience and from your vantage point. Tell me something about:

What you are doing or enjoying. What you had for breakfast. A café you were at. An interesting person you met. A show you saw. A street you liked. Your hotel. What the service and staff are like. Where you have been and what you did there.

As Walt Whitman put it in a letter to a friend (1863): “don’t run away with [the] theme & occupy too much of your letter with it – but tell me mainly about all my dear friends, & every little personal item, & what you all do, & say &c.”

Here’s s what is said on Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Show,_don’t_tell

Show, don’t tell is a technique often employed in various kinds of texts to enable the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition, summarization, and description. The goal is not to drown the reader in heavy-handed adjectives, but rather to allow readers to interpret significant details in the text. The technique applies equally to nonfiction and all forms of fiction ….

In other words, avoid the generic. Make what you want to convey come alive through details. Then the reader can figure out for himself or herself what it was about.

In writing, I try to work in details that come to mind. I feel that that’s what makes a piece interesting. I rely on memory, intuition, and a mental process of association in doing this.

It’s the particulars that give a piece of writing life. No experience, no person is quite the same as any other. That’s what makes life so interesting. And, most experiences aren’t plain vanilla, white bread stuff. People have funny idiosyncrasies. Funny things happen. Things don’t hew to the norm. There are all sorts of surprises, twists, and turns.

I feel that the little details make for interesting reading, make the piece credible, make it work, make it clear just what the experience was, make the story believable to the reader.

It makes you and what you have to say AUTHENTIC.

In my essay “My Boyhood,” I could have said things like: “I had a happy childhood,” “I had a sad childhood,” “I loved baseball,” ‘I hated school,” “I had nice friends,” “my brother was mean to me,” “I loved music,” “I liked to visit my grandparents,” “my teachers were good,” “my teachers were bad,” and so on; and left it at that.

Instead, I have built my essay around carefully selected and minutely described particulars. It’s left to the reader to decide — make his or her own mental construct — what kind of childhood is being described and what he or she (the reader) might be inclined to think or feel based on the piece.

I do intend for words to be used to convey my experiences and meaning, of course, but not generic (aside from the occasional summary statement or editorial comment).
— posted by Roger W. Smith

    April 2016