Jul 16, 2021
Published on: Steven on Authory
5 min read

NOTE: I missed designating certain articles as 'publically available' on Bill James On Line, some of them intentionally, as they were only late and brief messages to the BJOL community, and some accidentally. This is one of the accidental omissions, which I just realized I had a copy of on my hard drive. I detail here some of my principles of reviewing in general, and present it here for the sake of those completionists who need every item to feel satisfied.

A few readers (Marc Schneider, bearbyz) felt I wrote a negative review of Jason Turbow’s THEY BLED BLUE last month, despite my penultimate sentence’s reference to the book as an “admirable, well-written, thoroughly researched work of considerable artistry,” whereas I thought the review was overwhelmingly positive. (I did enjoy reading it, and I feel good about recommending it to others.) But I understand why some thought the way they did: I did dwell on some stylistic problems, and did comment on the odd, fragmented structure of the book—though my structural comments were mostly neutral. It was an unusual structure, but 1981, the year THEY BLED BLUE described, was an unusually fragmented season, what with the strike and other oddities. The book was fragmented, but I think it needed to be, maybe a little less so than Turbow thought, but it’s his book, not mine. I just thought I needed to point it out.

I’m writing this as a (short) separate article rather than as a comment in the comments section because it’s mostly about a concept outside of that one review, the concept of what I’m aiming for in these book reviews generally.

Some reviewers I know well, friends of mine in real life, refuse to review books they don’t love, love, love. One friend, a woman who is (to my mind) a world-class author on pop music and pop culture (over the years, I’ve bought at least a dozen copies of one of her best books, to give away to journalism students), turns down several reviewing assignments every year for prominent, well-paying, prestigious magazines simply because it causes her pain to slag on a fellow author. It’s not just sensitivity to others’ feelings, though that’s certainly part of her reasoning process: there’s not much money in writing book reviews, and even less prestige, so why rip somebody you might find yourself sharing a publisher’s banquet with, or a Facebook thread?  Not worth it. It’s also good business. If you slag on someone, that person might someday get assigned to review a future book of yours, and then where will you be? Slapping yourself—“Oh, God, that bitch I ripped way back in 2020 is reviewing my new book? I’m dead,” even if some authors rise above petty revenge. (Never met one, but there must be a few. Revenge is life’s least expensive luxury.) No, it’s far simpler just to decline the opportunity to stomp on someone’s hard labor of the past two or three years.

The problem is that most reviews are therefore positive, in a world where most books are shit. (Say that in a deep, movie-trailer, ominous voice: “In a world where most books are shit…”)

So, readers must beware. They must read reviews carefully, looking for hints and implications that this TOTALLY POSITIVE RAVE!!!!! contains a few subtle clues as to the reviewer’s true feelings. That’s how some reviewers approach the problem: rather than turn down assignments altogether, they write reviews that are all sunny-side up but embed a few crystals of white salt into the egg’s white, and consider themselves to have gotten away with a few invisible but accurate words of censure. And there are, to be sure, writers of criticism who have well-earned reputations as hatchetmen and hatchetwomen. My friend Dale Peck (not IRL, just on social media) has a terrible repute for ripping people and books for the sheer fun of it, and the late John Simon made his bones as an elderly enfant terrible, particularly nasty when reviewing plays with actresses whose looks fell below Simon’s lofty standards of beauty. Even further back, no one wanted to be the subject of a review by Dorothy Parker, who (writing for the New Yorker under the pseudonym “Constant Reader”) reviewed the cutesy tones of A.A. Milne by quoting one bit and then remarking famously that was the first point “at which Tonstant Weader Fwowed up.” And Gore Vidal, another of my faves, was a notorious literary assassin, known for informing authors with literary pretensions of their naïve errors and illiterate mishandlings of their native language. But few reviewers of books, movies, dramas yearn for that reputation of wielding a mean hatchet, and prefer to use a well-placed pin as their weapon of choice. With any luck, they get in a quick jab or two that the author will never even feel.

And I get why reviewers prefer to play nice, and why venues run mostly positive reviews, Spurgeon’s Law notwithstanding. We can afford to have a few select hitmen and hitwomen, who themselves take the hit (and the notoriety) for their bad reputations, but not so many that we forget who is a (s)hitperson and who is a nice person. And good reviews sell books, which is why publishers give away review copies for free.

I also get why I mostly write positive reviews here: I am the one assigning books to review on BJOL. Which is to say, no one assigns books to review. I just choose to review something when I feel like it, and I read a lot, so I’ll often make a few notes on the books I read, that transform easily into complete sentences if I decide to write something up. Since I don’t tend to start reading books in order to dislike them, the majority of reviews are going to be of books I enjoyed reading.

But not always. Sometimes, as here and here, I start a book, expecting a rollicking good time, and I take a genuine dislike to the book. I suppose I could put it down (in the sense of “putting a dog down”) after a few rotten chapters, and forget about it, but more often I persevere to the bitter end, with enough notes to write a negative review from. Would it be more polite to refrain from writing up that bad review? Sure. But I feel that I owe something to you, the readers of BJOL.

Not claiming to be noble or self-sacrificing here, but I think that if all my reviews were equally positive, that would put the burden on you of figuring out if you want to read the thing or not. You would need a decoder ring to tell if I were sincerely recommending the book. But more important is the purpose of reviewing at all. I don’t think my primary job here is to foist my opinions off on you. I think the primary function of a review is to be as specific as I can about what I liked and didn’t like about a book, so you could judge if you use the same standards I’m using to reach that conclusion.

When a reviewer writes “Hated it” or “Loved it,” the only knowledge you get from that is the reviewer’s opinion—you then have to draw a conclusion based on what makes the reviewer think the way he does. But when he writes, as I tend to do, that he felt irritated by the way the author averaged a footnote per every page, especially when those footnotes were irrelevant or redundant (as I did with THEY BLED BLUE), you can dismiss that irritation if you think “I never read footnotes, so I don’t care about that” or “Wow, he hated it, but I love David Foster Wallace’s novels that pack in footnotes like excelsior in a glassware package—I think this is cool beans!”

My job, in other words, is to be as specific as I can in explaining WHY I liked or disliked certain structural devices the author used, or organizational strategies, or syntactical tropes, or diction choices, or underlying philosophies. You needn’t care about the literary terminology I just used in the preceding sentence, or even understand the concepts (Bill maintains he doesn’t know what “syntax” means, which I don’t fundamentally believe, but he doesn’t have to remember the definition to react to certain syntactical tropes)—it’s my job to explain such stuff to you, and to give examples from the book under review that illustrate what bothered me, or didn’t bother me at all.

The reason I refuse to call my policy “noble” or “self-sacrificing” is that it’s essentially selfish—I want you to think of me as a reliable straight-shooter, and I can’t really see doing that if you question my motives in praising every book I read. I care about “literary” stuff a lot—the way words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters are used, technically, because I’m totally fascinated by the techniques that writers use, especially if most readers pay far more attention to the content of a book, as they should, than they do to its techniques.

I’m also a bit of a problem-solver—when I see a clumsily constructed sentence, I try to figure out what got it bollixed up. This is an offshoot from my copy-editing experience, I’m sure, and one that authors sometimes resisted in my copy-editing years. I would suggest alternate ways to craft the bollixed sentence, and usually my authors would be agreeable, even grateful, but at least one time in ten, they would insist that their sentences were perfect the way they had them to begin with, and that the direction they wanted me to fuck was “off.”

So off I would fuck. No skin off my neck, finally. But that’s how my mind works, silently correcting or re-writing sentences as I wend my way through books, and that’s one thing I can share with you. If you find this more irritating than helpful, then you can dismiss my cavils as stuff you don’t notice or care about. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone had read one of my reviews and concluded “Hey, the things this moron is complaining about sound like things I LIKE—I’m going to order a copy straight away.”

I also figured out, after the fact, what it was that I didn’t like about THEY BLED BLUE that bled into the tone of my review.

I had thought I was a Dodger fan, myself, going into the book. I was born a Brooklyn Dodger fan, in that my dad was a Brooklyn Dodger fan and I remember being disappointed that he had promised to take me (age 4) out to Ebbets Field just before they left our home borough, and I rooted for the L.A. Dodgers, especially when they walloped the hell out of the Yankees in the 1963 Series, but even more generally throughout the Koufax years, plus following them as a fan of baseball through the succeeding decades. But after reviewing the book in such a way that Jason Turbow pointed out privately to me that it seemed a little mean-spirited, as did some BJOL commenters, I realized that I did harbor a little animosity towards the Dodgers that emerged, specifically towards two of the principal players in the 1981 organization, their manager, Tommy Lasorda, and their star player, Steve Garvey.

My issue with both of them was, and is, political. Both Lasorda and Garvey posed as straight-arrow conservative American jingoists, and both are, or were, annoyingly hypocritical in their posings. As I described in my review, and Turbow described fully in his book, Lasorda was famous for creating a self-righteous tone in his clubhouse that made the Dodgers out to be not only better players but better people, better citizens, better representatives of what America stands for, than their opponents were, and he’d speak about taking pride in the way his Dodgers felt a loyalty to each other, to the team and organization, and to Los Angeles, that I found more than a little bit phony and laid on way too thick for my tastes. It didn’t help that Lasorda was also prone to obscene and profane tirades (like the famous one about Kingman’s three homers against the Dodgers) that undermined his pious nonsense about the Dodgers being role models for all us kiddies to follow. The whole trope of “BLEEDING BLUE” put me off, which I guess bled its way into the title of my piece. Where I come from “My heart bleeds blue borscht for you” is an expression (which sounds better in Yiddish) of sarcastic sympathy for someone else’s problems, which was how I felt about Lasorda’s complaints about how the world was treating him. Gee, Tommy, what a tough life you have, and your poor picked-on players too.

Here’s a link to Lasorda’s tirade (I think it was both obscene and profane in that it combined cussing with blasphemies. I remember my two girls, around ages 5 and 9, laughing at the bleeped-out version I played for them--I explained the bleeps as “bad language”—they went around saying “BLEEP” all afternoon): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LIwrYH6Urbs The thing about that Kingman tirade (if you’ll allow me a brief digression here) is that it takes a somewhat innocuous question by a reporter looking for a quotation from a manager that the manager pretends to take offense at, making the reporter the bad guy for asking the question, which is basically his job. The problem with the question is that the answer is kind of obvious, and hardly needs asking, except that if the reporter wants to write that Lasorda was angry, or admiring, or frustrated, or anything about Kingman’s three-HR game against the Dodgers, he needs a quote from Lasorda if only to protect himself from Lasorda complaining the next day, “Hey, I wasn’t angry about Kingman’s performance—the nerve of that lazy reporter to say I was angry. He didn’t even ask me what my opinion was of Kingman’s performance, he just assumed from my facial expression and body language that I was angry, which I was not” and blablabla, typical crap that people do to dump on reporters for doing their jobs correctly. In other words, he blasted the reporter instead of copping to the truth, which was likely something like “I was triple-pissed that Kingman hit three homers and it was a hell of a lot more convenient to curse out the reporter for asking me than it was to curse out my pitchers for tossing up three gopher balls or to go over to the Cubs’ clubhouse and seek out the gigantic Kingman and give him a hard time for hitting them.”

The red meat of making the media out to be terrible people for asking questions that you have a tough time responding to calmly and intelligently is a cheap, stupid ploy used by politicians since time immemorial, and I admire cheapness only slightly less than I do stupidity.

It’s not even that bad a question, really. A little bland, okay, but a simple “Kingman is obviously a hell of a slugger” or “My pitchers weren’t getting their stuff where they wanted it” or even “I should have ordered my pitchers to pitch around him more” would have sufficed, except that giving an honest or accurate answer wasn’t to Lasorda’s point, which was to blow off steam at a target, a member of the working press, that his players and Dodgers’ fans probably lack sympathy for. It’s basically a bullying tactic, and one that I despise in politicians and celebrities alike. After all, journalistic coverage is free advertising, and the only price they have to pay for getting all that coverage is they are required to tolerate questions that sometimes annoy them. If Lasorda had the good sense to say “No comment” the reporter goes to find another source, or maybe the reporter’s paper plays the story a little lower in that day’s paper, which is not what a publicity hound like Lasorda (or the Dodgers) ultimately want.

Garvey’s hypocrisy is a little more troubling to me, and a little more directly political. For a while in the mid-seventies, there was talk about a post-career political future for the Dodgers’ first baseman, and it was assumed that he would run as a clean-cut family man on the Republican ticket, which he kind of messed up with a messy divorce, an affair with his secretary while still married, paternity claims by half the women in California, and a tell-all book published by his ex-wife. When his teammates were nicknaming him “Senator,” I was imagining that he might eventually run for office opposed by Gore Vidal on the Democratic line. Vidal actually tried to get the Democratic nomination for the Senate in the early 80s, which would have been coo-well with me (he lost to Jerry Brown as I recall), but I was mostly fantasizing at the time about the pleasing near-homophone of Gore V. running against Garvey, the homophobe running against his homophonic opponent, but alas, ‘twas not to be. Woulda been a hell of a race, though, Garvey’s values being a perfect foil for Gore V.’s wit (and vice versa, I suppose), especially if some of the scandalous revelations had started coming out by that time. I imagine that Garvey would have won the seat, anyway. (Pete Wilson took it, at a time when California was still open to the idea of electing a Republican to any office higher than Assistant Sewer Commissioner.) But I enjoyed the spectacle of his personal foibles getting exposed, after his career-long alienation of teammates who didn’t share his high moral standards of personal comportment.

Which explains the animosity in my review: I mentioned Garvey and Lasorda several times, which was appropriate given the central part those two had in the 1981 Dodgers’ season, and I enjoyed mentioning their character flaws, but I wasn’t really conscious of harboring any special dislike of them as motivation for my disliking the book.  

Anyway, what are we looking for when we read reviews of anything? When I was starting out, I thought that people were looking to find out if something was good or bad, but that was because that was all I had to say a book, a movie, a restaurant—whether I liked it or not. I’m remembering back before I got started as a writer—when I was maybe 16, I would write “practice” reviews, just to have a subject to write about. I would eat out in a restaurant in Manhattan (which was heady stuff) and then imitate the restaurant reviews I was reading in New York magazine and the Village Voice, which in retrospect was kind of hilarious, since I didn’t know very much about cuisine, fine (or not-so-fine) dining, food preparation, just what I read in the newspapers or magazines that published restaurant reviews. Basically, it was “I liked this dish” and “I didn’t like this dish”—100% uninformed opinion that shouldn’t have persuaded anyone to eat here or not eat here. I practiced writing these moronic reviews of films, books, plays, and everything else I consumed, until gradually I realized that no one cared what I liked or disliked personally.                                                                                                 

What readers (when I would get me some) cared about, what I cared about as a reader of reviews, were specific details about the experience that would inform me whether the thing being reviewed conformed to my own tastes. If a reviewer wrote that a scene in a movie was “hilarious,” that meant nothing to me, but when he summarized exactly what was in the scene—the actor’s face, a few lines of dialogue, the situation—that he found hilarious, I could make an informed judgment whether or not I would find hilarity in the scene.

And if I didn’t, or if I’d see the film and think “That wasn’t funny at all,” I could then form a judgment about the reviewer’s taste. If someone recommended food I couldn’t digest, or books I couldn’t make myself plow through, often enough, I would know to use that reviewer as a reverse-barometer. Anything he liked, I assumed, I wouldn’t like, and that is useful information in its own way. Sometimes, I would understand, reverse-barometers were more useful than barometers, once you knew how to read them.

Mostly what I learned over the next few years was what constituted techniques that were specific to each genre. Film critics I admired, for example, had generally understood how a film gets made, and could inform me of excellence (or lousiness) in the editing of a film from a technical point of view, and I could see that I would be a better film reviewer if I tried to make a film myself, which I promptly did, and I would need some experience in running a restaurant to be able to comment intelligently on the practices of one. (Fortunately for my reviewing skills, and very unfortunately for my life, I inherited my dad’s Manhattan restaurant at the age of 17, which in the short time before I could sell it, taught me a lot about how a restaurant is run.) In college, and shortly afterwards, I began to publish a few reviews, as I studied film (with the Voice’s chief film critic, the brilliant Andrew Sarris) and read a lot of literature, and began eating in the better restaurants, so I could actually comment in a meaningful way about the technical skills and flaws rather than just writing “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.”

If I could pick out exactly those details that could serve as examples of my judgments, I realized over the years, I really wouldn’t have to tell the reader explicitly what my judgment was. For example, if I described the final freeze-framed shot of The 400 Blows as a devastating confrontation with the vastness of the ocean, which the young protagonist had never seen before, in sharp contrast with the tight, narrow, enclosed shots of his life up to that point, I might not need to describe it as “amazing” or “shocking” or “excellent” or even “devastating.” But I would need to figure out which shots to describe what Truffault was up to in that film, and how to describe them so the reader would understand the power of the shots. (I’m going back to a review I wrote in 1973, and haven’t read since that time, in Sarris’s film course. nor seen the film—but they’ve stuck in my memory.) One of the more useful things I think I taught to journalism students about writing reviews was to try to describe what you were reviewing so precisely that you wouldn’t need to use any judgment words. In fact, I would forbid them to use judgmental adjectives—no “delicious,” no “upsetting,” no “rotten,” no “terrific.” From their squealing, you’d have thought I’d forbidden a team of pigs to wallow in the mud, which is what adjectives resemble, messy, plentiful, and cheap. When I resort to a judgmental adjective in writing a review, I feel as if I’m cheating. (I admit, I cheat a lot, mostly to save time or descriptive words.) “Good” or “bad” are shortcuts.

I guess this “(short) article” turned out not so short. Bill had mentioned in passing that BJOL needed a regular column of book reviews, so without further instructions (Bill is very light on the whole “instructions” thing), I picked up the ball and started reviewing books. I’ve got a few more in the pipeline that I’m looking forward to reading, but for right now, I’ll go back to some other subjects that I’ve been neglecting.