I’m always a little leery of writing a blog post about reviews even when I’m of perfectly sound mind and body. Given that the past three days of my life have largely revolved around being in a bustling city brimming with bars in the company of four fellows I’ve known since high school–and all that such a thing entails–I’m going to have to ask you to bear with me.
In fact, promise me you’ll bear with me.
This post is largely related to the last one I did on the nature of reviews, especially positive reviews, and why I don’t often publicize them as much as I probably should and it largely boils down to this: I believe I’m beginning to appreciate “mixed bag” reviews, of which there are more than a few. And there are more than a few reasons for my liking them.
Ideally, we should strive for those reviews that declare us to be the next savior of humanity in literary form. Everyone wants to be loved, of course, and such reviews are the equivalent of a large, sweaty man tearing off his shirt and painting your name across his body for the viewing pleasure of everyone in the audience. And such shirtless reviews are fantastic, don’t get me wrong. If you feel the need to tear off your shirt over me, go right ahead.
But I digress.
In the interests of keeping this short, I’m going to recommend you check out Red Letter Media and its staggering, 70-minute long review of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. In a really fearsome point-by-point analysis of the story, plot and characters, I want you to note a criticism that comes up now and then: “it’s too clean.”
“Too clean” seems like something we shouldn’t take a colossal note of. It’s either a laughing compliment-as-critique or it’s a good problem to have. It’s like saying “you’re just too pretty” or “you have too much money” or “you are just in possession of too many muscles and bristling with such amazing handsomeness that I just can’t stand it, now put on your tophat, drop your sensible, store-bought jeans and scream like the bipedal gorilla/shark hybrid made flesh you are, Sam Sykes” and then I’m all “whatever you say, Miss Beacon” and she’s all–
Excuse me. I had something in my…everything.
But the point is that it is a good point. We instinctively fear that which is too clean, too perfect. It’s not that it’s intimidating (though it certainly can be) and it’s not that it seems wrong or that it doesn’t fit (though it frequently does and doesn’t). Rather, it just has no character. “Perfect” is not a personality trait. “Flawless” is not a quality. “Clean and neat” is something you want to read as a checkbox on a little cardboard card in a hotel room next to the toilet that you know three million people have used before you, not in a book.
And yet, I frequently note that we see a lot of people striving for that in what they read and what they write. While perusing books to buy on Kindle, I noted words like “brilliant,” “flawless,” “masterpiece,” “pantaloons” and “tour de force” thrown about like shuriken from particularly flattering ninja and realized that they didn’t actually tell me anything. They are words without meaning, like “me” or “you” or “decency.” They are without meaning because there is nothing offered to explain why they should mean something.
This is about the part where I’m going to have to ask you to honor your promise to bear with me, because here’s where things get a little convoluted.
I feel we are betraying books by viewing (and reviewing) them as a balancing act. I feel that the tried and true method of Stuff I Liked followed by Stuff That Was Poop followed by Summary And Here’s Some Stars For You is something that we’ve bred out of convenience and standard, not out of a desire to speak about the book.
I suppose it’s useful to readers to be able to leap to the bottom and see four out of five stars and think a book is pretty solid. I suppose it’s also worth considering that an author saying that books can’t be qualified in numerical terms is a little like a businessman rolling up a dead hooker in a carpet: it’s just something you expect.
But I can’t help but think that we do ourselves a disservice in summary and a diminishing in numbers. Because it’s too neat a system, too clean. It doesn’t consider the personality behind the flaws, the particular trick of making up a word that isn’t a real word but sounds like it should be a real word, the way someone’s laughter is really obnoxious but it starts to wear on you and then you start to love it, the way a dimple on just one side when someone laughs in just a certain way makes a person who they are even if it’s asymmetrical. In this model, we look for points. In points, we have no personality.
I know I frequently praise Rob Will Review and Pornokitsch to the point of suspicion (rest assured, it’s all pure bribery in an attempt to get them to fork over their renowned stew recipes, which I WILL SOME DAY POSSESS AS MY OWN), but I do quite like what they do with their reviews. That which is flawed, they look at, see how it blends, see what it does, see whether it gives personality or whether it’s just a flaw.
I know that asking for a review to take the time to consider every single nuance about a book is asking a lot. So let me go ahead and tell you what I’m not asking.
I’m not asking you to ignore flaws or to staunch your criticism because it’s all a part of the big, beautiful flawed picture, baby. If it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work. And if it doesn’t work for you, then you need to say something.
I’m not asking you to put more effort than you feel into a book in the name of giving it a good, hard look. I’m still of the opinion that a book that has failed to hold your interest is not your fault (though it’s not always the book’s, either), even when it hurts me.
And I’m definitely not asking you to do what I say. I’ve never claimed to have all the answers outside of the cult I run out of the basements of a New England slaughterhouse (next meeting is Tuesday at 4:30, Karavoirians, remember to bring the sacrifice) and I’m certainly not claiming that this way is the only way or even the ideal way.
But I wrote this for one of Ranting Dragon’s reviewers, Vilutheril, who is quickly becoming one of my more pleasant stalkers, due to this post. This blog is for those who want to know what’s worth talking about for an author and a reader. This blog is for writers who strive to be perfect and never find it. This blog is for readers who can’t explain why they sometimes like creepy goon sex, flawed sentences, made-up words like “fervorous” or bad love poetry.
If you aren’t one of those people, then you might just be too clean.
Go roll around in some mud and tell me how you feel.
Preferably not in my house, though. I just vacuumed.