Further musings on book reviews with An Example

Yesterday I had some thoughts about negative book reviews — which prompted some thoughts on book reviews in general. Later that same day, I read a brief article bemoaning the forthcoming adult novel by J.K. Rowling. Here it is, it is short, go read it, then come back. Mr. Rahim has attempted to give reasons he thinks Rowling is OK, but not great. He also acknowledges that people may not agree with him, but he does give the criteria by which he makes his evaluation. Let’s have a look at his two criteria.

1. Rowling lacks a feel for language. This is the point he expands upon when he compares the Potter books to Alice in Wonderland and thus Rowling to Lewis Carroll. (Here I must admit that I’ve still not read the Alice books.) Rahim calls Rowling’s works “wholesome” and “decently paced” but finds her magic “logical and plodding.” In contrast, Carroll’s books contain “unexpected weirdness” and they are “riddling, disturbing, unexpected and memorable.” Rowling’s prose, like her magic, he calls logical and plodding and asks “can anyone honestly say they can quote one line?” This is in contrast to Carroll’s “relish for language that means you can still recite whole passages from memory years after reading them.” Here is the crucial point — Rahim’s way of knowing if an author has a feel for language is the memorability of lines of their prose. If one finds people who can recite lines from a particular book years later, the prose must be memorable and thus, by this criteria, move from good to great.

I’m not sure this is a helpful way of discerning great prose. For example, many of my friends and I can recite lines from the movie “The Princess Bride.” Many of us haven’t seen the film in years. But we say things to each other like “Bye-bye, have fun storming the castle,” or “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” We know what we’re talking about. Sometimes someone picks up the scene and continues it. Does this mean “The Princess Bride” contains great prose? Possibly. But it also means we’ve seen the movie several times, and have repeated some bits of it over and over, so of course it is a bit stuck in our heads. Rahim asks if anyone can recite lines from Rowling. Probably there are people who can. I remember key phrases “The boy who lived,” or “He Who Must Not Be Named.” That’s something more than I remember from lots of books I’ve read.

Rahim also calls Rowling’s use of language “logical and plodding” after saying that the books were enjoyable and noting that one could “easily while away a rainy hour or two in their company.” I’m not sure one can while away an enjoyable hour or two in the company of books whose language is plodding. Further, Rahim seems to be implying throughout his piece, though he does not come out and say it, that Rowling’s prose is too easy to follow, thus it must not be great. I think that this is wrong-headed thinking. Well written prose in a story should allow us to easily move into another world. That is the point of the story-telling. It seems to me that good prose does not draw attention to itself, it points to the subject matter or story that it refers to.

2. Rowling lacks a feel for character. Rahim does not expand upon this point, but drops it in and moves on. Really? Rowling lacks a feel for character? I’m not sure this holds water. I may be wrong and people may wish to comment that they think the characters in the Potter books are flat and uninteresting, but I think the success of Potter has a lot to do with the main characters in the books. Even in book 5, the one where everyone complains that Harry is just too annoying, I think shows good characterization. Harry acts like a 15-year-old boy, and they can be pretty annoying at times.

What other criteria should be used in discerning whether a book is only good or great? While I agree with Rahim that Rowling’s adult novel being released in September will sell primarily because of her name initially, might it not be well-written too? We’ll have to wait and see.

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