Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Becoming a Critic
A week from tonight I'm going to be talking at the Twinsburg Library on the subject "How to Read a Book Like a Critic." The library called me out of the blue and asked if I would do this, and I agreed to, mostly because it was a subject I wanted to think about more systematically. And for the past month or so I've been thinking about it and writing my remarks--and putting together a small PowerPoint to show some things that words can't quite handle. Basically, I'm going to talk about how I became the guy who's published more than 1400 book reviews--starting in 1997--and how I figure out what I'm going to say about the books I'm reviewing.
I'm not going to "give away" much here, though, after the talk, I'll probably post the entire thing on this blog, but I thought I'd just mention, in general, what I'm up to--and why I've found the whole enterprise so useful for me.
I'm going to talk a bit about my own background as a reader--what did I read as a child? an adolescent? What do I read now? I'm going to talk as well about a period (early adolescence) when I pretty much didn't read anything at all except the Plain Dealer sports pages and the cereal boxes in the morning. This is not new territory for me: I've written an entire memoir about my reading life (Turning Pages: A Memoir of Books and Libraries and Loss, Amazon Direct, 2012), but I'll share with the audience a few key things.
Then I'm going to talk about how I became a critic--a profession unthinkable when I was a boy--a boy who really wanted nothing more than to ride the range with Hopalong Cassidy. I'll talk about how I did a few reviews for Ohio Writer, then Kirkus Reviews (for whom I'm still working), and the Plain Dealer (ditto). (Other periodicals have re-printed some of them.) I'll talk, too, about my reviewing routines: when do I read? what about notes? The differences between fiction and nonfiction? That sort of thing ...
After that bit of background, I'm going to talk about the principles I try to follow when I'm reviewing. What do I look for? What do I weigh? Some related questions, too: How does it feel to write a negative review? What are some of the "adventures" (and/or hot water) that reviewing has occasioned?
I'll try to answer some nuts-and-bolts questions, too--like How do I choose the books I'm going to review? What do editors do with my reviews?
Finally, I'm going to give those in attendance a very short story, have them read it, and then we'll talk about what we would say if we were going to write a review of it.