While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Starred Reviews or Saggy Books?

Rating a film or album out of five stars is ham-fisted, but the practice still pervades the industry. Books, on the other hand, have largely avoided a rating system being incorporated into their reviews. Is this due to snobbery on the part of reviewers/books editors or perhaps even readers? Or is there something that sets books apart from other rateable commodities?

Perhaps the first place to use star ratings was the military. Senior ranking officers such as brigadiers and commodores received one star, and as they progressed further up the ranks they gained more stars until they were top dog (Admiral of the Fleet, Field Marshal, etc).

In 1926, The Michelin Guide introduced a star rating for exceptional food in the restaurants it reviewed, expanding its rating system to three stars in the 1930s.

Around the same time, accommodation started to be rated. Nowadays, many organisations, such as the AA (or in the US, the AAA) review both restaurants and accommodation using a star system (although often they aren't stars but diamonds or rosettes...).

Film and music reviewers have also taken liberties with the 'star' system, from Siskel and Ebert's Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down to Robert Christgau's report card grading (A+ = Marquee Moon, A = Born To Run, etc). Gimmicks aside, it seems the urge to quantify and compare certain types of media as one would a restaurant or a hotel is strong.

Is it really the case that a good movie is as easy to distinguish from a bad movie as it is to tell a dive from a deluxe suite?

Of course not. Reviewers disagree all the time. In fact, it makes great TV when they do. While living in Australia, one of the few TV shows I watched with any frequency was the ABC's At the Movies with David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz. Despite the fact I was seeing less and less movies at the cinema, the show was at it's most engaging when one host was bowled over by a film and the other was left untouched. When they both loved or loathed a film, there was always a sense of disappointment, of dead air being filled with uh-huhs and oh yesses.

Review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes seek to remove the subjectivity and twist reviewing back to quantitative blacks and whites. 69% of reviews were favourable for I Am Legend, so it must be okay. Really?

Book reviews (at least the reviews I read in print and online) don't bother with stars or rosettes or coronets. But why is a book less like a hotel room than a movie, especially if that movie is based on a book?

I think it has something to do with the complexity of books. I'm talking here about both novels and short story collections. The way you gather together threads throughout the reading process may differ from book to book, but the fact still remains that after you finish the final page, your work as reader -- as audience -- is not over.

The amount of work required after finishing a book is often a good measure of its worth. Having now finished Ian Fleming's Casino Royale and Moonraker, I can say they aren't very good pieces of literature, comfortable in the knowledge I'm not being undeservingly snobbish. The only thoughts I was left to work through at the conclusion of these books was how they tied in with the films and the overall Fleming/Bond legacy.

Several other books I've read in the past few months have, on the surface, and even while reading them, seemed good enough. It was only when I finished them and moved onto the next book in that particular pile (home, travel or lunchtime) that I realised how little I was thinking about the book outside of reading it. And how little it came back to me after having finished it.

Mohammed Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes was shortlisted for the Booker this year, and made me realise how little I knew about Pakistan's role in the Soviet-Afghan conflict of the 1980s. But the story itself (narrator is arrested on suspicion of involvement in assassination plot...) went in one ear and out the other (excuse the cliché: it was an audiobook).

Another audiobook, The Brooklyn Follies, was more engaging whilst I listened to it, but, strangely for something that ends on the morning of September 11, it seemed to ask no questions of me as a reader after the final line. Stranger still since I am an Auster fan, and expected something to chew on. Perhaps it was because I knew 9/11 would be the terminus at which the book got off, so as I listened, it seemed 'The Times They Are A'Changing' was playing in the background?

Other books I have not enjoyed reading but for some reason they stuck in my throat. After raving about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I approached The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark with high expectations. And after two pages my expectations were being met. Sadly, the rest of the book (it was only 106 pages, I think) were an exercise in disappointment. I was reminded of the first book of Spark's I read (The Public Image) and why it took me so long to get around to reading another of her books.

The graph of my reading experience for The Driver's Seat would looks something like this:

However, my negative reaction stuck around in my head for the next week, forcing me to ponder what Muriel Spark was doing. In the introduction John Lancaster suggested The Driver's Seat was not one of Spark's most popular books because of it's unrelenting darkness. Indeed, it only shows one side of everything. In many ways, it felt less substantial than a short story, let alone a novella, let alone a novel as it purports to be in some places. And while I dispute Lancaster's claim, that it's a masterpiece, I can't help feeling now that it builds, rather than diminishes, my estimation of Muriel Spark.

So, to add in the chewing over period, the graph now looks something like this:

For comparison, this is what the graph of my reading experience for Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut would look like:

This is pretty typical for my relationship with Vonnegut. The voice usually kicks in straight away and gets my respect as a wannabe writer, but it's not until maybe twenty pages in that the story gets true momentum and I'm hooked. From time to time, the voice, or perhaps the things it has to say, strangle the plot (and my enjoyment), resulting in the judder bar effect. But, ultimately, it's the messages (both proclaimed from the mouthpiece narrator and limned by the plot) that linger long after finishing the novel, continually lifting my regard.

I know some films have continued to affect me long after viewing them. Fight Club (as a well-adjusted, angry teen). Easy Rider (that LSD trip in the cemetery...) Um... There might be a few more.

But for the most part, movies end for me when the credits roll. Okay, I may have a wee discussion about how (*spoiler alert*) Verbal was Kaiser Soze, or why those virgins killed themselves, but it's different to a book. Even a good attempt at turning a book into a movie, like Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, leaves me feeling like I have been gliding on the surface of something, whereas the book had penetrated the meniscus.

Albums certainly grow (or shrink) in import with time. I wasn't so sure about Fully Completely the first 10-12 times I listened to it (over the space of 2 years), and then one day it clicked (I've been earworming 'At the Hundredth Meridian' for the last three weeks). But that's the nature of albums: they are constructed to be engaged with repeatedly. Bad albums (and almost every double album ever made) ignore this fact.

Half decent films, especially in this age of dedicated movie channels and DVD/Blu-Ray, also invite repeated viewings.

And, while we're at it: hotels are there to be stayed in whenever you need, and restaurants shoot for repeat custom.

All these rateable commodities seem to share this possibility of return. The reviewer has only seen the film once or twice, or listened to the album for a week. They visit the hotel every six months, but haven't seen in every room, nor have they tried every dish on a restaurant's menu. But they still feel confident they can recognise a 4-star experience when the have one.

But books. They seem to be a different creature.

I know some people do re-read their favourite books with regularity, but not me. There's too many possible favourite books out there to discover. Something about the architecture of a book, its length and the level of engagement required, means that a once-through is as much as can reasonably be expected. (I know many novelists and academics would disagree...). But because of what has gone into the experience (all those words, scenes, characters, experienced in different sized chunks in different places at irregular intervals), it takes more to unpack the book and evaluate its lasting impact.

All this is to say two things:

One: I wouldn't want to labour book reviewers with a star rating system, because they may not have "finished" the book by the time they submit their review. That is, they would have read the final page, but who's to say they don't need another week (or month, or year) to discover what they really feel about it. I think this is where criticism and review part ways.

Two: I do think keeping a personal rating system for books would be interesting, and perhaps useful. If I continued to do my little graphs of the reading experience for a given book, and how it performs once the covers are closed for good, patterns would no doubt emerge. Is there, in fact, an ideal worm? I believe a novel has to build, but it also has to start big to grab the reader. But you can't aspire to write a saggy, U-shaped, book. Same goes for short story collections. The first and last stories usually have a bit of tangy zizzle about them, but you can't hide poor stories in the middle or get away with too many of the same story.

I probably won't graph every book I read (I get enough graphage on Sundays), but it would be interesting if the 5-star system was overthrown and instead people talked about a saggy movie or a judder bar meal. It might help remind us that every reader/viewer/diner/guest's view is different yet valid.

As for Generals and Colonels, I think they can keep their stars.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

To those who don't know it, Robert Christgau was the FIRST PERSON to assign grades to albums - in 1967 when he was INVENTING ROCK CRITICISM.