Try to Get It
It helps if a reviewer gets what a novel’s all about. I just experienced someone criticizing one of my novels, An Uprising of Angels, by saying, “This is pure fiction!” As if I’d committed a crime. And she hadn’t even read it.
She was basing her criticism on a press release of the novel. She was apparently expecting the book to be a piece of journalism, and it’s not. It’s a novel.
So I replied, “Yes and no. It’s real people, real life, real events interpreted, dramatized, and shaped into a story.” This reader is a very competent professional journalist, but apparently not enamored of literary fiction. When I admitted it’s fiction and explained some of its literary attributes, her entire tone and attitude changed. We ended up having a very nice email exchange.
Break It Down Into its Component Parts
The essence of analysis is just that: breaking something—a system, a contract, a problem, or a novel—into its component parts.
Here are some of the basic elements of a novel—each with my own quick take on why and how to analyze them:
• The Plot is what happens in the story. In some stories, the plot’s easy to follow. In others, it’s not. Neither approach is right or wrong. Remember, ambiguity is a virtue in fiction.
• The Characters are the people in the story. A useful way to look at the characters is from a psychological stance: What makes them tick? What motivates them? What do they want? What do they lack? Do you like them or not? Does that matter or not?
• Narrative Point of View: Who’s telling the story? The author or the characters? Close or distant? Inside or outside? Action or thinking? How would the story be different if it were told differently?
• The Conflict is the story’s problem or set of opposing forces. You don’t have a story without a conflict. It’s the friction of fiction—if the narrative doesn’t grate, it ain’t great. It’s gotta drive you nuts, enchant you, give you nightmares, or sweet dreams. If it has no emotional effect on you, either it’s no good or you don’t get it. (See section one.)
• The Themes are the “meanings,” morals, lessons, or “messages” we can infer from the story. How can we universalize the story, applying its plot and resolution, its characters’ growth, change, or stasis, to our lives? No theme, no novel. What the hell are you wasting my time for?
• The Setting is the time and place. The most important thing to notice is whether the story could have taken place in other times and places, or whether the setting of this story is the only possible setting for such a story to happen. Then, so what? Point being: where are you in relation to the story?
• Then there’s symbols, tone, style, and numerous other aspects to consider. Gotta do your homework if you’re writing about fiction.
Know What You’re Talking About
Okay, so you’ve gotten at least an M.A. in literature and you’re ready to read the novel carefully and compose a literary analysis (in the form of a book review) that does justice to the hard drive space and printer ink it’s using up.
Yes, that’s right: there’s a lot to learn to really write a good review of a novel. And you’re at a serious disadvantage without the formal education.
I could go on a long tangent here—and I will in another essay—but suffice to say, knowledge is power. That’s Bacon talking. As in Francis. And he was right.
So let’s assume you’ve done your homework. Or if you haven’t, you want to try anyway. Fair enough? Fair enough.
Get a “Read” on the Novel
Regardless of your educational preparation and credentials, you have the right to write what you want to write. So, start, proceed, and finish strongly—by establishing your own “read” on the book. Find an angle and triangulate it: craft a thesis and nail it down with evidence from the novel to support it.
How best to do that?
• Read carefully, taking notes, paying attention to your own gut reactions.
• Trace those gut reactions. Do you feel tense, angry, indignant at any particular scene or line? STOP. Think. Dig deep. What in your life, in your past or present, may be affecting that emotion you’re feeling?
• There’s a funny line in the very funny movie called “Best in Show” when one character, reflecting quietly upon her life, says, “I’m waiting for another message from myself.” As you’re reading the story, is your “self” sending you any messages in the shape of emotional reactions to what you are reading?
• Formulate a tentative thesis statement and refer to specific scenes, lines, action, dialogue, plot points, descriptions—anything and everything from the story to hang your hat on.
In this empowered environment of Reader-response, the triangular dynamic of the author-text-reader clearly implies that we, the readers, play an equal role in the assignation of significance, or meaning.
After the author writes the story, the text then exists on its own—like a child who grew up and left home. The reader is the world the text entered, never to be the same again.
The Intentional Fallacy
The significance of a piece of writing is not entirely what the author intended. That way of thinking even has a name: it’s called the Intentional Fallacy. The author wrote the text and cut it loose, like a child cut loose from his parents. Therefore, the text stands on its own merit, a free agent, if you will.
Further, the author may not have even been fully aware of everything he was writing or suggesting in his text. We often say more or other than we intend to say. Thus, we, the readers, are full partners in determining the significance of a piece of writing, the text.
Look at it this way, the text means nothing by itself. Until it is read by an engaged, active intellect, it is just inanimate words on a page or computer screen. You, the reader, bring it to life. So, don’t be timid about inserting yourself into the text or insisting upon your meanings.
A Cautionary Word
Despite all of the preceding glowing advocacy for the Reader-Response approach and the triangular dynamic of signification, a cautionary aspect of these philosophies must be noted.
These empowering critical approaches assume a sane, fairly well-balanced, fairly well-informed intellect doing the reading, reacting, responding, and analyzing. In other words, some interpretations are better than others.
Simply because you see it in the text, does not necessarily mean that what you see in isolation or through the lens of your limited knowledge can be universally applied or defended.
Make sure you can support your views with solid textual evidence.
Focus Your Review with a Strong Thesis Statement
That said, don’t back down from a good idea or insight, just be sure there’s more than one “clue” in the text to support your point.
A good, solid academic and scholarly thesis—as well as a commercial or general book review–is a debatable inference about a narrow aspect of the subject—in this case, the novel you’re reviewing
So narrow your subject. The entire story is too much. You weren’t planning on writing a mere synopsis, were you? That’s not a review.
Even narrowing it down to a short summary and a psychological profile of the main character is still too much. A limited statement about the main character is better.
And make it debatable. For example, “In Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the main character is an Englishman who learns many things in many foreign lands.” That’s a true, factual statement, and that’s why it’s not a good thesis. Why bother to write about a fact?
“In his travels, Gulliver learns that rationalism is overrated and humans must tap into their intuitive emotions in order to survive.” Now that’s a good thesis statement precisely because it is not a fact about the story. It’s an interpretation, an angle, an argument that needs to be supported.
Be a Proactive, Scholarly Book Reviewer
As you’re reading, be formulating tentative thesis statements, looking for evidence to support them. But also, note carefully if there is any evidence in the story that may refute your theses. You cannot ignore opposing arguments. That’s shoddy and dishonest scholarship.
It happens every day, in every business and walk of life, of course. People often ignore evidence, data, or arguments that refute or disprove their own sacred beliefs. Don’t they? But they’re not being honest with themselves or the world when they do. They certainly aren’t scholars. Which is what a good book reviewer really aspires to be: someone who knows a few things and who imparts them with total integrity.
So, try to be a true scholar. Get in the habit, if you aren’t already, of being intellectually honest, with yourself and others. Don’t fall in love with your opinions. Be ready to shed them fast, if and when you find evidence that they are faulty, incomplete, or misinformed.
If you embrace that notion of being a scholar, you’ll read better, analyze better, and write better. And readers of your reviews will quickly come to recognize the difference between you and the charlatans operating with smoke and mirrors, dazzle and flair—all style and no substance.