Sunday, December 02, 2007

Sharing Reviews on The Night Watch

On Wednesday in our last Reading into Writing seminar, we shared our initial reviews about Sarah Waters's The Night Watch, as an exercise to show that there are an infinite number of ways to review something, and to give us immediate feedback on what we have done, so as to advise on avoiding certain pitfalls. Especially in our case, where we only had 400 words in which to construct our reviews, word-use is essential and meaning is everything.

And, as the eight of us proved, there are so many ways in which to write a review, from the reviewer who discusses how the book affected them, to the reviewer interested in the timeliness of the work; reviewing the contents and the meaning; reviewing the structure and conceit, reviewing a personal response; a review shaped by the characterisation. Of course there's always the hatchet job. These can all be used in a much longer evaluation, but we didn't have that luxury.

My review of Sarah Waters's The Night Watch
- this version unedited (after in class comments)

“… people in the 1940s had become heartily sick of bomb stories…”[1] says Sarah Waters of her lesbians in the blitz showcase The Night Watch, touching upon the very problem that 1) she came up against in her writing, and 2) ultimately dispirits the reader.

Award-winning author of Tipping the Velvet and Affinity, Waters has cultivated a niche for intelligent, homosexually-charged fiction and escaped what might be considered a limiting genre: period lesbianism. This makes The Night Watch all the more conspicuous in its failure to capture the romping nature of her previous work. Not because she is mining the same sexual framework but because she has backed herself into a corner with her approach.

“It was the period which followed the war which really interested me, that bleak, shabby, exhausted time of social change and moral readjustment.”[1] says Waters; a feeling that, on the page, translates too well. The reader feels the ebb of hopelessness – let it not be said that Waters cannot elicit emotion with her fiction – in the plodding pace and tone, but ultimately feels detached. The characters are lost in every sense – physically, psychologically, spiritually – tripping over a morose reverie that makes the reader pray for the 1950s. It is interesting, therefore, when Waters realises that the story is going nowhere and starts part two three years earlier.

This is where the story falls apart. The book, constructed and published in reverse order, does, through Waters’s skill alone, execute nice revelations and reader epiphanies. But these aren’t enough to carry the book. Its nature, lacking any tension outside of the microcosm of any one scene, drags the reader to the final page and leaves them grasping at where the plot went with a bitter and unsatisfying taste of hindsight.

Not least is the hindsight more obvious than with the character of Kay, who, through the blurb, website descriptions, and the book’s opening, is presented as the main protagonist in this ensemble cast. It is her actions around which much of the plot revolves and she who the reader suffers the most sympathy for when all is said and done. But, for the majority of the first third she is little more than a phantom, and is forgotten about.

“Fundamentally a novel about disappointment and loss and betrayal.”[2] says Waters, who perfectly conveys the motivations and decisions of her characters, but who should have, rather than rehash the direction of the book when she herself lost interest, started from scratch

[1] - Guardian Article, Sarah Waters – January 2006

[2] -, Malinda Lo – April 6, 2006.

I think, if any of them were hatchet jobs, mine came closest. But at least the class like that mine was an immanent critique and I was praised by the tutors for taking the interesting slant of using Sarah Waters's own quotes and using them against her.

Points of note

Our tutors had the following to say on not only reviews themselves, but on the transcripts of our discussions on the books we had covered previously:
The sheer variety of responses on Moodle has been an eye-opener that has made me re-evaluate the books, and I hope some of that can be captured in your reviews. Antithetical. Expanding ideas, but achieving some kind of unity as a piece of writing. There’s a drive to unify a response, when actually the dispersed remarks on Moodle are more interesting – the melding of the two is the difficulty. All too often a review can be a conduit for the self-importance of the reviewer. The challenge is to say what we really think without being pompous. There is no one way, no template. There is a sense of a horizon of expectation, but should one give in to it?

Of the reviewer or the book the book should be the most important.

Arrogance comes often from insecurity. We can resist it without failing to be an ‘authority’. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, but we have to try. The US tradition of deconstruction – find a fissure, an impasse, and look at how a text unravels, and the position of the critic too is undermined – and yet, at the same time deconstructionists reach neat conclusions! One needs to find a humility to be true but authoritative.
What to avoid in a review
  • Ensure the writing doesn't drive the reviewer's thought - don't get caught up in flowery prose, or your own literary flow; avoid pure value judgements and puffery.
  • Don't make wild references - the reader needs to feel intelligent, and they won't if they don't understand metaphors / allusions / comparisons. Always ask if the reader will understand. This also strikes to avoiding distracting the reader from imagining the book itself.
  • The review requires at least one encapsulating paragraph to make the reviewers standpoint clear.
  • Try to stay focused, don't start ponderously, and don't go off on a tangent to fulfill some personal need / interest.
  • A good review will give a sense of the novel without giving away important moments or the ending.
  • Word use is important. A growing list, such as "Rounded" and "Nice" are more commonly thought of as cliché. The TLS publish lists of words and phrases that are out of fashion.
  • Second to Word clichés, is Journalistic clichés.
  • Avoid the hatchet job, there is always a middle ground, where negative attitudes can be express without disrespect.
  • Some reviewers carry themselves as much a part of the review and are read specifically for their voice - regardless of what they are reviewing and yet not at the expense of the work - and if you can turn a nice phrase and develop a distinctive voice then reviewing might be ideal.

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