There are complicating factors involved when doing a book review.
I decided recently, in an effort to post more frequently here at Truths and Edits, that I’m going to begin posting book reviews. It’s a good opportunity for me to share what I’m currently reading, engage with other readers and think critically about the books I’ve just completed.
Yet there are complicating factors. How exactly does one determine how they’re going to review books? I think if you’re looking for consistency you need to set some parameters. This thought brings to mind various marking scheme charts from high school with the standards needed to achieve an A-, a B+, etc. Yet I think they had them for a reason. If you want to call something only a two-star novel, you should have an understanding of precisely where it failed.
Without further ado, here is an explanation of my ‘reviewing criteria:’
There are many so-called great works of literature that don’t conform to this value but I think it’s important a work evokes some enjoyment in the reader. When I first learned to read as a child, I loved the feeling of getting swept away in alternative worlds. There’s a level of escapaism when engaging with art: perhaps it’s action packed unlike many of our mundane day to day lives; maybe we get to experience the world in a different era or country. At least to some degree, however, I believe it needs to hold our attention.
There’s nothing worse than forcing yourself through a work just so you can say you’ve read it, or pushing along with the rapidly fading hope that it will get better. I often get caught in a cycle of reading challenging books in the literary canon and forget that reading for reading’s sake is just as worthwhile. As a result, one of my criteria for reviewing is that a book should be engaging and enjoyable.
Unlike enjoyment level which is rather personal, plot has more objective criteria with which to judge. I quite like E. M Forster’s definition of plot that is cited in my favourite literary resource, Harmon and Holman’s A Handbook to Literarure. They state:
A story is ‘a narrative of events in their time sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling in causality.’ A story arouses only curiosity; a plot demands some intelligence and memory. Thus, plotting is the process of converting STORY into plot, of changing a chronological arrangement of incidents into a causal and inevitable arrangement. This functioning of some kind of intelligent overview of ACTION, which establishes principles of selection and relationship among EPISODES, makes a plot.
I’ve quoted this passage at length because it’s highly unlikely I could explain it any better. To have a distinct plot, there needs to be a sequence of events. There needs to be causality where events are linked and lead to one another. Plot also asks something: it asks for memory and intelligence which in turn, I would argue, engages the reader.
Strong plots also tend to have conflict between opposing forces (think cops vs criminals). This ongoing conflict tends to heighten over the first three-quarters of a fictional work and is called the rising action. Typically, this leads to a crisis. This is the highest moment of suspense in the novel, the climax, after which the tension lessens and the falling action, or denouement, concludes the text.
Personally, I find the most enjoyable books to be those with strong plots. It’s also arguably why mystery and crime novels are such page-turners: there is a constant unfolding of action with high causality. There is suspense and conflict. There is building tension.
Plot is what I consider to be the spell-binding force in a novel. It also gives a sort of order to the world that allows us to structure reality and understand causality.
And so, the need for plot.
On the opposite end of the spectrum we have characterization. Characterization often gets sacrificed for plot and vice versa but ideally, I think you have both.
Characterization is the presentation of persons in a story so they seem life-like. It can be done through a direct commentary on the character, through detailing the character in action or through showing the character’s interior thoughts and emotions. But one way or another, a character should be what E.M Forster called ‘round.’
A ‘flat’ character would be more like a caricature. There is one aspect of them exaggerated above all others and there is little nuance. In contrast, a ‘round’ character has depth. Like most individuals, they have good and bad qualities They behave in both likeable and unlikeable ways. They also often change and evolve over time. There is a convergence traits happening that leads to a believable character.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve rarely encountered people who are nice all the time or who are horrible without fail. Most people exist in a sort of grey area, and good characterization represents this to a life-like degree in literature.
One of my favourite works of literary criticism is Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Auerbach takes hundreds of pages to carefully detail the slow development of realism in literature over thousands of years. Realism is what you’d expect it to be: it’s a faithful rendering of actual life in a text’s representation of the world.
To cross genres a bit, I tend to dislike a lot of Hollywood movies. The characters are often flat and one-dimensional. They also tend to be chalk-full of things that you think, groaningly, would never happen. I feel the same way about many mass-market paperbacks. The plots are far-fetched and fantastical. They seem to me fairly ridiculous.
If art is valuable because it allows us to reflect and examine our own world, I think it needs to have a degree of realism. It needs to be relatable to a degree. It needs to be familiar. It is pleasant sometimes to be swept away in a fantasy world, but I also think human nature is human nature. Even within a series such as The Hunger Games, set in a dystopian world far different from our own, we are reminded of ourselves and our own struggles with love, responsibility and family. A text doesn’t have to be exactly like our world to be realistic. It just needs to be faithful to the human condition and have effective characterization along with a plot that develops in a believable manner.
I believe it’s much more rewarding to read about flawed and multi-faceted characters in complicated and imperfect settings than it is to read novels completely groundless. This is why I believe realism is a needed component of a good book.
Theme can be boiled down to a very succinct definition: it is a central idea. To me, if a book is to be truly meaningful, it must have some sort of a central idea. The author must have something to say and be providing a sort of commentary, either explicitly or implicitly, in their work.
A theme can be rather simple. It can be that families are complicated or that life is hard. It can also be loftier: good will triumph over evil, or perhaps that true freedom is unattainable. It doesn’t matter how complicated a theme is, just that it makes some sort of commentary on the world and human existence.
In providing thematic concerns, a work is able to generate thought within a reader and expand our beliefs and understanding of the world. To me, theme is one of the most integral aspects of a good text.
I have a Masters in English and so I think it’s clear I enjoy literariness in a novel. I consider this to involve symbols, allusions, imagery and irony along with the other components of plot, characterization and theme discussed above. There are aspects of the novel that elude consensus and instead spark debate and conversation. They are what make a novel something worthy of study.
To me, this is what often distinguishes a good novel from a great novel. There are many novels that have a plot, have good characters, have some worthwhile thematic concerns. However, they’re not particularly literary. They don’t really situate themselves within the literary tradition or reference other novels. They’re written in colloquial language and there isn’t much careful design going on in terms of imagery and symbols.
It’s a lot to ask, I know. But if I want to really determine what makes a great novel, I think literariness is one of the defining factors.
There you have it: my six criteria for reviewing and rating works of literature. I don’t want to complicate things overly so I will just be evaluating books on a 4 star scale in each category and then equally weighing each one.
I.e if a book got 3 out of 4 in each category, it would receive a total of 18 out of 24 (the highest score possible) . Since that’s exactly 75% it would get overall 3 out of 4 stars.
I hope in presenting this I’ve given a clear representation of how I’ll be reviewing books and also perhaps, have given you an opportunity to reflect on what you value when reading.
And now, time to finish some books so I can get reviewing.