Of Mastery and Masterpieces

Rereading what I wrote on Wednesday, it seems to me that, despite my attempt at breezy and ironic humor, I do in fact sound like a you-kids-get-off-my-lawn fogey. Memo to myself: don’t reread old blog posts.

This morning I filed my reviews for Anthony Swofford’s Exit A and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I read the latter over the last three nights and it’s amazing. And I have to confess that one of my first thoughts when I realized it was amazing was, Oh crap, another amazing book.

It’s not that I don’t like reading great books. I approach each book with the hope that it will be the best book I’ve ever read (that’s hope, not expectation). But at the same time, praising too many books – especially assigning the ultimate praise, a star – devalues the praise. I want to sound enthusiastic, but not like a cheerleader.

(There’s also the fact that people have limited time to read; arguably, they’re best served by a more conservative approach.)

Having recently written one of the most positive reviews I’ve ever written, for Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker, I suddenly found myself writing yet another incredibly positive review, for The Road. Obviously I can’t diminish my praise for one book just because I recently heaped praise on another, but when a situation like this arises I can’t help but wonder whether I’m getting carried away.

When in doubt, I turn to the sage advice of Brad Hooper, Adult Books Editor, who says, “trust your gut.” And he’s right. Overthinking can lead you to decide that what seemed like a masterpiece was merely ordinary and vice versa. Deep thinking is necessary to writing a review, of course, but overthinking is fatal.

I did overthink one aspect of the review, however. My original closing line was, “A masterful work from a master craftsman.” Then I thought, Cormac McCarthy is a master craftsman, but calling him that seems to diminish his artistry.

Also I realized that the word masterful is perhaps best used not to mean the work of a master but acting like a master.

So then I considered calling it a masterwork. But masterwork is not simply a synonym for masterpiece. It most precisely means that it’s someone’s best work. And while I think that this could be McCarthy’s best work, I haven’t read all of his books, so I can’t make that judgment.

So then I decided to call The Road a “masterpiece.” It’s a word I want to use sparingly (in fact, I don’t think I’ve used it before), but I do think it applies. However, I don’t like it when I use a tacked-on phrase or word to sum things up at the end of a review. It feels like I’m trying to get my work blurbed on the paperback. Publishers are certainly welcome to use excerpts from reviews, but trying to write a something in the hope they’ll use it is, well, depressing.

I want most of all to write a review that helps the reader. So I should only close with masterpiece if I feel that the review doesn’t convey that concept. I read the review a half-dozen times this morning and still couldn’t decide. It does seem like the review conveys my deep admiration for the book – but calling it a masterpiece leaves no doubt.

Then I realized I was overthinking, which became paralyzing. I became lost in a maze of subjectivity. I began to doubt the entire review, my critical ability, even whether or not I had remembered to take my allergy pill this morning.

What did I do? Mastering my scattered decision-making process, I asked my editor to decide.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix (2011). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

3 Comments on "Of Mastery and Masterpieces"

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  1. kgraff@ala.org' Keir says:

    This from Brad: “You’re not only overthinking, you’re overthinking the overthinking process.” Zing! I promise I won’t write about overthinking for a while. I think.

  2. magiejpl@hotmail.com' maggie says:

    I just finished writing a review for Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A master of the wordy craft, don’t ya think?

    The review is for The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, first written as a newspaper serial.

    These are my last lines…

    These few paragraphs are just the beginning; it is up to you to read a budding master at his craft.

    Thanks to Marquez, I didn’t have to think too much. 😉

    Enjoy the blog! maggie

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