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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