Book Reviewing Advice from David Walton

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Feb 142013
Many of the old practices and standards, and safeguards, of the publishing business have gone by the wayside over these past decades, at the same as the newspaper business has shrunk, and newspapers and publishing houses have gutted their staffs of editors, proofreaders, fact checkers. Reviewing books is an important part of a writer’s community, and grows more important as you grow in prominence.

@Literary Citizenship

The course blog for the “literary citizenship” course being taught by Cathy Day at Ball State University has posted some great resources for writers recently (this one on literary generosity in particular is something anyone aiming toward publication should read). The post excerpted above, a conversation between Day and experienced book reviewer David Walton, could be a good resource for those of you teaching the review as one of your genres in WR121, to help students understand why reviews and reviewing matter.

In a related — if more comic (or perhaps tragic?) — vein, you might also share with them Lincoln Michel’s “book report on Moby-Dick constructed from random sentences in negative Amazon and Goodreads reviews”, as an example of playing with genre.

Feb 042012

The album w h o k i l l by tUnE-yArDs was just named record of the year by voters in the 2011 Pazz & Jop poll.

I’m guessing this doesn’t mean much to more than (maybe) 10,000 people in the entire country. In fact, if you effortlessly understood 100 percent of this article’s opening sentence, you can probably skip the rest of the piece. But there’s something about this situation that I find pretty fascinating, even though it’s speculative and only partially related to music. When (and if) you listen to w h o k i l l by tUnE-yArDs, you are listening to two things: a record that’s very good, and/or a record that will someday seem way worse than it actually is. And logic suggests the latter is more likely than the former, even though that’s no reflection on the value of the artist.

@ Grantland

I won’t pretend to have heard of tUnE-yArDs before reading this Chuck Klosterman piece, but fortunately I’m not posting it to demonstrate how au courant my musical taste is. (Did I redeem my lack of cool with the always cool insertion of French? Phew.) What’s more interesting to me is the relationship between Klosterman’s review at Grantland and this review of Klosterman’s book Fargo Rock City. Clearly Malcolm Harris is riffing on Klosterman’s review, yet the conceit of the New Inquiry piece turns it around, jesting that Klosterman is the derivative one. It all adds up to an engaging example of taking an approach, one our WR101 students might respond to, because it shows taking an approach as both critically powerful and (gasp!) funny at once. Plus, they probably know who tUnE-yArDs are.

Oct 192011

After reading our own Jon Irwin‘s latest game review at Kill Screen today, I was thinking that those of us who teach the review as a genre in WR121 could benefit from using his examples in class. They’re erudite in addressing a genre too often dismissed as puerile, and they’re a great demonstration of finding a credible voice — in this case, by reflecting the energy and enthusiasm of the gaming community, and speaking as an insider without being an uncritical fan.

But my point isn’t just to embarass Jon (hi, Jon!). His reviews made me wonder how many of us assign texts by our colleagues in FYWP or at Emerson, apart from the textbooks by John T. For instance, I regularly give my WR121 students Richard Hoffman’s “Backtalk: Notes toward an essay on memoir”, and in the past I’ve assigned readings by colleagues in VMA, WLP, and elsewhere on campus. So I wonder, do we — or should we — present or discuss these texts differently, knowing the authors and knowing they’re nearby? If you’ve assigned work by colleagues, have you made a point of telling students the author is at Emerson? Or perhaps you’ve even invited them to talk with the class?

I suppose I’m just curious about what’s happening and wondering if it’s a practice worth thinking and talking about, so please let us know in the comments what you’ve assigned, and how you’ve used it. And if you haven’t done so before, consider taking advantage of the campus community as a resource full of texts in any number of genres and media, and of the accessibility of their authors.

Bad examples

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Jul 072011

I’m a big fan of using “bad” examples of a genre in class, because troubleshooting how a text fails is a great help toward understanding how a genre works. For example, I have my WR101 students create the worst Powerpoint slideshows they can, then write about why they’re ineffective communication. And one of the best teaching tools I’ve discovered is one of the worst films ever made (wonderfully so). So if you teach the review as one of your WR121 genres, you might find this recent example from The Guardian worth discussing with your class.

And if anyone wants to plan an FYWP screening of a certain movie about a radioactive tree monster for the fall, count me in.

Charles Baxter on Owl Criticism

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Apr 222011

Is it too much to ask of a reviewer that he should know what he’s talking about? That the writing be accurate and clear? To quote that unreliable critic, Ezra Pound: “You would think that anyone wanting to know about poetry would do one of two things or both. Look at it or listen to it. And if he wanted advice he would go to someone who knew something about it.” That’s in ABC of Reading, in which Pound separates a knowledgeable author from a lay person. I’m not doing that, but I am making the claim that a good review, if it is to serve any purpose at all, has to take the trouble of telling us where a poem or a novel or a book of stories fits into our cultural life, and then has to tell us how its content is located in its form. If it doesn’t do either, it’s not a good review.
~ Charles Baxter @

A number instructors assign or analyze critical reviews as a genre in WR121, so this essay on the form may be useful.

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