Why Reviewers Review

Most book reviewers have a reason why they review books and this reason is rooted in a sense of fairness and ethics. Here are some examples of statements of ethics:

“I’ve seen many, many lists of recommended books, very few of which tell me why I should read them. I’m very aware of the pitfalls of book reviews, but I’d rather have them to read than buy a book blindly.” –Hearthstone http://www.geocities.com/hearthstoneshaven/

“I want to make sure that all of you have the information you need to make informed decisions as to the worth and value of many of the books on the market.” —Daven

http://davensjournal.com/index.htm?Header.xhtml

The Midwest Book Review has an entire essay page devoted to explaining their ethics about book reviewing.  http://www.midwestbookreview.com/bookbiz/advice/system.htm

 

          An important part of the ethic of review writing has to do with point of view. As Pagans we have religious mores and values that give us a specific point of view. This point of view can be used to shape the ethic of review writing as well as shaping reviewing insights. For instance, the vast majority of Neo-Pagans believe that the individual has her or his connection to the Gods and to any other divine or Other beings believed to be part of the earth and cosmos. Further, how the individual finds and makes this connection is the individual’s right and is to be respected as part of the individual’s self-determination and responsibility. In terms of reviewing, this will mean that at its most basic level, the Pagan reviewer respects the author and is appreciative of the author expressing her or his views in his or her writing, whether this expression finds form in the subtext of the writing or more overt expression through character statement or through interplay of events, and, in non-fiction, finds form in the subtext of choices of facts revealed, juxtaposition of facts, and the overt states.

            Reviewer ethics are especially important in argued reviews. Argued reviews are pieces where the reviewer quotes from the book she or he is reviewing as support to her or his argument that the book is good. Occasionally a book is panned through argument, too. To say a book or film is panned, means the book or film (or play) received a very bad review. When composing an argued review for non-fiction books, the reviewer mentions the salient points of the book in the order the book mentions them and quotes key lines from the book. For fiction books, the reviewer mentions the characters the reviewer most liked or disliked, the exciting or dullest moments, and also mentions any instance of a turn of phrase that particularly appealed to the reviewer or turned-off the reviewer. Again for each element of the book mentioned, a quotation is given. These reviews tend to be five to eight paragraphs in length. In argued reviews the reviewer gives her or his reasons, supported with concrete examples from the book reviewed, of why the book is good or not. The argued review, then, is at best a thoughtfully considered evaluation, a judgment.

Does the reviewer judge fairly? How does the reviewer judge the book: by commercial appeal, by importance of the work, by literary criteria, or by what message the book is actually making? Does the reviewer choose fair criteria for judging the book? Each of these questions reflects on the ethics of the reviewer. Does the reviewer demonstrate real understanding of the book?  The point of view of the reviewer is going to be reflected in what and how the review argues her or his point about the book. The Pagan view of the respect for the author as an individual expressing a personal truth or seeking an answer of personal importance creates a firm foundation for writing an ethical argued review. 

            As already said, argued reviews argue for the quality of the book by giving examples in the form of quotes from the book and brief descriptions of scenes and characters. One of the ways to help Paganism be accepted in the world is to help promote Pagan books through book reviews., The argued review becomes a particularly good tool in this regard because the argued review shows exactly why a specific Pagan book should be read by everyone, not just Pagans.

Pagan Point of View and Argued Reviews

In her blog “Using Fiction to Explore Personal Issuesmagalyguerrero brought up the very important issue of the author’s point of view. Indeed, this blog of hers made me decide to have a blog theme today about argued reviews. Finding authors’ point of view is an essential part of writing an insightful argued review. In this blog, I am going to delve into how reviewers like magalyguerrero find authors’ point of view, and I’m going to do this in the context of one of my own books, a collection of short stories, New Myths of the Feminine Divine. I am going to use examples from my stories to bring up points of how we, as Pagans, write and understand stories differently than the larger culture.

In fiction, finding the author’s point of view is done through a combination of techniques. First, the author’s choice of who is the protagonist (“hero“) and who the antagonist (“villain“) gives a good idea of what characteristics the author finds good and bad. Many people who write scripts and fiction believe the protagonist and the antagonist have to be characters. For them, then, in “Where’s Mercy” the protagonist is Hope and the antagonist, the ogress. Howevr,  the ogress is not evil. The ogress is not a villain. There is the character Glarmor who is a very unpleasant sort who refuses to help the people who are helping him. There is also Faith who causes one third of the town to get killed because she refuses to believe the truth. Are either of these characters the antagonist? As Pagans, you are probably suffering at the idea that one character has to be the actual antagonist (or protagonist for that matter) especially when you see that the actions of three characters—the ogress, Glarmor, and Faith—contribute to the suffering and death of the townspeople. Likewise you may consider that Prudence, Hope, and Larson form a sort of protagonist unit. As a Pagan, you may be thinking along the lines of triple-aspected deities, and you would be absolutely correct.

The Pagan perspective that there is not always One person, or One way, or One point of view helps in understanding stories because the Pagan view is not going to try to force a villain-versus-hero interpretation on a story that does not fit that mold. The Pagan view of there being many Gods, triple-aspected deities, and a variety of Other Realm entities gives the Pagan reviewer a way of thinking about stories that is both flexible and useful.

It is a common mistake in analyzing stories to think that the antagonist has to be one of two central characters, the evil one, and the protagonist also has to be the other central character, the good one. In stories, characters are actually things that are moved to action by forces. It is the force behind the characters that is antagonistic or protagonistic. Further these forces can be many, and they unite, like seeking like, just as magical energies do. Therefore, a variety of forces can be influencing a character. These forces can be coming from the environment—outside of the character—or they can be coming from inside the character—the character’s thoughts, emotions, memories, etc. The same is with the things and places in the story; like seeks like to strengthen and build; opposites change each others’ courses if they brush each other by gently, destroy each other if they hit head on. Only if one is larger or stronger in some way will it survive the impact. If the two opposite forces are of equal strength and all other things are equal then a balance of stasis, a balance of life, can be created, just as with magickal energies. (For a deeper explanation of looking at the elements of literature as forces, read Vector Theory and the Plot Structures of Literature and Drama.)

Consider the ogress and Faith in “Where’s Mercy?” Faith is one of the human beings in danger every week of being eaten. She has the courage to maintain her religious beliefs in a very difficult life and conducts religious services for the other humans. These are positive qualities, and yet her views prevent her from accepting that what Hope says is true; they are all going to be eaten if they do not escape immediately. Faith has good qualities, and yet her actions and beliefs lead her and others to their deaths. What is the point of view I seem to hold about such attitudes? As a Pagan, what sort of religious person do you think Faith is based on? What is the author’s (Hi!) message about Faith? Now think about the ogress. The ogress eats people. She cooks up babies and serves them as hors d’oeuvres to the ogre of her dreams, and he likes them so much he proposes to her. (So, we can say she eats babies and has sex afterwards!) Now this is, from a human perspective, terrible, yet she is an ogress. She is not human. She sees humans like we see chickens. Her humans are “organic”; they are free running and vegetarian. She doesn’t mistreat her humans; she protects them from other predators. She is, all in all, a humane farmer. Nevertheless, she is penning up an intelligent species and eating them. The ogress acts as humanely as she knows how, and yet her way of life is based on cruelty. Look at how the ogress acts at the end of the story. What change occurs in the ogress? What is the ogress going to do in the future? What is the author saying—what point is the author making in this change the ogress undergoes?

This brings us to another way of how reviewers find out what the author’s point or message is. They compare who the characters are at the beginning of the story with who they are at the end of the story. In “Where’s Mercy?” which character makes the biggest change? What character or characters don’t change? Think about Faith. She was pretty arrogant and bossy through most of the story. Her arrogance got many of the people killed because they followed her. So when an ogress thanks her for giving up her life to the ogresses, how do you imagine Faith behaved? There is no description of how she acted. This means the reader is invited to imagine for him or herself how Faith acts at the time of her death. How then do you think Faith died? The one character who has a fundamental change that is told about is the ogress. Thinking about how she changes, what does the title of the story mean? How does the title question fit in with elements of the story? The ogress’s change and the title of the story are big indicators of the author’s message.

In the “The Aurora Mask,” how do the characters behave at the beginning of the story? How do they behave at the end of the story? Who changes and how? Most important will be the transformation of the Queen Iyer as the antagonist and of Cymbeline as the protagonist. What sort of person is Cymbeline at the beginning of the story? What sort of person is she at the end of the story? What sort of person was Queen Iyer at the beginning of the story? What sort of person was she at the end of the story?

Settings also reflect the forces the author is working with in the story. What state is the castle in, the country in, at the beginning of the story? What state is the castle in, the country in, at the end of the story? Special objects (props) in a story also reflect the influence of the forces the author is working with in a story. In “The Aurora Mask” masks are central to the story. Cymbeline’s punishment is to make for herself a mask that once she puts it on she can never take off. Yet, at the end of the story, the rest of court is forced by Cymbeline to make masks. What happens when they put them on? What happens to the mask that Cymbeline wears? What is the meaning given to the masks? What do the changes in the characters, the changes in the setting, and the changes in mask-wearing tell about the point of the story? What does the title “The Aurora Mask” say about the story?

Many Pagans, especially Wiccans, use masks for some rituals. If you yourself have used masks in Circle, compare your use of masks with how they are used in the story. Anytime you bring your personal experience to a story you will have an interesting insight to bring to your reviews. What is the author saying about mask use? Do you agree with it? Wiccans use things in their magic as symbols of things the magic is about. Consider the two stories in this way. What are the masks symbols of in “The Aurora Mask“? What is the ogress a symbol of, and what symbolic meaning is there in the doll clothes the people have to wear in “Where’s Mercy”? Looking at the details of stories as symbols helps to make clear the author’s message because once you figure out what is a symbol, you can easily figure out what the symbol means. What the symbol means is part of the author’s point or message. In very good writing, every detail will contribute to the story’s meaning. That is also a good point to bring up in arguing about the quality of writing. Do all the details serve the meaning of the story or not?

Lastly, an author reveals her or his point of view or message in the situation they set up in the story. Again, reviewers as they study the work of fiction compare the situation at the beginning of the story with the situation at the end. What is the situation at the beginning of “The Aura Mask”? What is the situation at the end of the story? What has happened? What has changed? From this comparison reviewers are able to gauge the message the author is giving.

Finding the message and deciding what you think of the message are very important parts of reading and writing an argued review. There will be times you will like a story or non-fiction book because of its message even if you do not like the writing that much. Conversely, there will be times when the story and writing is very good, but you do not like the point of view or the message. Sometimes messages of hate can be subtle, and these are dangerous. Reviewers have to use their sense of ethics to decide if they should warn against untrue or hate-inspired messages or not.

I was at a science fiction convention where most everyone was excited about a particular sf book. The author was at the convention. The book was well written and quite entertaining, but I hated it. I hated it because of the underlying message. Basically the story was of a civilized planet that was discovered for the first time. It was discovered because the beautiful music of the civilization was caught by a sweep of radio waves or some such method. The Catholic Church decided to help fund the scientific team to be sent to the planet. The Catholic Church decided to do this because they believed that such beautiful music could only be created as expressions of love of god. So naturally they put a priest on the science team. When the team arrives, they discover that the songs are created as expressions of sexual ecstasy. There are two races, a predator race and herbivore race, with the predator race enslaving the herbivore race. The predators seasonally rape some of the herbivores, finding this sex to be the best. Then the predators eat the herbivores’ babies. Ironically, just two weeks before the convention, a leading Middle Eastern paper had printed a vicious article claiming that the Jewish sader (the feast held during Passover) was a ritual where Jews ate gentile babies. We as Pagans have read some of the silly accusations that we have sex orgies and then eat babies afterwards. So as you can see, I disliked the book because it was perpetuating the falsehood that a foreign culture, a culture that creates music out of the joy of sexual ecstasy, is really just a bunch of rapists who eat babies. When these sorts of ideas are presented in entertainment, people tend to find them palatable because the story is so good. However, once the idea is put in people’s minds in a way they accept, then if it is repeated enough in different ways, people become willing to act on these false ideas and they put into political office people who act on these ideas on a large scale, often drastic way. When stories do this I think it is important to expose. Did I just write and argued review or an anti-puff piece?

 

Here is a summary of ways to find the author’s point or message.

 

*Determine the antagonist and the protagonist—and think like a Pagan!

The antagonist may not necessarily be a character!

The protagonist may not necessarily be a character!

 Who or what else in the story is compelled by the same type of forces as the protagonist?

Who or what else in the story is compelled by the same type of forces as the antagonist?

*Examine the adjectives and adverbs used to describe the main characters.

Who and what is describe in positive terms?

Who and what is described in negative terms?

 

*What characters change from the beginning of the story to the end,

and how do they change?

 

*What special objects change from the beginning of the story to the end,

and how do they change?

 

*How does the setting change from the beginning of the story to the end of the story and why?

 

*How does the story’s title relate to elements in the story?

 

*What details of the story work as symbols, and what do those symbols mean?

 

As a Pagan reviewer, once you have determined what the author’s point or message is, you have a perspective that is fresh and insightful—your Paganism. Let your personal experience of the Craft tell you things about the fiction and non-fiction you read.