In the good old days, reviews were to the point. They told the reader what he or she wanted to know: Did the reviewer like the book (or play, or movie)? Should the reader read it (or see it)? There might be some extra stuff to fill out the review, but that’s why we read reviews.
My all-time favorite example of the perfect review – one that was succinct, humorous, and to the point -- came from the critic (variously identified as Dorothy Parker, Kenneth Tynan, Walter Kerr, and others) who reviewed the 1951 John van Druten play based on the stories of Christopher Isherwood, I am a Camera. The review, in its entirety: “Me No Leica.”
Today, critics frequently ignore that most important function – placing a value judgment on the work. But even if they do, they so often do something that I find unforgivable. They feel compelled to disclose the plot, point by point by point. No secret goes unrevealed. No plot turn unexposed.
For that reason, I rarely read a review in advance of reading a novel or seeing a movie. I might scan it to glean a general impression, but I stay away from any details that would spoil the subsequent experience of actually reading or seeing the work. After reading the novel or seeing the movie, I then enjoy reading the reviews to compare my experience with those of the critics.
Here’s a case in point of what the world of literary criticism has come to. I recently read (and enjoyed) Philip Roth’s new novel, Nemesis. Subsequently, I picked up The New York Review of Books and found a review of the book by Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee. Wow! A Nobel reviewer.
Had I read this review before reading the book, I would have been furious. Coetzee essentially recites every important plot point in the book. He writes:
“Generally, a reviewer will try not to spoil the impact of a book by giving away its proper secrets. But I see no way of exploring Nemesis further without breaking this rule. The secret is that… [He gives away the key secret]... More specifically… [Additional plot points passed on]... Furthermore… [Still more]”
He discloses all.
So Philip Roth goes to all the trouble of constructing a novel with twists, and Coetzee methodically reveals them. Why read Roth after reading Coetzee?
And then there are the movie trailers that in two minutes summarize the entire story line of a forthcoming movie. But that’s another story.
My suggestion: read reviews later, not sooner, especially if they’re written by Nobel Prize winners.