Madame Bovary, Book Reviews and the Art of being a Critic

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by Jane Turley

Whilst surfing I discovered an article by author Charles Baxter on the Fiction Writers Review website about the art of reviewing books. It contained the following statement;

"… I’m going out on a limb here, you don’t really need to review Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or Flaubert’s Madame Bovary."

Mr Baxter explained why it wasn’t necessary to review such classics which, to sum up, is because the jury’s no longer out on the classics. Then, he went on to scorn the way most reviews are constructed, the use of words like “significant,” “important” and “stunning” and take a pop at the reviews of what might be termed as the “plebs” on Amazon.

You know what? I found that article a tad conceited. Why is there a tendency amongst critics, particularly the academics, to sound like The Omniscient? Or to put it colloquially; sound like they’ve got their heads up their own backsides.

You see, I am one of the book proletariat. I am that person who buys a book because an Amazon reviewer writes; “It was shite. Nobody got killed on the first page and by the second page I wuz bored stiff. I’m reading Katie Price now,” and another who writes “I loved it. The hero had a chiselled jaw and by the second page he was running his own empire! I’m reading Martin Amis next. Somebody told me he was funny.”

I love Amazon reviews – they tell you everything you need to know and I’m just as likely to buy a book with plenty of one star reviews as I am one with five star reviews. In fact, a mixed review is like an unwrapped gift; you can guess what’s inside but you never know for sure whether it contains socks or bespoke diamond jewellery. There are, of course, the few pseudo-intellectual reviews. Every time I read one of those I’m tempted to write; Keep it brief Love, I’ve got an appointment at the dentists at 12pm.

Amazon reviews make great reading. They’re revealing and entertaining and, best of all, they’ve got reviews on books you might actually consider reading. Like best sellers. Haven’t you opened the pages of The Times and Telegraph book reviews and thought;

“Oh no! Not The Peasant’s Revolt again. Let me see, what else? Hmm…Two Hundred Ways to Grow Daffodils in an English Suburb…Nineteenth Century Horology...The Biology of Ancient Peruvian Crustaceans… and Jamie Oliver’s Thirty Minute Recipes…Now where did I put that copy of The Mail?”

Come on, be honest now. You have, haven’t you?

So I guess you want to know what I thought about Madame Bovary. Well let’s have a bash in true Amazon Style;

Wow this story’s great! Its about a hot chick who keeps having affairs. But she’s pretty screwed up. Yeah, both ways. Anyway, she’s completely bonkers. And everyone else is bonkers too in some way or another - apart from the bloke who gets his leg cut off.

Now who could fail to want to buy a book reviewed like that? Alternatively, you could read some dull, dry and self-important review from the broadsheets and lose the will to live before you got past the second paragraph, let alone go out and buy the darn book.

In history circles “important” works are constantly picked over and reviewed and tossed aside as new ideas and thinking develop. Why should novels be any different? Why shouldn’t they be reviewed and reappraised over time? Just because a few of the High and Mighty say they don’t have to be is, to my mind, a ridiculous statement. The point is if you want classic novels to reach new minds then you have to make them accessible and by putting them on a pedestal you actually make them less accessible. Reviewing, discussing and generating opinions in the light of new thought and developing literature encourages the young to think and read. In effect, saying “I told you so” has the same result as an overbearing parent. It doesn’t work.

You know, I hope this new fetish for trying to make an art out of reviews doesn’t last long. It would be dreadfully dull if it carried on the way literary criticism did in schools in the 1970s and 1980s, heaped in over-analysis and pomposity. It’s just a review. It’s an opinion. And like any valuation whether it’s of a house, an antique or a book review an opinion could, and probably should, change over time.

I give Madame Bovary three stars. Let the wrath commence.

A longer version of this article will appear in April's magazine 

Photo credit ( modified ): leted

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