I once heard an actor say, "Nothing is more gratifying than a bad review of a performance by a close friend." While I love actors, I canít deny that a wee trace of professional spitefulness frequently lowers their karma. So, my old theater friend Gary did not surprise me when he scoffed at my work for AudioFile. What surprised me was that his mildly caustic remark at my expense led to a productive conversation about audiobook reviewing.
I hadnít seen Gary since relocating from the Midwest to the Left Coast. He was in town with a touring production, which gave us the opportunity to renew acquaintances at a nearby pub after one of his performances.
"Writing itty-bitty capsule reviews of talking books canít be very gratifying," he sneered. "Bit of a come-down, isnít it, after having written at length for the dailies?" Iíd been a stringer for the Chicago Sun-Times a long, long time ago.
"Not a bit of it," I replied. "I find it challenging."
He chuckled. "What can you possibly find challenging at your age - - except walking up-hill?"
"Writing something substantive in under a hundred words. You need concision. Itís good practice."
"You can find a hundred words to say about a talking book?" he asked, slugging down his beer.
"Itís not much room for the reviewing essentials," I replied, sippin a soda.
"And those essentials would be...?"
Now, here was something I have never thought deeply about. Few reviewers do. Itís self-evident; at least we have read enough reviews to soak up the basics. Havenít we? Besides, our beloved editor gives us guidelines, such as to concentrate on the performance, not the text being performed. But that directive adds to the challenge. Is it possible to comment on the sound and not the substance? Is it advisable? I mean, does it really help the reader? How do we help the reader? What does the reader want from us? I found myself answering Garyís question with concepts that were forming in my head while I was speaking.
I said, "First let me make a distinction between reviewing and criticism."
"Must you?" Gary had heard my disquisitions many times and knows I love to hold forth. It was clear from the look on his face that he was regretting having opened that flood gate.
"Critics write for those who are probably already familiar with the work under consideration. They expresses their impressions of the work, point out the details that have impressed them, the associations that the work inspires, theorize. You donít have to agree with a word the critics say. They arenít there to lay down dogma. You read them because their insights spur your own thinking, open you up to fresh ways of looking at things and thereby increase your ability to understand, appreciate and enjoy.
"Reviewers, on the other hand," I continued, "have a totally different function. Theyíre scouts. Itís like youíre in a conastoga wagon making your way through unfamiliar territory. The scouts ride ahead to check out the various options and then come back and report their findings and make recommendations about which paths to follow and which to avoid.
"Therefore, it seems to me that the reviewersí first duty is to describe the work under discussion, to give an accurate impression of it. Doing so has more value than pronouncing judgement. Opinion is only opinion."
Gary stiffened. "See here," he said, "I, too, have toiled in the journalistic and critical trenches. In my opinion, my critical opinion is an important opinion. It is the heart and soul of my reviews."
"Look," I replied. "Neither your opinion nor mine are likely to represent those of our readers, if only because we take in many more works than the casual patron. We canít go backward and pretend we donít have that experience. Not alone that, once you become a more or less professional reviewer, you canít help becoming self-conscious about it. Your opinion is likely to change from what it was before somebody pronounced you an expert. You have to fight against that.
"Readers can make their own judgements if they have sufficient information. When it comes to audiobooks, that information includes the plot or subject or thrust of the book, its tone and atmosphere, and, when appropriate, what makes it significant. Then thereís the sound of it - - the personality and style of the narrator, the production values, if any, and, when notably excellent of lousy, the sound quality."
"You couldnít even list those qualities just now," Gary noted, "in under a hundred words...."
"You were counting?"
"...How are you going to elaborate on them in under a hundred -- plus give your opinion?"
"Thatís the challenge. And if and when you do give your opinion, I think you have a responsibility to make clear where youíre coming from, as opposed to making categorical pronouncements, like Ďthis is awful; this is wonderful.í Instead, you say, Ďthe narrator talks in a monotoneí or Ďthe lady lisps.í AudioFile doesnít concern itself with the quality of the text. For that thereís the New York Times ĎBook Review.í The quality of the text matters only as it bears upon the quality of the presentation."
My companion asked, "What about your educational function? Donít you think you have to educate the public? Raise its standards?"
"Not my job, except when, as an audio and theater professional, I have a special knowledge that I must explain. Perhaps, for instance, thereís too much Ďcompressioní on the voice. Most AudioFile readers wonít know what Ďcompressioní means in this context, so I have to explain it as briefly as possible. As for raising standards, a good reviewer raises standards simply by writing reviews well."
"Do you consider yourself a good reviewer?"
This question rumbled through the frontal lobes a moment before a response popped out.
"I - I really donít know."
© 1986 - 2001 AudioFile magazine. Used by permission.