Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Review-Reading Double Standard

Reading a review of Matthew Pearl’s new novel The Last Dickens yesterday, my eyes performed their standard leapfrog dance over the newsprint: read the first paragraph or two, scan about one third of the way down to find the tag of information about the author, then skip all the way to the last paragraph for the reviewer’s summation. (In the case of Pearl’s book, I confess that my eye was caught by a series of sentences quoted from the book—clearly fodder for some future Language Rant.)

It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading book reviews. It’s that, when it comes to novels, I can’t abide knowing where the story is going to go before I have a chance to follow it there myself. Sure, I read enough reviews to be able to tell you the author and title of many of the new novels people end up talking about on the sidelines of their children’s games or over an Esperanto-named coffee drink. Like Pierre Bayard, I could probably pretend I’ve read most of these books. Aren’t there only two stories in the world, anyway? (Man goes on a journey. Stranger comes into town. And the latest: Woman discovers family secret.) But when it comes to the specifics of a particular version of those three stories, I absolutely need to be in the dark before I turn each and every page. Even in the most domestic of Quiet Books, I must have my suspense. Contrast this to my daughter whose leapfrog reading dance makes my review-reading habit seem downright demure: first paragraph, last paragraph. Then she decides if the book is worth spending time with. I shudder at this transgression of the Rules of Narrative Escape.

Then there are movie reviews, where all bets are off. I experience not a moment’s hesitation in reading right through every twist and turn of the latest thriller, or learning every detail of the romance. The very concept of a spoiler is, in a way, alien to me. No revelation about a movie’s plot can spoil my enjoyment of its story.

So the question is: why? Why my double standard? What is it about movies that makes them, for me, impervious to reviews that destroy suspense? Are books and movies so fundamentally different?

They used to be. Movies were necessarily communal where the novel was a solitary experience. Movies could only be enjoyed in a particular place, while the novel could be taken anywhere. But these distinctions were blurred years ago. And what the book club phenomenon started, the Kindle and other electronic readers have only accelerated further. Now you can watch a movie in your lap, and books are, once again, agents of a sociable life (just as they were 150 years ago when people gathered to hear someone read the latest installment in a Dickens serial).

For me, though, books and movies continue to exist in different worlds. I am still fairly solitary with my reading—partly because my selections are often driven by a problem I am working on in my own fiction (or by a desire to get entirely away from something in my own work), and partly because I read too slowly to keep up with everybody else’s consumption of new novels. (To wit: I have only now purchased Bel Canto.) Having started a book club years ago, I was the first member to flunk out.

Maybe my slow reading is the source of my movie/book double standard. When I read, I hear the words as if someone is reading them aloud to me (I must have a vestigial Victorian brain, eager for an evening’s recitation). I abhor interruption, and tend to treat the words on the page as if they are streaming by me once and once only; if I stop to answer the phone or the husband, the narrative train will leave me at the station. Thus, knowing ahead of time what is going to happen ruins that sensation of being carried along by the writer’s words. Reading the review is like traveling the distance beforehand with a foggy window and someone’s iPod playing too loudly in the next seat. Then when I do settle in for my actual journey, the trip’s familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then disappointment.

Reading a book will take me anywhere from one week—if the planets align, if the book is more Breakfast at Tiffany’s than War and Peace, and if I am more caffeinated in the evenings than usual—to a month. If I’m going to live with a novel for that long (and what better pleasure is there than an extended sojourn in someone’s imagined world?), then I want to be able to invest myself in it. And that means not knowing more than the vaguest outlines about the book. The production of that story in my own imagination, through reading, depends on my being in suspense.

But if suspense elicits from us a sense of heightened anticipation or even anxiety, even a racing heart, then movies have an advantage over books. For watching a movie is a brief and intense affair during which we are hit through almost all channels of our limbic systems. Our physiological responses to suspense will appear anyway, whether we know the story ahead of time or not. The music, the dark, the camerawork, the acting: faced with all of this, surrounded by it, we can’t help but get carried away by the story whose elements we may have already read about in the paper or on a blog. Consider the situation on a quieter, more finely etched scale. A written account of, say, Emma Thompson’s lovely moment at the end of Last Chance Harvey can’t diminish the experience of watching Thompson produce that emotion—in herself and in us.

In fact, I hadn’t planned to go see Last Chance Harvey at all until I read Ty Burr’s review in the Boston Globe. The movie seemed “small” enough for a DVD viewing later on. Burr writes:
"the scene toward the end, by the banks of the Thames, where Thompson takes her character from certainty to tears in the space of a sentence, and you sigh in gratitude at the emotional whiplash."
Rather than spoil the movie for me by giving away an aspect of the film’s conclusion, Burr’s observation compelled me to go and see for myself. If anything, the review generated more suspense in me than I might have felt had I not read it. I don’t recall ever turning the pages of a book to reach a paragraph I’ve seen quoted in a review. But I knew the moment was coming in Last Chance Harvey, and I was waiting for it.


  1. Well, now, you just have to love how people are different. I don't mind knowing something about the story lines of either a book in my hand or a movie that I intend to see. But the ending of either? No!...although obviously if the movie is based upon the book, I know how it's supposed to end.

    I am with you that one of the very best aspects of book reading is that author helps you paint a picture in your mind...which is the very thing you don't need to do when watching a movie - it's already been painted. But still, I think the experience of following a director as he tells his story and letting him take you where he wants would be far too altered for me if I knew where he was going in the first place.

  2. Well it's true that, because I do have that aforementioned trick of being able to sound like I read a book I only vaguely know about, I guess I do actually know the outlines of a book's story. But nothing more. I was just reading the profile of Ian McEwan in a recent New Yorker this morning and was shocked at the writer's blithe announcement of what I consider to be a crucial aspect of Atonement. Some people might view it as the premise and therefore not crucial to keep hidden in a review, but to me it's tantamount to ruining the reading experience (and that's why I'm not spelling out what the blithe announcement was).

    Would I be as aghast if a reviewer gave away a similarly important element of a movie? Unless we're talking about a movie like The Usual Suspects or The Crying Game, nope.

    Do you think it has to do with the way movies seem--even the best ones--to be always clearer about telegraphing where they're going to go than books? Somehow, at least for me, the language on the page can draw so much of my attention that I might not see where the plot is headed. But the signals in a movie are clearer. Camera angles, music, etc.


  3. Hi, Henrietta -- I'm sorry to have shocked you, but I wasn't being blithe. "Atonement" is now eight years old, and it's sold nearly half a million copies. A blockbuster film has been made. So I felt that the statute of limitations on secrecy had passed. More important, I really wanted to make a point about the book's controversial ending, which has been criticized as an arid "postmodern turn," when in fact it's closer to a cinematic "reversal"—a startling plot twist. In other words, I was trying to show that "Atonement" was consonant with McEwan's other works, which are sharply out of sync with boggier forms of postmodernism. I agree that a review shouldn't fully divulge a novel's plot, but there's a moment when the critical discussion of a book transitions from mere reviewing ("Is this book worthy of attention?") to literary criticism ("How does this book achieve its effects?"). You wouldn't have been annoyed had I given away the plot turns in a Henry James novel, right? Or revealed that Hamlet dies? (Whoops!) That said, I understand your protective impulse; I read "Atonement" when it was just a pre-publication galley, and I was gobsmacked ... Cheers, DZ

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  5. Yes, it is a protective impulse, driven, I suppose, to preserve for others that gobsmacking experience that, like you, I had when I first read the book. But of course you're right that, by now, Atonement is a known quantity, and that discussions of it can and should move into the realm of literary criticism. In fact, I would make the case that, while the first innocent reading is a powerful experience, the re-reading of Atonement, once one knows how the book works, is just as compelling--if not more--and engages the reader on numerous emotional and intellectual levels.

    I was intrigued by your suggestion, in the New Yorker piece, that the book's ending produces a filmic trick ending (a device that I know infuriated some who did indeed see it as a postmodern manipulation). Usual Suspects, indeed!

    Thanks for the rebuttal!

  6. Please note that Dell Smith's comment was removed by accident. I'm hoping he'll weigh in again!

  7. I was agreeing with DZ's comment that there's an expiration date for withholding plot spoilers. My example was that we all know what Citizen Kane's Rosebud is all about, so divulging that information isn’t really considered a spoiled plot. I don't read movie or book reviews closely when it's for a movie I plan to see or a book I plan to read. I'll save the review until after. I like my plot points to be unheralded. It takes me long enough to read a book, I want to approach it without prejudice.