September 2, 2014

What Value Reviews?

Recently I heard about Mark Helprin’s new novel, “In Sunlight and in Shadow.” I’ve only read one of his novels, but liked it very much. I’ve especially enjoyed his op eds; he used to write for The Wall Street Journal, and if you are familiar with his work you’ll know he’s a conservative sort of fellow. So I decided to look up some reviews of this latest work. The first review that came up in my search was from The New York Times, and it wasn’t flattering. The first two paragraphs:

If “In Sunlight and in Shadow” did not have Mark Helprin’s name plastered on the cover, a reader might surmise that the author was someone desperately trying to imitate Danielle Steel or Nora Roberts.

Written from the hero’s rather than the heroine’s point of view, this 700-plus-page tome is a bad romance novel, driven by a preposterous, melodramatic plot and filled with some truly cringe-making prose. It’s astonishing to think that the author of the delightful 2005 novel “Freddy and Fredericka” and the critically acclaimed “Ellis Island, and Other Stories,” could have written such a laughably awful book.

Wow! That’s really bad. Given my inclination to see liberal media bias everywhere, I thought maybe that this bastion of liberal bias, The New York Times, was the reason for the bad review; a conservative writer certainly can’t write a great novel. Maybe so, maybe not, but another bastion of the liberal mainstream media, NPR, positively raved about the book. Doggone it! I couldn’t chalk this one up to ubiquitous liberal media bias!

Here from NPR:

Helprin does several things extraordinarily well: He fights for and wins our close sympathy for his characters, even as he delivers a full-throated rendering of life at war and life at peace (with a little of each in the other). He also pays wonderful attention to the natural world, such as that New York spring that opens the story, the changing of seasons, dawn in France and winter in Germany during the war, such domestic matters as 30 minutes of kisses, and the rue and wonder of a great love affair.

I was desperately disappointed, though, by the end of this grandly charming and deeply affecting novel — but only because it ended.

OK, so which is it: A “laughably awful book” or a “grandly charming and deeply effecting novel”? I wonder how people who review works of art for a living could come to such diametrically opposite conclusions about the same piece of art.

I suppose I’ll have to read the book to find out for myself, but I tend to think I’d be more with NPR on this one. I pretty much never read the Times and often listen to NPR when in the car, so on that scientific basis, I’m with NPR! The Amazon reviews are generally positive; you have a New York Times or two and a few NPRs, and some in between, although from perusing various other reviews online, the Times is the outlier.

This is one of the great benefits of the World Wide Web. In the olden days, say back in the mid-1990s, the typical American media consumer could only realistically be  exposed to a limited number of opinions about a work of art; now we can be exposed to almost as many as we have the appetite for. The Internet also moved the world of reviews from once only the province of professionals, to anyone who has a computer and an Internet connection.

So there is definitely value in reviews, and the more we read, the better chance we’ll have of forming our own opinion of the value of the work, and of course if we’d be willing to shell out hard earned dollars to purchase it. On this count, I think Helprin will get some of those dollars from me.

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