23 May 2005

This Post is Not for Everyone

An essay by Anne Burke in the latest Context (published by the Center for Book Culture, which also houses the marvelous Dalkey Archive Press) takes reviewers to task for saying that any book is "not for everyone", because it's a lazy phrase -- after all, what book is for everyone?

M.A. Orthofer and Scott Esposito have both replied, essentially agreeing that the phrase is, indeed, a bit silly.

There's a way that "not for everyone" can make some sense, though -- if the reviewer is thinking of "everyone" not as everyone on Earth, but rather as everyone who reads that sort of review. It's still hardly the best choice of description for a book, but there are bigger crimes in book reviewing. If the reviewer goes on to explain why she or he feels the book is not for whoever it's not for, I don't tend to mind the phrase too much. It's the explanation that is key -- any review where there are claims made about a book that are not supported is a weaker, less useful review than one where the judgments are explained.

Having written some reviews of 500 or 800 words myself, I know how difficult it can be to avoid cliches, hyperbole, shorthand, etc. etc. etc., and other things that are not for everyone. Truly thoughtful, insightful reviews under 1,000 words are rare and deserve to be celebrated.

3 comments:

  1. Funnily enough, this has become a running joke--about 3/4 my reviews use this phrase at one point or another. Just today someone posted a graphic in my journal of a gravestone that read:

    Catherynne M. Valente
    Not For Everyone

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  2. I'm sure I've used it, though I just ran scrambling to my Labyrinth review and was pleased to see I didn't include the phrase there, although the sentiment is present. I've got a copy of The Book of Dreams and will now be sure to review it and say it's not for everyone!

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  3. Matt,

    I'm totally with you on the difficulty of avoiding cliche in short reviews. I don't think there should be none (and probably have used a few myself), but I don't like for reviewers to lean on cliche like a crutch. If a reviewer wants to use a cliche, then I think it should be followed up by a further unpacking of why the cliche was advised.

    The whole point of the review is to tell me what about this book makes it worthwhile as opposed to all the other books out there I could read. Leaning on cliches makes this an impossible task, because cliches by their very nature tend toward the general.

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