My Curious Reading: Connections, Discoveries
In actuality, do we need customer reviews?
People reportedly give a greater number of ratings in the four-star range than any other. We withhold a degree of our enthusiasm, we don’t five-star as often…and what makes a thing good, but not very good, fair but not good, we haven’t fully decided. We leave an unexplained gulf between fair and rotten, opinions that ought to stand further apart than “good” and “very good.”
The world still retains a portion of its professional critics, concerned with literature, with entertainment in general…and qualified either by their education, their luck in employment, or by having eked out a following, one blog post at a time.
Because I won’t star, because it’s essentially meaningless, but potentially misleading, and I don’t think down-rating people with a purely subjective system does any creator or seller justice (I’ve read books I disliked but didn’t think were badly written. How do you star that?), I rarely, these days, write product reviews—but my choice, if I were making the rules, would be to limit commentary to three hundred words, offer no quick visual whatever (no stars, no blurbs, no shorthand to judgment, no market for fakery); but ask the reviewer to answer a question of his/her choice. What made you want to read this book? What surprised you about this book?…etc.
Here’s a story: In the early years of the 20th century, England had a popular chain of restaurants called Lyon’s Corner House. I first encountered this milieu in Voyagers of the Titanic, by Richard Davenport-Hines (HarperCollins, 2012). He quotes, on page 121, the author Theodore Dreiser; Dreiser says, of a 1912 visit: “An enormous crowd of very commonplace people were there—clerks, minor officials, clergymen, small shop-keepers—and the bill of fare was composed of many homely dishes…” (Kidney pie, if you like.)
My research purpose had been to find “respectable work” for a woman, middle class, circa 1918. Instead of Lyon’s, I kept coming across a two-line advertisement, as follows:
THE QUEEN SAYS: “Is no less thrilling and ingenious than the author’s former stories of mystery and crime.”
The royal blurb would have been Alexandra’s. The book was The Corner House, by Fred Merrick White. White, as I learned from his Wikipedia entry (which seems to question whether he is important enough to have one) was an early twentieth century author of mystery, science fiction, even of a proto spy thriller. He was big in his day, serialized all over the place.
A sample of Edward VII’s wife’s taste in novels:
“She [the Countess Lelage] smashed her fan across her knee, she tore her long gloves into fragments. Dimly, in a mirror opposite, she saw her white ghastly face, and the stain of blood where she had caught her lips between her teeth.”
The Corner House, page 15 (R. F. Fenno & Company, 1906.)
There is good reason for writers who set their stories in history to read the popular novels of an earlier era, and not just for the fun of such un-inhibition. Our characters have to live in the world they knew. There were mass market books in Edwardian times, too, and leisure reading has always influenced opinion. Once the concept of serious novels for the intelligentsia came to serve as a benchmark, a countess couldn’t so freely react to a man’s confiding he’d proposed marriage to her governess.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)