Writing Reviews the Times Way

My wife is a sociology PhD candidate who studies newsrooms, so our mailbox is occasionally filled with catalogs from academic presses that publish books about journalism. I’ve habitually scanned these catalogs for any kind of book on arts journalism, but I’ve yet to find one. On the couple of occasions I’ve tagged along for the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Education, I’ve made a point of walking the tradeshow floor, clotted with publishers who specialize in journalism books. I entered figuring that somebody might want to sell a j-school teacher a book on reviewing and reporting the arts. Nothing.

This seems absurd to me. If a theater catches fire in the middle of a performance and kills everybody inside, there is no shortage of guidance on how to write the news brief covering the fire for the next day’s paper; how to write the extended story about the investigation a few days later; how to write an obituary about an individual victim on deadline, and how to write on the victims collectively for a Sunday-magazine thumbsucker a few months later; how to write a formal editorial condemning the lax building codes that helped accelerate the fire, and how to write the emotional column or op-ed piece demanding more out of our neglectful civic leaders; how to use public records and the Freedom of Information Act to background the parties responsible; how not to libel any of those people; how to decide where to place the story; how to photograph the story and how best to visualize data related to it; how to blog, video, podcast, tweet, Facebook, and SEO the bejesus out of the story; and, after all that’s done, how to have a tedious discussion about the ethics of handling every last one of those things. But nothing on how to write a review that might have persuaded people to do something better with their time that fateful evening.

I overdramatize, yes. But the lack of any kind of handbook for a journalism student—or any aspiring critic—on how to write about the arts seems wholly out of proportion to what’s available on any other newsroom subject. So I can only be grateful for the existence of Don McLeese‘s The New York Times Reader: Arts & Culture, part of a series of books that exploits the Gray Lady’s archive to help budding journalists learn their trade. (Other books in the series cover business and economics, health and medicine, science and technology, and sports.) McLeese, a longtime critic for the Chicago Reader and the Chicago Sun-Times who now teaches at the University of Iowa, explains in the preface that he worked on the book out of a frustration similar to mine: “[N]o current textbooks on the market serve the needs of our courses. The available books are either restricted to one art or are so basic that our students (many of whom might have considerable experience with their college newspaper or other publications) have already outgrown them,” he writes.

I can quibble that my ideal arts-journalism text would include non-Times articles, and that McLeese occasionally gives too much of a hard sell on how amazing the Times is. (“Arts journalism is a unique form of journalism, with The New York Times setting the highest standards.” “[T]here are newspapers—and then there is The New York Times.”) And though McLeese acknowledges the realities of a 24-hour news cycle where a tweet becomes a blog post becomes a review becomes and essay, there’s little about how that works in practice. But as a primer on technique and the particular concerns of the trade, it’s fine. The book is broken into sections on criticism and reporting, with the criticism section broken down by discipline—pop music; classical music, opera, and dance; visual arts; theater; film; and television. The text is largely made up of article texts, and McLeese largely stays out of the way, offering brief introductions to the selected pieces or conducting interviews with a handful of staff critics like A.O. Scott and Janet Maslin.

Most of the pieces in the book-review section are of recent vintage, though McLeese pulls a few from the archive, like Orville Prescott‘s wrongheaded review of Lolita and James Stern‘s review of The Catcher in Rye in which he affects J.D. Salinger‘s style. McLeese proposes four critical elements to a review—description, context, interpretation, evaluation—and the dutiful “What do you think about…” questions that end of each chapter encourage students to read through those filters. But if its seems dryly pedagogical, consider how many reviews fall short on that front, full of assertions without backup, or plot summary with no strong critical assessment. To prove the point, McLeese submits a handful of pieces to a line-by-line, adjective-by-adjective breakdown, including Michiko Kakutani‘s review of Lorrie Moore‘s A Gate at the Stairs (the five Kakutani pieces included are all “limn”-free) and, better, Ann Powersprofile of Leonard Cohen. In both cases the breakdowns make clear that this kind of writing is a juggling act that, even if it’s not as critical or immediate as covering Congress, has its own concerns and skill sets. As Janet Maslin puts it in her Q&A:

[A] book reviewer has some very basic work to do. He or she has got to explain what this is, who wrote it, what it’s trying to do and whether it succeeds. Starting from scratch. If you can present all that in an interesting way and hold the reader’s attention throughout, you’re doing it right.

Which is all a nice way of saying that reviewing is a discipline. It’s an obvious point, but the fact that McLeese’s book is such a rare bird makes me wonder how often college-age writing students get to hear it.

5 thoughts on “Writing Reviews the Times Way

  1. As a person who edits college texts, who writes fiction, who went to college, and who now has a daughter in college, I am often struck and/or preoccupied by how many important topics are overlooked in schools and by publishers. Thanks for focusing in on this important corner. As with all other areas of publishing, textbook publishing is driven by the potential for profits. The big intro courses–psychology, sociology, and so on–are where the biggest numbers are.

  2. A PhD candidate who studies newsrooms! I didn’t know there was such a specialty. But I remember the first time I walked into a TV “newsroom” and saw how empty it seemed. I hope print newsrooms are more populated and interconnected. But maybe not….

    1. “Newsrooms” is a somewhat clumsy shorthand for the nature of her research, which might more precisely boil down to, “the career paths of print newspaper journalists, and what factors have or have not influenced their success as a journalist.” That didn’t require physically visiting newsrooms, though, yeah, they’re pretty empty these days too.

  3. hi i would lke to know or understand more of arts and culture reporting. i’m the arts and culture news desk in the media house that i work and i rally find it hard to guide reporters on how to write that is why i’m in the quest of looking for advice from people oround the globe that can give and idea or a direction.

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