Darwin and the Art of the Three Star Review

30 Jan

This is not a review. It’s, at best, a contemplation of a phenomenon I’ve yet to pinpoint. Or which may not even exist. In any case, I’m impelled to expand.

By now, most of us understand the basic tenet of Darwinian evolution: those species that are best suited for survival—sometimes by no fault/grace of their own—pass their genes onto the next video game level that is life. Their chromosomes win a 1 UP. Those that aren’t “chosen” die out with an X over each eye. Pretty simple. But does this theory work for aesthetics? Does it work for literature and poetry?

Do the best move on and serve a greater purpose, find a bigger audience, earn the hard work? Does it matter?

This is what bothers me.

I read a lot of reviews online: in magazines online and off, in book blogs, in newspapers, in Vouched, and in books themselves. And, finally, be honest, Kyle: Amazon. Good god. I read googols of Amazon reviews just for the smell of it. Let it be known that I probably read more reviews of books than the books themselves under review. It’s a filthy habit, I admit. Pathetic, really.

Ah, but there’s an inscrutable pattern of my review-scanning I can’t help noticing: I’m tantalized by the middling review, better known to me personally as the Trivalent; the Trident; the Trinity; the Tripod. The Three Star Review.

On Amazon, they are Legion, but everywhere else, this species is like unobtanium. More often than not, the book reviews on websites tend to give the author the benefit of the doubt, to cock the critical head and daren’t wake the sweetly sleeping work for fear of scaring or hurting it. Don’t believe me? Try the major book blogs. Yes, there will be some negs. But the percentage will overwhelmingly favor the positive. This has to be a case of what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. There’s something about a review with teeth that sets the world on edge, as if the reviewer has a chip on his shoulder. E.g., B.R. Myers or Dale Peck. I don’t revile these two examples, nor do I praise them. They are extremes, surely.

Because I’m not suggesting rampage, ravage, and slaughter. I’m talking about a more even-handed consideration of art, one that tries to explain the juxtaposition of the acne on aesthetics. We all love poetry and fiction and essays, but really? Can all this stuff that’s printed and published be the dog’s balls and the bee’s knees?

Have you ever been around a terminally happy person? It’s disquieting. It’s suspicious.

From what I’ve gathered, especially on Amazon, when one arrives at a book that has lots of five and/or one star reviews, one should silently consider the situation. Perhaps both sides are right. Both wrong. But it makes most sense to start in the middle. These in-betweeners marry the conflict into a nuanced consideration of art, and I appreciate this stance way more than a slobbering love letter or a scathing broadside. Lord. Listen to me: nuanced? What am I? 50 years old and reading The New York Review of Books? [I actually like that periodical.]

The short answer of the above question is no. Not everything can be aces. Most likely everything falls into mediocrity. A writer friend of mine once said he didn’t fear failure. He feared mediocrity. I understand all too well that position. Want to hear a horrific word? MIDLIST. The barb of wasted effort stings worse with mediocrity. “You tried hard, and it’s sort of OK, but it’s not bad! But…it’s not great, either.”

“So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16, KJV).

Even the Christian God isn’t crazy about three star reviews! I get it. It’s hard to reconcile.

The nuanced position is the agnostic stance, in a way. Not yet ready to believe in greatness, not yet ready to throw it all away in despair. And I think, just maybe, the lauding and the back-patting is a deferment about the possibility of mediocrity within the reviewers themselves.

Or! Maybe I’m totally effing wrong. I hear a voice saying, “Kyle, I’m swamped with greatness in writing from all over. I’m not delusional; I just really like all this stuff that’s out there. The embarrassment of riches! Quit moaning, you curmudgeon! Enjoy the talent!”

I see your optimism and enthusiasm, and I raise you practicality and judiciousness. I’ve seen the results of the open-door policy. It welcomes everyone. That’s good for some systems, but I don’t think it works for reviewing writing. The non-nuanced review goes forth in bad faith. Worse, it ignores the depths of art. When I teach my composition classes, and I hear one student tell another that their peer’s paper is fine, and they find nothing wrong with it, I cringe. 99.9% of the time the peer reviewer acts out of laziness and fear. Sometimes they are ill-equipped, and I take the blame. But it comes down to not having the common decency to respect the author enough to take what they’ve done seriously.

And the core of that decent seriousness is to consider all aspects, all blemishes, all figurations of beautiful geometry. The suppurations, the scabs, the scars.

John Updike used to have rules for reviewing a work. And one of the rules was that he’d meet the work on its own ground: “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” Updike went one further for the author under review and threw in another avenue of empathy: “If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?”

Sure it’s his and not yours?

Wow. Kudos, John.

Reviewing is tough business. You handle another’s hard, hard work by giving them a concentrated audience and essentially pass judgment on the art by analyzing the innards and kicking the tires. This is probably why I don’t review as much as I’d like. Is my own mediocrity in the wings, beating the rugs, preparing my middling existence, looking handsome as a valet, hair-slicked, hands begloved and waiting to pull me off the stage and sit me down with a pipe and a toddy and say, “You’ve had enough, sir. Sit. Rest. Watch the parade from your highback.”

I won’t quote from the kind of reviews I’m extolling here. Why? Because it’s uncouth, and I’m not trying to engage in digital fisticuffs. Besides, it’s easy enough. Check it out for yourself. Amazon is a good place to start.

At this point, you may wonder: why’s he mentioned evolution in the beginning? How do evolution and literature interact?

I know the life of literature doesn’t reflect the evolution of the human author, but I suspect that the whole long process of surviving got me thinking about how we pass on what we love or hate. The world is more literate than ever, so I hear. There are more writers in the world, more readers. Are more writers and good writing directly proportional? I don’t think so. Related point, if you’re into that sort of thing, I also hear that AWP is sold out. Chicago’s Hilton will be, for three days at the beginning of March, a throbbing mass of writerly hopes and dreams. And if you’re there, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear the singular thought of everyone there: “Please don’t let me be mediocre, please don’t let me be mediocre, please don’t let me be mediocre.”

It’s humbling and heart-breaking and true.

Five star and one star reviews won’t pass on or kill the work under consideration. Books can’t reproduce. Their ideas can. Their styles can. I wonder if all reviewers know this. That sounds dumb, but I mean it. We must be careful what we recommend and pass on.

Life is short, death is long, and time a fart in the middle.

I’d rather like to make the fart count.

I’ll end with two quotes, neither one of which I fully endorse.

Jean Rhys: “All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”

Flannery O’Connor: “Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”

Kyle Winkler: “Everywhere I go, I’m asked if writing is a huge lake. It is. A huge stifling lake of writers. My opinion is that there are great rivers that feed the lake. And then there are mere trickles, like Kyle Winkler. All that matters is the stifling. If I can make it past that, then I feed the lake. You must keep feeding the lake.”

4 Responses to “Darwin and the Art of the Three Star Review”

  1. Gabriel Blackwell January 30, 2012 at 1:04 pm #

    “We must be careful what we recommend and pass on.” I couldn’t agree more, Kyle. And yet — I tend to think that even the midlist reader of reviews is less credulous than the one that your argument seems to assume. There is an overload of superlatives in the world; turn on the television and find a three-star review. It’s probably going to be a while. But still the viewer makes informed choices. Are they good choices? I don’t know. But I do believe they are more sophisticated choices than “The TV said it’s good, so it’s good.” The author of mediocre work has a 2 AM slot, right before Vince Offer. Yeah, the review’s great, but who’s reading it? Which is not to say that there aren’t splendorous inventions advertised at 2 AM, only that the viewer knows to bring her own grains of salt.

    For my part — and I hope that I am not alone — I trust in a few people whose opinions I respect and those reviews that either eschew blurbage in favor of honest appreciation or convince me that their blurbage is deserved. It’s sad that those are few and far between, but I also half-believe that it was always so.

    • kmwinkler January 30, 2012 at 1:13 pm #


      Too true.

      “And yet — I tend to think that even the midlist reader of reviews is less credulous than the one that your argument seems to assume.”

      I don’t know what you mean exactly by “midlist reader”–one who reads midlist fiction? In any case, I know what you mean, essentially. Of course, three star reviews aren’t always going to be trustworthy, either, but I’m calling the nuanced review, the deeply considered review, a three star review, I suppose, for shorthand.

      This is what I am lamenting most: the absence of such reviews. Instead we get comments like “face-meltingly good,” “monumentally bonerific,” and “not a weak link in the chain here.”

      You’ve got it right to pick a few knowledgeable folks, and listen to their opinions. That’s how it should be. And I suspect most people do that. But I can’t say for certain how other folks roll, and I didn’t want to leave my doubts in a cupboard.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Ryan Lowe January 31, 2012 at 2:10 pm #

    I remember hearing Gordon Hutner give a talk about something like this: his main critique of MFA programs and literary studies in general was that it became a bit of a closed system — writers reviewing written works often just turn to vague words about “charm” or “vivid writing” or whatever.

    But then readers who don’t write tend to just respond in terms of love/hate — your typical Amazon review.

    The sweet spot of being a good critic is difficult. It requires knowing good writing but not being over-invested in the fortunes of writers. Hutner recommended drawing Ph.Ds and teachers into the fray, but that’s only if we can get them interested.


  1. Just a quick plea from the quicksand | Bark: A Blog of Literature, Culture, and Art - January 30, 2012

    […] I wanted to come in to work early to help subdue today’s behemoth prep list) a great essay, Darwin and the Art of the Three Star Review over at Vouched. I personally tend to read more music reviews than book reviews – often times […]

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