The Art of Reviewing 4

There are a number of phrases that turn up with monotonous regularity in book reviews, phrases that always make me think the reviewer hasn't thought about the book at hand to any great extent. Phrases such as "near masterpiece" or "what it means to be human" (thanks Jonathan Strahan), words such as "flawed" and "well-crafted"; they all leave me thinking I've missed something entirely in the review. But the one at present that is giving me the pip is "two-dimensional character".

What does that actually mean?

I understand it as shorthand for "flat and uninteresting": that the character changed little over the course of the novel, had little in the way of personal history, and made no compelling case for being someone the reader would be happy to meet in the street and go have a beer with.

I read this description recently in a review of Inspector Anders and the Blood Vendetta by Marshall Browne, and I was a bit peeved really. So I got to thinking about what readers actually want from their fictional characters, and what I remembered of Inspector Anders.

It's been about six months since I read the novel but I still feel as though I've got a pretty good idea about the book and the main character. Let's remember that the novel fits into what is loosely referred to as the "crime/mystery" genre. Such books, like other genre specific works, tend to be rather more plot-driven than character-centric. That's both their blessing and their curse. The good examples, the ones that stand out from the rest of the pack, tend to maintain the plot interest while also presenting good characterisation, setting, and tempo; they're the whole package in other words.

Inspector Anders, as might be hinted at by his title, works for the police, and would normally be rather humdrum with a few minor quirks to make him stand out. But Anders is different: physically he's middle-aged, balding with greying hair, with an artifical leg; he's a lover a fine food and wine; he's a lover of women with specific psychological damage - similar to his own; and he is writing a detailed biography of an ancestor of his, a well-known poet who died in a duel over a woman. We see Anders angry, depressed, afraid, in love and in lust, frustrated, happy, resigned and triumphant. All of these physical and emotional aspects (barring his hair type) have some affect on the story-line, causing branches and changes depending on how he reacts to the world around him. And none of it seems out of place. He's changed by the actions in the novel, and he changes the world by what he does.

Doesn't seem so two-dimensional to me.

Maybe the original review was pressed for space and it was a throw-away phrase. But if, as reviewers, we should be on the look-out for cliches, then surely we should not be utilising them ourselves.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on June 20, 2007 3:18 PM.

Reviews of Australian Books #57 was the previous entry in this blog.

2007 Miles Franklin Award Winner Announced is the next entry in this blog.

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