02 December 2011

Useful Term: “Plumber’s Review”

In my family we have the term “plumber’s review,” which is so useful that I’m surprised not to see it anywhere else. Perhaps we’ve got the wording wrong.

A “plumber’s review” is an assessment of a novel, or other work of art, based on one narrow concern. Say, a review of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island focused entirely on details of south Pacific navigation, or an analysis of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover for its remarks on coal mining. In the academic world, it’s the comments from the professor miffed that you haven’t said more about the particular event or compound or poetic form that he or she happens to study.

An expert plumber’s perspective can be valuable, particularly on books about plumbing. Even a review of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire focused entirely on water-systems engineering might offer useful insights.

In fact, it would have been valuable to have a whaler’s review of Moby Dick back in 1851. Instead, we had to wait nearly a century until Howard P. Vincent’s The Trying-Out of Moby Dick studied where Herman Melville got his technical information and what detail in the novel has no support in any other source of the time (the blacksmith’s apron).

The best type of “plumber’s review” acknowledges its narrow focus and the fact that there are other, wider perspectives. It offers inside information that general readers wouldn’t know but can incorporate with other responses. The worst “plumber’s review” misses that point, as well as other big points—which can make them very entertaining.

This fall at MICE I got to hear a preview of the “plumber’s review” echoing through this SLJ roundtable discussion of M. K. Reed and Jonathan Hill’s Americus. One of the important supporting characters in that graphic novel, Charlotte, is a youth-services librarian. And librarians, folks of that profession wish to make clear, don’t behave like her!

Despite public assumptions, Charlotte wouldn’t be reading in the middle of the day—she wouldn’t have time! She wouldn’t keep a patron waiting until she’d finished her reading. Most important, she wouldn’t snap back at a person lodging a complaint about a book, or tell a teenager that the complainer was a “control freak.” As Eva Volin stated in the SLJ discussion, “I would have been in big, big trouble had I handled the first contact the way Charlotte did.”

And since that conflict over a library book defines Americus’s plot, it seems like a problem for the novel. Indeed, it might subvert the book’s appeal to a key constituency.

TOMORROW: More lessons from Americus.

1 comment:

Richard Bensam said...

David Letterman used to have a recurring bit on his previous show called "Limited Perspective Movie Reviews" in which various professionals would be brought in to review current films, but only in terms of their own profession. A lighting specialist reviewed a legal drama and only discussed what sort of lighting fixtures were used in the courtroom scenes, whether or not those fluorescent bulbs were adequate to the room size, et cetera. Or a dentist would review a film solely in terms of how the actors' teeth looked and whether or not they needed cosmetic adjustment. A much more jokey and absurd version of what you're talking about, of course, but close enough that it seemed worth mentioning.