Rightly Reconsidering (Book) Reviews

This piece, by Marty Halpern, originally appeared on his More Red Ink blog on 4/24/09.

Are book reviews (and by default, book reviewers) so sacrosanct as to be above reproach?

Authors — and yes, editors and publishers as well — are taught at a very young age in their professional careers to ignore reviews, to not take them personally, to turn the other cheek, so to speak. And why is that? Why can’t we respond to reviews?

Because we will give the impression that we are unprofessional, that we are whiners. At least that’s what our peers — and possibly readers of the review — may think. But from our own perspective, we also have to worry that we’ll piss off the reviewer by our response, and then that reviewer will take it out on us a hundredfold in the next review, if in fact there even is a next review. And then others may not want to review our work for fear of receiving such a response as well. And as Cheryl Morgan (a book reviewer and critic) just pointed out to me: "…if an author challenges a review, his fans will go after the reviewer, whether he wants them to or not."

Reviews/reviewers and authors are sort of like the separation between Church and State. Yet the incoming president takes the oath of office with his hand upon a Bible; and the coin of the realm all proclaim "In God We Trust."

So where does that leave us?

Some authors I know truly don’t care about reviews, reviewers, or what others think of their stories. Once they’ve completed a work of fiction and it’s been accepted by the editor, they then move on to the next project and never look back. While other authors are deeply concerned — and affected — by reviews and what others think of their fiction.

I worked with an author on her short fiction collection, and after the book was published we stayed in contact with one another for a bit. The following year her next novel was published, and it was reviewed in Locus magazine — a mediocre review at best, but at least it wasn’t blatantly negative. (Locus, though, doesn’t typically publish blatantly negative reviews; I assume if the book is that bad, they simply choose not to review it, so a mediocre review in Locus, when all is said and done, is definitely not a good review.)

What upset the author the most, however, was that the reviewer missed a key element of the story — and that key element would have explained the reviewer’s primary issue with the novel (and maybe then the review wouldn’t have been mediocre). Locus, at the time, was considered a highly influential publication (though not so much anymore, now that we are solidly in the digital age, and readers, book buyers, and book collectors get the majority of their information and reviews online), so even a mediocre review could have a strong, negative sales effect on a book. But we’ll never know, will we: missed opportunities — aka sales — cannot be measured.

But the question(s) remains: Did the reviewer blow it big time by missing that key element of the story? Or, did the author — and, let’s be honest, the book’s editor shares responsibility in this as well — blow it big time by not communicating that key element more effectively to the reader/reviewer? If every review of the novel contained this same "omission," then yes, we could agree that the fault lies with the author, and the author’s editor.

But if only one review were guilty of this oversight, then the finger would indeed point to the reviewer. If the review was on Joe’s Friendly Neighborhood blog, then I don’t think the author (and editor and publisher) would be particularly concerned; but when that mediocre review shows up in the Washington Post Book World or Publishers Weekly (before Reed Business Information tried to sell the publication, and, to reduce costs, began paying freelance reviewers $25.00 per review; read more about PW’s freelance fees), then we know sales will most likely be affected.

Unfortunately, given the Church and State dichotomy, the author has no recourse but to grin and bear it — or to hit his [the generic use of "his," implying both male and female authors] head against the wall and scream, if he tends to not be the silent type.

And yet, I’m encountering more and more reviews of late where the reviewer just doesn’t seem to get it! Why is that? [Notice I keep asking this same question a lot.] Is it the reviewer’s lack of experience and knowledge in the genre? It’s difficult to say, unless one knows the reviewer personally, or the reviewer provides a professional bio alongside the review. And all of this places even more pressure on the author who cares about what others say of his work.

Here’s my take on the three main issues with genre reviews; they are like the plague, and they are spreading…

Read the rest of the article on Marty Halpern’s More Red Ink blog.