Recently, I had the misfortune of writing a negative review for a book which, I’m sorry to say, deserved it. The author of the book felt that I was attacking her personally, and said so on a public forum. Later, her publisher joined in, posting the following status on Facebook:
“Have had a problem of a publication I published being reviewed a couple of times by people whose reading skills are not up to the job – have any other publishers on here had that problem and what do you do?”
Since then, other writers and reviewers have offered to step in and provide a ‘more balanced’, ‘more positive’ take on the book. This is a problematic approach to reviewing, for reasons that should be obvious, but which I shall state anyway: reviews are meant to reflect what the reviewer sees; reviews, if they are to be useful, cannot only be megaphones for praise.
This post is not intended as a response to the accusations of the poet or her publisher, but rather it is meant to clarify what I think reviews are for.
My reviews are never personal. I do not care about the character of the author, what they are like at home, or even if they are kind to stray animals (though I rather hope that they are). I will not review books for friends, though several of the people whose books I’ve reviewed have become friends after the fact. I care about the quality of the work as it is presented. I care about helping readers to decide which books to purchase, and about helping writers discern their strengths and weaknesses so that, in the long run, their work will improve. I care about providing a detailed analysis of the text as a means of supporting my arguments.
I try to provide reasoned arguments, rational discourse, and my opinions are not inflexible. It is also worth saying that most of my reviews lean towards the positive. I do praise what I can, but since my praise is not (I hope) meaningless, I only give praise when one aspect of the work has merited it.
It is highly inappropriate (not to say unprofessional) for an author or publisher to contact a reviewer in order to chastise them for writing a negative review. The writer should read it, weigh the criticisms (and praise) in their mind, and discern if the review has anything to teach them. And keep in mind that reviews are the opinion of one person. There will be others, either to reinforce the judgements of the reviewer or to ‘balance them out’. If the writer can gain nothing at all from the review it is in their interest to ignore it.
Writers should use reviews as mirrors to see the backs of their own heads. Reviews can sometimes highlight aspects of the text that the author cannot see. Sometimes, my reviews are dictated by taste. I do try to select books that seem like they will be interesting to me because, frankly, good reviews are easier to write. But I will also review whatever I am offered unless I suspect that I will not enjoy it at all, in which case I will generally turn it down in the hopes that it goes to someone a bit more sympathetic.
I have written very positive reviews of books that were not at all to my taste, but which had visible, unshakable quality. I’ve given good reviews to books that were very good at being what they are, even if I didn’t like what that was. I’ve given terrible reviews to books whose themes appealed but which failed in the execution. I know that a good many other reviewers use similar methods. But really, my primary goal is to help you, the reader, decide which book to pick up next. There’s a sea out there, people, and money is limited. If you can buy the best books, everybody wins.
You can find the review in question HERE