Book Reviews/ Reviewer Reviews

So…I’ve been writing reviews and critiques for a long time now.

Back in 2005 or 2006, I started an account on Shelfari, and wrote a short review of every book that I read. Hundreds of short reviews, most of them trying to look at the book from a writer’s perspective: what could I gain from it? Some of the more articulate and insightful reviews now survive as blog posts here on my site, while others are…best left there on Shelfari, buried beneath hundreds of other short postings and comments.

I learned a lot from writing those reviews, no matter how dreadful some of them were. I learned that every book has an author, and that every author is a real person, and that every Real Person Author is probably the same as me: they read their reviews, and they care about what readers think. On the positive side, I was actually contacted by Brad Listi (Attention. Deficit. Disorder., and founder of The Nervous Breakdown), who loved my review of his book, and who thanked me for a thoughtful examination of the contents. At the time, that was the closest I’d ever come to a “celebrity encounter” with a real author (not counting my professors). On the negative side, though, I wrote a pretty scathing review of a book called Nylund the Sarcographer, by Joyelle McSweeney; it’s a book I still dislike and wouldn’t recommend, but it’s a small-press offering by an obscure poet, so did I really need to write something that so loudly trumpeted how terrible I thought the book was? Well. When I recently checked my old book review, I noticed that there were a grand total of four (4) people who have the book on their shelves, and one other review: this one a single sentence, generic, and much kinder, likely the review of one of the author’s friends. And someone had marked my review (which was extremely specific about the book’s failings) as “not helpful.” Oh no, I thought. The author definitely read this review. The author definitely thinks I’m a gigantic a-hole, maybe even marked the “not helpful” button herself.

Since 2007 or so, I’ve also been writing critiques for my Creative Writing students’ poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. In a single “Introduction to Creative Writing” course, I will write 75 highly analytical and personal 1-2 page critiques, one for each student for each genre in which they write. In a fiction or nonfiction workshop class, the workload is more reasonable: a detailed 2-page critique for each author’s short story. In every single critique, I am forced to consider the audience: I am not writing to other readers and telling them whether they should check this book out, but instead writing to the author him/herself to tell them what is working in their manuscript, and what ideas need further attention. The result is predictable: half of the students love me, and love the rigor with which I attend to their manuscripts; the other half hate me, and think that I’m attacking them, and (on some occasions) refuse to speak to me, or refuse to revise (the “I don’t care what you have to say! I’m a genius!” defense mechanism), or call me “harsh” and “unreasonable” in their evaluations, or cry (literally), or even begin to defend sloppy writing (“Come on, Mr. Holic. A few typos don’t really matter.”).

In any case, I’ve written thousands of reviews and critiques in the last decade of my life, some of which were appreciated, and many of which were not appreciated. (I even had a student who bragged that he had not read my comments.)

And now I’m writing a book review/ reading essay series called “Reading Books While Burping My Baby” over at Burrow Press Review. I try to focus on small-press books in the column, but really, I write about whatever I happen to be reading, and discuss how my own reading habits are changing as a result of having a baby. The latest installment is here, and focuses upon Jess Stoner’s mixed-media/ hybrid novel I Have Blinded Myself Writing This.

And what do you know? Jess Stoner read the essay, loved the discussion (and the criticisms), and made a really awesome post on her tumblr account. This was a real first for me, to have an author so grateful for the review I gave. Maybe I feel like the last seven years of reviews and critiques have actually been building me into a solid, honest-to-God book critic.

It makes me feel even better to contrast the above with the following exchange between author Patrick Somerville and The New York Times book review. The article is a must-read. Apparently, the book critic completely misread the novel, and not in an excusable way (i.e. not due to the fault of the author’s own poor/ confusing writing); the critic attributed the events of the entire first chapter to the wrong character, thus altering and muddying the book’s story and structure, and causing everything to collapse. Corrections were issued, but what does a correction matter to an author whose book has now been given a poor review that cannot be taken back? The book critic can’t re-read and re-judge the book, after all.

There is a similar responsibility in writing book reviews and student critiques, I think. To say something misguided in a student critique would be (potentially) destructive; it might even mean that you’re teaching the wrong principles, setting the student down a path where they think that 2+2=12. You’re writing directly to an author, and you don’t take on that task lightly. With a book review, the audience is obviously different, but maybe the responsibility is the same; maybe the critic should keep the author in mind…the main responsibility is to the reader, certainly, but just as good reviews can herald the arrival of new talent, bad reviews can sink careers before they even get started. A bad review might not matter for Stephen King, but for me? No, the author isn’t the primary audience, but if the critic remembers that the author is an audience, maybe it’s easier to remember the responsibility of writing a fair and critical review.

On the flip side, I’ve grown accustomed to seeing authors write things like “Thanks for the review!” on one another’s facebook walls, and I’ve become accustomed to seeing overwhelmingly positive reviews published throughout the small-press world. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. “Croney Critiques.” This is what happens when the critic makes the author into the primary audience for the review, and now we’re dealing with something that’s irresponsible for readers. Maybe it’s even irresponsible to the book’s author.

In my own writing, I strive to be as honest as possible. If I don’t give you honesty, then what the hell am I giving you? We’re both wasting our time. But honesty isn’t an excuse for hurtful or hateful commentary, either.

In any case, check out “Reading Books While Burping My Baby” over at Burrow Press Review. Critiques are always welcome!

6 responses to “Book Reviews/ Reviewer Reviews”

  1. Obviously I not only read and loved your review of my book, but I’m stalking you now as well. I review books for Necessary Fiction; reviewing is such an odd monster. Sometimes I use it to stretch my scholarly muscles, the ones I want to make sure don’t atrophy. And I’m proud of some that I’ve written. Others, I think, well, I don’t know. I wonder if, in some ways, the filter you use (reading while you’re taking care of Jackson) changes everything and gives a kind of freedom. Or at least, it seems that way to me–I don’t yet have to take care of another human being (other than my husband), and I’ve wondered if having a kid will make me less self-conscious about saying the things I want to say. My favorite review I’ve ever done was of Jac Jemc’s My Only Wife–instead of worrying about those scholarly biceps, I did an audio review–of only my marginalia. In so many ways, I think it was the most honest review I ever wrote. I think I’m going to do more reviews like this. I worry about whether or not it seems like a gimmick, but, argh, I wish I just didn’t worry. I think the worry interrupts where I really want to go with a book. Why do I have to wait until I procreate to stop worrying? I wonder how classes on reviewing are taught? Maybe we should write/edit an anthology of reviewers on reviewing small press books? Not to solve anything, but to at least get all of these thoughts into the open? What do you think Nathan?

    • Jess, thanks for reading (and stalking!). I worried, when I first started doing the Burping Baby essays, that it would feel gimmicky. When I reviewed Bradley’s “Prize Winners,” and then I read his response (something along the lines of, “Well, I know my book is nice to hold when you have a baby, but is it any good?”), I thought I’d done his book a disservice, just so I could write something cute. But for the most part, I think you’re right: I think the filter has helped me to give a personal angle to the reviews that might be missing otherwise. I’ve been able to talk about the overall reading experience, and not just the “quality” of a book. And I’ve been able to escape the thought–while reading–that I’m actually going to write a review. When you’re “reading for reviewing,” rather than just “reading because you enjoy reading,” your entire mindset is different. Maybe you don’t fall into the book as easily, or maybe you’re so concerned about what you want to write in your review that you can’t actually appreciate the experience for what it is.

      I think you also hit on something when you talked about the honesty of a book review, and how important it is. We (or at least, I) demand honesty out of the literature I read. It’s an abstract concept in literature, “honesty,” and impossible to quantify, but I need my fiction to be honest, not forced or manipulative, and I especially need my nonfiction to feel honest. I want the writer to be honest with me, and with him/herself. But at the same time, maybe we don’t always demand honesty out of the book reviews we read and write? I mean, how many book reviews have you read where the author seems most concerned with making him/herself appear smart? Or witty? Or super-smarmy? Or most concerned with (and I think I mentioned this in my post) re-paying a favor, or getting in another author’s good graces? In that way, the review becomes more about the author, and the persona they want to command, than an honest attempt to show readers the experience that the critic had while reading.

      Don’t worry about gimmicks, Jess. If you feel that a particular angle is going to make your reviews feel more honest, then I’d say, go for it. A series of reviews where you look back over at your dog-eared pages and margin notes? That sounds fun, as long as it’s something that you can get excited about.

      And heck yeah, I’d co-edit anything with you!


  2. As a student who benefited from two semesters of your detailed critiques, I agree; all writers deserve the respect that is synonymous with honesty. An insincere “Great job” is about as satisfying as a limp handshake.

    Patrick Somerville summed it up nicely, “In the end nothing matters but the work.”

  3. I agree with Deb. Also, every time I’ve ever received a critique (from a teacher, friend, family member, stranger) that just said “wow this is good” I’ve been massively disappointed. As I progressed through school I became more critical of my own work and realized that every piece of work can be fixed in some way. “Good job” or “you’re a great writer” is nice, but it should usually be paired with something that actually helps the writer learn and grow.

    Now, when I try to write or draw, I attempt to focus on one thing that I know I need improvement in. Learning bit by bit really helps when you eventually try to pull it together. Far less overwhelming.

    I was lucky enough to have you as a teacher for a semester and you had a great balance of encouragement and criticism. Not to mention that the critiques you gave me were actually relevant and meaningful (unlike many peer reviews).

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