One crazy thing about book reviewing at my level (“my level” meaning that books get sent to me and I read them, and it’s not usually so many that I have to choose among them, but rather I take what’s given and if it’s good, then that’s fantastic) is considering how to deal with negative reviews. While generally the books I have read for this column have been good, and in some cases supremely great, others haven’t been what I had hoped. Dealing with books in that situation has been tough. Should I give a substantive criticism about the book, mainly for the author’s sake, should I eviscerate the book, or should I try my best to put a good spin on the book for fear of hurting anyone’s feelings?
Unfortunately, I feel as if I tend to do the latter, and it seems that this is a common mistake for new book reviewers, and generally people reviewing the works of writers from their own community. If I didn’t enjoy reading and writing about the books so much, I may have come out some time ago with the idea that it may be a conflict of interest. Regardless, it’s something I’d been thinking about for awhile, and my suspicions were confirmed by Laurie Hertzel, books editor at the Star Tribune, when she explained to me that she does not allow writers who might know the author or the staff at a particular publishing house to review books from those people and places. To Hertzel, a good book review is about honesty, and that honesty is hard to get when it’s all mixed up in networks.
However, to return briefly to a point that Melissa Wray, co-founder of Hazel & Wren, made, part of my goal in writing this column for the Daily Planet is to help build awareness about the literary community in Minneapolis. That community includes the big three—Coffee House Press, Milkweed Editions, and Graywolf—where I happen to know most of the staff, or a pool of independent authors who run in the same circles as the rest of us. So, for a smaller publication like the Daily Planet, or an organization like Hazen & Wren, only reviewing the work of outsiders is not only difficult, but also beside the point. That just makes the question of negative reviews all the trickier.
I spoke with nearly all of my interviewees about negative reviews, and they all admitted that it’s a complicated question, but generally they agreed on one thing: don’t slam a book just for the sake of slamming it. Wray stressed the importance of constructive criticism in negative reviews, and Nathan offered this suggestion: “If you’re going to write a bad review, you shouldn’t be angry. I think the only legitimate response to a poorly written book is disappointment. What right do you have to be angry?” He went on, animatedly. “[The author] didn’t affront you. They didn’t do anything to you. You’re taking the time to review their work…but is it really the book’s intrusion into your life?” Later, he mentioned a brutal review he read that slaughtered Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, noting that it probably did more to boost the visibility and career of the reviewer than it did to shed any light on Franzen’s book, or help out the community.
On the topic of hysterical, bitchy reviewing, Susannah Schouweiler, editor at mnartists.org and former editor of the Ruminator Review of Books, said, “I steer clear of pot-shots, or snark—I find it entertaining but counterproductive. And, all too often, it’s reductive —worthwhile work gets slammed for the sake of a pithy joke or a glib, facile reading with a funny headline.”
Hertzel’s opinion fell in line with the old adage, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Going into these interviews, I was concerned about this opinion, for the reasons I mentioned in last week’s installment, however, Hertzel’s take on the matter changed my mind about a lot of things. Her whole answer to the issue is as follows:
“Tricky thing to talk about, because I don’t want anyone to misunderstand and to think that I am soliciting positive reviews, because I’m not. I’m soliciting honest reviews. If it’s a negative review I’ll think twice about it because I have very limited space. I’m not the New York Times, I’m not the New York Post—which is good and bad—I have room for six reviews on Sundays, one review on Wednesdays, and two very short reviews on Mondays. So, not even ten reviews a week. So, I don’t want to spend my space, which is precious, holding up various books and saying ‘This book? Sucked. This book? Piece of junk. This book? Could have done better.’ What’s the point? Why bother even mentioning this book? So, if it’s a first book by someone who has never written a book before and it’s terrible, I’m not going to review it…If it’s a well-known writer, or a book that’s getting a lot of attention, well then, it’s fair game.”
Next week: the future of book reviews and the book reviewer vs. the self-published novel.