The Last Word
Book Reviews...the good, the bad, and the downright painful
Harriet Klausner isn't necessarily someone you've heard of, unless you read book reviews on Amazon.com. Not just any books, only novels that fit within the Romance or women's fiction genres. But to those who write in that category, Harriet Klausner is a demi-god. I had no idea of her weight in the world of reviewing until I happened to be at dinner with several authors with whom I shared an editor. Frankly, their books were in the Fabio-cover category and each author decried being savaged by Ms. Klausner. I kept my mouth shut; Harriet seems to like my work. From her I get four and a half stars.
A writer both desires and dreads being reviewed. On the one hand, it's a necessary part of the profession, and without it, the book may languish. Unless a publisher is throwing huge money into advertising, being reviewed is critical to getting the book on the radar of booksellers. On the other hand, it is tantamount to handing your first born (or second, or third) over to strangers who then point out all the flaws in your perfect child. Your little Johnny has serious lapses in continuity and suffers from predictability.
My very first book, Beauty, was reviewed in the New York Times Review of Books. It had already received decent reviews in some trade magazines, even in the sine qua non of booksellers' journals, Publishers Weekly. I was so excited, my first book had made it into the big leagues, the same pages where Saul Bellow and Joyce Carol Oates had been featured. I read the full-page review in the car, word by word my excitement gave over to horror. The Times reviewer had slammed Beauty. They had given it to a woman who had also written a homage to the Beauty and the Beast tale, hers being a children's book. I was crushed. So crushed I "lost" the Book Review so I can't recall now who that author was. How dare she? She took exception to the weather in the book. Sheesh.
But, of all the reviews Beauty received, and most of the rest of them were lovely, I learned the most from that one. One benefit of being reviewed, especially to the neophyte, is to learn how to write better. That isn't to say take every criticism as good advice, but be open-minded. A decent review is uplifting, a great review is validation of years of hard work, but an honest review, one that isn't just looking for something negative to say for the sake of being negative, does make a writer look in the mirror. In this case, after my hurt, anger, frustration, and urge to rebut simmered down, I discarded the snipe and heeded the observation that, perhaps, my story did depend on bad weather for dramatic effect. Then again, it was set in New Hampshire in the winter. Okay, so maybe I'm not quite over it.
Nowadays, everyone is invited to write a review, whether for a book, a product, a new tech toy, and give it however many stars you think it deserves. I love reading those little reviews from readers who take the time to let the cyber world know what they think about a book. Mostly these reviews are just little 'why I liked this book, by Jane Smith' style paragraphs, but sweet. They may serve to encourage online browsers (the reading public, not the thing that makes the Internet work on your computer) but are they book reviews in the strictest sense?
Being a reviewer is to be responsible for bringing a book into the public eye, to offer an opinion on that book, to guide potential readers toward - or away from - that book. It is not a book report. Nothing is more annoying than reading a review that outlines the whole story and then gives away the ending - the reviewer as spoil sport. Yes, you need to explain the plot, but not so far as to retell the whole story. Reviews aren't Cliff Notes. A flavor of the writer's style should be shared, and a snippet from the book quoted as a sample of what to expect from that writer. What are the key plot points, who are the characters, then tell us why the story worked, or didn't. A well-done review of fiction is based on the merits of the work, the beauty of the written word and the skill the author used in bringing the reader into his or her world. If the writer failed at any of that, then say so.
Going back to the idea that a review should be taken as a learning experience, criticism without purpose is counterproductive and just cleverness from the reviewer. If it is suggested that characters need more clarity to tell them apart, the writer should think about it. Agree or disagree and move on. But to complain that a character wears too much green is petty.
It is far easier to be objective about the work of strangers than of friends. That is a tricky business. Living in a small place, which is chock-a-block full of talented writers, one isn't reviewing in the comfortable vacuum of anonymity - that is, being anonymous to the reviewee. There is the inevitable encounter at the post office. Or waiting for a break in the traffic at the Stop and Shop at which reviewer and reviewee face off. Good review, hey, cut right in. Bad review, stay put till hell freezes over.
Whether or not a reviewer knows the writer, a reviewer wants to be generous, but not write a valentine; a reviewer wants to be honest, but not hurt feelings. Sandwiched in between is a nice median strip where good writers look for criticism and good reviewers know when to give it. And a writer needs to remember that people may remember seeing a review, but rarely whether it was glowing or scathing. The important thing is getting reviewed.
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist. She lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at www.susanwilsonwrites.com.