The columns, written by Zoe Heller and Adam Kirsch, pursue the topic from slightly different angles.
According to Ms. Heller, the fiction-writing world is quite small and a novelist serving as reviewer would not be likely to hide from a peer whose work was, well, panned. You’re going to run into the other author sooner or later. In addition, empathy for the other novelist is also high, because the reviewer also has firsthand experience in all that entails in crafting a novel. As a result, authors are often reluctant to inflict pain by taking down someone else’s baby – even to a slight degree.
Nonetheless, Ms. Heller writes it must be done – in order to maintain the vitality of literary discussion and defend the vocation of being a novelist.
Mr. Kirsch takes a somewhat different track. While writing a negative review can make enemies in the literary world, in the long run the reviewer goes a long way towards defining his or her identity and informing others about contrasts between novelists. The novelist reviewer is essentially drawing a contrast between his/her artistic self and the art of someone else. Like Ms. Heller, Mr. Kirsch indicates the task must be done, despite the risks.
Okay. I am clearly not in the league of these writers nor am I even in the same galaxy of the individuals they cite in their articles. However, I was fascinated by the discussion and couldn’t help applying it to my life – specifically as it applies to my new found efforts to provide written book reviews.
When I took on the task of trying to engage in social media, I decided one thing I could offer readers is my opinion about horror novels and novellas I was currently reading. I never considered myself as an author – even though my social media efforts were part of an overall promotional device so people could learn about me. I am though, an avid (although quite slow) reader – and I love horror novels.
So, what the heck, I could provide reviews of the stuff I was reading. I realized rather quickly in the review process that I adopted an approach very similar to what I use when grading papers of my graduate students. I am not an English professor, but a counseling psychology professor. But my grading often addresses topics like structure, organization, and clarity. I start with what I like about the paper, and then provide feedback on what needs work. My comments are meant to inform and be constructive.
How is this approach (that is, commenting on positive and negative aspects) taken in reviews, especially by other authors? I have received many “likes” from authors, and I took that at face value – that they liked or at least appreciated my comments. My review efforts do not have a long history. I’ve only done a handful, but I have been fortunate to have read very good novels and novellas. There hasn’t been a dud in the bunch – I’ve been fortunate in that regard (I haven’t had to written a negative review). In fact, most have knocked my socks off. Have there been flaws? Sure. Most novels have flaws. But I feel it is my responsibility to let people know, especially authors, what my take was on the work. I am certainly aware that I am only one opinion of many, and the author can take it with a grain of salt. However, if I have informed him or her in any way, then that is great.
But what about potential readers? Does adding a criticism in a review deter readers from purchasing or reading a book? I hope not. I am very careful to qualify my remarks and make sure a reader of my review has a sense of context within which the criticism is written. On a personal level (and I’ve addressed this in an earlier blog), I often become very intrigued about a work of fiction when it receives a 3 or 4 star review and the person writing the commentary takes special care in addressing the reasons for the rating. Often it is these very comments that make me search out a book. After all, the reviewer has taken great pains to address the pros and cons… to me that clearly says that the book had quite an impact on the reviewer.
Sigh. I have no idea if I am making any sense. I do know that I will feel honored when someone takes the time to give me thoughtful feedback on my novel, Birth Offering.
Psst: I hope to have the same attitude when negative reviews appear….