By Art Taylor
I'm in a slightly different situation from the other writers who've preceded me with this week's question: "Do you read reviews? Reply to them? Review the works of other writers?" As a short story writer whose work appears in magazines and anthologies (i.e. not a full-length collection of my own fiction yet), I'm less likely to have my work reviewed at any great length—though I certainly did appreciate having been included in a round-up of last year's best EQMM stories and getting a quick shout-out on a particular story from a reader who enjoyed it. And I'm sure I'd feel stung if someone took the time to single out one of my stories as one to not read in a particular issue of EQMM; that would take a particular brand of disappointment, wouldn't it?
But beyond being a short story writer and thus largely ignored/sheltered (take your pick) from reviews, I'm also (quickly switching hats) a professional reviewer, with articles appearing fairly regularly these days in The Washington Post and past reviews in the pages of magazines including Mystery Scene, The Oxford American, The Strand and other publications.
Jason Matthews' Red Sparrow, currently up for an Edgar Award) to pretty negative ones (well, click through for yourself).
In each case, I'm not just trying to offer a thumbs up or thumbs down, which I think is the disappointing and even destructive thing about a lot of Amazon reviews these days, and in the end, I doubt that anyone really cares whether I personally liked a book or not. Instead, I try to gauge a book on its own ambitions or intentions (best as I can judge them), on the audience that it might be aiming for, on how it fits into some larger tradition or trend, etc. My hope it to provide some context that will let the reader know what a book is trying to do, how freshly or smartly it's doing it, and whether they might want to look into it further or likely just steer clear. In fact, one of the best comments I got on a review was from a friend
who said, "I could tell that you didn't care much for that book you reviewed, but it sounds like just what I'd want to read. Is that bad?" No, not bad at all. In fact, that makes me feel like I did my job.
While I haven't myself gone through the process of writing and revising a book-length manuscript, finding an agent, finding a publisher, getting edited further, etc., I do respect and admire anyone who's gone through that and come out the other end with a published book in hand—and because I can certainly imagine what it must feel like to come through that process and find a lot of negativity waiting at the end of it, I don't cast such aspersions lightly. Contrary to popular belief, I don't think
that critics in general take great pleasure in trashing someone else's
work or in being clever at the expense of somebody else.
Still, I do think there's an obligation to be honest about what might not be
working in a novel and to give readers some insight (as I said above) about whether a
book might just not be right for them. No one is served well if you just give a little pat on
the back to everything you read.
Good critical commentary—whether a single review or the weekly contributions of critics like Ron Charles or Michael Dirda, the columnists I most admire—celebrates great accomplishments more often than not and provides both a deeper understanding of the work under discussion and of the larger world of literature across a wide set of genres. While I know the first question this week is about whether we read reviews of our own work, I do want to stress that everything I've tried to say here is why I read reviews in general—even of highly praised books that I ultimately have no intention of reading myself. There's lots to learn from a careful and conscientious critic, about our own craft and others' work and a whole lot more.