Friday, March 7, 2014

Another View on Reviews

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.

The Post requires, of course, that I not review books by writers with whom I've had any personal connection, so I don't find myself in the position of having to write something negative about friends, acquaintances or colleagues—though I have indeed had the time when I've run into writers after a review has been published (those authors have mostly, but not always, been kind to thank me for the attention) and in a couple of cases I've found myself ducking away from other writers carefully at the big conferences, making sometimes brisk escapes into the crowd. Such distancing (and dodging!) allows me the necessary objectivity to call books as I see them, ranging from really positive reviews (I loved 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.


Meredith Cole said...

Newspapers and magazines are giving fewer pages to professional well written book reviews--and it's a real shame, Art. I definitely read reviews in the Washington Post, New York Times and New Yorker looking for great books to read.

BTW, love the image of you ducking to avoid a writer at a conference...

Paul D. Marks said...

Art, I think you're right about reviews providing context for what a book is trying to do. I like reviews that talk about the bigger picture or aspirations of the book, rather than a blow by blow description of the plot. We need a little plot so we know what it's about and if it's the type of thing we want/like to read. But that's not all a review should be. And I like reading reviews, even of books I might not ever plan to read. I often learn a lot just from the reviews themselves.

Art Taylor said...

Yeah, Meredith, I focused on those reviews because it's what I write--plus Alan had already done such a good job of dividing up all the different kinds of reviews out there. (I made a quick jab at Amazon reviews, though.... Ugh!)

And yes, I won't tell you which writers I've dodged, of course!

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Paul—yes, that's exactly what I think too!

Kristopher said...

What a great account of things from the professional side of things.

I have to say, I am happy that I am not "required" to review things as I would be with a paid gig.

Since I only do mostly positive reviews, there are some weeks where I just don't have a book to cover, but fortunately, I work far enough ahead that usually that problem is invisible to blog readers.

RJ Harlick said...

A very thoughtful treatise from the other side of the review, so to speak. Thanks, Art, for sharing. So if I see you trying to dodge me at the next conference, I'll no why. :)

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Kristopher and RJ—much appreciated! (And yes, Kristopher, there's a little bit more freedom in not being required to review a book; sometimes I wish I could pick and choose a little more myself!)

And RJ, no worries. I'm a big admirer of your work--and since we know one another, I can't review you anyway! :-)

Dana King said...

Excellent insights, and thanks for the peek behind the curtain of what you strive for when you write a review; I agree completely, though I had to learn it.

The best lesson I ever had about writing reviews was the most simple: my job is to help the reader to decide if the book passes the $25 test: will it be worth spending the money (and time) on? That means writing the review in such a manner that those whose tastes differ from mine can still take benefit from the review.

Art Taylor said...

Yes, Dana—navigating and respecting different tastes here seems key to me too.

E.A. Aymar said...

Really nice post, Art. You addressed something I've been wondering recently - how difficult it must be for professional reviewers to maintain friendly relationships within the mystery/thriller community. Part of me feels that reviewers should maintain some distance from writers, but the other part of me thinks that's taking things too seriously.

Art Taylor said...

Hi, Ed --
It's tough in a number of ways, of course. Being a critic is, I firmly believe, an important brand of literary citizenship, but it requires some distancing that does seem counter to being a part of the community in other ways. I simply don't review folks in the immediate community, of course, here in the DC area, and I don't at all feel bad about informal promotion of friends and colleagues--which I don't think compromises questions of objectivity and integrity; in fact, just to make sure I'm clear, I'll almost always say on FB or wherever: "Check out my friend XXX's book..." or "Don't miss my friend XXX's signing..."

But if there's a review published in the Post, you can guarantee that it hasn't been swayed by who I know or who I've met or whatever.

So distance here, friendliness there. And the mystery community is both small enough AND big enough to make both of those possible, I think--at least for where I am now.

Alan Orloff said...

Art, I give this blog post five stars. And I'd give it that many even if I didn't know you. Well done, sir!

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Alan! I loved your post too--really impressed with how you broke down that range of different kinds of reviews our there.

And generally just always interested to see how many different directions each of our panelists can take the questions each week. This is fun!