Reviewing From The Other Side

This is a reprint from CrimeSpree magazine but it appeared back in 2007. So I think it’s safe to say  most of  you never read it. I’ve updated it.

As I wait for the reviews of Havana Lost to come in, I can’t help but remember the first (and only) first professional review I wrote. It was in 2007 for Marcus Sakey’s Good People, (btw, Marcus has a new thriller out called Brilliance , and you really need to read it). My review ran in the August 2007 edition of Chicago Magazine. Happily, I liked the book and said so. But I never want to write another review. Ever.

I don’t know how other authors can write reviews. (I’m not talking about blurbs—they’re a different kettle of fish,). As a writer,  I know what a torturous investment I make in my own writing. How I write myself into a corner. And rewrite myself out of it. How I try to stretch to the next level. Create characters that come alive on the page. Avoid contrived plots or resolutions. Weave issues that add depth to the story. And that’s just the writing process.

There’s also the second guessing. The nail-biting when the ARCs go out for review. Was I too heavy-handed? Did the subplot work or fall flat? Was the dialogue natural? What will the trade reviewers say?

Oh, and let’s get real about something else. Some authors claim they don’t care if a review isn’t good. That any review is better than none at all. Some authors even claim that, in some ways, a bad review is better than a good one. I don’t buy it. Having been the recipient of the occasional dunderhead myself (Of course, they totally misunderstood the conceit. And the plot. And the characters), I want to hide for a week in my basement or drown myself in wine.

So, having gone through this many times myself, how could I possibly judge another author’s effort? How do other writers do it? Boston Globe mystery reviewer Hallie Ephron, who is an incredibly successful author herself, understands and says knowing what a writer goes through keeps her from being snarky. “I don’t take it lightly,” she says. “I try to be respectful.” If something doesn’t work for her in a book, she tries to be specific and descriptive rather than judgmental. She also makes a point of telling readers that, as a writer, she might quibble about points that wouldn’t bother a non-writer; for example, an inconsistent point-of-view.

Sounds reasonable. But even supposing I could do what she does, how far would I go? The objective of writing a review is to tell potential readers whether they should invest their time and energy and dollars in a new book. Because I’m a wordsmith, I can probably describe all the good points of a book. I could probably even make the book sound like the best thing since the Guttenberg Bible. But because I’m a wordsmith, I choose words carefully. I could easily forego a superlative hear and there. Write around a deficiency in craft or concept. We’ve all read reviews that damn with faint praise. Reviews in which what isn’t said sometimes screams louder than what is.

And what if I truly don’t like a book? Should I review it at all? What good does it do? Carl Brookins, a veteran author who also reviews crime fiction, straddles the line. He generally finishes a book he’s decided to review, even if the book has problems. He’ll write about the problems, but he’ll make a point of saying something positive as well. “Because I know what writers go through, I think it’s incumbent on me to mention both the good and the bad.”

There’s also the problem of knowing the people you’re reviewing. Over the years I’ve met a lot of people in this business, including reviewers. Some are even my friends. How do they stay objective when reviewing me? Don’t get me wrong. A great review makes my day. But sometimes I wonder whether the reviewer might have been going “easy” on me because we know each other.

And what if I like the person, but I don’t like the book?  Hallie Ephron avoids the whole issue by not reviewing books written by friends. She also won’t review a book if she’s given it a blurb. But what about subsequent books by the same author? Even she isn’t quite sure about that. “How long is the ‘statute of limitations?’” she asks. “Eight years? More?” In those cases she’s glad for support and counsel from the Globe. Carl feels differently. If he knows the author, he’ll still review the book. If he knows them well, though, he’ll say so in the review and will focus exclusively on the book. However, he acknowledges there might occasionally be a subconscious effect, particularly if he likes the author. (Do you like me Carl? Pretty please?)

Both Hallie and Carl say the dramatic decline in print review space isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They both predict that book bloggers and review websites may ultimately reach more “qualified” readers, i.e., those apt to buy and/or read crime fiction. Still, newspaper reviews, when they do appear, play a critical role. “We owe it to bookstores, libraries, and publishers to use mass market channels when we can,” Hallie says.

Regardless of the venue,  authors who review other authors’ work have stores of courage and precision I don’t. After dipping my toe in the water, I don’t intend to dive in, but those who do have my utmost respect and admiration.