Reviews: If you don't have anything nice to say...

There’s quite a little brouhaha about what it means to review a book and whether or not it’s ethical to review (or award prizes to) one’s friends. Ron Hogan at Beatrix has some sharp words for The Tournament of Books and Gwenda weighs in (largely agreeing with Ron) that it is all right and probably inevitable that friends review friends; full disclosure is always preferable; things get considerably ickier, however, when money is involved.

The problem with book reviews for all but the most famous writers is the problem of audience. In almost every case, the most engaged and interested reader of your review will be the author herself. And, if you’re inclined to be a sweet-natured person or if you’re reviewing to while away the time before your own beloved book appears, naked and screaming, vulnerable to reviews of its own, it’s easy, as a reviewer, to let the specter of the writer loom too large. After all, as Woolf reminds us, reviews wound:
It is all very well for you…to say that genius should disregard such opinions…Unfortunately, it is precisely the men and women of genius who mind most what is said of them….Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.(A Room of One’s Own 56)

And few of us have the wit, stamina, or soapbox A. J. Jacobs had to rebut a bad review.

I started this blog to avoid writing a negative review. I don’t like to write them. But it is more dishonest to falsely praise a poor book. While reviewers need, I think, to think of the author as part of their audience, she is only part: the chief responsibility of reviewers is to other readers. I wouldn’t accept a review of a friend’s book unless I had confidence in its quality. But I will not vow to only write positive reviews. I love reading witty and well-written reviews and I will admit to taking special pleasure from negative ones; I think comparisons are helpful (which has a lot to do with why remain a fan of the Tournament of Books: when the reviewers stumbled, as they did, I could see through their judgments and I was glad to hear their reasoning, even when I thought it wrong). But, most of all, given all the inevitabilities of writers knowing each other, an occasional negative review reminds us to demand a lot from our reading. I don’t think a culture of “grade inflation” among book reviewers will bring more readers.

What I want in a review is a characterization of what the reviewer thinks the book is aiming to do and then an assessment of how close it came to the mark. Reviewing is dog’s work: a necessary evil, even, at times a malicious pleasure. But judging books is part of reading and if we don’t exercise our judgment, then we’re just skimming the surface.