Feb 2 2009 12:06pm

Who Gets to Write Reviews?

It’s considered good form for novelists to maintain a serene distance from reviews and critical essays of their work. After writing a book, they’re supposed to be quiet about it unless asked to speak (e.g., in an interview, on a panel, in fan mail), and there are a lot of good reasons for this to be so; in a big way, the novelist has already had her say by writing the book in the first place. But many novelists can’t completely play dead like Roland Barthes they should, as they (which would include me) work with words in other ways. They are editors, essayists, and publishers, and—even more problematic—review books themselves.

In celebration of John Updike’s life, Paper Cuts recently drew attention to a Critical Mass post detailing his . The meat of his approach, to me, is contained in two points—“Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt1…. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?”—and in this longer passage:

Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

Goaded by a series of loaded questions from the Harvard Advocate way back in 2000, Dave Eggers went even further:2

Are there fair and helpful book critics? Yes, of course. But by and large, the only book reviews that should be trusted are by those who have themselves written books. And the more successful and honored the writer, the less likely that writer is to demolish another writer. Which is further proof that criticism comes from a dark and dank place. What kind of person seeks to bring down another? Doesn’t a normal person, with his own life and goals and work to do, simply let others live? Yes. We all know that to be true…. Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them.

I don’t know if Eggers feels the same way now that he did then, but the extremity of his comments and the sincerity behind them made me stop and think when I first read them and still nag at me today. Can meaningful book reviews be written only by people who have written books?

In practice, it seems that I disagree almost completely with Eggers; as an editor of the , I have run book reviews not only by people who have never written a book, but people who have never written a book review before. But I do think Eggers is getting at something. I suspect I would be embarrassed today by the kind of review I might have written, say, ten years ago, when I was younger and angrier. I still had the ability to swoon over a book then, and never got quite as bitter as some readers I’ve met who profess to like reading but seem not to like any books they’ve read in years. But if I didn’t like something I’d read, I was merciless. In conversations with people, I first slit the book’s throat, then dismembered the corpse, and then perhaps burned the pieces. I was, in short, mean.

Trying to write a book myself taught me some richly deserved humility; by the time I got my first assignment to write a review—a few months after my first book was published—my stance was akin to Updike’s, though to this day I can’t articulate it quite as clearly as he did. I was also more aware of the purpose I thought a book review served as a market signal, a way to guide readers toward books they might enjoy and away from books they might not. Most of all, though, I’m much less likely to demolish or dismiss a book than I was ten years ago because, as many people have said before me, the fight isn’t really against bad reviews; it’s against obscurity, and I’d rather use a review to turn people on to a book they might not have heard of than to tear someone else down.3

But my positions aren’t profound and I don’t think one needs to have written a book to arrive at them. With apologies to both Updike and Eggers, who really were trying to be as generous as possible in their arguments, there’s also a small, undemocratic, and defensive strain running through the idea that one’s own ass should be on the line to be a credible reviewer.4 Could you argue that this actually makes a reviewer less credible? More skittish? Less honest? Do we want our book culture to be completely polite all the time? Isn’t a good reader’s opinion just as worthy—perhaps, as Roland Barthes suggested when he killed the author, more worthy—than a writer’s opinion?

1 To parody some movie reviews I’ve read, I’ve told many people that someday I’ll start a movie-review column that judges every movie by the standards of kung-fu movies. Enter the Dragon would be this reviewer’s Citizen Kane. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would be pretty good, but not as good as Iron Monkey. The Matrix would also be a pretty good movie, except that it has too much exposition. Driving Miss Daisy, Terms of Endearment, and Rain Man would be among the worst movies ever made. Possible variant: Judging every movie ever made by the standards of zombie movies.

2 I hope Eggers will forgive me. These comments were made in the context of a much longer argument about the need to abandon the obsession with street cred and the keeping real of things; his crankiness comes from a place of generosity, not small-mindedness. In the prologue to this argument, he explained to his interviewer that “all of this is long, but you can’t edit without my permission.” By excerpting, I have effectively edited a great deal, and risk skewing his comments in a direction they don’t deserve. The full text appears .

3 That doesn’t mean that a good old-fashioned, beer-bottle-to-the-head literary smackdown can’t be good or useful. Two of my favorite extremely negative reviews—David Foster Wallace’s review of none other than John Updike’s science-fiction novel Toward the End of Time and Matt Taibbi’s review of Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat are and , respectively, though it’s telling that, in both cases, the targets are extremely well-established and the reviews use their subjects to make larger points beyond the books. And neither review, to me, is born of scorn—the “smelly and ignorant” place that Eggers talks about—but outrage or genuine sadness; it’s possible (as Eggers himself suggests) to criticize without being ugly or mean about it.

4 If you translated the idea into politics, it would be a bit like saying that only politicians and policymakers could criticize the policies of other politicians and policymakers.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden
1. pnh
With all due respect to Dave Eggers, he's wrong. Book reviews are written by readers, and for readers. They are a transaction to which writers are orthogonal.

The fact that some reviewers also write books creates a confusion in which it's easy for people immersed in the business of writing books to mistake book reviewing for something connected to the writing of books. It's not; it's about the reading of books.
Joe Sherry
2. jsherry
I agree with Patrick here, and I don't think it's because I write reviews and have never published a novel (I've written one, but it's going to stay in a box in my closet until I can buy a trunk deep enough to lose it in).

My shorter take on reviews is that are a guide for other readers to find out if a book is worth spending time and money on. It comes from the trust that the reviewer has done a decent enough job to convey the relative merits of (or lack thereof) a book.

Being able to communicate on thoughts via a review is an entirely different skillset than being able to tell a story. Not being able to tell a story doesn't mean that one can't recognize whether a book is any good, though.

Criticism, on the other hand, takes an entirely different skillset than reviewing and while on a good day I think I could maybe hack it as a reviewer, I know I could never pass muster as a critic.

I think of reviewing as part of a conversation, and unless folks are trying to say we shouldn't talk about books with people we know (or don't know), then I guess I have to disagree with the overall premise that reviewers should have written a book before they can review.
Shari F.
3. Mulluane
There are different types of reviews and each should be considered for what it is and what you are looking for in a review.

The reader review: This is what I do, read a book then review according to my gut reaction. I know a few things about writing. I know what PoV is, know the difference between showing and telling, understand what a premise is, but I'm not a publisher, editor or writer so I don't bring that level of expertise to a review. What I do is point out things I liked or did not like about the book; I express my opinion as an avid reader.

The expert review: This is a publisher, editor, writer or somebody with formal training in the literary field. This type of review is going to address things like writing style, syntax, voice, plot points, and draw comparisons to other books. These reviews are very indepth, but sadly, since most of it goes right over my head, rarely tell me if I am going to like the book. However, for people who care about those things, this type of review is invaluable.

Both types are valid, both depend on personal taste, both accomplish the same thing, they promote books.
Kate Nepveu
4. katenepveu
Obviously I agree that reviews can and should be written by readers, since I am and I do. Moving on to a perhaps less-obvious point:

I find that the knowledge that any living author can show up in my comments is sufficient check on my reviews. I still feel free to say bad things about books, I just make sure I'm willing to say them even to the (virtual) face of the author.

(As for dead authors, well, I just hope that the habit carries over.)
Matthew Brown
5. morven
I always prefer a reviewer whose biases are known, and preferably one whose biases are admitted; and while a good savaging can be briefly entertaining on a subject that deserves it, I'd rather a reviewer tell me why he disliked a book, if he did, in more moderate language.

It's extremely helpful if a reviewer gives examples of what other works the review subject reminds him of, both good and bad. Then, if I know those examples, I have a better idea of whether the problem the review identifies is something that actually bugs me.
Martin Wisse
6. Martin_Wisse
Succesful writers do not write nasty reviews because they know one hand washes the other and what comes around, goes around. A good review is worth money, so better not anger your peers. Commerce before art. It's regulatory capture at its smallest.

Meanwhile Eggers is right to be wary of reviewers, overrated flash in the pan one trick pony hack that he is.
Martin Wisse
7. Martin_Wisse
Incidently, I of course do have booklog and would love authors to show up in the comments to argue their case if need be, but so far none have, though one relative of Theodore Cogswell did.
Soon Lee
8. SoonLee
As a reader, I'm most interested in whether a given book is (or isn't) worth my time, and the reasons for it. I read reviews for that reason.

While a flaying can be entertaining, it's not necessarily informative. And I agree with Morven @5: knowing the reviewer's biases is very useful. There are e.g. film reviewers where if they hated a particular movie, then it's probably one I would enjoy.
zaphod beetlebrox
9. platypus rising
Driving Miss Daisy, Terms of Endearment, and Rain Man would be among the worst movies ever made.

Which is true.
Jo Walton
10. bluejo
Martin: I think it's a bit less cynical than you suggest. It's not so much regulatory capture, where you're avoiding writing a bad review because you're hoping for a benefit for yourself. It's more collegiality, where you don't write a bad review because the other writers are your friends and will feel personally hurt if you trash their book. It's like telling your friends that their bum does look big in that. I talked about this a bit in the comments to the "How to talk to writers" thread.

But it's why I'm doing "re-reading" here rather than reviews of new books I might not like. What I re-read, I by definition like, or I wouldn't bother with reading it again.
Sandi Kallas
11. Sandikal
Movie critics don't make movies. Theater critics don't produce plays. Art critics aren't artists. Restaurant reviewers aren't chefs. Why on Earth would a book reviewer have to be a book writer? In my opinion, the reviewer/critic is a spokesman for the audience and should be a member of the audience, not a peer to the creator.
Patrick Garson
12. patrickg
Seconding Sandikal. Eggers' whole argument seems to be based on the fact that writing books is really hard, therefore no books are shit.

But heaps of books are shit. And just as you can argue for shielding the author's fluttering ego, so must the reviewer, or more properly the critic, defend a reader's exhausted patience, beaten sensibilities and hunger for good writing.

I was a professional reviewer for about five years or so. In the end, I gave it up because, rather than a vast sea of literary effluence that some cynics posit, the sea in fact was an asphodel plain. It was bloody hard writing reviews of books that were neither very good, nor egregiously bad, nor particularly relevant.

The best critics I think (like Michael Dirda *swoon*)articulate what is great about books. Those things may not be your cup of tea, but you can at least appreciate them. More importantly, they explicate the links between the fantastical world, and the society we live in that produces them. Highlighting the meaning, in short, which means you can get a good review of a bad book.
13. JeffVanderMeer
It seems to me to be ridiculous to say anything as general as all reviewers must be writers or that all reviewers must not be writers. Generalities are b.s. But the fact is, it would be *good* if every non-writer reviewer tried to write a novel. What they'd learn would be useful in their reviewing for a number of reasons.

Updike's absolutely right in most of what he says about reviewing books. And it's incorrect that successful writers don't write negative reviews.

I'd add that what we lose by not having more writers do reviews--and honest reviews--is a kind of dialogue that you find in the literary mainstream and that would be very healthy for the field.


PS Here's a related post:
Arachne Jericho
14. arachnejericho
I review a little, and have written a little (well, a lot that y'all don't see). I've not done nearly enough of the latter to be regarded as a writer except by random amused people at work, but I've done some.

Mostly, about the writing, I like having picked up on some of the narrative tools used so I can discern better why something might work or what is annoying me all to hell and all that. When you know more about the techniques of storytelling you can appreciate more finely what works and what doesn't.

The best movie critics know about storytelling and more than a little bit about movie making.

The best restaurant reviewers know about flavoring and more than a little bit about cooking.

It wouldn't really surprise me if it were this way with book reviewers as well.
Patrick Garson
15. patrickg
Interesting Jeff, here in Australia the majority of reviewers are in fact writers, both novelists and non-fiction. There are few reviews of any length written by pure reviewers, and I can only think of about 3 or maybe 4 proper critics in the Wilson sense of the word here.

I think they're two quite different skills; being good at one doesn't necessitate being good at the other. Conversely, as you point out, it doesn't preclude it either.

My favourite criticism in recent years (aside from Dirda and Tim Park essays), has been the collective criticism and subsequent author responses at Crooked Timber (see book events in the right hand bar).

The standard is uniformly high, in both posts, comments, and author responses.
Larry N.
16. Larry
Reading Jeff's comments reminds me of my experience in grad school. Having to write 20-30 page original research papers in history (German cultural/religious history in my case) and having to hand the paper over to another grad student for them to write a 5-10 page critique of all the paper's flaws and virtues (and me doing the same for his/hers) provided an invaluable insight into the writing process. Even today, 11 years after I dropped out after earning my MA, I find myself feeling more comfortable with critiquing non-fiction than I do with novels, even though I apply many of the same principles (citations for evidence of points being made, verification of sources, comparing the author's work with only its own self and not other works unless an outside comparison is merited, etc.) when writing 1000-1500 word fiction reviews.

Between Clute and Eggers, I'd have to say that while I understand the sentiment of the latter, my sympathies lie more with the former. But I do agree with the comment above about how excruciatingly difficult it is to muster enough care to engage in a "lukewarm" novel to the point of being able to write a worthwhile review.
David Lev
17. davidlev
I review books, movies, etc. for my school paper, and I find that usually I naturally end up reviewing stuff that I like. I find it rather uninteresting to talk about stuff that's bad, but in my positive reviews I try to have at least one paragraph that points out whatever I didn't happen to like about the work, even if there's very little of it. The best reviews should be not just fawning suckups, or angry mocking insults, but attempts to understand and demonstrate what's good AND what's bad about a work. I love China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, considering it to be one of the most inventive spec lit books out there, but it has my least favorite ending of any work ever. Just because I loved the book wouldn't keep me from mentioning the ending and how much I dislike it--it would be improper not to.

Conversely, the worst reviews are those where the reviewer either does not understand the story or seems to intentionally misunderstand so as to deliver a more simplistic view. Tow of the worst reviews I have ever read were a negative review of Susanna Clarke's Ladies of Grace Adieu in the Seattle Weekly, whose basic premise seemed to be "this is a collection of fantasy short stories, therefore it must be bad;" and a positive review of Benjamin Parzybok's Couch, which started out with the premise that it was a good book based entirely around the fact that it was a fantasy story that was not one of the stereotypical sword and sorcery Tolkien ripoffs that fell out of style several decades ago. the Couch review went on to explain what else was good about the book, so it wasn't as terrible as the other review, but I found its initial assertion idiotic and vaguely insulting

PS two of my favorite book reviewers (Charles De Lint and Tor's own Jo Walton) happen to be authors

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