Thursday, April 11, 2013

What Are Reviewers For?

Roger Ebert
On the one hand, I should send Doug Saint Carter a thank-you note. His wheezy stereotyped race rant which I reviewed last week, and his equally stereotyped e-mail response, drummed up the biggest business on my site in four months. People who visited to see Saint Carter come publically unravelled stayed to read other reviews and commentaries I’ve written. I may have even sold a few books.

On the other hand, Saint Carter is just the latest author to contact me personally, all but demanding I write positive reviews for their books. Authors have accused me of being a “Bible thumper” for challenging secularist tracts, and of teaching the world there is no God for getting insufficiently giddy over limp Christian self-regard. I can’t win. It’s enough to make a man wonder what I do this for.

When I started reviewing for the university paper, I set myself one goal: help students, with limited time and money, decide which books deserved them. This carried within it the secondary goals of encouraging people to read more, be more informed and entertained, and participate in society’s larger conversations. I don’t know whether I succeeded, because I don’t know how many people read the paper.

My reviewing gold standard, the late Roger Ebert, once wrote that he saw his job as to reward good movies and steer audiences away from bad ones. This makes sense. Good films should have the reward of high returns, and if we can turn to a trusted voice to help coalesce our opinions, why not? As a book reviewer, especially for nonfiction, I see my job as separating good and bad ideas.

George Orwell
But I also take it one step further. Like other famous critics, including Margaret Atwood, George Orwell, Matthew Arnold, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, I attempt to ask: is this idea even worth having? Will society be improved by this idea’s widespread dissemination? Does this idea improve the larger context, or does it, like Saint Carter’s book, simply keep bad beliefs alive past their sell-by date?

Joe Cordrey sent me three e-mails after I reviewed his first book. He has self-published three poetry collections, one per year, and as of this writing he has no positive Amazon reviews. Nevertheless, he angrily declared, “You aren't fooling me. You're about keeping the stupid where they are, while claiming you are trying to help them. I'm about trying to lift them up to where I am.” That last is all too probably true.

Erotica novelist Delilah Devlin specifically urged fans to wolfpack my review of her first stab at urban fantasy. Though she’s since removed the statement from her blog, at the time she wrote, “I’m sure he didn’t come to this book without his own prejudices.” As though she thinks some reader exists out there, consuming each book in a complete vacuum, absolutely independent of anything they’ve read before.

These writers, and others who have argued vehemently with my reviews, share an apparent assumption that reviewers, especially those like me who don’t get paid for our efforts, should just shut up and praise their work. After all, they sent me a free book. Surely I owe them a review worthy of the effort they believe they’ve put forth. How dare I submarine their book sales with my mealy-mouthed opinion?

But I need a higher standard than my audience. If anybody takes my reviews seriously, they need me to anticipate their concerns. If an erotica novel fails to stimulate my mind or fire my loins, I know others will have the same problem. If I can spot holes in a racist argument big enough to pass a Volkswagen through, anybody who buys the book on my recommendation will see them too.

Matthew Arnold
Susan Elia MacNeal has earned my respect for how she handled my critical review. She left a Facebook comment thanking me for my forthrightness; she has offered to connect me in with her agent, apparently considering me a potential protégé. Not only am I flattered by her attention and praise, I stand amazed at her professionalism and grace. Other authors should emulate her.

I write reviews because I adore books and authors. In today’s media-saturated society, good books deserve a champion who loves them as much as their authors. But the converse also holds. Somebody must clear unworthy books from the road, so we can find the worthy ones. I do not write reviews to make authors feel good about themselves. I write for readers. I hope I succeed at that.

Reviews referenced in this essay:
  1.  Pity the White Man In America Today
  2.  Poetry First, and Then the Flood
  3.  Wizards and Nipples and Ghosts, Oh My!
  4. A Cautionary Tale in How to Write Historical 

No comments:

Post a Comment