On Reviewing

Why are unfavorable reviews virtually sacrosanct? One obvious reason is that reviewers generally don’t want to spend time writing about a book they didn’t like. Even more often, however, is that a reviewer simply didn’t finish a book that they didn’t like, so can’t in good conscience, write a review of it. While it is true that writers will write, and reviewers will review, it’s much easier to do so when the subject is something worthwhile that you want to share with others.

It’s also true that people are also more forgiving of a “good” review–if someone reads the book on your recommendation and doesn’t like it, he or she will simply chalk it up to the vagaries of personal taste. However, for a “bad” review, the reviewer had better detail her objections because there will always be someone out there who may change their opinion of her reviewing if they think she’s given short shrift to the latest by their favorite author. This is indeed the reason why the unfavorable review–and sometimes writing book reviews at all–is shunned by the professional or would-be professional author. Why alienate a potential reader based on your opinion of words not your own? This particular backlash by readers towards an unfavorable review is in part due to an increase in recent years, and in particular magazines such as the Los Angeles Times Book Review, of the “cute” review, in which the review is the medium for a message or a rant on a subject by the reviewer, rather than the actual examination of the book at hand.

However, I remain personally convinced that an occasional negative review is necessary–and not necessarily evil. A constant stream of glowing reviews seems to me like the glad-handing of the professional brown-noser, and every positive after positive review becomes less worthwhile once you realize that this reviewer has never met a book he didn’t like. Instead, I feel that it’s the long amalgamation of reviews by the same reviewer–on books good, bad, or mediocre–that enables the reader to evaluate her own reading taste with those of the reviewer.

So, let this be a caution to you: Never take any review at face value. Evaluate what you know of the critic, what her credentials are, who she’s friends with, what you thought of her earlier reviews, and whether your tastes tend to coincide. In the end, a review is like a visitor’s guide to a land you’ve never been to; as the tourist, you must decide what to ask from the guide. All this goes doubly for “blurbs,” the advertising copy on book jackets and in print advertisements.

Caveat emptor is not an expression that Ralph Nadar or any other consumer guide–or this reviewer–would have be the watchword of the industry. Instead, be an informed reader of books and book reviews.

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