Saturday, April 21, 2007

Thoughts on Reviewers

Someone just won the Pulitzer prize for his restaurant reviews....on NPR he said that once when he didn't like a dish, he ate it 17 times -- until he could see the point of it – and then wrote his review.

I am not bothered when people don’t like my book (plenty of people don't, many aren’t interested in how a child 40 years ago viewed the world) but I am enormously bothered when a reviewer makes no effort to understand a book – ANY book, not just mine.

Reviewers I admire try to understand what a writer is doing (what the artistic purpose of the work is, as Sound and Sense puts it) and then analyze how well the author has achieved that purpose. Sometimes they share their own experiences, opinions, and biases, sometimes they don’t: that’s up to them. But they do try to understand the book.

Reviewers I don’t respect judge not the book the author has written but the book they wish the author had written....they start with their idea of what kind of book they want to read, then fault the book for not being that. And if MY opinion isn’t enough for you –Anthony Powell, author of A Dance to the Music of Time and for many years the head of the Times Literary Supplement, said the same thing (more elegantly), adding that this is what MOST reviewers do.

I get even more worked up when reviewers are just plain MEAN, haven’t read much, or seem to be reviewing with the intention of finding snide things to say…. And I actually think that children's book bloggers are less apt to be like this than reviewers in adult newspapers and magazines. People blog about middle-grade books because they love those books – and kids; they know kids and they know books. (In my opinion, someone who reviews children’s books should know and love both.

Most kidlit bloggers only post positive reviews; and this, I think, is also a good thing, for writers and readers. I read reviews, as Grace does, to find the hidden gems; I don’t need to read about all the big flashy zircons. And chances are, if a reviewer likes a book, she understands it. But to me, as an author and a reader, it is the understanding that counts.

Blow Out the Moon's very first reviewer understood what I was trying to do and say so perfectly that I started to cry when I heard what she’d written. I was also astonished: I had been trying so hard to write the book that I’d never thought about what it would feel like to have someone understand what I was saying. Alvina read it out loud on the phone and we both said (over and over – it was also HER first):
“She got it!”

And that was what really mattered: she got it. Of course I was glad that she loved the book, but it meant even more that she understood exactly what I was trying to say. Thank you, Education Oasis – and Booklist – and all the children and adults since who have written to me and about me showing that you got it, too. …and thanks to the reviewers who didn’t find it interesting and thus didn’t review it! Good call. And this is also my answer to the coziness criticism: I'm guessing that there are many bloggers out there who know and like specific authors but not their books. Their response is simple and ethical: they don't review them.


Meghan McCarthy said...

Picking up a book and thinking it's one thing and then reviewing it as such happened to me with my first review for Aliens. THANK GOODNESS the reviews after number 1 were stellar or I might not be doing nonfiction today. The reviewer seemed to want a War of the Worlds Tom Cruise story in kid book version (the movie did just get released) and when he/she saw that the pictures weren't detailed and cinematic enough he/she criticized the book. I was DEVISTATED. I wasn't going for realism! (obviously) I wasn't trying to make a movie into a book!

So yeah, I agree. You can't pick up a book and review it with preconceived notions. Just don't do it!


Bkbuds said...

I've reviewed for a newspaper and I don't have all that much say, really. I'll get sent a few books asked to pick the best to review. Or, if it's a specific book the editors feel must be reviewed, they'll say so. I don't get to pick the genre, generally speaking.

It's not like I can say "aw, this ain't my bailiwick, maybe I should pass." That's a good way to assure they lose my address forever.

If you want to keep reviewing and you're not a Big Name, you have to play by their rules. And their rules state quite flatly that they cannot publish a big, blank spot where your review was supposed to go. White space is only elegant in advertising design, not in newsprint.

Yeah, sure, they could scramble at the last second and find a replacement review. That's also not a good way to endear yourself to editors.

I hope this doesn't sound harsh, but that's just the way it works. Blogs work much differently, of course, as do trade journals like SLJ or PW, which crank out reviews and where silence toward a particular book can be deafening.

With newspapers and their amazing shrinking news hole, it's a wonder if you get reviewed at all. Again, not to be harsh, but there is that whole gift horse aspect ...

Linda S. Wingerter said...

I think it's the more recent blog variety of reviews, unedited and with unlimited space, that fall into the description of this post.

web said...

It's a simple solution - but is it ethical? To deliberately not review because you like the author personally? Isn't that an injustice to your readers?

Libby Koponen said...

Why review ANY book you don't like? There are 9,000 children's books published each year -- isn't it more useful and interesting to point out the good ones?

Elaine Magliaro said...

I agree with Libby. I spend a lot of time writing my book reviews. I am not going to invest my time writing about books I don't like. I prefer to recommend books that I think are good--especially poetry books because they're so often off the reviewing radar screen.

Libby Koponen said...

Thanks, everyone -- and Elaine, it's nice to have a reviewer weigh in: thanks. And Linda, thanks, yes, I was talking about blog reviews -- though thanks Anne I., it's interesting to hear how the newspaper reviews work. How do they match reviewer and book?