Thoughts on book reviewing

Jeffrey Cohen

I once asked a very famous person how to deal with bad reviews. The very famous person said, “Generally I say something like, ‘Oh, that? I barely read it.’ Or ‘Well, that’s merely one person’s opinion.’ Or ‘Hey, can’t win ’em all.’ Then I lock myself in the bathroom and sob loudly into a throw pillow I take in there with me for that purpose.” This is an accomplished professional whose career has been the absolute template for success in a field.

The relationship between authors and reviewers is a very complex one. Having done both, I can tell you that neither is easy, neither pays especially well except at the very top of the profession, and both are done for the sheer love of the form in almost every case. I’ve written reviews that I wish I could take back (all negative ones, even when the film/book/play/record in question was truly awful–I was snarky and shouldn’t have been), some that I would hold up for all the world to see and some that, well, I had a deadline and it was a slow week.

I’m proud of every novel I’ve written, which admittedly isn’t that many just yet (I’ve written five; three have been published, one is on its way and the other is still looking for a home), and have been happy to send each one out to book reviewers. Then I hold my breath, take some Maalox and make sure there’s a throw pillow within grabbing distance.

Book reviews are to authors what Snausages are to my dog: a hoped-for reward for a job well done. Granted, his job is somewhat easier than mine–it involves taking care of a bodily function in the right place–but the concept is similar. He does what he’s supposed to do, and we give him encouragement and approval.

That’s when the reviews are good. When they’re not, it’s more like we’ve done something we shouldn’t have in the house.

I know many book reviewers who are extremely scrupulous about their work, and making sure there’s no hint of favoritism (which is an interesting concept, since reviewing is by definition subjective, and you’re going to have favorites), who won’t let an author buy them a beer at a convention, citing conflict of interest. Most of the reviewers I’ve met are very serious about what they do, understand it has an impact on the work, and are dedicated to the genre and to books in general. They are, in my limited experience, remarkably conscientious about their work.

I don’t like to brag (no, wait a minute–I LOVE to brag), but my books have been almost uniformly well reviewed. I’ve been lucky, and since my Aaron Tucker novels have been published by a very small press, remarkably so, to have been reviewed in so many venues. There have been extremely generous comments in newspapers and magazines, and on a great many web sites. And I have been flattered by each and every one.

But the one I remember most clearly is the single outright pasting I took on a web site whose reviewers love virtually every book they can find (and whose name you may just as well not expect to see mentioned here). This review of my most recently published book AS DOG IS MY WITNESS was an eyelash short of violent, a pan of epic proportions that stopped just before the reviewer was to suggest I apply for a job at Home Depot and give up this writing thing before I did some real damage.

I could quote you whole sections of that review from memory. I read and read it, even as I told myself that it was wrong, that there were factual errors, that the reviewer got a major character’s name wrong, that all the other reviews had been very positive.

I took every word to heart. Finally, the world had caught up to the fraud that I am. Someone had discovered my secret–that I don’t know what I’m doing–and said it out loud. I was a hack, a pretender, a lightweight idiot who didn’t know his noun from his verb (actually, the “lightweight” didn’t seem so bad–I could lose a few pounds). It was all true, and I felt I should quit this business and move on to my true calling, whatever that was. Maybe this Home Depot idea wasn’t so bad. I hear they have dental.

After fifteen minutes or so, my blood pressure returned to normal. I forwarded the review to my publisher with the snide suggestion that he might like to pull a quote for our next praise sheet, suppressed the urge to call my mother so she could tell me how brilliant I was, and moved on to my next actual paying gig. Okay, so maybe I read a few of the positive reviews in the interim, just to remind myself that I had fooled some of the people some of the time. And that was the day I asked the very famous person about bad reviews.

Reviews should be a tool used by readers if they trust the reviewer’s judgment and not just because the reviewer has a tower to shout from. These days, everybody and his pet dog can post a review on the Internet, so readers need to be selective, reading carefully considered reviews from people like Sarah Weinman (who has never reviewed one of my books, so I can say so) and Oline Cogdill (who has). Read a few reviews of books you’ve read, and see if you agree with the reviewer. I tend to pay attention to reviews by Janet Maslin of the New York Times because I agreed with her even back when she was writing about movies. Those critics with whom I tend to disagree obviously won’t have as much influence on my consideration of a book, a movie or a whatever.

But I’ll never make a decision not to read or see something based on what a critic says. I might be persuaded to give something a try if I read that it’s something special, but if I’m interested in something I’ll make my own decision no matter what the critics said. I honestly don’t think Ishtar was all that bad (it’s no classic, but it’s also not the biblical disaster you’d think from the reviews), and I’m not that crazy about The English Patient despite the raves and the awards. That’s my taste; it might not be yours. Doesn’t make either one of us right.

The idea is to make up your own mind, and good reviewers will be the first to tell you that’s what you should do. Their job is to provide information and some perspective. My daughter went to see the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie Friday night, as soon as it was released, despite disappointing reviews. She didn’t love it as much as the first in the series, but she still wants to see it again. Her brother told her the critics didn’t care for the movie, and my daughter shrugged.

“What do they know?” she asked. “They’re part of the audience, just like me.”

(If you want to know why The English Patient doesn’t make sense, feel free to email me at jeff at aarontucker dot com.)

11 thoughts on “Thoughts on book reviewing

  1. Pari

    Jeff,Thanks. I remember feeling that same utter terror when both BELEN and CLOVIS came out.

    It’s odd how the rare mean-spirited review is the one that sticks in our memory. Fie, fie, be gone, O, insecurity!!

    Reviews are subjective tools. When I read a review now, I’m careful to pay more attention to writers whose opinions I’ve come to know and respect. Generally, these folks do their homework, read the darn books (rather than skim them or just peruse the publicity materials and synopses), get the story and information right, and try to analyze the work on its own merits and then place it in a larger context of some sort.

    I used to review books for a few publications before my mysteries hit the stores. Once I became “an author,” I stopped.

    Though I know a good mystery from a bad one (at least by my definitions) — I just couldn’t bring myself to negate any author’s efforts . . . and with that new bias, I wouldn’t have served my nonfiction readers one iota.

  2. Troy Cook

    Great post! I had a bad review stick with me for quite a while.

    I used to make B movies and received one of the most interesting and bad reviews of all time. This reviewer made a several page report as if they were records taken from a courtroom where I was on trial for directing the offensive flick. And while the negative things stood out, the reviewer spent so much effort to make this humorous mock trial that I actually found myself enjoying the review. The guy had obviously spent more time writing the review than he had watching the movie!

    Pretty weird. And pretty hard to forget.

  3. Mark Terry

    An interesting topic. As Jeff surely knows, I’ve reviewed both of his books and, at least to my mind, they were raves. I’ve reviewed books for The Armchair Detective back when it existed, for ForeWord Magazine, briefly for Mystery Scene Magazine, and now for The Oakland Press in Michigan. Does it pay well? TAD paid nothing, but I got the books. ForeWord paid $25 and I got the book (or the ARC), but ForeWord has a miserable history of paying you about 10 months after you actually write the damned review. MSM I forget. It was probably about $25, but don’t hold me to it, I honestly don’t remember. How much I get paid to review books for the OP is really not anybody’s business, but it’s more than $25 and less than $100 and let’s leave it at that. And, of course, I get the book or ARC. (In fact, I get many, many, manymore books or ARCs than I can possibly read or review).

    Is it fun? Yes, most of the time. When isn’t it? Hey, you should have asked me after I reviewed Iris Johansen’s last novel. I won’t be reviewing one of her novels again. Did I pan it? I suggested that the book made no sense. That the characters and the plot was illogical and considering that they were supposedly trying to prevent the world from a guy who trained suicide bombers who was trying to get his hands on a biological weapon, they didn’t actually seem to be doing anything but hanging around a Scottish castle trying to come up with reasons not to jump into bed with each other. I suggested that some readers would feel the main character was a strong-willed, intelligent, “spunky” woman who knew her own mind, but others who thought a woman who jumped into a private airplane with a guy she knew had terrorist connections and his two thugs without telling anybody or taking a passport or even a toothbrush might not really be operating on all her thrusters. In fact, I may have suggested that some readers wouldn’t think she was “spunky,” for standing up for herself, but that she might have “impulse-control problems that were going to get her killed” when she yelled at the wrong terrorist at the wrong time.

    Anyway, that was a rare reasonably negative review. I suggested that fans of Ms. Johansen would probably like the book. Which is the dichotomy of reviewing bestsellers. You can probably pan them all you want and it won’t affect sales. I don’t pan books. If I hate a book so much in the first 50 pages that I know it’ll be a pan, I stop reading it unless specifically requested to do so by my editor. Life’s short and there are a ton of books to review.

    That said, are all books perfect? Hey, I’m a guy who thought Michael Connelly’s “The Lincoln Lawyer” sagged in the middle, but overall was pretty terrific. When his publicist called me on the phone prior to reading the book to tell me Connelly had been favorably compared to Tolstoy, I didn’t let that affect my review either way.

    Can I be bought? No, I don’t think so. And buying me a beer or a Diet Coke won’t really affect my reviews. It might, actually, make me more inclined to review your book, though. I like to review my friends’ books (if I like their books). I vastly prefer to review books that I like. Hell, do you want to read books you don’t like? What’s the point of that? I don’t make a living reviewing books, though maybe 10% of my income, give or take, comes from it.

    If I make enough money from other sources, would I stop? Maybe. I’ve got a dozen books I’ve bought that I want to read for pleasure that I haven’t had time to read. They’re adding up. My shelves are crowded with books to review–over 60 at last count, and there’s no way I’ll get to them.

    Reviewing books can be fun. My advice to reviewers is to realize solidly that a review is just your opinion. Hopefully an educated, modulated opinion. You need to realize a bad type of review can really screw a writer’s career, so take some responsibility for your words. I know some reviewers that compare every book they read to all the books they read in their PhD program–Edith Wharton, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, et al. Come on, give me a break. You really can’t compare a popular novel to someone who the literati and time has decided stands up as a classic of our culture. Get a grip. Most of the time we’re talking popular entertainment.

    Really, a book review should be: Here’s a bit about what the book is about, here’s what I liked about, here’s what I didn’t. I recommend it or I don’t.

    As for Jeff’s books to-date–highly recommended.

    Best,Mark Terry

  4. Debi

    When I received a hideous review for Trading Tatiana, I was utterly devastated. What shocked me was that the review moved away from (legitimate) subjective literary criticism and into a virulent personal attack.

    I still have no idea what brought this on as the reviewer had clearly done no checking into my background whatsoever. She obviously had a personal agenda that she brought to her work and somehow I had pushed certain sensitive buttons. She responded by stamping on mine by stating that I was exploiting the issues in the book (prostitution rackets and the international sex trade) for my own ends. The thought that people would accept her assumption meant it was days before I could bring myself to leave my home!

    The major problem was that I was an easy target – a new writer with relatively few other reviews at the time to provide balance. That’s when the responsibility reviewers have can so easily be exploited.

    There are many reviewers out there who do take their responsibilities seriously, recognise their power and don’t use the review as a vehicle to score cheap points and show how clever they are.

    Thank goodness!

  5. David J. Montgomery

    I generally agree with what Mark wrote, but I disagree that “a bad type of review can really screw a writer’s career.” I don’t think that’s true. Authors hate bad reviews, largely for personal reasons, but publishers don’t seem to mind them that much. Obviously, they’d rather have raves, but even pans still sell books.

    As for money… Well, let’s just say that nobody’s gonna get rich writing book reviews. 🙂 I generally get paid between $150 and $400 per review, depending on the length of the piece and the size of the publication. Usually, it’s towards the lower end of that scale.

    The free books are nice, though.

  6. Carstairs38

    Ok, I just write reviews at Amazon and Epinions. Nothing that pays me. It’s a hobby.

    Still, I try to take every review seriously because I know that the authors read them. I’ve gotten e-mails from authors thanking me for reviews or asking me to change them because I got something wrong. Therefore, I make a point of only writing things I am willing to stand behind. I don’t want to walk into a convention some year and get slugged by an author I wrote a snarky review of.


  7. Andrea Maloney

    I reveiw books for Mystery Morgue and Spinetingler Magazine and I love it. Do I get paid….nope. Just free ARC’s. But I love books and I love writing reviews. But personally it’s not easy for me to write a review. Takes me a lot of time. I think a long time about what i read, then about the wording of the review. Oh and have you ever tried to write a review when your two darling children are fighting over sitting on the sofa? Well don’t. 🙂 And let’s not even talk about trying to read when they are arguing.

    I hate writing bad reviews. I’ve only written one totally bad review…most books do have positives. And the bad review was for a long time writer who hits all the best seller lists but it seemed to me their writing just isn’t up to snuff anymore but their fans will read it anyway….but as Jeff said that’s just my two cents. In the end you need to make your own decision about reading a book or not.

    I try to be fair with my reviews. Even books I don’t personally like I’ve given good reviews. Why you ask? Because they were good books but just not my personal cup of tea. I try to look at it from the perspective of was it well written? Good dialogue? (just cause they are talking about food recipies doesn’t mean it’s a bad book) Are the characters well written? Does it have a good plot? I try to overcome my personal biases when writing reviews.

  8. Andrea Maloney

    Oh yes and Jeff your books are my cup of tea. I’ve read them all and love them all. I adore humor in mysteries. In this day and age laughing is the best medicine. :0

  9. Debi

    Good to hear about yet more responsible reviewers …

    There is the argument that receiving a really bad review at least means you’ve provoked a reaction, which is preferable to being ignored. Though it’s hard to bear that in mind when you’ve just been shredded!


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