Recently, I was communicating with an author when he happened to reference the “judgment” contained in book reviews. And that’s when it dawned on me that I don’t see reviews as necessarily being judgmental; instead, I see them as impressions. A review reflects the way in which a reader-reviewer perceives the book at a particular point in time in his/her life. As with everything in life, this is subject to change. It may be, for example, that a novel that a reviewer could not get into while battling an illness would be highly enjoyable at another time. Many of us have had the experience of reading a particular book years ago and labeling it as a favorite, only to be surprised when we return to that book and find it flat and dull. Did the book change in any way in the interim? No, our life – the reader’s life – changed in such a way as to change our perspective of the book.
Let’s think about this in terms of a physical landmark. Let’s say that I view the Golden Gate Bridge on four occasions – firstly in the middle of the afternoon on a warm and sunny day, next during a rainstorm, then while the bridge is bathed in fog, and lastly on a moonlit night. Each time the bridge will appear to be different, and I would likely describe the bridge in different terms if I were writing about it. The bridge itself never changes, but my view of it – my impression – will change based on external factors.
So, one thing to keep in mind while reading a review is that it’s a point-in-time statement. It’s also something that’s subject to revision. The reviewer who slammed a book with a negative review might find, to his surprise, that he enjoys it when he looks at it months later. And the reviewer who loved a book and added it to her personal collection might wonder a year or two later why she loved it – something she’ll ponder while putting it on the giveaway stack.
What does this mean for an author? Simply that both positive and negative reviews can be discounted. The book that one reviewer perceived as a flop may be a hit later, and vice versa. Life changes and so do impressions.
The author of a recent survey book noted something interesting about how film and book reviewers are perceived. According to a study referenced in the book, the authors of generally negative reviews are viewed as more intelligent than reviewers who almost always draft positive reviews. This is due to the perception that “anyone can say nice things,” while the negative reviewer is seen as a person who must have an extensive in-depth background – otherwise, how would he/she know what to nitpick and criticize? This does not mean, however, that the average person prefers to read the reviews of a generally negative reviewer.
When given a choice between reading mostly negative or positive reviews, the typical person will more often select the positive ones. And when asked about the people who write the reviews, most people will select the positive one as the nicer person – the nicer person is, therefore, the one whose reviews are read more. So this leads to a choice among limited options for the book reviewer. Do you want to be perceived as smart and well-read, or as the less smart writer whose reviews are more often read?
The appropriate response may be to write a mix of positive and not so positive reviews, so that one is viewed as both smart and nice, if not both at the same time.
Pictured – The Other Life: A Novel by Ellen Meister ($24.95, 320 pages) which will be released by Putnam Adult Books on February 17, 2011.
Note: After writing this article, I happened to come across the following statement from Robert Christgau, music critic for the Village Voice: “I don’t usually fluctuate wildly with what I initially thought about an album because I wait to write the review until I know what I think… My first judgment is solid and secure. But records do tend to either gain or lose aura as decades pass.”