On Book Reviewer-Author Relationships
“Everybody’s talking, and no one says a word.” John Lennon (“Nobody Told Me”)
Here’s an experience that I’ve had multiple times, four times to be exact. I’m involved in an e-mail conversation with a writer who is new to me, and communication is taking place naturally. Then, all of a sudden, comes this message – as if taken from a new author’s handbook, “My publicist/editor/publisher (someone, in other words) has told me that I’m not supposed to become friendly with book reviewers.” Naturally, my response to this is to type “Why?”
I don’t think I’ve ever received a very specific answer other than the statement that it would make the author-writer appear to be currying favor, or angling for a positive review. This explanation may well make sense to others, but not to me. I say this because I’m about to go on to read this author’s book – about which I virtually never have a pre-impression – and write a review of this product; I have no interest in writing about the author’s personality.
I also doubt that there’s much connection between how much I know and like the author as a person and my review, or reviews written by other reviewers. Let me provide an example. One author is someone I’ve known for decades. He is a friend and yet when I wrote my review of one of his novels I think I wrote about its positives and negatives in the same way I would have with anyone else, known or unknown to me. So my friendship with this good gentleman did not result in my insisting that everyone go out and purchase his book! Even more curious, my wife read a different novel from this author. She has never met him, e-mailed him or spoken with him. Her review of his more recent novel was effusive and glowing, thus showing the lack of a direct connection between friendship and an honest review.
There’s also the fact that I know authors who have written both very, very good and average books. If I read the very, very good book first and the average one later, I never decide that I’ve had it with this writer. No, I think, “He/she has it in him/her to write an outstanding book, so he/she will probably do so the next time around.” Maybe this is just me, but I disconnect the product from the person, and I keep hope alive for the next time around.
I pray this is the same with my reviews and my readers. If I write several good reviews and then one that you find is sloppy, I hope you won’t say, “I will never read another one of his reviews again!” Hey, we all have off days, weeks, months, and/or years – sometimes lifetimes. But as I have stated in Our Fairness Policy, if I write a review you disagree with, feel free to write your own review (of about the same length) with a different perspective. I will post it.
A few readers have taken me up on this offer, and I have very much enjoyed – literally enjoyed – reading their views. Why? Because I don’t think they’re judging me, they’re simply offering more information. And this is why I’ve posted multiple reviews of some books. Information is good, not just for readers but also for the authors who happened to have written the books in question. If some information is good, more information – more perspectives – should be better for their own writing futures. (If I write that I loved the first half of a novel but not the second half, and you feel the opposite and we both explain our views in writing, does this not help the author to identify his/her strengths and weaknesses? I think so, I honestly do.)
I was taught, as a one-time debater and as a law student, that all information has value. Sure, some pieces of information and some perspectives may have more intrinsic value than other pieces and perspectives, but how do we know that without testing them in the real world? This is what I hope we’re doing with books and book reviews… Reading them, making some honest assumptions or conclusions about their values, and asking others to do the same. In this way, I think we writers and reviewers are assisting each other.
We’re helping each other through open and honest dialogue while avoiding unnecessary division and rancor. As I’ve written before, the book review/opinion process should not be a debate; there’s no true right or wrong. There are no definitive reviews, at least in my opinion. If I looked up all of the reviews on the internet of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or of Richard Ford’s Independence Day, could I find one of each that I would point to and say, “That’s the one! No one should ever dare write another word because that was a perfect review of a near-perfect book!” I hardly think so.
Our dialogue should continue to be open and honest and friendly. And perhaps one day authors and reviewers will live in harmony… Until then, write on my friend. Let’s talk a few months after the book comes out and reviews are over and done.
Pictured: Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing by Roger Rosenblatt, which will be released on January 2, 2011 by Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers.