Something author John Irving said at a reading here in Portland last week stuck in my mind.
During the Q&A, Irving was asked how he handles a “poor review.” The questioner could have been referencing any one of several critiques of Irving’s latest novel, “Last Night in Twisted River.”
Irving answered with some venom, in itself a not uncommon attitude for a prolific author exasperated by years of dealing with reviewers. In effect he said, “After 12 novels, it is possible that I am much better at what I do than a reviewer is at what he does.”
It got me thinking about reviewing; what makes a good one, good. And a bad one, bad.
I’ve turned this question over in my mind for a long time. I started reviewing for daily and weekly newspapers back about 1990. The books are almost always assigned to me by an editor; I don’t pick them. I do a fair amount of fiction, especially regional writers, but my strengths as a reviewer tend to nonfiction: religion, American history, biography.
(I’ve also been called on to review a lot of work on mental illness and self-help topics, which probably doesn’t reflect too favorably on how editors see me, but whatever. God knows there’s a lot written that falls under those headings, so you won’t hear any whining from me.)
An accomplished journalist I know has been ranting to me for years about the need for reviewers to be highly critical, not just point readers to new not-to-be-missed books. Not only does that keep readers engaged, he says, it gives the reviewer more credence.
He’s not wrong, but I don’t fully agree. Too often book reviewers do what I call the Reviewer Waltz: Step forward with one compliment, then back. Some sideways praise, then step away briskly. They so fear being considered soft that they opt for brittle. Or worse, they bury their opinion in such dense lecturing that the reader is too exhausted to go find the actual book and see for herself.
My own rules for reviews go something like this:
1 – If it stinks, I don’t review it.
One exception: If the author is someone so talented that this new-and-awful book is going to make fans feel deeply betrayed.
2 – Consumer protection is part of my job.
Literary quality aside, sometimes I need to provide a heads-up that will save a book buyer from misstep…or mortification. A novel by pop writer Eric Jerome Dickey was such a case when it veered from his usual frank treatment of sexuality to good ol’ fashioned porn. Not the best gift book for a conservative mother-in-law. Likewise, a nonfiction book packaged as a feminist treatment of women’s careers was really a right-wing wolf in hip-sheep’s clothing — and needed to be labeled as such.
2 – Read at least some of the author’s earlier work before writing about the new book.
3 – Aim for historical, cultural and literary references that result in I-feel-smarter! for the reader, rather than that Damn, I’m smart! feeling for me.
4 – Resist the cheap one-liner for a laugh. (I fail at this one sometimes.)
5 – When the review is done, ask myself this question out loud:
“How does this serve the reader?”
If my answer sounds like waffly bullshit, it is. Start over.
Oh, and for what it’s worth: Irving is right, he is better at what he does than most reviewers are at what we do.