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The touchy quandary of writing reviews as a writer

This post originally ran in the Riverside Press Enterprise, July 25,2021, as one of the column for Inlandia Institute. It seems like a good time to repost it here since I just put up my latest reviews.

Every month, I read six to eight books, mostly fiction, but sometimes as many as two non-fiction tomes. I sometimes feel like a delinquent for the hours that I spend sitting on my couch under my reading lamp, my cellphone at my side and my feet up on the coffee table. One way I try to assuage my guilt is by writing book reviews. I write four to six each month for a book review site and for my website.

I don’t get paid for these reviews but writing them helps me think through how I was intrigued, challenged, repulsed, or entertained by the book in hand. Since I am a writer of fiction, this is a pedagogical excuse: I learn so much about writing by reading. Doesn’t everyone?

Reviewing books carries the risk that a critic of any medium must bear. Telling (or suggesting to) readers what they should or shouldn’t like, what writers should or shouldn’t have written, what browsers should or shouldn’t consider, I can easily be accused of bias, pedantry, cultural myopia, stupidity, and, in general, being out of touch with what’s going on in the world.

All of those indictments are at times valid. And, because I am over sixty-five (I don’t think it’s necessary to be more specific), the accusation of anachronism is perhaps the most reasonable. I have no children or grandchildren to keep me current, and my nieces all live at least 1,200 miles away. But reading, itself, is one way for a writer to stay up with trends, attitudes, habits, and vocabulary that have proliferated since us baby-boomers sped through the decades of our youth. I read (present tense) Sally Rooney, Rachel Kushner, Lily King, Mona Awad, Tea Abreht, Laila Lalami, and Sloane Crossley, for example, all of whom are some 40 years younger than me, and while their worlds, neuroses, and obsessions can at times seem a bit foreign, I find them more relatable than some writers my own age. Mary Piper and Cynthia Ozick come to mind. On the other hand, I have to breach no generational chasms to read Jess Walter, Sigrid Nunez, Margot Livesey and Geraldine Brooks.

In my reviews, I dwell as much on the elements I find noteworthy as I do on my (usually minor) reservations. I strive to be fair and balanced, and even when I review books published by my own publisher, I don’t let my loyalty to the imprint color my critique. As a writer, though, I face a special risk as a reviewer: making enemies of other writers, all of whom are free to review my books, too. And since most of them are more facile with the language than I am, the risk is to be made a fool by a retaliating mega-talent. Indeed, as I read my own books, I find oversights, sloppy word choices, inadequate settings, oxymoronic behaviors, and shallow themes. The only way I can get out of bed in the morning and sit down at my keyboard is to assume that no perfect book has ever been written, even considering the classics, as some were not only in their time unapproachable for many readers, but in their fermentation over time, they have lost cultural and ethical relevance as well. But as I put my books out there for the world to read and judge, I cringe at the thought of any writer I have ever critiqued getting even with me, given how easy it would be to do. (Of course, there are still the one-star reviews by the non-professionals who doesn’t like your politics or philosophy, or didn’t like the way you treated their religion or state or city or hair color, etc. Nothing you can do about that except write with no point of view at all.)

Does this make me more cautious about how I evaluate a fellow author’s effort? Yes, it does. I have adopted a policy to not review any book that I can’t finish or that I simply don’t like.

Does this make me an untrustworthy reviewer? Maybe, it would if the only reason I avoided reviewing books negatively would be because I’m chicken and afraid of retaliatory reviews. In fact, it is this: If I were to review a book harshly, one that I wouldn’t recommend to someone, who would benefit? The reader doesn’t need me to bring this book to their attention—they’d be better off (in my opinion) not knowing about it. And the author doesn’t need any more trouble trying to make a living than they already have. Writing books is hard, but any author—even those with Big Five (or soon, Four?) publishers—will tell you that selling books is much, much harder. That’s as true for me as it is for any writer other than the privileged fixtures on the NYT best-seller lists. So, I’m gentle but fair. I will review a book if I find in it redeeming qualities. But I won’t jump on poor fellow writers who are themselves struggling to get up in the morning and face that blank screen.

I have been told by some of my reading friends that they want to know if I dislike a book. And I will gladly tell them, as I want them to lend, buy, and read only books they’ll enjoy. But I’ll never put it in writing.

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