(Not) Reviewing Books
The literary world appears to be having one of its semi-predictable spasms about writers criticizing writers — or writers not criticizing writers enough, as the case may be — and all the various associated emotions that go with that. We get these bouts of novel gazing fairly regularly because very often the people who write reviews of books are also authors themselves, partly because authors are somewhat likely to be familiar with their own field and partly because a writer’s gotta eat, and reviewing a book will buy you a pizza. This fact means that the reviewer/reviewee dynamic is a little different than it often is in other creative fields. You rarely see, say, something like Paul Thomas Anderson formally reviewing the latest David Cronenberg movie in the New York Times, or Patti Smith laying down her detailed thoughts on the newest Regina Spektor album in Pitchfork, as examples. Maybe the world would be a more interesting place if they did, but they don’t seem to (occasionally a former critic/reviewer will make the leap into an artistic field — your Peter Bogdanoviches and Chrissie Hyndes — but it’s not exactly the same thing).
As an author and as a long time professional critic/reviewer (movies, music, video games), I am occasionally asked to write reviews of upcoming books for media outlets. Generally speaking I turn down these offers. Here’s why.
1. Relating specifically to science fiction and fantasy works, I demur because I am the sitting president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and I think it would be bad form — and bad optics — for someone in that position to make any sort of hay professionally reviewing the work of his constituency. This is an excuse I will have through June of 2013.
2. Also relating to science fiction and fantasy, at this point I know many of the folks in it — and a non-trivial number of the people coming into it — on a personal level, and the possibility of professionally writing something negative about their work makes me uncomfortable. This is a personal issue of mine, I would note, and not something I think should guide anyone else. I have sf/f writer friends who have reviewed work of mine — some of them negatively (or at least less than positively) — and I wouldn’t want them to feel in the slightest bit uncomfortable having done so.
3. If I’m writing a novel at the time (which is not an unusual thing for me to be doing these days) I’m not typically reading new fiction because I don’t want what I’m reading to leak into what I’m writing.
4. My professional writing time is valuable and writing book reviews will pay me less than I can get writing other things.
5. As a practical matter I prefer to use what reputational clout I have being publicly positive about other writers’ books, i.e., all things considered I’d rather tell you about the books that I’ve had a good or interesting experience with, than about the books I did not.
Reasons 2, 3 and 5 are also the reasons I don’t run book reviews as anything approaching a regular feature on Whatever, either.
That said, I do think, both as a matter of personal moral obligation and to keep people from thinking I’m a “pull the ladder up from behind me” sort of guy, that it’s important for me to help promote other authors and their works on the site — I have some reach here, after all. This is one of the reasons I do the Big Idea feature here: It allows me to give a platform to writers to promote their books, and readers to discover new books, without requiring me to be critical, either positively or negatively, of the book itself (or the author).
It’s not to say I don’t have critical opinions of books, or of books in my own home genres — oh boy! Do I! — it just means that if you want to know what I think of those books, you should probably ask me both privately and in person.
Do I think authors should not write reviews other author’s books, particularly in media outlets? No. As I hinted above, I think it’s fine if they do. My own choices in the matter are based on what’s best for me as a person and as with anything else, one’s own mileage may vary.
I think that if you do endeavor to review something in a professional (and/or rigorous) sense, you should be critical regarding its flaws and honest about your opinion of it. Don’t be an asshole about it, and remember about the failure mode of clever, but point out the problems. You’re not doing anyone any favors by pulling your punches. If you’ve done a conscientious review and the other writer has a fit about it, it’s their karma, not yours.