Critics on Reviews

Mary Gannon

Honesty is something that Peck finds lacking in most reviews these days. He points to the prevalent trend of writers’ reviewing other writers’ work as the reason—reviewers who are writers fear that a negative review will provoke retribution, he believes. It’s difficult to say if Peck’s reviews have had any effect on his own writing career. “I have had really frank meetings with my agent in talking about how, for example, I will never publish a book with Little, Brown after my reviews of David Foster Wallace and Rick Moody [the authors’ publisher]. I can just write that off.” And he’s been told to expect paybacks in November, when his memoir, What We Lost, will be published by Houghton Mifflin.

“The thing is that readers love snarky reviews,” says Miller, “because readers have this massive grudge against book reviewers, and to a certain degree authors, for disappointing them. When they read something nasty or snarky or cutting, whatever you want to call it, the reader probably thinks the reviewer was just being really honest. Often readers feel like here at last is a person who’s not in the logrolling club, who’s really telling it like it is.” Miller says that, in general, readers—whose opinions matter most to her—think reviews are too soft.

While she concedes that her taste in fiction differs from Peck’s, Miller still found his review “a little hysterical.” Some of Peck’s anger, she felt, was fueled more by a reaction to the publicity Moody’s book received than to the book itself. “While most reviewers need to put books in some kind of cultural context, some get overly preoccupied with publicity and feel like it’s much bigger than it really is.” Many reviewers, she offers as an example, overreact to the media attention paid to Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and the publisher of McSweeney’s Books. “I meet people all the time who do not know who Dave Eggers is—really smart people who read the New York Times—so the idea that he is some kind of titan bestriding the literary continent is really ludicrous. But often those reviewers are people inside this literary world, with a completely distorted view of reality based on a really limited experience.”

Another criticism brought against book reviewers is almost the opposite of snark: using book reviewing as a forum for championing certain writers or schools. This charge has been leveled most frequently against those in the poetry world, where reputations measure success more than sales do. “The review culture around poetry is more hermetic than the poetry itself,” says reviewer Raymond McDaniel, a regular for Fence’s online book review Constant Critic. “There are plenty of online, well-regarded poetry communities that are just ridiculously insular. The more insular it becomes, the more vicious it gets, and the more oriented toward the promotion of certain schools. That’s not the kind of thing that you can hide from the general reader.”

Birkerts, who also reviews poetry from time to time, agrees: “I’m very much aware that most poetry reviews are written by practicing poets. I’ve been around long enough to know where those [poets] sit in terms of the various schools and camps. Usually there’s some ulterior boosterism at work.”

While McDaniel says that the Constant Critic was founded on the principle of avoiding such favoritism, connections with authors, editors, and publishers can become even more of a problem for reviewers to navigate in the poetry universe because of its relatively smaller size. “I would studiously avoid reviewing books of poetry by anyone with whom I was friends or, if the case arose, explicit enemies,” says McDaniel, “but the community is too small to avoid reviewing people you don’t know of.”

But how close a friendship is too close? What, indeed, should the relationship between reviewer and author be? Most agree that there shouldn’t be one at all. The National Book Critics Circle (NBCC), an organization founded in 1974 made up of approximately 700 active book reviewers, recently surveyed its members on such ethical concerns. When asked if editors should be allowed to assign a book to a friend, enemy, or relative of the author, the majority said no (76 percent). The majority also agreed that it’s unethical for critics to consult authors while writing reviews and unethical to show authors or publishers reviews before they’re published. Regarding the issue of allowing sneak previews of reviews, one member wrote, “How can the NBCC even be asking this question?” As with most things, though, there’s the ideal on one end of the spectrum, failure on the other end, and reality somewhere in the middle.

“When you’re in the business you can’t avoid it,” says David Kirby, whose reviews have appeared most recently in the Boston Phoenix, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the Chicago Tribune. “Especially since I’m a poet and an essayist, I know academics and poets, and just by being out I’ve met a million novelists, so I’m always reading and writing about books by people I know.” But, says Kirby, “I wouldn’t know these people unless they were good writers, so I’m going to review them, but I’m not going to praise them beyond their merits. I’ve given mixed reviews to friends.”

Birkerts says he reviews books by authors he knows, but not by friends. “I’ve been reviewing for getting on twenty years or something, and I’ve met too many writers in different contexts to have that be a prohibiting thing. I guess we draw on the have-you-gone-out-and-had-dinner-with-the-writer-and-had-a-long-conversation rule, not whether I’ve stood at a cocktail party and talked to that person.”

The “no-friends” distinction seems to be generally accepted among professional reviewers. “I don’t review books by my friends, and I don’t review books by my enemies,” says Yardley. “I tend not to review authors about whom my feelings have become so fixed that I really would have trouble a) writing an unpredictable piece and b) perhaps reaching a fair judgment.”

Gail Caldwell, another recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and chief book critic for the Boston Globe, agrees. “I have a couple of writers who are good friends of mine whom I actually met after I had reviewed them and immediately stopped reviewing them once we got to know each other. I even step aside when their books are being assigned for review, which is to say I remove myself one step further.” Caldwell, who has been working for the Globe for 17 years, says that the longer one works as a reviewer, the more difficult it becomes to not know writers.

Many authors try to correspond with reviewers—if even just to convey appreciation. Traditionally, reviewers avoid anything more than a courteous response. But the ease and volume of e-mail has made reviewers’ jobs even harder. “Before e-mail came into existence and that sort of communication was done by letter or even telephone,” says Yardley, “I found that these contacts with authors led to friendships, which of course meant that I couldn’t review the authors anymore. So I tend not to encourage people who thank me for my reviews, unless I don’t think I’m going to be reviewing them again.”

These are the words of a reviewer who is keeping his audience—the reader—in mind. And if there’s any consensus among professional critics, it’s that readers’ needs should determine the nature of book reviews.

For most large-circulation publications—newspapers and magazines with general audiences—reviews provide a service. “I think that the working book reviewer, quotidian book reviewer, has to understand that they are really serving a consumer-advice function to a significant degree,” says Yardley.