I’ve noticed a few blogs and articles lately, such as Jacob Silverman’s in Slate and Nina Badzin’s on Huffington Post, that call the integrity of book reviews into question. They and others correctly point out that the overwhelming majority of book reviews in literary journals or online sites are positive, usually nothing but positive.
Welcome to the incestuous world of the literary book review.
As a writer, I dream of the day when a publisher calls or emails to say one of my novels has been chosen for publication. As the Book Review Editor for the Los Angeles Review, I am committed to honest evaluations of the books we choose to review. In other words I have been placed in a position of judgment over the same people I am constantly trying to impress. Can you trust what I print about them?
Most book reviewers and book review editors, especially those who write for literary journals, lie in that same bed, rubbing up against authors and publishers. Do they dare take the chance on pissing off a potential publisher, or creating a reputation as someone not supportive of the industry by writing negative reviews, even when warranted? If you read literary journals and their web sites, the answer is obviously no.
And often the authors of the books in question are brand new, or relatively new to being published. Even literary authors with six or more books are probably not in a position to quit their day jobs. Why bring them down? Reviewers may imagine a scenario where the roles are reversed—I certainly can—why would some unknown reviewer trash my book when I’m just getting a toehold in the business? And reviews are subjective. What qualifies him to do so?
As editor, I’ve recruited 15 or so volunteers to write reviews for our journal. All have excellent credentials. I’ve established some guidelines for reviews as well. One is to be honest. Another is to consult with me if they can’t find anything positive to say about the book they are reading. I then contact the publisher and let him or her know. It is a compromise, plain and simple. Perhaps you could call it a cop out. But it allows some room to maneuver, meaning we can point out weaknesses in a book, as long as we highlight the strengths. As a reviewer, I’ve learned to craft those criticisms in subtle terms, which erudite readers will identify as such.
Were literature more popular, like music or movies, performers and critics would exist in separate circles (I’m not counting the industry-backed pseudo reviewers), and reviewers would be more free to report what they believe is an honest assessment of the film or CD in question. The book world is different. There is not enough support for our industry to allow most reviewers to be just reviewers, or authors to only write. To get anywhere in writing, and to make ends meet, we must don many hats, write both creatively and critically, taking care not to antagonize the people who will someday judge us. It’s a compromise we have learned to live with.