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Books From the Other Side of the Fence

Ninety minutes ago I realized that I had a column to write that should have been posted in the wee hours of the morning (some 12 hours ago), which prompted me to begin furiously typing away.  There are many excuses for the late posting in the day of this column, including:  1) I didn’t get my 2010 calendar until last week, and have not yet included my handy reminder notations on the fourth of every month to produce said column; 2) I was out of town; 3) I am still on 2009 time; 4) Because it is the fifth, I plead the Fifth, which means I do have the right to not incriminate myself.  Enough said.

Just because I am not incriminating myself, though, doesn’t give me a right to back out of this month’s writing column commitment.  Today’s topic is criticism.

Six months ago I took on a new writing gig:  a sometimes book reviewer for a daily newspaper.  The rationale for my taking on the job was that since I do a lot of reading anyway, I might as well get paid to review some books.

I do about one review a month.  I wish I could say that I had my pick of books, but my editor is the one that does the selecting.  Typically he chooses books written by local authors.

Unlike some book reviewers, I don’t enjoy eviscerating books or running up the insult totals.  If I don’t see any merit in a particular book I have been assigned, I usually try to opt out of doing the review (my editor sometimes has me interview the author as a compromise).

Having always been on the other side of the fence (having my books reviewed by others), I never appreciated the difficulties in writing a good review.  In a short space I have to summarize the plot of a book, and describe what I liked or didn’t like about the book.  Like an attorney wanting to make a point, I have to bring in corroborating evidence (usually a written passage, or description of a scene).

As a reviewer, my aim is to be scrupulously honest.  My review is my own Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.  I believe I bend over backwards to be fair.  I am aware that no author ever sets out to write a bad book; I am also aware that what I am reading probably took at least a year out of the writer’s life.  That is why I never savage a book.  At the same time if I perceive that the writer falls short in any given area, it’s my job to point that out.

As is often the case, a review sometimes comes down to reflecting personal taste.  When my fifth novel was published the reviewers for both Publishers Weekly and Kirkus both happened to cite the same scene; one of the reviewers thought it was a tour de force, while the other wrote that it was over the top.  It was a great example of the saying, “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.”

Overall I feel very fortunate in having received a number of wonderful book reviews over the years.  It’s great to be appreciated.  At the same time, I also remember one or two less than stellar reviews.  It’s terrible to be misunderstood.  As writers we need to remember that not everyone is going to love our words.  The only time I have taken umbrage with a review is when the reviewer mixes up characters, or the plot (dammit, I want to say, are you reading from the right book?).

One of the reasons I agreed to be a reviewer is that so many daily newspapers have axed their book sections, and these days it is harder and harder for an author to get reviewed.  As a writer, I fear that trend.  When I was offered the chance to be a reviewer, I felt obligated to take the job.  For the sake of our livelihood, we need readers.  As a reviewer I can only hope I am helping to prime the pump.

I am not sure if my part-time job is helping my full-time work.  Criticism is not creating, but at the same time I hope to be more aware of practicing what I preach (and have criticized) in my future novels.  Physician heal thyself.

Elmore Leonard probably offered the best writing advice I have ever heard:  “When you write,” he said, “try to leave out all the parts that readers skip.”

As writers, it’s our job to try and figure out what parts those are; it’s the job of the critic to say whether we have succeeded or not.


Alan Russell

January 5, 2010 (Mea Culpa – 2:15 P.S.T.)

9 comments to Books From the Other Side of the Fence

  • David Niall Wilson

    I’ve been on both sides of the reviewer fence myself. I try to be as honest as possible, but as you say, there’s no reason to tear down someone’s work. It’s a rough road. If you consider that people might spend, or save their money based on what you write. I have come to only review things I have something decent to say about, or things I truly dislike for some reason…


  • I reviewed for The Detroit News for awhile and like you wrestled with “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Realistically, a reviewer shouldn’t be faulted for an honest point of view, however negative it might be. Truth be told, though, there are many in the game who read less than thoroughly and don’t let that temper their criticisms. Sorry you’ve run into that, as a more careful craftsman would be hard to come by. “To thine own self be true…”

    — Sully

  • This was a thought-provoking post. It hadn’t really occur to me what a dying art this is but you’re absolutely right. Thank goodness there are people out there like yourself with a heart for doing the right thing and a willingness to be thorough and fair. There wouldn’t be much point in reading a book review if reviewers only said good things about every book but if you’re going to talk about somebody’s baby, it is important to remember that you’re talking about somebody’s baby.

    Gee, and you came up with all this at the last minute?

  • Wolf Lahti

    This column begins “Six months ago….” Why on Earth do we need the first two paragraphs of apology/excuses?

  • Brian Hodge

    Good on ya for adding this reviewing to what is probably an already full plate. Maybe even platter.

    And if you can read this at all, I’ll be overjoyed. Both yesterday and today, this site will NOT let me comment in any way, shape, or form to Gerard’s post.

  • Hey, Brian, this is probably totally inadequate, but your browser may be defaulting to a cached page before comments were allowed. Try closing everything out (clearing history and temporary Internet pages, if possible — maybe even rebooting afterward), then reenter Storytellers and try just clicking where it says “2 comments” at the end of Gerard’s article and scroll to the bottom. Like I said, this is probably simplistic — it really shouldn’t matter, as long as you’re on the main page you should be able to click the title and get the comments page — but everyone’s computer has its issues, so it might be worth a shot…

    — Sully

  • Brian Hodge

    Sully: I appreciate the input, but that wasn’t the issue. Not only did I try some of the actions you’re recommending; I also tried it on a clean, altogether different browser with the same lack of results. It’s happened before to me, and Dave told me he’s gotten similar reports from others, on occasion, so it’s just one of those intermittent bits of weirdness that seem awfully hard to pin down.

  • David Niall Wilson

    Even weirder that it’s just Gerard’s post…

    Apparently it lets you post here. Maybe only on odd posts? (lol)

  • Usually you don’t need to offer thanks for writing a column, but the column wouldn’t have happened if Sully hadn’t thrown technological alms to this Luddite, and David hadn’t retrieved my words from the ether and put them aright.

    Thanks for your kind words Carole and Brian (and may you experience no more kinks in the system).

    Wolf, it’s called being “folksy,” albeit perhaps it was a failed attempt.


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