What with the piece I did on A S Byatt's Possession for normblog's Writer's Choice slot, and my very occasional appearances as a bookfox on Vulpes Libris, I've been thinking lately about reviewing. In much internet reviewing there seems to be a principle that you mustn't lie, but what you say should be mainly positive. But when does that become mere blandness? Then there's the issue of whether you review a book you bought for yourself differently from one you were sent unsolicited to review. And what if you know the author? Is it different if it's their first book? (Some of the reviews I most cherish of The Mathematics of Love said it didn't seem like a first book at all, so there must be some stereotype operating...) What if you really hate it for personal reasons, rather than thinking it's just a badly-written book? And we've all read reviews that seemed to have more in common with blood sports than rigorous no-holds-barred literary criticism: it may be a terrific read in bed with coffee and croissants on a Saturday morning, but can it ever be justified?
I mind what is said about my work: it's far too important a part of me not to, and it's part of the thin-skinnedness that made me a writer in the first place. I mind more if it's someone whose opinion I respect, or if that opinion will be read and believed by a great many people. But even a nasty or stupid remark on an obscure blog hurts quite a bit for a while, as it would if someone said it to my face. More surprisingly, even wonderful reviews skew my judgement of the work in progress: should you do more of X, which won such praise? They didn't like Y, but, help! there's lots more of it in the new novel. And what about Z, which they don't even mention? A review, in a way, is an external thing as much as anything to do with the book trade is, as I was thinking about in The Market for Ropes. But, more to the point, after I've got over the painful writerly self-consciousness of the moment, I've yet to read a review of my work that made the slightest difference to what I actually write.
So what should a reviewer do? Whether the chief function of a review is to pass judgement on the merits of the book, or to say enough about it for readers to decide whether to buy it, the central point seems to be that you should review the book: what it actually does, what it actually says, what the writer is actually trying to do. Your discussion should transmit the flavour of the book, your judgement should be about how far they've succeeded in what they're trying to do. But I've read many reviews over the years which berate a novel for not doing something it was never trying to do in the first place. There are the ego-trip ones, where we learn more about the reviewer than the book, or see it used as ammunition in some professional battle. Then there are the awestruck or snide ones which talk more about the author (their looks, their advance, their private life) than their work. None of these kinds of reviews is justified, to my mind, however delightful the schadenfreude, because it's not the point: a review should be about the book, and however experienced and erudite a reviewer is, they should remember that it is only their opinion that they're expressing.
I've been incredibly lucky so far, for an unknown debut novelist, with reviews, in both quantity and quality. But of course there have been things said that were less than positive: with many I could see why they felt that way, though I disagreed; with a few I just thought, 'Well, you just didn't get it, did you?' which is both more, and less, annoying. Yes, I would rather get perfect reviews just as I would rather look exquisitely beautiful, and be dressed to match. But it ain't gonna happen. If something in a reasonable review hurts, that's my problem, not the reviewer's. They're not writing it for me, they're writing it for potential readers. Their only duty is to read the book as intelligently as they can, represent it fairly, and remember that possibly, just possibly, it's not the book that's wrong, it's them.