I assumed the new Facebook message was going to be another invitation to an in-house-selling-stuff-party from one of my girlfriends (events for which I have a lot more sympathy ever since I started hawking books out of the back of my car).
It was actually a message from — you guessed it — my high school boyfriend’s dad, a man I have not seen in over twenty years. Even so, he had sought out and read my novel. And he liked it — said he wished the book was longer. He’s not a professional literary critic but he is someone I admired so much as a teenager I always made myself into an idiot in front of him. His review of my book — short, private, informal, encouraging – meant as much to me as a printed page in a prestigious publication.
That’s real-me talking. Pro-writer-me can’t be so sentimental. Amassing reviews in established, well-known publications is serious business. It’s no place for getting mushy and indulging in adolescent vindication. For some of us, book reviews — those columns bundled in newspapers and obscure literary journals, those afternoon public radio programs I listen to while folding laundry — are not idle entertainment.
I treasure all the professional reviews I’ve got. It’s a huge honor to see half a page of a national newspaper devoted to discussing a story I made up. In return, I’ve started writing long-form book reviews myself. The first will appear this winter in a new Canadian literary journal called The Rusty Toque. Writing a review is time consuming and intellectually demanding. But I owe it to my community to do it anyway.
Book reviews are also controversial. Some of the nastiest squabbling in the writing world today revolves around the state and fate of book reviews and literary criticism. Authors of commercial fiction complain about reviewers being snobs fixated on “serious” literary work and ignoring popular books. Reviewers who write for established, bookish publications have been known to sneer at other reviewers who start book-blogs and write about whatever they want. Even more casual than book bloggers are blurb-length reviewers on websites like Amazon and Goodreads. Some authors denounce these hobbyist reviewers who sometimes off-handedly and ignorantly judge their work — and their private lives. At the same time, the hobbyists complain about website policies they feel are muzzling them. In the world of book reviews, everyone’s threatened, no one’s completely happy.
Reviews for self-published books are an even murkier morass. Most publications still won’t review self-published books. Among whatever high quality work might be out there in self-publishing, there are literally millions of sub-standard products glutting the system. Being shut out of the traditional review pool leaves self-publishers to create their own systems for evaluating each other’s work – systems vulnerable to abuse where real reviews can be hard to distinguish from ones that have been bought or swapped for reciprocal but meaninglessly gushy reviews.
All of this might be very important but I’m still newbie enough to just be thrilled anyone is reading and talking about my work. I’m grateful for any airtime or column space or bandwidth I can get.
And that includes coverage by book bloggers. I’m not moved by arguments from those who worry bloggers are cheapening and proletarianizing literary criticism. I think there’s definitely room for plain-spoken, personal reflections on books and reading. In my experience, there’s some very good writing in book blogs, like Daniel at The Indiscriminate Critic who described the narrative style in my book as “a mental Mobius strip.” This is exactly what I hoped to achieve even though I didn’t see it that way until he said it. Authors who’ll agree to interviews are being asked thoughtful questions on book blogs too. Laura at Reading in Bed came up with a list of questions that excavated the roots of the themes I write about just as well as any professional has done to date.
Book bloggers can read earnestly and critically. They take their work seriously. And they can write from a personal angle that more formal reviews can’t approach. They’re doing for literary criticism what book clubs are doing for publishing – keeping it relevant and accessible to people not professionally invested in the industry. That’s a great service to all of us.