BY NICO VREELAND
Last week, as you might have heard, Alice Hoffman pitched a fit at the Boston Globe reviewer who panned her new book, going so far as posting the reviewer’s phone number and email address on her Twitter feed and encouraging her fans to “Tell her what u think of snarky critics.” Eesh.
Similarly, Alain de Botton slightly overreacted (check the fourth comment) to a review of his new book in the New York Times Book Review. He tells the critic, among other things, “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make.”
Obviously this is childish, petulant behavior, but it raise a few question that are becoming more relevant in the age of the Internet: what is the purpose of a book review? Who are book reviews written for?
And then: when can an author complain (civilly) about a so-called “bad” review?
Here at Chamber Four, we started writing book reviews out of frustration with those we read. They all seemed to be either dissertations on literature or pieces of marketing campaigns, anything but aids to readers trying to find books they’ll enjoy.
To my mind, a good (not necessarily positive) book review should do three things: it should tell you whether the book is good or bad; it should determine the goals of the book, i.e., why it’s good or bad; and it should prepare the reader to read that book. (By the way, the author has nothing to do with any of this, this is between a reader and a book.)
It’s all too easy to fake the first and second, and ignore the third. That’s how most publishing industry reviews read, as thinly veiled flap copy in which a hiccup or wrong note is merely a testament to the nuance and verve of the writer’s dazzling, sparkling genius. After all, the publishing is trying to sell books, honest reviews aren’t exactly their highest priority.
Alternatively, there’s the New Yorker/New York Review of Books tack, expounding at length about the author’s ouevre, laying out the genealogy of the American suburban Midwest upper lower class cowboy villanelle, and couching criticism in verbal flourishes.
Both styles are equally unhelpful to a reader trying to make a simple decision: whether or not to read the book in question.
It’s always irked me that book reviews—unlike movie or music reviews—shy away from ratings. It’s true that book can’t be summed up in numbers, and there’s nothing an 8 can tell you that a 7 can’t. However, there’s a notable difference, on a scale of ten, between an 8 and a 2.
At Chamber Four, we use three ratings—Language, Entertainment, and Depth—to generally triangulate how successful a book is. A book that’s highly entertaining but not very well written is then easier to spot. No doubt there are people looking for books like that; a good review shouldn’t presume that the reader wants a certain kind of book.
Ratings are subjective, of course, as are book reviews in general, so the second point—determining the goals of the book—is key. If it’s a family drama, it doesn’t need to have jokes on every page. If it’s a comic novel, 2-dimensional characters can be more easily forgiven.
After a book is published, the author has no say in its goals. An author might fail at what he set out to do, or succeed at something he didn’t intend. Intentionality has nothing to do with the quality of the book; we have only the book itself to work with.
Most important of all is preparing a reader to read the book. This means more than delivering a quick plot summary. A good review gives the reader an honest and realistic idea of what to expect from the book. For example, a fan of Zadie Smith’s first two novels might enjoy her third one, On Beauty, but shouldn’t expect the same sense of humor. A review that braces the reader for that lack of humor is much more useful than a review that tells the plot, or simply says it’s a great book.
The review that Hoffman got so incensed about, by Roberta Silman, is guilty of trying to prepare the reader by revealing plot. Silman gives an account of her own experience reading The Story Sisters, and pronounces the book a bad one based on her own disappointment.
However, Silman’s capsule review, that “this new novel lacks the spark of [Hoffman’s] earlier work,” is unassailable. In the contemporary age of publishing, hundreds of thousands of books are published every year, competing for any given reader’s annual capacity of 50 or less. To some extent, book reviews must function as filters for all those books.
Even as they do so, though, reviews should be written for people who will read the book in question. The goal of a book reviewer should be to help the book find an audience that will enjoy it, and help that audience by establishing accurate expectations for the reading experience.
Too often, book reviews seem written for people who’ve already read the book. They give away either the plot or the pleasure of the book in their quest to show off how smart the reviewer is, or how well he understands what the author is trying to do.
de Botton was angry for a different reason. In his comment, he wrote, “You have now killed my book in the United States, nothing short of that,” which seems like he wants only positive reviews that will generate book sales.
I can understand the financial and emotional frustrations of a writer getting a bad review, but as a reader, I hate nothing more than an empty, gushing review about a book that turns out to be falsely advertised, mediocre, or just plain bad. I know that bad reviewers can give away too much plot, or might not “get” a book; but bad reviewers also lavish praise on undeserving books, or or fail to set proper expectations for the reading experience.
Here at C4, we’ve gotten author feedback on a few reviews; it’s always either good feedback (check the comments) in response to a positive review, or bad feedback in response to a negative one. This is why authors don’t write their own reviews, they’re a little biased.
That’s not to say that I begrudge de Botton or Hoffman responding to reviews of their books, but I’m skeptical as to how effective those responses are. When Jacket Copy contacted Roberta Silman, she reported only a trickle of email in response to Hoffman’s tweeting, all of it sympathetic to her, Silman.
de Botton got a bit more sympathy in the comment thread on Caleb Crain’s blog, but I don’t think an irate authorial outburst is enough to sway a potential reader’s opinion. And I can’t imagine that an outburst will give a reader a better reading experience.
I find myself, finally, sharing Hoffman’s and de Botton’s frustrations with book reviews, if not exactly for the same reasons. Book reviewing is a little like umpiring a baseball game, a supposedly objective job that can never rise above the inherent fallibility of the people who do it.
However, it’s worth remembering—by reviewers as well as authors—that objectivity and fairness is the goal, and that book reviews exist ideally to help readers enjoy books, and not for any other purpose.
A modicum of civility wouldn’t hurt either.