I've been thinking a lot lately about being mean in book reviews, or rather, how to strike a balance between honest and being fair, and if meaningful critique is worth doing in a small book-reviewing world where the de facto style seems to be politeness, encouragement and praise. And then, this ranty rant in BookRiot, anti the New York Times, inspired me to formulate some rules. All in good fun, I hope.
1. Do write a brilliant, opinionated takedown of a major literary figure. Everyone will read it, talk about it and give you lots of attention, bad or good. Which, let's face it, if you are a book reviewer, is an unfamiliar sensation.
2. But, make sure the figure you critique isn't someone likely to cause you any harm. Old Canadian ladies, popular authors, authors not in New York, authors so famous and remote that it really won't matter. Dead authors. All good choices.
3. In all other cases, write something positive, even if doing so requires sophisticated acrobatics. It's a small literary world, and either you may know the author you're reviewing, or definitely you have friends who know them, or you may need them for career advancement later.
4. Try to congratulate yourself on your acrobatics. Saying something good about a terrible book takes some doing.
5. Be aware that if you are writing for a major mainstream publication, you will get pushback on any note of critique, even in an otherwise glowing review. This can be from your editor, or from the book's author, publisher, publicist, friends, etc., on Twitter, on Facebook, in person. The editor version is particularly insidious, because editors tend to say "If you didn't like this, let's not run it," on the valid-ish grounds that the readers want recommendations. In that case, you read a bad book, wasted your time, got a fraction of your fee, and had an aura of failure hang about the venture, not likely to lead to more assignments.
6. Admit to yourself that all this pressure is quelling. I have written decent-ish reviews of books I thought sucked. I have written nice things with no critical notes about friends' books. I have elected to not review bad books by distant acquaintances. And every time I do criticize a book, I imagine its author's child denying my child a job someday, when I am dead, and the world is 200 degrees, and a spot in the air-conditioning in a corporate tower of the future is a matter of life or death.
7. Wonder why you -- ok, this list is about me -- why I am doing this, anyway. I started writing about books, despite the low pay and small audiences, because I love to read, and I love books, and I wanted to speak eloquently about them. If I'm not being honest in a book review on my personal blog, what, dear god, is the point?
8. Read this Tweedledum and Tweedledee debate about book reviewers. Are they in decline? Do we even need book reviewers, when we have Amazon and our friends to recommend books? Can anyone make money at this these days? -- besides writer Peter Damien of Book Riot, whose myriad well-paying alternative press editors, unicorns all, with long silky manes, if they're reading this, please call me!
9. Remember that in our fairly bleak and corrupt world, literature and the arts are one of our few forms of enlightenment, transcendence and salvation. Great books matter, and intelligent debate about them matters. A problem with the culture of toothless commentary is that people seem to forget there's a difference between saying something well and having something to say. What does a book mean? What is its message? Does it display any moral depth? The author can talk, but are they worth listening to? I find that's the question I most often have to steer away from, if I want to be diplomatic.
There are books that save lives, books that change lives, books that crack your head open and pour in a new substance and you walk around with your brain sloshing for weeks. There are books you'll never forget. There is a difference between these books and most others, and that difference is worth articulating.
10. Have integrity. Write the truest thing you can about what you read, in the most generous way possible. I do not always succeed, but I do try.