Write it now: can authors review other authors’ work?

Traditional book reviews – as opposed to the instant reader feedback via Amazon and so forth that we now call a ‘review’ – have almost always been written by writers.

I’ve written plenty of them myself, professionally, for newspapers and lit magazines. The trick to it is abstraction.

From http://public-domain.zorger.comThe problem with the process, certainly in a tiny place like New Zealand, has been that editors often give books to a rival author to review, as the only person able to make an informed comment. Some of the authors then feel obligated to indulge in worth-assassination of their competitor. This is flat out patch protection, and I’ve been at the receiving end of it often enough in the past with my military histories – people whose equivalent ‘patches’ are usually defined by their employment writing books at my expense as taxpayer, and whose public portrayal of me as incompetent affects the income I earn from my competing commercial works. Go figure.

But in the ordinary course of ‘review’, in the expression of a professional and abstract view, authors should be able to review other authors’ work. If they do it properly.

How’s it done? My usual approach is to look on the review as a specialised feature article – to give the review a theme and argument of its own.The reviewer should write something informative – something that helps a reader judge the quality of a book, something that informs. A hostile trawl for any trivia on which to condemn the worth of the author isn’t the way to do it. Nor is simply regurgitating their content in pot-summary. Reviewers have to ask questions.

One question is ‘why’ –  why did the author choose the themes that they did? Why did they take a particular topic, angle or subject? What was their intent in writing the book? How did they tackle it? Where does their work fit with that of similar authors? This doesn’t have to be a worth judgement. Remember – the review has to inform a reader.

Do you write reviews? How do you approach them? Have you ever been reviewed? How did the reviewer approach your work?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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14 comments on “Write it now: can authors review other authors’ work?

  1. susielindau says:

    I read a scathing review of JR Moehringer’s Sutton by a NY Times writer. Moehringer worked for the NYT and I suspect by the tone of his writing, there was something very personal about his spin.. Of course JR is a classy guy and never responded to it. The book sold like gangbbusters anyway.

    • One hesitates to dignify these ‘literary assassins’ by engaging them. Quality will out, as it were, despite the snide comments of competitors! And usually these ‘assassination’ reviews are clear enough for what they are.

  2. jjspina says:

    I write a lot of book reviews for other authors. I always try to be kind and if I do not like a particular book I will not review it. It is very detrimental to an author’s reputation to receive a poor review.

    I have seen a few one-star reviews that were outrageously mean spirited and uncalled for. I don’t know what a reviewer is thinking when he/she writes something that can hurt someone. What can they gain from being cruel?

    • I suspect self-validation.I find that some people view the work of others in the field of their interest as somehow taking away the criteria by which they validate themselves – and feel obligated to avenge their wounded sense of self esteem by counter-attacking in kind. To the hapless target of these kinds of reviews it is, of course, purely an attack out of the blue for no rational reason. Alas…

  3. I’ve always felt torn on how to review books as an author myself. Before I released my book, I reviewed books like any other reader. But now since I’ve written a story myself, and therefore in the same boat as the authors whose work I am reading and reviewing, I do think I need to take a different approach. It’s like a peer to peer review when authors review another author’s books. Plus, I don’t want to see hypocritical. Meaning, if I dislike something about one book and my book has the same problem, wouldn’t I be a hypocrite to complain or point out that problem? So yeah, I think I need to review as a fellow author, and change my approach to reviewing.

  4. I have written a couple reviews and have been asked to write more. The approach you take makes a great deal of sense. Especially if the story was something less than stellar. I’ll be going back over this post before I generate any more.

    • To me the key to it is abstraction – stepping back from the whole thing. Even running a ‘thought experiment’ to put myself into the mind of the author as best I can. According to his autobiography, Stephen Fry had a rule not to write what he called ‘stinker’ reviews – presumably if he didn’t have something nice to say, he wouldn’t say it. I am not so sure about that entirely; if a book is really bad, it’s misleading to paint it in bright colours – and reviews need to be informative. But I guess the trick is not to make it personal against the author who may well have poured their heart and soul into it (as, I guess, we all do when we write).

      • I would like to add that not all bad reviews are detrimental. I’m sure it still hurts the feelings but I have actually bought books based on negative reviews because, even though the reviewer was being mean, they actually managed to say reasons why it was so horrible and I didn’t agree with those reasons. Because those reasons were the sort of thing I would like. Not that I condone mean spirited reviews in any way shape or form. But I think it is right if a reviewer does include what they consider bad, in their opinion, and in a polite way, because another person might benefit from the knowledge.

        • I agree. Stating what’s ‘bad’ in a de-personalised and constructive way meets the criteria of ‘informative’. It’s when the reviewer reduces their conduct to ad hominem assault on the worth of the other author that it loses the purposes and becomes personal and – rightly – offensive to the targeted author.

  5. Samir Chopra says:

    Matthew,

    I’ve just finished writing a largely negative review of a pair of books. I think I went ahead and did so because the views expressed in them were, in my opinion, politically offensive–and possibly even dangerous to some–views masquerading as disinterested academic theorizing. I focused my review on pointing out the potentially problematic political applications of the arguments under consideration.

  6. Samir Chopra says:

    Oh, and I focused on providing as many refutations as I could in the space provided.

    • I think discussing the issues in abstract fashion as you describe is a very different matter from the ad hominem assault, masquerading as review, that often constitutes a ‘bad review’ from an interested party. If you had doubts about the postulate of the original author, and offer an informed counter-argument as you did, then that fulfils one purpose of a review – which is to be useful. And it also seems to me that by offering a counter-argument – an informed debate – of the subject matter, it’s possible to engage the reader of your review effectively in a dialogue about the subject matter. And that can be good too.

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