Bev Marshall and Bob Harris' comments of the other day made me realize that a lot of authors don't realize what book reviewers do. (And based on some of the reviews I've read, I'd be confused too.) So I thought I'd start a semi-regular feature called "Ask a Book Reviewer":
Q. Do you select the books you review?
Not usually. Most of them are assigned. Once in a while, I've pitched an editor on a book review, but most of the time I figure that they know their sections' needs better than I do.
Q. What happens when you know the author?
I don't review the book. The major-league book review sections actually make you sign a contract saying that you've had no contact (good or bad) with the author under review, but some of the smaller markets are less scrupulous.
On the other hand, it's unavoidable that a reviewer and an author will know one another, particularly if the subject is a small, closed world. In that case, the best possible solution is full disclosure, early and prominent in the review.
This year I received a box of galleys from an assignment editor, who wanted me to pick out a few for review. Among them was a book by a writer whom I've met a few times. I couldn't review it, obviously, and yet it was worthy of a review and shouldn't have been discarded simply because it was sent to me. In that case, I dropped the editor a note and told him that I couldn't review it, but I wanted to bring the book to his attention.
Q. How do you read a book when you're planning to review it?
Usually with a laptop nearby, so I can take contemporaneous notes (quotes with page numbers, questions, general impressions) as I'm going along. When this is done on computer rather than a notepad, it almost forms a skeleton for the eventual review itself. The alternative involves a million little Post-Its bristling on the pages, but since it's all got to be entered into the computer anyway, why not skip that step?
Q. What do you do when you really hated a book?
Read back, even more carefully, and make sure that every criticism I make can be justified with direct quotes, if possible.
For instance: I just reviewed a novel that's coming out later this year. It was dreadful, hackneyed, clichéd, and just plain lazy. Rather than stud the review with those sorts of adjectives, it's more effective (and more fair to the author) to choose some quotes from the book to prove that point, as I did last year:
There are two things one needs to know about men like Mitch Rapp, the secret agent-assassin-hero of Vince Flynn's latest novel, Consent to Kill: They are loners and they don't play by the rules. In most espionage novels and Hollywood blockbusters, these qualities are a given, but Flynn takes no chances. On Page 4, he makes it clear: "He was a loner." As for the rule-breaking, wait for Page 46: "I don't plan on playing by anyone's rules."
Why try to slam an author like that when you can let himself self-defenestrate with his own words?
Q. Do you ever hear from an author after you've written a review?
Very rarely. Roger L. Simon dropped me a note after I praised one of his Moses Wine books, saying, "May you win the lottery and live a thousand years to enjoy it." And Jackie Collins sent me a short letter and a Christmas card.
But I've never had a reaction like this:
After Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley panned Kelley's biography of Elizabeth Taylor in 1981, he received a gilded Gucci box wrapped with gold ribbon. "Inside," says Yardley, "was a bag of fish heads and a postcard of Liz Taylor giving me the finger." The card was signed, "From the friends of Kitty Kelley."
Q. Jackie Collins?
Sure. She does what she does better than anybody else (and she has a lot of imitators). Panning her for not being Annie Proulx would be ridiculous. A good review should always consider the author's intent in relation to the result.
Q. How much do you make per review?
It varies widely.
Q. But how much...
None of your business.
Questions? Leave a comment or send me an email, and I'll use 'em as part of "Ask a Book Reviewer, Part II."