A recent New York Times Bookends feature focused on writers reviewing other writers—specifically the argument of “should they or shouldn’t they?”
Zoë Heller and Adam Kirsch discussed the topic, touching on why some authors are reluctant to review others, but also why it’s important to do so.
“Some recuse themselves from reviewing any contemporary fiction at all. Others review only those novels they can praise in good faith. Still others adopt a tactful, discursive reviewing style that allows them to write about books they don’t rate without actually copping to an opinion.”
“Write a bad review and you make an enemy for life; no writer ever forgets a pan. And these days, when so many writers work in the academy, an enemy can be a real threat to one’s career. Just wait until the victim of your bad review, or his friend or student, turns up on your hiring committee or your prize jury.”
It makes you wonder why anyone would review a book if there is bigger downside that could come from a negative review. However, as a reader who looks at reviews before deciding to purchase a book, I wish more people would be honest.
It’s difficult combing through them and attempting to figure out who the authors’ friends and relatives might be—not to mention those who are clearly being rude for no other reason than the fact that they have access to a computer.
As a reader, I would appreciate if more authors got involved. I understand there is an element of competition involved between authors. If readers have a finite amount of books they’re able to read in one lifetime, of course you want to them to read your books. But I feel writers have something at stake in the industry. Being honest with readers—regardless of whether you think a particular book is good or bad—is important. Readers should take kindly to those who are honest.
I think it’s important not just for authors to tout those books that are great, but also to be critical of those could have been better. I’m not saying it’s always necessary to trash another’s book. However, getting into the aspects that could have made a novel better is a benefit not only to that author, but aspiring writers and readers as well.
Opinions, of course, will differ—but that also makes the discussion all the more interesting.
In this Bookends segment, I think I leaned on the side of Kirsch, who finished his essay with this:
“For all these writers, criticism was a way of understanding themselves, of discovering how they did and did not want to write. It was also a means of educating the public, preparing readers for the revolution in taste they wanted to sponsor. Perhaps a writer can’t be great without a touch of this kind of aggression, this intolerance of artistic error. At the very least, novelists who do risk writing criticism should know they’re in the best of company.”