I’ve been writing book reviews for a web site for about two and a half years now. I like it (usually); it’s made me a deeper, more thoughtful reader, and introduced me to some new writers (a couple of whom I see on CrimeSpace) I would not otherwise have known about. On the down side, I have had to suffer through some real stinkers without the option to cut my losses, put it down halfway through, and pretend that was someone else’s book I picked up by mistake.

Here’s my dilemma: I think I owe it to the editor and her readers to be honest and entertaining in my reviews. At the same time, I have an agent pushing a novel of my own, and I have no desire to shoot myself in the foot and damage any fledgling relationships with an unflattering review.

I don’t want the reviews to become safe, and so tepid as to be meaningless. Might I be well advised to let go of the reviewing? If anyone can give me a good take, this is the group.

Thanks in advance.

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I just noticed you're a musician. Me, too. So you already know the answer - sociable people tell you how great the gig was. The floor is covered with superlatives. The people you want to hear from tell you about your new reed or the mix or who's listening to whom and who isn't in the ensemble, or your diction or the new arrangement . . . that's what I want, with a story or with a performance.

If the publisher is afraid of truth, you've got no hope running your reviews there.
There's a whole lot at play here. Yes, mature, rational writers should have thick enough skins to either ignore what they consider dumb, bad reviews, or even better, to learn something from smart, bad reviews. I know some writers like that. I consider myself one of them. But I also know other writers who can't bring themselves to remain calm, collected and mature about reviews and go ballistic over bad ones. If you are an honest, and sometimes blunt, reviewer, you will make some enemies whether that's a reasonable response or not. You just have to be ready for that and suck it up - in the same way that a mature, rational writer ought to suck up a bad review.

And, that can have a negative impact on your career as a writer. There are agents and editors and publishers who are every bit as immature about these things as some writers. If you write negative reviews about some of their authors' books, you are going to burn some bridges with some of them - possibly even before you come to those bridges. So you need to be able to live with that. You'll probably even piss off some of your fellow reviewers if you give bad reviews to books they like, some of them will be less likely to give your book a fair consideration. None of that is fair, but it's the way it is.

An important question to ask yourself is "who are you writing these reviews for, and for what purpose?" That's where the issue of whether or not you should only review books that you liked comes into play. There are around 200,000 books a year published in the U.S. and a whole lot of them, most of them probably, aren't all that good. (Although someone liked them, if they weren't self-published.) For a reader, one of the most difficult things is to find new books, by authors you haven't heard of, that you will enjoy. Sure, I get a little nasty delight out of reading a well-written nasty review. (Particularly if it's of a book by a big name author.) But it doesn't do me any real good, compared with a good review of a book by an author I'm not familiar with and who has been brought to my attention by the review.

So I guess the question really is, can you live with at least some bad consequences of writing bad reviews, when you are also writing your own books? Or, do you feel that you can maintain your integrity as a reviewer by only publishing reviews of books you like? If you can't answer yes to the first question, then you'd best be able to answer yes to the second or you probably ought to give up either reviewing or writing books, depending on which is least important to you.

All that said, there is a sort of middle ground. Rather than a book reviewer, you can become a book essayist. I often read articles that are, for instance, essays on a group of books about serial killers (or books dealing with prostitution in Asia, or in which the protagonists are gay or in a foreign country, or small town female sheriffs, etc.) Those essays usually deal with a subject without making value judgments about the particular books that have been cited. The overall theme is of more importance than the individual books. That's one good way of getting around the reviewing dilemma and still publishing articles that will be seen and read and thus help publicize your own books - all without too much worry over whose toes you might step on.
Thank you for the time I know it must have taken to put together this reply. Your comment pulls together several thoughts I've had, some not fully formed, about the whole reviewing experience.

While not published yet myself, I'll confess to having decided not to read reviews of whatever I may get published in the future. I think most writers have occasional confidence issues, and I wouldn't want to have mine shaken in the middle of a project by a bad review of a previous work. It's also not healthy to read only good reviews, ignoring other opinions. I think I'd like to handle it by letting my agent read them, and passing along whatever suggestions resonate with her, or seem to generate a consensus.

I like the idea of a book essayist as a way to have the best of both worlds, promoting worthy books while not having to worry about panning the others. It would allow me to continue to hone my reading and analytical skills, removes the possibility of inadvertently offending someone, and still provides a service by recommending what the essayist feels are books worthy of greater notice.

This has been a much more thought provoking discussion than I had anticipated. For someone as new to CrimeSpace as I am (one week), it's been quite an eye opener. Thanks to all who have contributed, or may contribute in the future.


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