Plenty of writers make a point of exempting themselves (maybe recusing is a better word) from reviewing other writers’ work. I understand this.
They (the self-recused) can’t forget how long it takes to make a book; how hopelessly personal, therefore vulnerable, the project always feels. To deliver a public judgment on someone else’s work strikes them as kin to strolling into oncoming traffic.
Most authors have lived through a couple of bad reviews: not fun. Of course one could strike back with an outraged letter or a punch in the nose, but nearly everyone understands that's inadvisable. The Unspoken Writers’ Integrity Code stipulates that after receiving a bad review (or a good one for that matter) a writer vanish noiselessly back down her prairie-dog hole—presumably, to begin again.
Richard Russo noted in The New York Times Book Review, alongside his first review for them in 18 years:
“I don’t review books very often . . . which is odd because I love to talk about them. The problem is that I don’t have much interest in discussing books I don’t like. It takes me four or five years to write a novel, and no matter how much I may hate a book, I can’t get out of my head the fact that some poor schlemiel worked lovingly on it for a very long time. . . . I don’t dispute that it’s somebody’s job to blow the whistle on bad books, bad movies, bad art. It’s just not mine if I can help it.”
Richard Ford seconds that: “Giving a colleague a bad review is like driving down the road, seeing a hitchhiker and rather than picking [him] up, you run over him.”
Nonetheless, scan the pages of any major reviewing venue, and you’ll notice that most reviewers are themselves respected authors. Most make calm, sane work of it. I have never asked writing friends why they review, but I would bet their reasons (payment's too modest to count) resemble mine. Here are five:
- A hand in the game: Thinking and talking about books is delicious luxury. When I prepare a review, I feel that I am shaping an intimate message—as if over a café table—about something whose survival matters desperately to both the listener and to me—not so much the book in hand as the whole enterprise of literary art.
- Visibility: Many writers blog as a method of connecting to a reading public. But because there’s such an avalanche of them now it strikes me that much individual blogging, however gifted, often wafts unread into the ether. Nonetheless, as more and more journalism migrates to online status, reviewing venues may soon be exclusively accessed that way and continue to draw the faithful.
- Reading against type: A reviewer must read what she's assigned: often these are titles she’d never choose. Terrific! Opening wide the reading-intake gates stretches a reviewer. Even if she doesn’t care for the book, she learns to express it diplomatically. Which leads to:
- Clarifying values: the late John Updike created a list of (blessedly sane) suggestions for reviewers. Among them: “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” And: “Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards . . . a corrections officer of any kind.” That does not mean, however, that a reviewer should not apply all her heart and mind to the job. Which brings up:
- Communicating passion for reading: “Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast," said Updike. Every word a reviewer writes can telegraph the power, richness, and joy of reading, and "all our discriminations should curve toward that end,” urged Updike. Joy arrives with discovery—which happens, thank heaven, all the time.
The great reviewing challenge, naturally, is to discuss reservations without trashing the work. Trashing serves no one, and possibly takes the cause of literature down a peg. I’ve stumbled on occasion—overpraised work out of caution, taken work to task because its aesthetic abraded me. But these missteps only made me resolve to cleave more intently to Updike's golden standards.
In the end, is the reviewing industry arbitrary, idiosyncratic, uneven? Of course it is. Is it better than nothing? It has to be. Literary venues are fighting for their lives.
And that alone may be reason enough for contributors to to give it their very best.