A good reviewer in my book

As a writer, I hope for a good reviewer rather than a positive review.

Although a positive review would be nice, of course, it’s more important to get a reviewer that does their job well.

A reviewer’s job is not to show their audience how clever or erudite they are. (Though, of course, it helps if they are.) Not to paraphrase the story. Not to complain that the book they’re reviewing is not some other book they would have liked to read or have written.

The job of a reviewer is this: To read the book attentively and help their audience decide if they want to invest their time and/or money into this book.

That’s it. If a reviewer does that well, it is a good review.

I have experience of both sides of the equation. I made my living as a reviewer for many years, and have been reviewed often.

As a reviewer, I have made mistakes I regret now. For instance, I badly underrated both The Blues Brothers and When Harry Met Sally. Once, a reader called to ask if she could take her mother see Le Grand Chemin, which I had reviewed, and I assured her yes, there is nothing in the film that would offend her mother’s conservative sensibilities. The moment I put the phone down, a colleague reminded me of the cunnilingus scene…

Anyway, back to me as the reviewed, rather than the reviewer.

I’ve had a case where much of a review was built around the reviewer’s confident assumption that I had read a particular non-fiction book they were clever enough to have read themselves, and had based an important character and some of the events in my novel on that book. This was a bit suspect, according to the reviewer. Only, I had never even heard of the book in question…

Another reviewer complained that in a crime story of mine, the first murder only happens on page 10. (Never mind that the pagination in the book started at page seven.) But what sort of criterion is this anyway, how much you have to read before there is a murder? I do understand, though, what the reviewer had tried to convey, namely that the story moved too slowly for her liking. But then, why not simply say that? I would have no complaints if she did. Taste differs, after all.

I also had a reviewer who revealed several important moments in the book in their review, going so far as to quote one of the more shocking developments in the book verbatim. While that review may have enticed some people to read the book, it also spoiled the reading experience for them.

To my mind, these are just examples of bad journalism. It grates not only because I feel aggrieved as novelist, but also because it offends my journalistic sense.

And then something that isn’t an irritation as much as a mild curiosity: I cannot understand why reviewers don’t simply state if they had enjoyed reading the book. Isn’t that the main thing their audience wants to know?

I’ve had cases where people contacted me personally and raved about a book. Then, when their review appeared, it was so restrained that you could hardly tell if they liked it at all. Why not show your enthusiasm?

It’s okay if you don’t, though. If you’ve read my book well, considered it seriously, presented its contents in general terms without spoilers, decided it’s wonderful/meh/useless, and justified your opinion… you’re a good reviewer in my book. And I’d be happy for you to read mine.