That is the question.
Reviews in general are a sensitive subject, but I hope I’m on fairly safe ground here, at least with my blogmates; since we don’t have a full-time reviewer on the team at the moment, and everyone else is five thousand miles away across the ocean, I don’t think anyone will pole up on my doorstep with a baseball bat.
OK, so when is a review not a review?
How about, when it’s a way of bigging up your chums’ new books? Or delivering a put-down to someone who has trodden on your toes?
Don’t get me wrong; the vast majority of reviewers are fair and honest, generous with praise when they truly believe it’s deserved, but frank about the flaws when they can’t be ignored. There are plenty of review columns and sites I consult regularly, reviewers whose opinions I actively seek.
But once in a while...
I once read a review of a book by a good friend which claimed he wrote ‘a decent, flat-footed prose.’ A sense of damning with faint praise there, wouldn’t you say? I raised it with my friend, a bit gingerly since like every writer I know including myself can be a tad thin-skinned about these things. He brushed it off with a laugh that didn’t even sound forced. ‘Oh, the guy’s just getting me back,’ he told me. ‘I reviewed his last book and said the writing sounded like a child’s school composition in places.’
The friend died a couple of years ago so I think it’s safe to repeat the story. Ever since, though, whenever I read an unfavourable review of one writer’s book by another, I’m left wondering when the pair of them crossed swords and what the spat was about. There’s certainly a case for leaving novel reviews to people who don’t write novels themselves.
I’m not sure if that kind of reviewer is more or less worrying than the kind who heaps glowing praise on everything, but only reviews a limited range of authors. Only yesterday I checked out a review site I sometimes visit; as on many websites there’s a tab at the bottom inviting comments, and one pointed out that every book reviewed on the site is described as brilliant and highly recommended. I may have imagined it, but I thought there was a distinct edge there. I’d read the book being reviewed, and I have to say I wasn’t exactly impressed, but the reviewer used words like rich, pacy and masterly. And on reflection, I realized that this particular reviewer has never, as far as I can recall, posted a review that didn’t praise and recommend the book.
I don’t review books, at least not often, though I would if I was asked. But in one of my several lives I do review live theatre. In the course of this work I’ve become acquainted with quite a few less-than-famous actors and a handful of equally unsung directors and producers, all of who work regularly at our little local theatre. Some of them have grown into good chums, and I hate to hurt their feelings. But to my mind the reviewer’s job is to tell it how it is, or at least how s/he sees it. I don’t think any of them would thank me for heaping praise on a production that didn’t work, for failing to notice that a performance wasn’t up to the actor’s usual standard, or, as happened recently, an actor past youth’s second or third blush had begun to lose his touch. As it happened this was a visiting player, not one of those ‘regulars’, but they know I’d do the same if it was one of them. If I start to praise my friends unstintingly and save the brickbats for incomers, my credibility is shot to pieces in no time and nobody bothers to read my reviews any more – a lose-lose situation if ever there was one.
Unstinting praise is the province of publicists, not reviewers. A review is surely only a review when the reviewer’s opinion can be trusted to be informed and honest.