When I was publishing I used to read reviews almost compulsively: not only of my own authors’ books, but those of big-name writers and a lot of less well-known ones whose work I liked to think we were matching for quality.
These days not so much. People I know, and favourite authors whose new books I look forward to, but nowhere near the wide and eclectic selection I used to home in on.
A bad review of a book I had/have a vested interest in always made/makes me bang my head on the table – not, I’m glad to say, that there were ever many of those. But regarding the others, it’s hard to know to what extent the reviews I read and used to read affected my reading habits. I’m certainly not going to miss out on a new J D Robb or Phil Rickman because a reviewer tells me s/he didn’t find it as gripping as the previous one; and nor will a glowing review persuade me to read something by an author I know I don’t get along with.
So I’m left with the question, to what extent do reviews actually change things? I’ve known authors hurl the newspaper/magazine/mouse (though never the computer itself) at the wall in disgust if a reviewer appears to have missed the point. As a publisher I was tempted to do the same once or twice when the reviewer seemed more interested in his own clever way with words than in the book itself, but I suppose I was a few steps further back from it than the author, and some of the comments were actually quite useful for future reference.
All of which leads me to another question: what is the purpose of reviews?
I was given an interesting take on this a few weeks ago when I reviewed a book myself for a mystery fiction website. The brief was this: Our purpose is to promote mystery fiction; if you don’t like the book, send it back so someone else can review it.
I thought about this for a long time. Is this a valid approach to reviewing? Shouldn’t reviewers just tell it how they see it, lest they get accused of promoting their friends and slagging off their... not-friends?
The conclusion I reached was that it’s something I can live with, under certain conditions: one, that the brief is made clear up front; and two, that I don’t review books by people I know. When I checked the website I found the first condition was met; the home page actually says it’s dedicated to the promotion of crime fiction. So the long list of favourable reviews serves a purpose which is not only valid but stated. And the second is easy: I get a list of the books available for review, and it’s first come first served, so I simply don’t choose anything by an author I’m personally acquainted with, or whose work I know I’m going to hate.
I duly reviewed the book I’d requested. It wasn’t great literature, the kind of crime fiction that uses the genre to say something important about the human condition, but that wasn’t what I was expecting. It was a pacy adventure story with lots of action and some engaging characters, and it took a premise which interested me and wove a coherent plot around it. And that’s what the review said, more or less. A basic tenet of journalism is to tailor the work to the market, and this is how my inner journalist is asserting itself for this purpose.
I’m OK with that, and will be happy to do the same again in future.
Which isn’t to say that any book I ever review for any magazine or website will receive the same treatment. Sometimes you have to tell it how you see it.