In her essay “Connie May Is Going to Win the Lottery This Week” in Sonny Brewer’s new collection, Don’t Quit Your Day Job, Connie May Fowler, while talking about the awful jobs she held before being able to write full time, throws in, nearly offhandedly, “Writing is a rough vocation made all the more difficult by changing delivery systems, archaic business models, and imploding economies. You write your heart out and some clown you don’t know takes a sucker punch at you in the media, and manners and tradition dictate that you remain silent.”
To the best of my knowledge, I have never reviewed a book by Fowler, so I am not, literally, the clown she is referring to, but I have reviewed several hundred other books, so I am surely that “clown” to some writers.
Writers have feelings, God knows. Few have the thick skin everyone agrees is desirable to put your work, your baby, out there, and let others, friends or strangers, give their opinions of it, and then maintain a mature equanimity. Many writers claim that they don’t read their reviews. This may be, on rare occasions, true, but not among the writers I know.
Most writers read their reviews, love and quote the good ones, are sad and angry about the negative ones.
Fowler hints at a certain purposeful malice—thus, the “sucker punch”—on the part of the reviewer. Other authors have suggested that reviewers are Olympian and indifferent to the feelings of the author.
What writers and readers rarely think about is that, as he proceeds with his job, the reviewer is not in a state of cool detachment, but is experiencing a considerable range of emotions himself.
Let us postulate here, since reviewers like literary artists, come in a wide range of flavors, that the reviewer is a typical, sensible, conscientious fellow.
Ideally, the reviewer is not biased, has no animus towards the book or author under consideration, does in fact read the book, and does his best to understand it, evaluate it, and express himself with style and balance.
In other words, our reviewer, while not Solomon, is not lazy or crazy, either one. He is just a typical, good-faith commentator.
Depending on the book and the circumstances, the reviewer experiences various emotions.
For example, if the book is a debut novel or volume of nonfiction, the author a friend or stranger, the reviewer feels anticipation. There is genuine hope that this will be a wonderful book, engrossing, exciting, informative, useful. After all, the conscientious reviewer is going to give this book a chunk of his life. When I am reading at good speed, I can read about a page a minute, and although that is actually pretty fast, a 300-page book will still consume a minimum of five hours. (You cannot review a book you do not finish. Ethics forbid this.)
Then of course there is the matter of writing the review, which takes as long as it takes, one hour or five or more.
If the book is wonderful, the reviewer feels pleasure, joy, happiness, an actual thrill of discovery, call it what you will. If the author is an acquaintance, the reviewer may also feel pride (or envy, but that is another story.)
If the book is terrible, or just mediocre, the reviewer feels disappointment, perhaps pity, perhaps sadness, and perhaps a sense of empathy: the novel or whatever took a lot of work to write and the author can’t get his or her hours back either.
The reviewer also knows that writing the review is going to be tougher than if the novel were superb. With a first book, compassion must be shown and restraint exercised. This is not the place to show what a clever smart alec you are.
But suppose it is a second novel?
Then the feeling will be anxiety. The second novel, especially one following a really good first novel, is a perennial problem. Has the writer fulfilled the promise of book one? Is this just as good, or was the first a flash in the pan?
If it too is successful, one feels relief and delight; a career is under way. If not: gloom.
Sometimes one reviews a book by an established author, a writer who has done a body of good work, and the book is not much. What feelings then? It depends on the reviewer’s sense of things. If you feel the writer went up to bat and did his best, then the obvious conclusion is: nobody gets a hit every time. In baseball an average of once in three times will get you into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Better luck next time.
But if you feel the writer has been hasty, lazy, or greedy, written too fast, maybe just to capitalize on the previous success, and one does sometimes get that feeling, then the emotion may well be anger, disappointment, even disgust.
Old pros are expected to have tougher skins than neophytes, and it is OK to tell them where they went wrong, in your opinion—and it is, after all, only your opinion.
Nevertheless, sometimes this will not sit well.
Word has come to me over the years that writer A is planning to punch me in the nose. Or writer B thinks I have no brains or taste. Or writer C believes I don’t like books by women.
Sometimes I feel hurt at having been so misjudged.
I have never actually been assaulted, but individual authors have been markedly cool to me at the next cocktail party, and there is always an upcoming social event of some kind to deal with.
So add apprehension, even mild fear, to the list of reviewer’s emotions.
I cannot promise to “get” every book, or, most certainly, to be in harmony with every book and find it to my taste. But I can promise that, while reading the book with care, I also will care about the book.
Don Noble is host of the APTV literary talk show Bookmark.