I have reviewed a few books in my time, and I have always tried to be fair – I am well aware of how hard it is to write, let alone get published. My usual approach has been to explain what is in the book and how it relates to others on the same subject. I always allotted very small space to questions of style, or my personal views on the topic, whatever it was.
Now, as I watch my third book go through the critical process, I am beginning to realise how rare this approach is. So, for writers everywhere, here is:
A potted guide to reviews, and how to survive them
Favourable reviews are are always welcome and, of course, they are easy to accept as fair. But in areas where non-fiction overlaps with politics – i.e. my area – they are also much rarer than unfavourable, for a variety of deep reasons related to human nature and the imperatives of commercial publishing.
As an author, the first thing to do is to distinguish whether a review is bad, or merely hostile. The first kind deals with the book, and explains why it has failed to live up to the reviewer’s well-founded standards; the second primarily criticises the author.
Beyond this principal distinction, there are five main factors that can overlap and interact, which can help you distinguish hostile from merely bad reviews.
1. Wrong book. The book is bad because it is wrong in its general approach. In other words, if the reviewer had written the book it would have been different. This is a silly stance, but very common.
2. Wrong audience. The reviewer takes against the book because it is written for a general audience, whereas he/she is an expert and therefore feels the book’s tone is wrong; it is insufficiently obscure, rigourous, detailed – whatever. The reviewer is standing on a higher plane of understanding, and the book is a waste of time, considered to be either over-simplified, or patronising in tone. This is a refined version of the previous type, adopted by reviewers who either are academics or wish they were.
3. Turf War. These are easy to spot, because the critic fills the review with detailed refutation of specific points, and pronounces the author to be an ignorant dunderhead. The refinement of the detail and the vitriol of the denunciations both derive from the offence given by the very existence of the book in the reviewer’s own area of expertise. It is less an exercise in critical reasoning and more an attempt to repel interlopers and pirates. Reviewers should be aware of following this model, because it can easily become self-defeating, and end up making the original book and its hapless author into martyred creatures that cannot possibly deserve the abuse heaped upon them.
4. Deadline Decisiveness. Probably the most commonly found type, this is usually the work of a staff writer who has been given an eye-wateringly short time to rustle up some copy. It is the most superficial type of review and therefore the easiest to shrug off. Typically the reviewer has read the Introduction and anything headed Conclusion, and has then read till, and only till, they found something they could disagree with. The results are curt and definitive, based on the reviewer’s general prejudices on the subject, illuminated by one or two small details where the book has deviated from the true path of understanding.
5. Moment of Glory. This is the most insidiously biased type of criticism, the result of a reviewer taking the opportunity to grab access to public attention. The review will consist entirely of what the book should have said, and will only mention in passing what it does say. It will be peppered with references to other books that the author has ‘obviously’ not read, which serve to show how much more the reviewer knows than the author. In short, it ends up as a précis of the book the reviewer always intended to write, and the review serves only as an opportunity to gain access to a wider public, armed with a megaphone, standing on a soapbox.
Authors meanwhile can:
1. Treasure the fair reviews more than they despair at the unfair.
2. Remember that the book they have written will be on the shelves longer than the newspapers or magazines that contain the reviews.
3. Remember that no one ever yet put up a statue to a critic.