Last night I received an email from someone who has just taken a book review position with a pretty awesome webzine. He knew that I do freelance book reviews and wanted my advice. It seems he'd come across a book he didn't like and was wondering how to proceed. He wanted to know if I've ever had to review a book I didn't enjoy, or if I had any suggestions on how to handle such a review diplomatically. The problem, as he told me, seemed to stem mostly from wanting everyone to like him, and he felt this was preventing him from writing the review.
Here is what I wrote back:
There comes a time in every reviewer's life when he or she is faced with this situation. Yes, I have had to review books I didn't like. Worse, they've sometimes been books by friends of mine!
You have to ask yourself what the purpose of reviewing books is. Is it for the author of the book? No. The author is irrelevant to the review's purpose. Is it for you, so "everyone will like you"? No. You as the reviewer are irrelevant. So what is the purpose of reviewing a book? It's for the reader, so that he or she knows if the book is worth their hard-earned money. Remember, money is tight for most people even in the best of times, and there are a lot of books out there to choose from. That's why people turn to, and trust, reviewers. If you break that trust because you're afraid to rock the boat, if you encourage people to spend their hard-earned money on a book that isn't good simply because you "want everyone to like you," you have no business being a reviewer. Consider the trust between reader and reviewer sacred. They want honesty. Give it to them.
He wrote back this morning thanking me for the advice, and said he knew what he had to do now. Good.
Unfortunately, this advice bears repeating. Often. Especially when dealing with "amateur" reviewers (and I consider myself one, even though I'm getting paid to do it; Michiko Kakutani I ain't). Some reviewers seem to be scared that they'll make enemies in the business. Since many of these reviewers are also fiction writers, they worry that if they give a bad review to, say, a Cemetery Dance book, then Cemetery Dance will never publish anything of theirs out of pure spite. Obviously this isn't how things work. If it were, Harlan Ellison, who can find fault in anything and isn't afraid to mention said faults to the world, would never have anything published anymore. But more to the point, when business decisions are made solely out of spite, money is usually lost. Sometimes lots and lots of money. Most people in profit-driven businesses know this and will keep their emotions to themselves.
There are even more insidious fears that play on the amateur reviewer's mind, and those fears can be summed up in two words: message boards. Some reviewers seem to be worried they'll rock the boat, give a bad review to a book everyone on the boards is circle-jerking over, and suddenly the reviewer will be the odd man/woman out. The author, who frequents those boards, won't be their friend anymore. People will turn against them. There will be torches and pitchforks.
It's all nonsense, of course. The more honesty you display, the more you'll be respected by your peers, especially if you're a reviewer. Giving a bad review to a book that deserves it saves readers a lot of time and money. And they're grateful for the heads-up. It's why I'll never understand reviewers who only write reviews for books they like, or webzines/magazines that will not publish bad reviews. They're not doing their job. And like I told the fellow who emailed me, they have no business reviewing.