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Likely Stories

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Keir Graff and editors from Booklist's adult and youth departments write candidly about books, book reviewing, and the publishing industry

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Thursday, September 28, 2006 9:44 am
Four Years of Effort, Two Bad Reviews
Posted by: Keir Graff

Michael Laser spent four years writing his novel Dark and Light: A Love Story. He received two reviews, both of them negative. “I’m confused,” he writes, “about my book, and about literary judgment in general.” He explored his feelings on Salon.com (“Kirkus Shrugged“).

Right now, I just want an intelligent review that will second my good opinion of my novel–because, to be honest, my confidence in the book has risen and fallen like a lifeboat on the waves, depending on what people have said about it. Is the book great, or is it garbage?

When you’re the author, you just can’t know.

First of all, I feel for the guy, but an author’s effort is one thing that I can’t take into account when I’m reviewing a book. Some great books are written in one year and some really crap books take ten years to write. More importantly, an author’s effort doesn’t matter to the reader. Cruel as this sounds, I don’t want to think about the writer as a human being at all. I do know how hard it is, but there’s no room for pity in reviewing. There are tens and tens of thousands of books published every year in the U.S. alone, and the average reader might read a dozen. The most diligent reader might read a hundred. And with the number of books pouring in our doors, we don’t have time to vacillate. We have to trust our guts and single out the books we know are worth readers’ limited time.

Laser should trust his gut, too. Where I sit, I have a pretty good view of the publishing industry’s brutality. Most books don’t get reviewed at all, and most of those that do don’t get shortlisted for anything. Given the amount of the time it takes to write a book versus the amount of time it’s likely to spend in the public eye, writers had better be satisfied with the act of writing itself. Anything else is, as they say back home, gravy.

I know that’s not easy. Writing has always been a contradictory avocation. It requires countless hours of solitary work. And while publishing is a means of performance, both the writer and the reader experience the work alone. So, unlike actors, who know their work is only about an audience, writers often wonder whether they’re doing it for themselves or for other people. The best advice I can offer is to make it fun and/or fulfilling for yourself and count yourself lucky if other people feel the same way, too. And bear in mind that people like me review books because we love books. Every time we start reading a book, we’re rooting for you to succeed.

(I like how I’m now soulfully writing directly to Laser.)

Booklist doesn’t have the same reputation for stinging reviews as Kirkus and sometimes Publishers Weekly. In fact, we’re sometimes mistakenly thought of as being cheerleaders, because the great majority of our reviews are positive. It’s not because we’re brave enough to sign our reviews, it’s because we’re a recommend-only journal. If we can’t find something to recommend about a book, we don’t review it. (We do give qualified recommendations, and we will review certain high-demand books regardless of quality.)

So why didn’t Booklist review Dark and Light? I checked our database, and Laser can take some comfort in the fact that it wasn’t assigned for review and then rejected. Though it was considered, it wasn’t assigned at all. With so many books coming in the door, sometimes the hard choices get made early.

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3 Responses to “Four Years of Effort, Two Bad Reviews”
  1. GraceAnne DeCandido Says:

    I am so glad to see this. It tells the truth. As a reviewer (for Booklist and others) of many years’ standing, let me say that Keir tells it.

  2. Bill Ott Says:

    Keir nails it once again in his comments about how it is hard to disassociate the reviewer side of your self from the human being who may, on occasion, be in a position to meet and chat with authors. It happens to all of us, and one of the most difficult parts of this business is not letting that personal contact stand in the way of an honest review. For me, I think it’s the sheer difficulty of getting words on the page that gets you through any possible personal conflicts. It’s hard enough to find the words to express how you feel about a book without filtering in how feel about the author. If I can manage to say how I feel about a book in 200 words, I’m usually spent–and don’t have time to worry about what the author will think. Sometimes deadlines are a blessing.

  3. Likely Stories » Blog Archive » Writing vs. Acting Says:

    [...] The synchronicities continue. Last Thursday, I discussed the difference between writing and acting. Last Friday, I called the JT Leroy hoax “theater.” And in Robert Stone’s Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, which I finished reading last night, he writes about a moment in 1958 when an acquaintance suggested he study acting. Stone was already considering a writing life, but wasn’t entirely sure of his ambitions: Compared to the rocks, the shoals, the silent storms I knew were out there in the endless progression of empty rooms that were the writer’s inheritance, a life of performance seemed very attractive. [...]


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