On Being Reviewed

I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to be reviewed. Partly in response to recent conversations with some other writers, and partly in response to, well, being reviewed.

The result is a three-way blogapalooza in which myself, Anna Branford, and Sally Murphy, decided we would gather, and post, our thoughts on this topic with a view to starting a conversation between ourselves, and perhaps others. So after you’ve read this, it might be interesting for you to head over to their blogs, too. I know I’m about to. I haven’t read their takes on the issue, and I’m sure we’ve all taken a very different approach to things.

To begin with, I suspect I’m not alone in having a somewhat ambivalent relationship to reviews. Writers need them, of course. We need people to notice our work – to read it, engage with it, hold it up to the light for others.

Maybe I should re-frame that: to pass judgement. Isn’t that what a review does, after all? Isn’t that what a review is for?

I actually don’t think so. I don’t see reviews like that. To me, a review is not an endpoint. It’s part of a dialogue about a text, one of many voices. And I love dialogue. I like to talk. I particularly like to talk about books. I have, in fact, a PhD in talking about books. I spent years at various universities sitting in small, airless rooms, encouraging others to talk about books. If it weren’t for the interminable marking, there’s a good chance I would still be doing that in some form.

To the extent that reviews are part of that process, that broad conversation, I love them.

But what I love is a particular kind of review. And it has nothing to do with whether the review is ‘good’, ‘bad’, or somewhere in between in terms of its ‘judgement’ of the text. A review I value is one that has substance, one that has carefully and thoughtfully engaged with the book, which supports its own assessments rather than simply making sweeping assertions. If a reviewer does that, then I want to hear what they have to say, no matter how critical that might be.

I’m not suggesting that an unfavourable review doesn’t sting a little. Of course it does. We’re all vulnerable in the face of feedback. We want people to like us, and we invest a lot of ourselves in the work we do. There’s a TV production company that used to sign off with the tagline, “I made this!”, read in the exuberant voice of a little boy. That always appealed to me, and I’m reminded of it now. Because what we’re really doing in putting our work out there is saying, “Hey, I made this! What do you think?” And that’s at once a very simple thing and a very complex one. It exposes us in all sorts of ways, and negative reviews are just one possible outcome among many.

But even if they sting, I think it’s important that there’s room for negative reviews. I wouldn’t say that I like them, but I certainly value the role they have to play in the process, and if their criticisms are explained and supported, I want to hear them. I’ve heard some reviewers say that if they don’t like a book, they won’t review it, that they prefer to only review books they can be positive about. I’m sure there’s a charitable basis to this approach, but it’s not a position I have any time for. Call me crazy, but I think criticism should be critical. Without it, the review process becomes anemic at best, meaningless at worst, a kind of empty noise. To be honest, I’d rather have a less-than-complimentary review that really engages with my work, than a flattering one that lacks critical substance.

If a reviewer doesn’t like my book, let them review it anyway. Let them explain why they didn’t like it, where they perceived its flaws to lie. I want to know why they formed that judgement, and I think readers value that, too. It’s not about me, of course, but I think it’s reasonable to expect a reviewer to be critical about their own response and to find a way of articulating that for prospective readers. I expect the same process to take place in a positive review. Tell me what worked and what didn’t, and most importantly, why you came to that conclusion. Then we’ll talk.

Metaphorically, of course. We won’t actually talk. Conventional wisdom is that you should never respond to a review. I never have. But I’ve been tempted, from time to time. Because as I said, I love talking books – whether they’re mine or someone else’s. And by the time a book is published, I’ve probably taken it apart and rewritten it six different ways from Sunday. Most likely, over a year has elapsed since I submitted the final draft. So I have a decent amount of distance from the work, and although I’m still invested in it, I trust myself to have enough objectivity about my own books that I could be a reasonable participant in such a conversation.

And the truth is, being reviewed is nothing new, really. I’ve been reviewed for my teaching, my parenting, my appearance, my speech, my choice of cheese. In some sense, we’re reviewed all day, every day, by the people around us, by the codes of the society we’re part of. We live in a constant feedback loop, making endless, tiny adjustments in response to what we get back from others. Or perhaps choosing not to adjust, to remain exactly and absolutely the way we are. Learning who to listen to. Learning how to be reviewed.

Because here’s the thing – so simple, so important. In the end, we can’t control someone’s else’s response – to us or our work. In any reader’s reaction to a book, there are many factors in play, and the work itself is just one. In the end, all we can do is be ourselves, write the books we want to write, and then hand them over, into the conversation that goes on largely without us. Then we can decide what we’re going to do with the criticism we get. For me, that decision hinges on the nature and source of the criticism itself. Not about whether it’s good or bad, but whether it has substance. That’s what determines whether it’s worth my time, my emotional energy.

So I guess I approach the process of being reviewed with some trepidation, but I also approach it critically. Not all reviews are created equal and for a writer, there’s a kind of internal reviewing of the review that needs to take place if we’re to survive the various slings and arrows.

There endeth my thoughts on being reviewed, at least for now. And it seems that, good intentions notwithstanding, I’ve rambled, and will be duly savaged by the critics. Oh, well.

10 thoughts on “On Being Reviewed

  1. Sally Murphy

    A thoughtful piece, Meg. I agree that a review can contribute to the dialogue about a book, and agree (mostly – I'll get back to that in a second) that a review does not have to be positive in order to be useful. And I guess that comes down to who reviews are for. A 'bad' review might not be good for the author (especially in the short term) but if reviews were written just for authors, we'd send/post them privately. They're put out into the public realm because they are for the reading public, including potential purchasers, academics, booksellers, teachers etc etc. And if the reviewer thinks there are deficits that the reading public should know about, then they should share that information – in a constructive, measured way.

    Coming back to the idea that reviews don't have to be positive, I put two riders on that. Firstly, whether positive or negative, a review should be fair. I have seen some terribly negative reviews which are simply not fair – including personal attacks on the author (yes, I've seen that). And reviews that are factually wrong are also – well – wrong. For example, reviewers need to be sure that if they're saying the author's research is out, that they are sure about that. Secondly, and perhaps this is just a personal thing, but if I can't find ANYTHING positive to say about a book, I simply don't review it. For me, I do this chiefly because my time is limited. Why take from that time to say only negative things when I could be saying positive, or constructive, things about a much better book?

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  2. Meg McKinlay

    I think there's some slipperiness, though, in how you define 'fair'. And that once you start relying on ideas like that, you've got a whole different kind of trouble. Because there's no consensus at all, not even popularly, as to what that might mean.

    For example. there's a whole subculture on Goodreads at the moment, in which scornful negative reviews whose main purpose seems to be to parade their own cleverness, complete with animated gifs and various other bells and whistles, appear to be becoming a genre all their own. I suspect most people would see those as unfair, but the authors of the reviews don't appear to see things that way.

    At the other end of the scale, a few years ago I had the task of writing the annual poetry review for Westerly. Given that this requires you to cover a year's worth of poetry in 5000 words, it would have been very easy, understandable even, for me to have cherry-picked the collections I liked and ignored the others. When I was considering the task, someone actually remarked to me that they felt things were difficult enough for poets, and poetry, already in this country, and that it was 'wrong' to take up precious review space with criticism. I disagree and I think we undermine the whole review process if we take that approach.

    I'm pretty sure there was work in there about which I had nothing good to say, though I think that's okay if you give reasons for your assessment. Because that then allows someone reading the review to say, “Hmm, she didn't like this because XYZ, but that doesn't usually bother me. She seems a bit biased about ABC, but I actually like that.” Just opening up space for the reader to engage critically with your review, you know?

    So I guess I don't agree with the idea of not reviewing if you have nothing good to say. I think you can be entirely critical about a work in a way that contributes to the dialogue about a text in a meaningful, even important, way – for both the reader of the review and the author of the work.

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  3. anna

    Meg, I have really loved reading your thoughts about all of this and I especially enjoyed your point about reviews as dialogue rather than judgement. It rings true for me as a reader of reviews not least because I often find myself thinking 'Ah, that's the part she felt was controversial and I can see why,' or 'Perhaps this is where he felt the plot has slowed down, though I think he may have missed the point,' or (more likely) 'Rats, I wish I didn't know that this was going to be heartrending since it has robbed me of my false sense of security'.

    Setting aside how we feel as writers about negative reviews, I'm a bit torn on the issue of the ethics of writing them (though I can definitely see that the whole concept of the review falls apart if we only write positive ones). A reviewer might just be a person with an opinion with which a reader can critically engage, but he or she might also appear as an authority.

    On my own blog (where I don't think I present myself as an authority on much!) I think I have only written about books I've liked, but I did once mention being in two minds about a film. A commenter wrote that I had confirmed her suspicions and she would now certainly not be seeing it. I longed to buy her a ticket! I'd wanted to talk about it, not sway anybody away from it. I think my own fear of discouraging people from having an experience they might find value in would make me a poor reviewer.

    As you say, Meg (and its one of my favourite parts of your post) 'In the end, we can't control someone's else's response – to us or our work.' To some extent, maybe that is true for reviewers as well as the reviewed. I suppose it comes down to whether a reviewer is perceived in the way you describe above (as a person with whom we can critically engage) or as someone with the knowledge to tell us what is and is not worthwhile in the world of books.

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  4. Sally Murphy

    I agree. Whose idea of 'fair' should we use? (Mine of course! lol) To me an unfair review is one which is inaccurate – not in the reviewer's opinion, but actually wrong about the content. I've seen reviews, for example, suggest that the author's historical facts are wrong, when they're not, or hint at plagiarism without justifying what they're implying. And at the other end of the scale are the kinds of reviews you've mentioned which really seem to say little about the book and more about the reviewer's cleverness.

    I take your point about there being a place for negative reveiws both for balance and to open up the discussion. I guess, for me, that my comments are more a reflection of the audience in mind. In a journal such as Westerly readers are looking for taht kind of balance, and wanting to be drawn into the discussion. That is true of a lot of publications, but not all. In most newspapers, magazines and blogs the review space is limited and readers' time is limited too. They want to know that the book exists, find out a bit about its themes and plot, and know whether or not its worth reading. This can be sometimes be done very briefly.

    I attended a conference on reviewing in Adelaide several years ago, and there was much discussion as to whether this kind of micro-review was really a review. Personally, I think tehre is room for different kinds of review because readers will seek out the kind of review they want/need in the type of publication they want/need.

    BTW, at the same conference there was a feeling from quite a few attendees that online reveiws were irrelevant, not 'real'. I wonder if they still feel that, five or six years down the track.

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  5. Meg McKinlay

    That's interesting, Anna. I hadn't really thought of it like that, most likely because it's not how I read reviews myself. That little conceit of placing your own way of seeing at the centre of things makes everything so tricky, doesn't it? That's why I love this kind of dialogue.

    I do like your analogy of reviewer=author in terms of lack of control over the way their work is read. But I also think that reviews that support their own assertions mitigate that to a certain extent. If a reviewer is clear about their own reading position – what they value and why, and how the text in question fits into that schema – then space is opened up for the reader to decide whether or not that's a position they share. Whether or not they step into that space, or even observe it opening up, is a different matter, I guess.

    And I'm conscious that this all sounds very clinical. I don't mean that a reviewer needs to do this in any direct way; I just think it's something a well-written review will handle as a matter of course, as part of its fabric.

    Sally, I'm interested in what you said about discussion of the micro-review, because that's something I think about a lot. I think those little teasers that do little more than summarise the plot absolutely have a place. I'm just not sure they're reviews, at least not in the way I understand that term. And I think the waters get easily muddied when we conflate all sorts of things under that single umbrella. As an aside, I don't necessarily think it's about length, either. The monthly writingWA reviews are very short, and they sometimes manage to pack a real punch. I was particularly impressed with the review of Scott-Patrick Mitchell's The Tricking Post, which you can read about a third of the way down the page here: http://www.writingwa.org/booksreviewed/

    I think here the reviewer achieves so much in just a few deft strokes. We know what s/he thinks, we get a focused, critical assessment of the work, and I think we also get a sense of where the reviewer is coming from as a reader of poetry. So it can be done, I think, even when space is a constraint.

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  6. Mirka Breen

    Excellent discussion. Reviews and reviewers are not created equal. Whenever I read something about anything, I remind myself 'where/who it's coming from.' This was easier to do when established reviewers in magazines or ones I know personally are involved. Much less so with review sites and impossible where anonymous posts are accepted.
    The only rule that still seems to hold true everywhere is that the author should not respond to reviews, good bad or in between.

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  7. Meg McKinlay

    Yes, so many things come back to an assessment of the source, don't they? Sometimes you don't know anything about that beforehand, but as I commented over at Sally's blog, I think we intuitively make decisions about how much authority to invest in a review based on that review itself – how is it written, is it balanced, thoughtful, evenhanded, etc? I don't think you necessarily need any background to the reviewer or the context going in.

    I've been thinking too, about this truism that we should never respond to reviews. While I think that's mostly true, I do think there's a way of responding, of becoming part of the dialogue, that could be meaningful and interesting, as part of a critical/reflective process. I love discussion and if a response isn't adversarial or emotive, and is framed within a broader context – for example, a consideration of the factors at play in different responses to a text (what I thought I wrote, how reader X sees it, why they might see it that way, how understanding this feeds back into my writing/way of seeing etc), rather than simply saying, “Reviewer X said this; I disagree and here's why” – then I think that could actually be quite thought provoking.

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  8. Dale Harcombe

    Yes I did that once Meg after a lot of considering and the reviewer then came back and we got into dialogue with the result she then wanted to interview me on her blog which worked out really well.Maybe a lot is to do with the way it is handled when the author responds to teh reviewer.

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  9. Meg McKinlay

    That's good to hear, Dale. I do think it has everything to do with how, and why, the author responds. If I were to do so, it wouldn't be as a 'talking back', but as a 'talking with', in the spirit of dialogue.

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