On Honest Reviewing

I’ve been spending a lot of time on Goodreads lately, more time than I spend on any other social network. I’ve been reading and writing reviews, making surprisingly connections. Though I’ve been on there for quite awhile now (two years? Yes, two years in March), finding community there seemed to start with my review of Wings, which wasn’t very positive, and ran counter to many of the other reviews on there. I’ve gotten a surprising number of messages in my GoodReads inbox, saying things like “Thank you for the review! I thought it was just me!” or “I rely on people like you to tell the truth!”

I also got into an argument in the comments of my review, which has since been deleted by the other participant (making me look a bit like a crazy person, talking to myself), about what I admitted was a bias against the author, jealousy over her success. About how that invalidated my opinion. This makes me sad, because I spent a lot of time thinking about what I did, and did not like about the novel. I’ve been spending a lot of time on all of my reviews lately–because, in part, I’m aware that people read them, and because I want to honestly share my opinion, but also because I’ve found lately that writing a review is a good way to see, holistically, my feelings about books: what works for me, what doesn’t, what my own tastes are, how I think writing should be. And that’s become instrumental in my own writing. When I saw the said bookisms in Pike’s book, it also brought to my attention the said bookisms in my own draft; when I saw the needless descriptors in hers, I was better able to see them in mine (“You should call it,” Pat said, “The grinning grinners grinned with a grin. Grinningly.”)

There’s a good post up right now on YA Highway on Thinking Before Posting, as well as some excellent follow-ups and links there, which gave me pause. Am I possibly eviscerating my own writing career by posting reviews? Am I being needlessly cruel, catty? The truth is, I don’t know the easy answers to this: I believe that reviews need to illuminate the flaws in books, and they need to be both honest and passionate, or else they’re not useful. I also believe that they’re not a reflection of authors even if it can be difficult for authors to see that. Something I learned in the MFA program was the utter subjectiveness of opinion, and a good review will be thorough enough that you should be able to get an inkling of where the reviewer’s tastes lie in relation to your own. I believe that, if I’m ever lucky enough to get published, I’m in for some harsh reviews myself. After all, that’s what happens when you share your art with others. I’m sure I’ll be hurt by some of the reviews (that’s what happens, too!), but I hope that I’ll be able to comport myself well, and with grace, and refrain from commenting–the best course of action for any artist, and the best defense of one’s work. I also hope that I’ll be able to learn something from negative reviews, to make my writing better, to always strive toward writerly nirvana, perhaps never reaching it, but also never giving up the quest. Onward! Upward! And so on.

I feel like I learned a lot of this from William Logan. William, the most hated man in American poetry, about whom an undergraduate professor commented, upon learning that I was applying to UF: “William Logan? He’s mean. Are you sure you want to go there?” I’ve written about this before, but on arrival here I quickly learned that William wasn’t mean: as a teacher, he was incredibly generous. As a critic, he was always honest–about his own opinions, of course, which are, of course, subjective. I quickly learned that William and I have very, very different tastes. What he finds sentimental I find uncanny. What he finds “a bit typographical,” I find refreshing, and so on. This was why I didn’t work with him on my thesis–he wants different things out of his poetry than I do. But his reviews, though they garner him death threats and hatred, are still useful, even if I don’t agree with them. They’re well-developed and explained. And they’re always, always honest.

I try to keep all this in mind when I’m reviewing. Perhaps people reading my reviews should also keep this in mind: on GoodReads, I gave Ulysses three stars. I thought Joyce could have used a better editor. Ulysses! One of the greatest books in the English language! Lauded–but also sometimes loathed. Tastes are subjective; they’re not absolutes. Everything I say is said with the caveat that you might find my opinions to be very, very wrong. But I’ll always try my best to explain my biases as well as my opinions. I’ll be thorough. But more importantly, I’ll always be honest: you can be sure I’ll always mean what I say, even if you utterly and completely disagree with me. And that’s fine, too. Onward! And upward!