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A Literary & Poetry Column
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Not an Easy Job!

Carolyn Gives Readers an Inside Look at What Drives Reviewers

I am a writer who also reviews books. I am going to tread on an unstable plank here and suggest that most reviewers think of themselves as writers first, reviewers second. Many of us feel the conflict every time we pick up a book with intent (gasp!) to critique someone else's work.

Poets & Writers reports that the famous, writerly John Updike worries that reviewing "drains him of the time and energy needed to write fiction." That should not be news--at least to any writer who reviews. Sometimes we review when we should be focusing on our poetry or our latest novel or even meet a deadline for an anthology of short stories. He frets that he might be "spreading myself too thin or turning my brain into one kind of muscle when it ought to be another kind of muscle…"

That is one reason readers should be grateful for the sacrifice -- for it truly may be a sacrifice -- reviewers make to help them make the best choices for their reading time.

There are other problems, too. As writers we understand the psyches of writers. It certainly may not be evident, but most reviewers do not want to shred a fellow writer's efforts. In fact, some -- like me -- will return what we feel is a bad book rather than do so. This respects both the author (who would be devastated at what they would see as a spiteful review) and the reader, who really doesn't need to know about a book that is that awful, anyway. Or at least, that's my rational.

Nevertheless, a review that glows -- literally radiates praise -- is often not trusted by its readers. Recently an organization conducted a study on Amazon reviews and found that readers put more stock in reviews that are not rated five-star. Readers and we reviewers want our reviews to be credible; at the same time we authors are aware than even the slightest criticism may cause the author extreme pain even while the same author ignores all the positive things that we said.

Because of these pushes and tugs to a reviewer's psyche, writing a review can be laborious. Even when we sound flip, we may be only trying for a light voice in keeping with the tone of the book or in an effort to dilute our criticism.

I review books. I also review film and theater for The Glendale News-Press. I find the former much more difficult than the latter, probably because I am an author and am not a playwright or actor. I also select a few of the best unheralded books for my Noble (Not Nobel!) Prize each January for this website. I do it because I am a writer, because I know that that much talent exists that doesn't get applauded. I want to help.

So, the upshot of all this? The more you, as a reader, know about the reviewing process, the easier it will be for you to evaluate a review, ascertain what it may mean to your reading choices. Oh, and -- while we're on the subject, it wouldn't hurt to shoot off a thank you or a little praise to a favorite reviewer now and then. After all, we're only sensitive authors at heart.

Tips and Tidbits

Each month in this box, Carolyn lists a writing or promotion tidbit that will help authors and a tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected books or a sapphire among the newly-published.

Writers' Tidbits: Writers should never be without a journal. I co-edited a lovely little journal called The Complete Writer's Journal, that includes more than 100 quotations from young writers, emerging writers and even some old publishing industry pros. I and my fellow editors, Joyce Faulkner and Pat Avery, carefully selected each of them. We wanted them to inspire a writer of any ilk (journalers, poets, novelists) as well as prod them to keep writing and to keep promoting.

Readers' Tip: includes on its pages something called Listmanias. I have written more than 80 of them. They are really mini-reviews, sort of one-line suggestions for reading. The good Listmanias have a theme, meaning they group books by a subject and that helps you find a book with a theme or premise that interests you. Here is the URL for the list of my lists. When you find one that fits your reading taste, click. There should be enough good books on whatever list you choose to keep you reading through the summer!

2006 Past Columns

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