The "Right" Opinion

I meant to post yesterday, but somebody had a case of the Mondays, and that somebody was me. I started this but didn’t finish it:

I rarely read other reviews of books I’ve reviewed. (This is one of Keir Graff’s Rules of ReviewingTM, soon to be immortalized on a sticky note somewhere in my office.) Just as I’ve said that I never read the publicity material before I start reading the book – I don’t want some PR flack to frame how I see the work, or, worse, to have one of their cheerful phrases creep into my review – reading other reviews poses its own problems.

Because we review in advance of the book’s publication, there are only a few places, easily avoided – Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal – where I might stumble across a published review before I write mine. But even after my review has been filed and published, I still don’t like to read the other reviews, and here’s why:

I receive an e-mail newsletter from Hard Case Crime, an imprint whose books I often review. Scanning the latest installment for news of forthcoming titles, I noticed that the publisher, Charles Ardai, was touting the great reviews he’d gotten for Bust, by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr.

“A full-tilt, rocking homage to noir novels of the 1950s…smart, trashy fun!” raved Publishers Weekly in a starred review.

“Fasten your seat belts….If Quentin Tarantino is looking for another movie project, this novel…would be the perfect candidate!” enthused Library Journal, which apparently hopes to cut off a patch of Kirkus‘s turf as movie-development mavens, also in a starred review.

“Terse, sometimes brutal, often funny…vividly fresh…reads seamlessly-and mercilessly!” exclaimed Entertainment Weekly.

Even the Rocky Mountain News called Bruen and Starr, amazingly, “Two of the century’s best thriller writers!” and gave the book an A. (What, no A-plus-plus?)

And, finally:

“Good fun…only a diversion…isn’t quite equal to the sum of its talent,” mused a noncommittal Booklist.

You can read my full review here. (If you aren’t a subscriber to Booklist Online, sign up for a free trial now!) I thought the book was okay, probably not as good as the authors’ noncollaborative books, and certainly not as good as the usually terrific originals from Hard Case Crime.

(By the way, none of the reviews excerpted above used exclamation points. I just think blurbs should have exclamation points!)

I recently mused ad nauseam about how hard it can be to decide how to judge a book, even a book I liked. Reading other reviews adds a completely unnecessary complication, making me wonder: if everybody else liked it, and I didn’t, did I miss something?

And that’s a dead end. Because even if I’m reading the reviews as a post-mortem, they still could influence the way I approach the next review I write. And as soon as I start worrying about whether my review will be the same as everyone else’s, I’m not telling you what I think, I’m engaging in a complicated exercise where I’m balancing my own opinions with my need to have the “correct” opinion, which is as bad as trying to tell you what I think you want to hear. It’s dishonest, and it means my review is no longer providing a service to you.

When I talk about wanting to get it “right,” I don’t mean that I want to make sure I’m saying the same thing as everyone else. By “right” I want to be fair and to provide a well-reasoned argument for my point of view. Trying to anticipate readers’ points of view is bad enough. If I try to anticipate other reviewers’ points of view, I may be trying to anticipate the points of view of people who themselves are trying to anticipate other points of view….

There’s a phenomenon known in the music biz as feedback. A microphone, properly placed, will amplify through loudspeakers the voice of the person speaking into it. If the microphone is placed in front of the speakers, it not only amplifies the voice, it amplifies everything that’s coming out of the speakers, which includes the original voice, other voices, the drummer’s cowbell – which go into the microphone and out the speakers again and again and again, resulting in that horrible screech that makes your eyeballs rattle and the world go quiet for a moment because you just went a little bit deaf.

You get the idea.

Reviewers are just as subjective as readers who don’t review. We all have our own likes and dislikes, preconceptions and pet peeves, insights and indefensible positions. Like all readers, our opinions can be influenced by our egos. But because our opinions do go into the public record, I think that many of us do fall into the trap of wanting to get it “right” – to be in the majority – and that’s “wrong.”

(Okay, enough with the “emphasis quotes.”)

Give any one book to any three people and you’re likely to come up with four different opinions, which is why I always get suspicious of tidal waves in media opinion. I start thinking that the reviewers are reading the other reviewers. And that’s why I don’t.

I read book reviews all the time, of course, and enjoy doing so. Just not when they’re books I’ve reviewed.

Final anecdote: My good friend Frank Sennett reviewed a little sleeper called The Da Vinci Code for Booklist. He gave it a generally positive review but he didn’t star it. Someone asked me recently, obviously thinking of the fact that the book has become such a phenomenon that it’s the number-one cause of global deforestation, “Are you guys bummed that you didn’t star The Da Vinci Code?”

Speaking for Frank, I say of course not. We’re not trying to predict popularity. We might try to anticipate demand, but those are different tasks. We are trying to identify the works that we feel are exceptional, but exceptional quality and mass appeal rarely go hand in hand.

We’re doing our best to tell you what we really think about the books we read in the hopes that you can make an informed decision about whether to buy or not to buy, to read or not to read. We’re assuming that you don’t want to read a book because everyone else is reading it but because there’s something unique about the book that speaks to something unique in you, giving you a unique relationship with it.

And, if we didn’t think there was anything all that unique about the book, we want you to know that, too.

It occurs to me that I’ve strayed into the royal “we.” I’ve said before that I only speak for myself, and that everything in “Likely Stories” represents only my particular take on things. Writing so earnestly in first-person, though, makes me feel as though I’m presenting myself as some paragon of book-reviewing virtue.

I’m not. I suspect I’m just as susceptible as anyone else to wanting to have the “right” opinion. That’s why I don’t read other people’s reviews.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

10 Comments on "The "Right" Opinion"

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  1. Obviously, no book is so perfect that everyone loves it; there are always some dissenters, and that’s probably for the best.

    In the case of BUST, we haven’t gotten a single negative review yet (not even yours: you wrote “Crosses and double-crosses, miscalculations and blunders, and plenty of dead bodies…For those who like the bungling-criminal genre, this is good fun”; that may not be a rave, but it’s hardly what I’d call a negative review). But we’ve had other books – even ones that have been nominated for or won major awards – that have gotten a dozen extremely positive reviews and one viciously negative one. Obviously those books weren’t bad books in an absolute sense, they just pushed some individual reviewers’ buttons in the wrong way, producing these idiosyncratic “outlier” reviews.

    But are the outlier reviews “wrong”? Not if they accurately reflect those readers’ feelings about the book. If a reviewer consistently expresses opinions with which readers disagree, those readers are free to stop reading the reviewer (or at least to disregard his recommendations); but that doesn’t mean the opinions are wrong or shouldn’t be expressed.

    As a publisher, would I rather not have those negative reviews? No. I want to see the full range of opinions on everything we do, honestly and persuasively presented. That’s a reviewer’s job.

    That said, when we are fortunate enough to receive almost unanimous raves for a book we publish, it’s our job as a publisher to let readers know about it – specifically, to let readers know that a fairly diverse set of critics (who, given the realities of lead time, may themselves not have been influenced by reading each other’s reviews any more than you were) all enjoyed a new book of ours quite a lot, and that therefore it’s at least statistically likely that readers will enjoy it as well. (When even your most negative review calls your book “good fun,” you’re probably doing something right.)

    -Charles

  2. Keir says:

    Thanks for the comment, Charles. I’m sure I could have picked a better example to discuss the “outlier” phenomenon – you’re right that my review of Bust wasn’t all negative – but when your newsletter arrived, the raves made my praise feel pretty pale, and thus a blog topic was born.

    You raise a good point about readers’ relationships with reviewers: I think we all have reviewers whom we like or trust more than others, and their honesty and consistency make it easier for us to choose them.

    Most of my reviews of Hard Case Crime books have been extremely positive, so I do think you’re doing a lot right – though I’ll always reserve the right to offer a different opinion!

  3. The only thing I’d add to Keir’s discussion of “The Da Vinci Code” review was that, when the book became such a phenomenon, I was especially glad I worked hard to make that a well-written review. You’d hate to have the review of such a prominent book turn out to be the one you dashed off while recovering from a nasty head cold and running late for a root canal…

  4. Bill Ott says:

    About Frank Sennett’s Da Vinci Code review, not only was it perceptive and well-written, but I’m beginning to think it captures what a lot of readers feel about the book. At recent conferences demonstrating Booklist Online, I often did a search for Da Vinci Code and, when Frank’s review came up, made a joke about Booklist being one of the few journals that didn’t rave about the book. Everytime I said that, the librarian I was talking to replied that she didn’t think it was as good as its hype either.

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