I'd hardly barely begun reading this month's Carnival of Children's Books over at MotherReader when I came upon Anne Boles Levy's excellent Presentation on Advanced Reviewing from Book Buds. Anne's post has so much serious information on reviewing that I made a hard copy to stash away to reread when I have more time.
But Anne said a couple of things that interest me beyond the technical aspects of reviewing. In her blog post, she refers to Steve Wasserman's article published in the Columbia Journalism Review earlier this year. In it, Wasserman describes the "news of books" as an "ongoing cultural conversation" and says that "reviews are an invaluable way of eavesdropping" on this conversation. Reading the reviews is a valuable form of eavesdropping on the conversation, but writing the reviews makes you a participant in the conversation.
So that was Interesting Thing Number One. Interesting Thing Number Two? Anne's presentation was given at the Kidlit Blogger's Conference held earlier this year. As part of her presentation, she asked participants to edit "a short, highly critical review" that had been sent to her by a writer looking for editing advice. She says, "I was surprised when many people (authors all) stalled on the idea that the writer would even bother with a negative review.
Many authors simply couldn't emotionally grapple with the reality of negative book reviews, of their being a vital part of that "cultural conversation."
This subject has been discussed in blogs before in the kidlitosphere, so it's something I've thought about and written about. More than once. But after reading Anne's post, I began to wonder just what people mean by a "negative review."
Are "negative reviews" a matter of tone? Are the reviewers showing off their snarky wit at the expense of a novelist, like the blogger I stumbled upon who said his gag reflex was activated at the ending of a particular book? Or are "negative reviews" merely "critical" in the sense of careful evaluation? I'm thinking here of a reviewer stating that an author sacrificed character development for plot, for instance, or a reviewer believing that the writer's pacing was uneven.
I'm with Anne in believing that reviews are part of a conversation about books. As with any conversation, snark gets old fast and doesn't add any depth to the talk. But careful evaluation is what gives the conversation value. Careful evaluation is what makes reviews useful to readers. It makes them useful to anyone who is interested in books.
It's difficult for writers to have to listen to talk of their work being less than brilliant. And, yes, such reviews do have the potential to have an impact on our careers and our pocketbooks. But isn't that true of people working in any art form? What other arts practitioner would even dream of suggesting that there is no place for "negative" or critical, evaluative reviews in their ongoing cultural conversations? Think of movies, theater, TV, art. Does anyone in any of those fields publish only "positive" reviews? And if they do, does anyone take them seriously?