A few years ago, I was on a panel of authors venting about book critics. There was no shortage of examples of slapdash reviews rife with inaccurate plot and character descriptions, sloppy or unstylish writing, mean-spirited reviews written with a personal agenda, even reviews that got the author’s name or book title wrong. It was on that panel that I first heard a cynical old adage: “Critics are like people who hide until the war is over, then come out to shoot the wounded.”

Personally, I admire perceptive and fair-minded reviewers, of which there seem to be many; I’ve gleaned useful insights into my own writing from negative reviews that were thoughtful and evenhanded.  It’s those vicious and sanctimonious reviews that rankle, when arrogant critics write as if their opinion is uncontestable truth, and attempt to make themselves more important than the books and authors they belittle.  These nasty reviews are especially vexing when they can’t even get the story right.

As an author, I got my first taste of this back in 1996, when Doubleday released my first novel, Simple Justice.  At the time, the reviews in Publisher’s Weekly were among the earliest and most influential in the publishing trade, read by booksellers and librarians searching for promising new writers and books they might order.  Simple Justice was a dark, serious, character-driven mystery, into which I’d poured my heart and soul.  I awaited that initial coverage in PW with great anticipation.

When PW’s brief, unsigned review appeared, it soundly trashed my novel.  But that wasn’t the most troubling part.  What really bothered me were the three errors of fact in a critique of only 196 words.  The most egregious pertained to my lead character, Benjamin Justice: “He quickly falls into a brutal relationship with a sexually confused young Latino.”  True, there was a sexually conflicted Latino teenager in the book, incarcerated and charged with murder.  But at no point in the story did Justice, an openly gay ex-reporter, ever meet the boy, let alone have a “brutal relationship” with him.  I rebounded when more positive notices came in – People featured Simple Justice as its “Beach Book of the Week” and Mystery Writers of America later awarded it the Edgar Award for best first novel.  (It was also a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award for best gay men’s mystery.)  But I wonder if that PW reviewer realized or even cared how such shoddy reviewing can wrongly taint a book and hurt an author.

A book review is a powerful entity.  It can bolster a writer’s confidence, or crush it in a heartbeat; encourage book orders, or deter them; inspire sales, or discourage them; increase an author’s income, or damage it; even affect his or her chances of getting another publishing contract, a teaching job, or tenure.  Developing a thick skin against careless and disrespectful reviews is a necessary survival tool.  But it’s not always easy, especially for neophyte or non-mainstream authors for whom reviews provide such important exposure.

Who decides who gets to join this elite critic’s club, whose members are considered smart, discerning, and trustworthy enough to sit in judgment of another’s work?  What qualifies them to publicly pronounce a book worthy or unworthy?  Do they apply the same rigorous standards to themselves that they demand of others?  Could there be hidden forces at work behind their most scabrous reviews — secret motivations, say, such as envy?  Should they be required to be more honest in their bio-credits? For example: Peter Pompous is an unpublished novelist who teaches courses for Learning Expo on how to write the bestseller, while seeking an agent and looking for full-time work.

That question – who deserves to be a critic and why – seems most applicable to those who evaluate other writers with open contempt but are themselves not all that exceptional at the craft.  If they know so much about how to write brilliantly, why aren’t they doing it themselves?  Other than that pesky First Amendment, what gives them the right to pick apart, ridicule, and dismiss someone who’s done their damnedest to write the best book they can?  When they spew out one of their venomous reviews, do they really believe the author set out to write an inferior book?

A scathing review of my eighth and latest Benjamin Justice mystery, Spider Season, stirred up all these questions anew.  The pan, by Kenneth Allman, appeared in Washington Post Book World.  Allman didn’t just dislike Spider Season, he loathed it, declaring it “by far the weakest of the Justice books, with a pasteboard plot and characters who defy logic,” and closing with this: “This career nadir is little more than an exercise in sadism toward [Wilson’s] characters – and his readers.”  It was pretty much the same in between, a relentless attack on just about everything in my novel.

To my knowledge, I’ve never met Allman, and found his vitriol perplexing.  I make no claim that Spider Season is a distinguished work of fiction, or even my best, but there must have been something commendable about it.  Reviewing for Mystery Scene, author Betty Webb wrote, “This exquisite novel is the finest yet in a powerful series,” and there were other positive reviews.  Judges for the 2009 Lambda Literary Awards made it a finalist for best gay men’s mystery.  Is it possible that all these people read a novel by another writer and somehow confused it with mine?

Or is more likely that when Allman assessed Spider Season so derisively, other influences came into play, if only subconsciously?  Should he have disclosed to his editor or his Book World readers that he was briefly a mystery writer himself – two books, the last published more than a decade ago – competing with me for a similar audience?  That St. Martin’s Minotaur, which published Spider Season, is the same imprint that dropped Allman after his only two titles?  That he’s a former gossip columnist (according to an online description), a breed my lead character excoriates in Spider Season and other Justice titles?  Should Allman have mentioned his bitterness at being “ignored” as an author after his first mystery was nominated for an Edgar Award but failed to win – something he expresses on his blog – while my own first novel won the same award the next year?  Might some of this have affected the tone of his review?  On an old CrimeSpace page, Allman stated, “as a critic, I approach each book on its own terms.”  But is anyone able to read and appraise a book in a vacuum, possessed of a pure, untainted objectivity, disconnected from their experiences, emotions, and prejudices?

The nature and quality of a book is influenced by countless factors when it’s written – the writer’s age, health, finances, relationships, environment, deadline pressure, state of mind, passion for the material, et al.  We set out each time to write the best book we can, even though we know it’s not a science, that no book is ever perfect, and that the final draft is likely to fall frustratingly short of our vision, for all kinds of reasons.  This is not an excuse for flawed work, simply a reminder that the creative process can be fragile and mercurial, and that authors can’t stamp out book after book with cookie-cutter exactitude, try as we might to repeat the quality of our best efforts.

We don’t ask critics to coddle us.  We accept the fact that our writing will be publicly scrutinized, that it comes with the territory.  We only hope that critics who hold our work to a higher standard will apply equally tough standards to their own, writing their reviews with care and integrity, and not to serve themselves, but the reader.

Principled critics should have no problem with this – it’s just criticism, after all.  Hey, it comes with the territory.



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7 Responses to “Who Reviews the Reviewers?”

  1. Stewart 17 May 2010 at 3:18 PM #

    This article would have been a lot better if it hadn’t derailed into a diatribe on how much of a jerk Kenneth Allman is. Unfortunately, that section makes the whole thing seem like an exercise in hypocrisy. If you’re going to complain about how reviewers shouldn’t trash-talk authors books for personal reasons, how do you get off doing the same thing about reviewers? I mean, I guess you were open about it, but still not very professional or mature.


  2. Paul G. Bens, Jr. 17 May 2010 at 9:56 PM #

    I do have to agree with you that there are certainly reviewers out there who do have an axe to grind with particular authors. it’s pretty easy to spot those when it happens. I’m lucky in that I haven’t personally been subjected to it, but I have seen some excellent works torn to pieces without actual reason because the particular reviewer didn’t like the author personally. This is why when I review, if an author is someone whose work I don’t generally like or with whom I have a personal issue, I’ll turn down the review.

    I do have to bring up the other side of the coin because I see this just as frequently: an author gets a bad review and then dedicates their time and energies (and often times the energies of their friends) to decry that review as a vendetta review or to state that so-and-so doesn’t know what the hell they’re talking about, or that that reviewer is *obviously* a failed writer. I’m not talking about obvious hack reviews like “This is a piece of crap. Period.” I’m talking well-presented, well-reasoned reviews. Every day I am utterly amazed to see authors pull this. And they do it with almost every negative review they get.

    We all get negative reviews. Some deserved. Some not. It’s part of the game. And yup, there are axe to grind reviewers out there and that sucks. But there are also very diligent reviewers who get slapped with that label unjustly by writers who just can’t take any criticism of their work.


  3. shawn stewart ruff 18 May 2010 at 10:22 AM #

    You vent for us all! The whole review process should be subject to review. Some years back, I was asked to review a new novel by a renowned author with a lot of publisher muscle behind him. I hesitated taking the assignment because of a casual acquaintance with the author, but ultimately I said yes because I believe that there’s much to learn in well-put, well-reasoned criticism. What should have troubled me more though: the journal where my review would appear counted the author’s publisher among its prominent advertisers, and the certainty of a quid pro quo. I handed in what I thought was a cogent, polite assessment of a mediocre work, only to find that the published review had been redacted and embellished to give the effect of praise. The shamelessness of it all so moved me that I haven’t written a book review since.


  4. Farp Nolan 19 May 2010 at 4:33 AM #

    I read the review carefully and I’m not at all sure you’re striking a useful tone here. Some guy didn’t like your book. He clearly enjoyed your other work and thinks you’re at a low point (a nadir) here.

    When I read this on his blog (thank you for the link) it sounds more like good humour than bitterness:

    “Publishing: Tight Shot, my first novel, was nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America. Its sequel, Hot Shot, was roundly ignored by everyone, but was a far better book. I’m also a member of the National Book Critics Circle. ”

    I think you’re upset and projecting a little too much but it’s just one guy’s opinion after all — just as the two positive reviews you cite are only the opinion of the reviewers. I don’t think your argument that the critic has an axe to grind holds any water at all.

    You say: “The nature and quality of a book is influenced by countless factors when it’s written – the writer’s age, health, finances, relationships, environment, deadline pressure, state of mind, passion for the material, et al.”

    So what? Are you suggesting a permission-slip system, perhaps something with a fluffy cover and supersoft pages to let the reader know that the writer wasn’t all there?


  5. John 19 May 2010 at 12:46 PM #

    In response to Farp (and others): If you had truly read my essay carefully, as you claim, you would have noted that I never accused or argued that Allman had an axe to grind. Rather, I 1) cited his unusually scabrous review, in his own words, as a useful example to illustrate a point; 2) mentioned facts (not speculation or opinion) from his own background that might be relevant in context; 3) asked a few pertinent questions, allowing readers to decide for themselves how they see it. (Which, of course, is far more generous and fair than many critics are when running authors and books through their personal grinder.) Also, if you had truly read my essay carefully, you would have noted that not only did I not suggest a “permission slip system” (giving authors a pass) but, in fact, clearly stated the opposite following the section you cited. Indeed, in reading your comments, it appears that you feel book reviewers should “get a pass” and not be subject to the scrutiny and analysis to which they regularly subject authors. (An interesting notion that, but one that seems to prevail.) If nothing else, my essay has provoked some thought and discussion (if not always careful reading). For what it’s worth, I’ve received a personal e-mail from the editor of a national magazine that runs dozens of book reviews each month who tells me she read the piece, admired it, and has circulated it to her many freelance reviewers. If it inspires just one critic to think more critically about their own work, that will be satisfaction enough for me. Good reading, everyone, whatever your tastes and talents!


  6. Farp Nolan 19 May 2010 at 3:05 PM #

    John–

    I said: “I read the review carefully and I’m not at all sure you’re striking a useful tone here.”

    You said: “If you had truly read my essay carefully, as you claim,”

    When I said “review”, I meant “the review”.

    Look: okay. You’re upset. Some people like your book. At least one person didn’t like it. But a lot of what you have asserted appears to be your private fantasy. You say that Allman is bitter, evidenced by his blog. There’s no mention of bitterness there! He says he published a book which was nominated for an award, and then another which wasn’t. You’re projecting an assumption of bitterness on the guy. Please, for the love of any divinity singular or plural, please realise this. Sit back.

    This is simply disingenuous: “2) mentioned facts (not speculation or opinion) from his own background that might be relevant in context; 3) asked a few pertinent questions, allowing readers to decide for themselves how they see it.”

    You mean, you mentioned facts from his background and then engaged in speculation. You didn’t ‘ask a few pertinent questions’: you thrilled up a sensation of narrative.

    Look! That’s what you did. It comes across as deeply … uneven and unwise.

    The guy praises your general storytelling but is unhappy with it in this instance.

    Re this: “Also, if you had truly read my essay carefully, you would have noted that not only did I not suggest a “permission slip system” (giving authors a pass) but, in fact, clearly stated the opposite following the section you cited.”

    Yes; you directly contradicted yourself.

    What you said, reductio, was: “I’m not talking about giving authors a pass, but could we please have a pass.”

    “This is not an excuse for flawed work, simply a reminder that the creative process can be fragile and mercurial, and that authors can’t stamp out book after book with cookie-cutter exactitude, try as we might to repeat the quality of our best efforts.”

    This is not an excuse for flawed work, but authors will produce flawed work, probably for the [reasons/excuses] given above.

    This is not an excuse for flawed work, but work will be flawed.

    Hell’s nibblets!

    Incidentally, could you ease up on the parentheticals?


  7. Stewart 19 May 2010 at 3:18 PM #

    I would buy it more if you hadn’t selectively cited his review to avoid things like “Wilson, an Edgar Award winner, has spun far better webs” and his perfectly legitimate critiques in most of the second paragraph.

    By choosing to only quote the parts where he does bash you, and by taking that out of context, you make the whole review seem like an ad hominem attack instead of a very negative–but potentially legitimate review.

    “you would have noted that I never accused or argued that Allman had an axe to grind.”

    This is technically true but seems disingenuous. While you didn’t say “Why Does Allman Hate Me Personally?” the questions you ask, and the way they’re phrased, set him up to look like a petty, pathetic loser intent on taking out his personal frustrations on someone who succeeded where he failed.

    I think this article would be a lot better if you choose a scathing review of someone else’s work. That way, you won’t look like you’re getting your own back (even if that’s not what you’re trying to look like, it’s how it came across to me) and the article will be read in the spirit it was intended.

    There’s not enough distance, as it is now.



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