How I Came to Review Books
The first reviews I did were on assignment—I was sent books that I had not read and whose authors I was not familiar with. For the most part, my feelings about these books were mixed. However, I did not sense that I had the authority to pass a value judgment, to declare a book good or bad, but I did feel comfortable considering what the book was trying to do (whether I saw it a worthy purpose or not) and judge how successful it was at accomplishing its purpose. In this way, my reviews closely resembled the weekly responses I had to do in grad school, which basically concerned two questions: What is this book attempting to do? Is it successful?
Early on, this approach made the most sense. If I did not particularly like a book, I was more likely to think it was due to ignorance or some failing on my part as a reader and a thinker than it was due to a failing on the author’s part. I don’t always get the joke.
However, if I liked a book, I had no problem writing about how much I liked the book or discussing its shortfalls, and this is where I encountered my first contradiction with reviewing: I would be more critical of books I liked than I would be critical of books I did not like.
Over the years I have become more comfortable with reviewing, and I have no interest in giving a bad review. I don’t mean that I will give a good review to a bad book; I mean I will not spend time reviewing books I don’t like. I feel like it is a waste of time and energy to tear a book apart. The reason I review books is very similar to the reason I publish chapbooks: to promote good writers, to help get their work out there in the world. And while my reviews may not reach a wide audience, I like being able to say, “Hey, this book is awesome. You all should really check it out.” I have no interest in saying, “This book really sucks. I can’t believe someone published it.”
When it comes to reading reviews, there are some reviewers who I like to seek out, but I do not read their reviews. I am more interested in seeing what books they are discussing than I am in seeing what they have to say about those books. And perhaps this is where the idea that any press is good press comes from: the mere fact that someone is discussing a book, regardless of what is being said about it, is enough for me to seek that book out.
I have recently come on as the Reviews Editor at H_NGM_N. Editor Nate Pritts, as he mentions in his essay here, only wishes to publish enthusiastic reviews. While this is an admirable desire and relates to my own approach, it is not always possible. And this is largely related to the review process. For example, Magazine X has a list of available review books. I tell the editor I am interested in Book Y, and I receive Book Y and am committed to review it for the following issue; however, I dislike Book Y, so my review is going to be less than enthusiastic. To receive only enthusiastic reviews, the process must be different. I can, for example, read a book first and then approach a magazine about writing a review on that book, or I can request a book on their review list by an author whose work I am familiar with and like, or I can luck out by requesting an unfamiliar book and liking that book.
When I took over reviews at H_NGM_N, I was told that they would really like to see reviews of two books in particular. I found reviewers for those two books, but now it seems that one reviewer does not feel like he can write an enthusiastic review of the assigned book. It can be difficult enough to find reviewers, especially those who can meet deadlines, but then to add the stipulation that the review must be enthusiastic seems even more challenging, and it seems like an unfair request: “Hey, read this book and tell me what you think, but only if you like it.”
There are a lot of problems with book reviews. I think Nate hits the nail on the head when he says, “Blah blah blah…something about people not having stake.”
So what do we do to fix it? I am interested in non-traditional takes on the review.
Gina Myers is the author of A Model Year (Coconut Books, 2009). She lives in Saginaw, MI, where she is the Associate Editor of 360 Main Street (http://360MainStreet.com) and the Reviews Editor at H_NGM_N (http://h-ngm-n.com). In her spare time, she makes books for Lame House Press (http://lamehouse.blogspot.com).
RECONFIGURATIONS: A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture, http://reconfigurations.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1938-3592, Volume Three (2009): Immanence/ Imminence