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April 01, 2008

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John M.

David,

I seem to recall in one of your earlier posts about the Cabal that they don't read press kits. So how do they know about "the characters, the setting, the basic outline of the plot, the topic"? By reading the flap copy?

Also, you once mentioned that authors should not tell you about trade reviews if they're soliciting a review.

David Montgomery

Either flap copy or the press release that comes with the book. The latter is what I usually look at. The other stuff that publishers sometimes send -- photos, interviews, old reviews or articles -- I'm not sure anyone looks at that. I don't.

I prefer not to get emails filled with blurbs from other reviews. That's my personal preference, though, and others don't necessarily agree.

I do occasionally glance at the trade reviews on BN.com for a book I'm considering reading. If I see that a book got a couple starred reviews, for example, I might take a closer look at it. But they're not a significant motivating factor for me.

I.J.Parker

That all makes excellent sense and is pretty much what I thought happened. But as an author, I get uncomfortable with the "pre-publication buzz" because that usually involves heavy publisher dollars and happens only to a select few. Does it always signify an outstanding piece of writing is about to be released on the world? Or do reviewers get a chance to set things straight if it is merely a commercial ploy?

Guyot

I have a question, Mr.Montague...

Why do you think - at least in the mystery/crime world - that the "bad" review has become so rare?

They still do it with movies, and I for one, like being tipped off by a reviewer I respect if something isn't worth my money.

It seems over the last few years, reviews have become almost exclusively fluff pieces for big name authors, or else when a book is really terrific or hyped. And every critic seems terrified to tell us if a big name wrote a crap book. They all do it now and then, except for Connelly.

And I'm not talking about being mean or nasty, etc. I'm talking about a critic doing their job - reviewing both good and bad books. Why did that die?

And on a related subject - how do you feel about reviewers becoming TOO involved within their industry? Blogging or writing about all their author friends, or their escapades at conferences, hanging out with authors, etc. Doesn't it seem a conflict of interest if a reviewer is "friends" with so many writers of a particular genre he or she reviews?

How can we continue to trust that person as an objective POV, if all their reviews are either ass-kiss pieces for big name books, or for authors that they personally "know"?

David J. Montgomery

I.J.,

You're right about buzz, in that it usually indicates publisher support and money and not necessarily quality. But presumably books like that will attract a lot of reader attention, which makes them good candidates for review coverage. But hopefully the reviewers won't be taken in by the hype and will give a fair assessment of the book, saying it's crappy if it is.

As for Guyot's comments... Those are tough questions. I've been planning a post about negative reviews for a while, but haven't quite worked out all the details. You bring up some good points, though. I'll try to address them in a future post.

The quick response, though, is that a good critic will always give his/her honest opinion regardless of other factors (knowing the author, the author being famous, the book getting huge hype, whatever). Now, obviously that doesn't always happen in practice. But I think if you follow a reviewer's work over time, you can tell if they're honest or not. But it's a good question.

Guyot

Personally, and all relationship stuff aside - I think you are one of only two critics in the mystery/crime world who do objective work. And you know I'd tell you otherwise if I felt it were so.

The other people, mostly those calling themselves critics, are so blatantly biased and ass-kissy, it's disgusting. They're more concerned with their own celebrity as a critic, than they are with doing their job.

Why is that, Mr. Montego?

David J. Montgomery

Writing positive reviews of books is an easy way to get writers to like you.

For those "critics" who aren't concerned with their reputation, or lack dedication to their craft, it can be an intoxicating inducement.

I'm friends with a lot of writers -- and I try damn hard to make sure it never affects my work. But it's a slippery slope.

Patti McCoy Jacob

David, I think I told you how my editor asked me to review Marquez's LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA. This man had won the Nobel Prize for Literature back in the 80's, and was allegedly huge. I had never heard of him until his book was made into a movie, one that came out this past November. A writer friend of mine told me Marquez was required reading in college - I graduated in Business, so not part of MY required reading - but yeah, I guess the guy had a pretty big following. And my editor told me, commanded me, actually, "You absolutely HAVE to review this book - I LOVE it!"

I hated it.

I spent Thanksgiving break reading this book. And putting it down. And reluctantly picking it up again in between bites of turkey because I HAD to review it. The whole process was excruciating.

My first thought was, "What's wrong with me that I'm not getting him, this genius in the book world?" Well, his style was narrative, there was no main climax - just a bunch of little, almost anti-climactic ones - and I was pretty much bored out of my flipping mind. And yet when it came down to it, my review did not blast the guy. Why? Well, because his writing was eloquent, as tedious as it was. And I did add a hell of a lot of new vocab words to my repertoire. Mostly, though, I believed that even though I was "missing it," those who loved his style of writing would not. And those who loved his style make up a fairly large population of the reading world.

So basically, the worst thing I said in my review was that if the reader is used to fast-paced stories with a more even ratio of dialogue to narration, and, oh yes, a POINT to the story, then this book would possibly prove to be too challenging.

Too challenging. Talk about sugar-coating it.

So in my case, it wasn't a case of being concerned with my own celebrity, because I have none. It was purely a matter of second-guessing my gut reaction because this guy is supposedly THE GUY. WITH A NOBEL PRIZE. And I was just me. Still and all, I do have people reading my column who trust me to give an honest, unbiased opinion. So I think I may revisit this book with my readers. Tell them what I really think. Tell them why I previously softened the blow. And assure them it won't happen again.

David Montgomery

There's no doubt that if you're going to pan a book, especially one that is generally well acclaimed, you're putting yourself out there on a limb. You really have to have faith in your taste and instincts, which can be difficult sometimes. It's easy to wonder, "What am I missing? This book is supposed to be so good -- why don't I get it?"

But ultimately the best you can do is tell the truth as you see it, and try to back up the things you say with analysis and reasoning.

But yeah... being the one person out there by yourself crying foul can be an uncomfortable position.

Sarah

"Celebrity as a critic" seems about the most appropriate phrase for April Fool's Day.

Patti McCoy Jacob

What I forgot to mention (oh my God, there's MORE?) is that because I fluffed up my review of CHOLERA, a woman from my book club had everyone read it when it was her turn to host. They, too, hated it. Talk about having to face your public head-on to explain to them why you would recommend such a clearly God-awful book in your column. Basically, I gave them the same pathetic reasons I posted here earlier today. Actually, first I refilled their wine glasses. THEN I gave them the same pathetic reasons...

It was humbling. And a lesson learned. As a critic, it is worth it to say it like it is, even at the risk of ticking off the writer. Because people buy books based on your reviews, and they're going to stop taking you seriously after a while when they realize that your opinion and theirs are consistently miles apart. Yes, even if the writer is your friend, you need to say it like it is. Especially if he/she is your friend, actually. If it were me, I would want to hear the negative comments from my critic friend so I would be motivated to improve next time out.

So I answered Paul's question about one of the reasons critics give bad books good reviews. As for your initial thoughts, David, I review particular books based mainly on the recommendations of writers and critics I personally know whose opinions I completely trust. I feel these people are the most objective, at least the ones I know.

Elaine Flinn

Thanks,Patty - you made my day. I 'didn't get' CHOLERA either, and I was really bothered by what I feared was a 'wanting eye'. I was bored to tears, and finally gave up. And frankly? The movie did little for me as well. :)

Elaine Flinn

I have to add my two cents here about David's reviews. With so many books out each month - I pay close attention to what he has to say - and I've never been disappointed yet. Well, maybe once or twice - but that's about it.

Ali

This is an old chesnut - and again if I can add my $00.02 - With the deluge of books that I get, if I can't get past the first 60 or so pages because the book doesn't engage [for whatever reason], I have to drop it and move on. Life is too short, and my time is precious. Hence I rarely CAN write a negative review, as I haven't finished the book. But I have always been honest and have had 'differences of opinion' with colleagues on many books.

An interesting example would be a review I wrote for R J Ellory's debut novel 'Candlemoth' - which was 'lukewarm' at best :-

http://www.booksnbytes.com/reviews/ellory_candlemoth.html

I bumped into Roger a month after reviewing it, being introduced to him by a publisher "Roger let me introduce you to Ali Karim, who described your book as like Forrest Gump, as it was Turgid and Tiresome" - what could have been a rather awkward moment was diffused by Ellory's decency, as he told me "I just appreciate your honesty, and appreciate getting a review at all." - anyway, fast forward four years on -

http://therapsheet.blogspot.com/2006/12/harsh-realities-of-authorship.html

And then a further year -

http://therapsheet.blogspot.com/2008/02/quiet-belief-in-himself.html

Or this one -

http://www.booksnbytes.com/reviews/wolstencroft_goodnewsbadnews2.html

The publisher asked if he could use this line from my review for their annual worst review awards - "From this thread we have a stodgy tale that bores the reader. I'm afraid I found the story far from 'exhilarating' [as promised by the publisher], and only the beauty of Wolstencroft's prose kept me reading. A deeply disappointing thriller but as a debut- it shows the promise of much better work from the writer of one of the best BBC TV work in years. "

So when this old chesnut about positive reviews comes up, or about 'cosying up to writers' comes up - I just yawn - because ask yourself one question - why is it that many reviewers search for remarkable debut work? why cosy up to an unknown?

Reviewing books is often purely a passion, and without many of us out there juggling busy day jobs, families, our own writing - many books just would not get reviewed.

Time is precious but I felt this old chestnut need roasting.

Ali

People like Sarah Weinman, David Montgomery, and all the many others out there are an important part of the genre - without them many books would be missed.

David Montgomery

I agree with you on both counts, Ali -- I think a lot of bad books don't get reviewed because nobody wants to finish them; and I think that reputable critics tell it like it is.

However, I also agree with Guyot that not enough negative reviews are written, and that not enough reviewers are as honest as they could be. (I think both things have at least in part been encouraged by the growth of internet reviewing, where traditions and procedures are a little more lax.)

We have all seen too many raves written of too many bad books to chalk it up simply to differences in taste.

I don't exempt myself from the criticism either -- I don't write very many negative reviews. But I probably should.

Doug Riddle

Reviews...Great subject.

I have to ask the question though, will you buy a book based on a single review, or do you use that review as a jumping off point to seek more information on the book.....i.e. other reviews, interviews with author, skim a copy in the store, etc. before buying?

I find myself in the second group because I find a lot of reviews to be subjective in reagards to the reviewer's preferences. I don't have a problem with that, after all they are readers just like the rest of us and a book either does it for them or it doesn't. And I think that if you read enough reviews you get a feel as to what reviewers to read in regards to which type of book is being reviewed. Some reviewers I trust more when it comes to Thrillers then Mysteries, and vice versa.

I know I have read more then one review that raved about a book that I had to struggle to finish and then wondered what book the reviewer had read, because it sure wasn't the one I just finished.

This also makes me wonder how reviews and reviewers effect the book "awards", which are often judged by these same reviewers as judges?

David Montgomery

I have bought books based on a single review -- it all depends on who the reviewer is. But I wouldn't say it's something I would ordinarily do. As a reader, I find it most helpful if you can follow the work of a critic who reviews a lot and who has similar taste to you.

As for the part about awards... Most awards aren't judged by reviewers. The Edgars don't have reviewers as judges (unless one who is also an author, like Hallie Ephron, happens to participate). The ITW Awards try to have one reviewer (out of five) on each committee. But that's a decidedly minority voice.

So, other than the Strand Critics Awards and the Gumshoe Awards, I don't think most of them have reviewers as judges.

Granted, the judges might still be affected by reviews, just as any perception of a book can be affected by reviews...But in my experience as a judge, that hasn't been a significant factor.

Clea Simon

Tuning in as one of your celebrity critics (hoo ha) on a few points: The majority of my reviews are assigned by the various editors I work for, not chosen by me. But often I'll get an email saying, "PW says XYZ and Booklist ABC, wanna take a look?" So, yeah, really reputable pre-pub press does count. As much as I love blogs and bloggers, they don't.

And as far as negative reviews go - I won't hesitate to state objections. I recently found fault w/ the new Benjamin Black. But often if it is a local author on a small press, I figure, why bother? If I absolutely hate a book that isn't going to be lauded everywhere else, I'll often at least talk it over with my editor.

David J. Montgomery

It's the same with me, Clea. Although I choose most of the books I review -- within some guidelines -- I sometimes review books on assignment. And the reasons that editors choose books to assign vary a lot... But things like the book's getting a lot of hype, or got great reviews, or has some interesting hook all come into play.

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David J. Montgomery is a writer and critic specializing in books and publishing. He is an emeritus columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and The Daily Beast, and has also written for USA Today, the Washington Post, and other fine publications. A former professor of History, he lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and two daughters.

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