Anyone who reviews books, wants to review books or works with books are well advised to read Lionel Shriver‘s essay in Saturday’s Telegraph. There she lays bare the conundrum of being a fiction writer reviewing other people’s fiction – and the trouble she will probably fall into as a result. “Were I to believe in karma – or in the equivalent Western aphorism that what goes around comes around – in preparation for my own UK book release this month I’d have been filing only fawning review copy for the past year,” Shriver declares. “Instead, I recently slashed two novels [Norman Mailer’s THE CASTLE IN THE FOREST and Graham Swift‘s TOMORROW] to ribbons.”
Shriver’s dramatic exhortations give way for a most focused assessment on the difficulties of reviewing: keeping personal opinion separate from the professional, karmic payback in the form of prize-judging and the like. And from a gossipy standpoint there’s this choice item:
Moreover, if a writer has once alienated the affections of a heavy-hitting critic, subsequent publications don’t have a prayer. (The professional critic Jonathan Yardley – a humourless man, I discovered too late – despised my sixth novel. After a brief email exchange that went off the rails, he dispensed with the artificial distinction between author and book and now unabashedly despises me. If Yardley ever gets his mitts on one of my novels again, I am toast in the Washington Post.) The current system used by most review sections in this country – of rolling the dice anew with every release – does give writers, statistically, a fighting chance.
Alas, even prize-winning, highly acclaimed writers let emotions get the better of them in engaging critics by email. So if you’re thinking of doing that, well, ever? Please, don’t.