I recently saw the indie movie “Chef,” a quiet, non-raunchy, slice-of- life (if your life includes a successful, gorgeous ex-spouse, a bright and adorable son, a loyal and devoted staff, and the ability to conceive and produce incredible food) comedy in which a gourmet chef revitalizes his zest for cooking after receiving a negative review. (I’m not revealing anything not already in the trailers and promos.) Toward the end of the movie, the eponymous chef confronts the critic who had written the brutal assessment of his boringly stale menu. He says the critic goes to a restaurant, writes his assessment, and then distances himself from the fall out. What he doesn’t realize is the harm he does: “It hurts.”
And that is why I don’t like to write book reviews.
I feel “obligated” in a way to read books written by authors I’ve met. But I don’t always enjoy the books as much as I wish I could. I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings by writing a negative review, so I don’t write anything. I’m worried, though, that if I post only reviews of books I do like, people will devalue my opinion, thinking I’m not sincere or discriminating enough, that I like everything I read. I’m also concerned that authors I haven’t reviewed will think I did not like their books or I would have reviewed them. Nor do I want anyone to think I am writing a positive review only as “payment” for a good review of one of my books from the author.
So I generally don’t write anything.
I have made exceptions when someone has specifically requested I read a book and review it. I also will write a back cover blurb if asked, but only if I am sure I can find something complementary to say. (Okay, I admit that I’m flattered another author thinks a blurb from me will help sell her – so far, it’s always a woman – book.) I sometimes beg off, explaining the book is in a genre such as romance, paranormal, or horror that I don’t enjoy, so I would not be able to do it justice. Other times, I will read the book and, rather than post an unfavorable review, will send the author a private email detailing exactly why I did not like the book. The last time I did that, however, I never heard back from the author; but at least she didn’t unfriend me on Facebook.
The other problem with reviewing a book is that liking it or not can have nothing to do with the quality of the writing, but with the characterization of the protagonist. Such a preference can be very subjective. There are many times when a book will receive rave reviews and awards, but the characters are, to my mind, unpleasant or uninteresting. I recall sitting at a table at a conference when an award winner was announced. My fellow diners and I looked at each other in amazement. The main character of the book winning the award was so unappealing that I am surprised I finished reading the book. The others had the same reaction. But the majority of those choosing the prize winner disagreed. There was later a rather heated and polarizing debate on the quality of the work on a Listserv, with a 50-50 split between those of us who thought the heroine was unrealistic, nasty, selfish, and spoiled and those who thought she was plucky, independent, feisty, and refreshingly original.
I know from firsthand experience how different readers can view the same character differently. I have received a few (very few, I’m pleased to say) mediocre reviews in which the complaints have been that my protagonist, Rabbi Aviva Cohen, is too nosey, too catty, and “not rabbinic enough.” But the majority of reviewers have enjoyed the books for those very reasons, or for their interpretations of those qualities: she is curious, witty, and down-to-earth. The same reviewers who don’t like Aviva’s personality also complain the books are bogged down by too many digressions and minutiae; yet other reviewers enjoy exploring the secondary characters and learning about details of Jewish life, customs, holidays.
Do I say with Chef that it hurts? It’s unpleasant, but I can’t say I’m hurt by the criticisms. You need to have a thick skin before exposing yourself to public scrutiny. But I can only speak for me. Perhaps my harsh criticisms would hurt someone else. I’d rather err on the side of caution and not be the one to cause that hurt.
And so I generally don’t write reviews.