On reviewing, by Anne Else
I sit on both sides of the fence – I write books but, like lots of New Zealand writers (it’s a small country), I also review them.
As a writer, of course, you also want reviewers to like what you’ve written, even if there are some things they’re not thrilled about or think you could have done better. But sometimes it’s just not going to appeal to them. That’s always disappointing, but it can’t be helped.
The way I see it, when it comes to reviewing, there are a couple of vital things that matter more than anything else, and they’re not really anything to do with liking (or not).
First, the review should deal with the book you wrote, and not some other book the reviewer thinks you should have written instead. This probably sounds blindingly obvious, but you’d be surprised how often it goes wrong.
The worst is when the review is really about the book the reviewer would have liked to write themselves – except that they haven’t actually got around to doing this yet, and you have, and they’re annoyed about it. (Luckily this doesn’t happen very often.)
The second vital thing is tied up with the first. Reviewers should try to understand what you were aiming to do with your book, and judge you on how well you’ve managed that.
When I’m reading reviews of my work, I want to be able to see that the reviewer really has got hold of what I was trying to do when I wrote it.
As long as they’ve done that, I don’t get too upset if they decide that I could have done some things better. Sometimes, I can even see exactly what they mean – especially when they’ve noticed a bit I really struggled with and know I didn’t get quite right. (And, sometimes, I start yelling about how they’ve got it all wrong and how could anyone be that stupid.)
When I’m reviewing, I try to stick by these rules, too. In a way, it’s like getting inside the author’s mind and seeing the world from their perspective. If you can manage that, then your review is likely to be fair. It will probably be useful, too – for other readers, and maybe for the author as well.
Anne Else has written several non-fiction books about New Zealand women’s lives. Her latest book is a personal story, where she writes about her life through her memories of food (The Colour of Food: A Memoir of Life, Love and Dinner, Awa Press, 2014). She reviews regularly for New Zealand Books, The Listener, and Nine to Noon on RNZ.