Writing and reviewing

I’m sitting in my kitchen listening to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, and I have some thoughts about how it’s making me feel. Christine McVie is singing Songbird, a song she wrote, and while the lyrics are hopeful and full of love, her voice is delicate and sad.

This reminds me of a long-running debate I have with myself about whether it’s a good idea for me to write reviews. As a writer, I know how fragile the life of books can be, because they have to fight for attention, against all the stories and media and entertainment in the world, relying on scant marketing, rare good will and, if it’s lucky, word-of-mouth. A bad review can kill a book. Reviewers opinions are subjective. Some reviewers may hold more sway in the cultural landscape than others and some are more skilled readers than others. Tastes are different. We all have an opinion.

When I start making notes about what I like and don’t like about a book or film, since stories are what I care most about in that way, it’s not too many steps to a review that I could publish on my blog. Perhaps I could develop the skill enough to get a gig as a reviewer for a magazine or local newspaper. I have a book published now, that might count for something in the review marketplace.

This is where I catch myself thinking about what it would be like to get a bad review. I want books to find readers. Just because I hate a book, someone else might absolutely adore it. If I were a professional critic I don’t think this would bother me, because it’s self-evident that one person’s opinion is just that, and there’s an ocean of opinions out there. But being a writer myself, meeting other writers, willing them to do well, wishing success on their books, I feel caught between being a critic and a well-wisher.

This reminds me of Colson Whitehead writing a negative review of Richard Ford’s short story collection, A Multitude of Sins, and how Ford later spat on Whitehead at a party. It’s an extreme example of the rancour that can come from a bad review, but it bothers me that as a writer I might have a negative impact on another writer’s work and life. I might be on the edges of it, but I can already see there is a community and camaraderie amongst published writers.

It’s good to write critically about a piece of art, but as a writer who meets other writers, who supports other writers, who acknowledges that there are different strokes for different folks, how can I write negatively about a book that I want to do well? Am I being cowardly? But also, how can I write positively about a book when I am perhaps good friends with the author? Can people trust my review?

It feels like there should be a separation of concerns. I know authors need to take criticism, but do they need to give it out? Perhaps they do. I’m still very conflicted on this.