August 25, 2013, by Stephen Mumford
My son was listening to a film review on You Tube last week. I found the reviewer to be smug, sniping and self-satisfied, poking fun at a movie that he wouldn’t have had the talent to produce in a million years. If internet reviewers really knew what they are talking about, wouldn’t they be working in the industry themselves, script-writing or directing? I shared my view with the family and was immediately accused of being unfair and judgmental about the poor reviewer.
Many things get reviewed: books, films, music and drama. Why not reviews themselves? Surely they can be good or bad, well-written or not, well-grounded or not. If someone is prepared to comment from the side-lines they are hardly in a position to object if someone does the same to them. That was my defence.
When my first book was published, I was very nervous about the reviews. I could hardly read them but I did take what they said very seriously. Now I am less concerned and some reviews I don’t bother reading at all. I hope it is not a sign that I am becoming arrogant or disconnected because that would be dangerous. I do like to hear feedback on my work but find it more useful during the writing of the book and at conferences and workshops where we can have a serious discussion and I can address any points of concern. I also appreciate feedback on Twitter and less academic arenas such as Amazon. But published reviews don’t seem to be a form that can play much of a role in the thinking and development of ideas.
However, as well as being reviewed, I have also been a reviewer. I cannot disown the fact that I myself have published 14 book reviews. And I am very mindful of the boost it can be to have a book reviewed. It is an acknowledgment of its significance and some unfortunate books get no reviews at all. Having been a reviewer, I know how much work it can be to plough through a book that you might not like and then how hard it is to express your reaction and thoughts in very few words. I spent weeks reading a book once only to find the editor compressed my review so much it was little more than a summary of the contents, which I could’ve written without reading the book. Reviewing is a relatively thankless task.
I doubt I will write many more reviews. It would have to be something that really interested me to grab my attention now. But my experience both of reviewing and being reviewed suggests to me that reviewers can have a variety of motivations in mind. Here are a few thoughts. I felt my first book was well-reviewed partly because it was a first book. No one had anything to gain by shooting down a newcomer to the profession. But now I am more established, reviewers may feel they can make a name for themselves by pointing out some weakness: showing that they are clever enough to have spotted something I couldn’t. But looking back at reviews I’ve written, I see points that pull in the opposite direction. I think now that there were some books I didn’t like at all but was too kind towards for fear of making enemies. As I became more established and more willing to annoy an author, I was much more candid, culminating in a review in which I was very open about how much I disliked the book. I guess this shows that the review is not just about the subject matter but also, like all writing, reveals quite a lot about the reviewer.