Author Kathleen Eagle, whose 1996 release, Sunrise Song, was named Most-Hanky Read in last year’s Unofficial Romance Reader Awards, also writes reviews for her city’s newspaper. Because she comes to reviewing with a different perspective than I do, I asked her to share her viewpoint. This is what she had to say:
In the nearly 13 years since I published my first book, I’ve known the agony and the ecstasy of watching the reviews come in on my babies. As a writer I can’t possibly be objective about the subject when one of my own books is under scrutiny. I know that. Writing is too personal. A book springs directly from an author’s head. It’s a piece of me. Not that I don’t like some of them better than others (I like some of my other parts better than others, too) and not that I can’t take editorial direction or discuss the book intelligently, because I can. If I couldn’t do those things, I wouldn’t still be publishing.But it’s the reviewer’s job to make pronouncements about the book after it’s in print. Final. Complete. No longer a work in progress. If she says she likes it, I’m flattered. If she hates it, I’m hurt. If she’s lukewarm, I’m disappointed. Those are emotional responses on my part, normal, natural responses. It’s up to me to deal with them. Whatever the tenor of the review, the intelligent thing for the writer to do is to say, thank you for taking the time and for spelling my name right.
For the last year and a half I’ve had to take off my writer’s hat when I don the reviewer’s hat for my Popular Fiction column for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Before I was offered the column, the paper did not, would not, cover romance or “women’s fiction.” The book page editor said that they simply did not do “escapist fiction,” even though sci fi, mystery, adventure were covered in their “short takes” column. Finally he offered to add “pop” fiction if I would do the column. He wanted a local author with a somewhat recognized name, and, yes, pop fiction included Romance. I really didn’t want to take the job at first, but I felt that it was a breakthrough for us, so I waded in.
I review two books every three weeks in a very short column – 2400 (the equivalent of 3 good-sized paragraphs). I choose mainly from the books the paper forwards to me, and I try to choose books that I would recommend, to give basically a favorable report most of the time. I also try to cover a variety of authors, publishers, genres and subgenres, mass market and hard cover. I approach this as:
A service to the consumer of books
A way to promote reading
A way to promote popular fiction, mainly Romance
And I try to be honest and fair. I want to encourage people to read, so my tone is upbeat, fairly light, generally positive. I want to showcase the best of what I’m seeing (and there are many books I never see) but I will point out what I perceive to be a flaw. Rarely do I really pan a book.
I skim a lot of books, and I can usually tell within 20 or 30 pages whether the book is going to hook me. I will read 900 pages for a writer like Gabaldon, whose characters have become beloved members of some readers’ households, but I will also say that I thought the book was too long. It’s my synopsis, I think, that’s the most important part. I try to give a reader enough objective information about the book so that she can decide whether it might be worth her taking a look. This is not an easy job for a writer, particularly one who knows so many writers personally and doesn’t enjoy hurting anyone’s feelings. But it is an important part of the book circle – our world of readers and writers – and Romance has been poorly represented in the mainstream media. I hope that’s changing.
In discussing the job with other reviewers from the paper, I’ve found myself agreeing with the school that says that a good reviewer isn’t out to show off her acerbic wit, but to tell it like it is. One long-time reviewer told me that he’s apt to go easy on the new writer, but the one who’s raking in big bucks had better deliver the goods. I agree with the fellow who said that it’s a mistake for the writer to try to take on the reviewer. The bad review will go away quickly, but the memory of a whiner tends to linger.
I’m glad I accepted the job. It’s time-consuming, but I’ve leaned a lot. And I get paid (a little) to do something I need to do anyway, and that’s stay abreast of what’s being published. And I get a “shirttail” on my column to promote my own work. Like this:
Kathleen Eagle The Night Remembers (May 1997, Avon)
Check out our updated web site at www.1q.com/novelideas and click on The Night Remembers for an excerpt!
LLB: Because your interpretation of reviewing is markedly different from mine (I prefer to provide very little synopsis information and more actual critique of the books I review), I want to ask you some additional additional questions.
What if the book you’ve assigned yourself to read is not good? Do you just not finish it or finish it and not review it? How would you feel about writing a review on a book you didn’t like?
Kathleen: I’m only covering 2 books per column. With that limitation, I’m going to try to feature worthwhile books and a variety of authors and themes. I do pass on a lot of books. I often start them, can’t get into them, move on to something else. I’d rather move on than feature a bad book, although I have done a couple of negative reviews. More often I find that basically I like a book, but there was something about it that didn’t work for me, so I’ll mention that. It’s usually the kind of element that loses the reader, makes her (me) pull back from the story.
This is where I have to discipline myself a little, because as a writer, I tend to look for those things. It’s hard to read just for pleasure when you’re a writer. When I’m reading for review, I just want to be a reader, albeit one who’s exceptionally well-versed in the genre.
LLB: Do the types of reviews for which I am known on the Internet (nearly 100 for The Romance Reader) bother you, given that they can be rather biting?
Kathleen: I expect a review publication to cover most of what’s available each month, all the books people are looking for and talking about.
You’re not picking two a month; you’re covering an entire genre. I know that the quality in popular fiction is uneven. So I’m expecting The Romance Reader to review books honestly, to call ’em like you see ’em.
Does a bad review of my own book bother me? You betcha. But the most interesting book is the one that inspires conversation. Often it’s the one people either really love or really hate. I’ve seen that happen often on your list – a negative review sparks a lively discussion, with people speaking up in defense of the book. That’s the book I’m likely to buy, just out of curiosity. In a magazine or a newspaper, the reviewer gets the last word (not that everyone believes it, mind you) but on-line, there is no last word. It’s a wonderful new medium, a forum for discussion with input from all corners of the globe. If you pan a book unfairly, your readers will let you know. And it’s discussion that benefits all of us.
Find a comprehensive list of links on reviewing at AAR
Read a DIK Review of Kathleen’s Reason to Believe
Read a DIK Review of Kathleen’s This Time Forever
Read a DIK Review of Kathleen’s What the Heart Knows
Read an AAR Review of Kathleen’s Black Tree Moon
Read an AAR Review of Kathleen’s The Last Good Man
Read two AAR Reviews of Kathleen’s The Last True Cowboy
Read an AAR Review of Kathleen’s Night Falls Like Silk
Read an AAR Review of Kathleen’s The Night Remembers
Read an AAR Review of Kathleen’s Once Upon a Wedding
Read an AAR Review of Kathleen’s You Never Can Tell