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On Not Reviewing Bad Books

An editor who likes your work has asked you to review a book for her publication. Unfortunately, the book is by an author whose work you don't respect, and you doubt that this new book is likely to change your mind. Do you accept the assignment?

The answer is, easily, "No". Life is too short for reading bad books, and a negative review, unless it is written with great tact and skill, can make the reviewer look as bad as the book that he or she is addressing. Bad books tempt us to anger. Their failure to deliver is annoying, and we resent having to read them to the finish. How dare this author put such stuff before us, when we ourselves, the hard-working and deserving, take so much trouble to produce good work?

Bad books may also tempt us to malice. Rare is the writer who has not, at some time or another, enjoyed being witty, perhaps dazzlingly witty, at someone else's expense. But though this kind of nastiness can be enormously entertaining (as in Dorothy Parker or Oscar Wilde), in the hands of the sub-brilliant it can seem merely petty, mean-spirited. And even brilliant nastiness is still nasty -- its purveyors seem not to care that there are thinking, feeling human beings behind the work they so cleverly disparage.

In her classic essay "The Making of a Reviewer", novelist Lynne Sharon Schwartz offers some succinct advice: "If you believe that what a specific author has set out to do is not worth doing, better to pass up that book and choose another. The book deserves a fighting chance, and you as critic deserve a more worthwhile application of your talents" (in Book Reviewing, ed. Sylvia E. Kamerman [Boston: The Writer, 1978], p. 39).

If you are assigned a book that you find grossly inadequate, remember that your editor most likely has other titles more deserving of attention, and don't hesitate to ask whether you might review one of those. Reading and reviewing bad work is a waste of time, energy, and ability. Save yourself for those books that have something to offer.

Janis Butler Holm

James A. Cox
Midwest Book Review
278 Orchard Drive
Oregon, WI 53575-1129
phone: 1-608-835-7937

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