When @Booktopia said on Twitter ‘Do novelists prefer to be reviewed by novelists? If you were a novelist, would you?’, I couldn’t find any way of responding in 140 characters or less, so here I go in quite a few more …
My ideal reviewer is obvious, and the one we never admit to. S/he approaches my work with blind adoration and thinks even the envelopes in my bin are genius. His/her worship knows few bounds, and s/he has their wits about them only just enough to know it’d be crossing a line to pitch a tent in my backyard and live in it with a life-size doll made in my image. He/she is welcome to be a novelist, but I’ll leave that entirely up to them.
I realise, though, that in the real world I’ll have to settle for something less. Maybe something as rigorous and nerve-wracking as a fair hearing.
Whatever I get, I can’t pretend I’ll see the end result objectively, or even for what it is. I have to remind myself regularly that reviews of my books aren’t written for me, as a source of potential validation, quotes for reprints and free advertising. They’re actually for people who have an interest in books and might value a smart reader’s view of one. When my book’s not the one under the microscope, I’m one of those people, so occasionally I get that.
But do I think readers and writers benefit from a novelist doing the reviewing? Depends. On the plus side, novelists should have at least a few ideas of how the things are made, and they should know how a stinky review feels and how a lazy review feels. I don’t mind it at all if a reviewer has felt the consequences of the action they’re embarking on. If they haven’t and won’t, I’d at least like them to think it through. If you’re writing for a publication with a big circulation, maybe imagine your readers filling a stadium. The author’s in the front row and you’re in the middle, alone, at a microphone. You’re about to read your review. Do you still feel okay about everything you’re planning to write?
But back to the novelist reviewers. How good a reader is she/he, and how good a thinker about other people’s work? There’s nothing that says that’s an automatic part of the novelist package.
I love reading, depending on the book. I think my tastes and take on what I read may be a bit idiosyncratic. I don’t review. My views don’t pass my stadium test, so I don’t put them out to vast audiences.
My ideal reviewer aside, I suppose I want my books reviewed by someone who knows how to read and to think about when they’ve read, and who has the time and patience to give the process what it needs. I want someone who has some affinity with the book in question, or at least the kind of book. I don’t want someone who’s too busy, too aware of how underpaid they are or who’s just in it for the byline (novelist or otherwise).
I don’t want reviews that refer to ‘his usual needy divorced protagonist’ when, in eleven novels, only one of my protagonists has been divorced, and when the protagonist in the story being reviewed has never even been married. I busted my arse to write the thing. Whether the reviewer likes the end result or not, I’d like them to care enough about the process to at least respect it and to pay attention and not skim read. I don’t think that’s too much to ask, whether they’re a novelist or not.